Doomsday at the Cineplex
As yet another apocalyptic epic hits the big screen this week—Sony Pictures' 2012 opens Friday—pastors and pundits are weighing in on the discussion about the end times.
The film focuses on the date Dec. 21, 2012, when the ancient Mayan calendar officially expires—prompting some prophets to predict doomsday. And some people are scared.
"I get letters and calls every day from people saying, 'Is this it?'" says Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the end-times Left Behind books. "Everything we dramatized in the Left Behind books—the one-world government, one-world currency, threats against Israel—here it is on our doorstep. It's alarming and I think it should be."
Others insist there's no cause for alarm. Instead, Christians should be calling for sanity, says Scot McKnight, Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University.
"We have the opportunity to witness to the sanity of biblical eschatology by soaking ourselves in Israel's prophets, Jesus, and early Christian eschatology," says McKnight. "Jesus warned us about setting times and pretending to know what is not ours to know. Our responsibility is to be faithful to the tasks to which we are called and let God wrap up history when he so chooses."
Some pastors are seeing the film's release as an opportunity to start conversations about faith, the end times, and "the real facts of the Second Coming," as Dudley Rutherford, pastor of Shepherd of the Hills Church in Porter Ranch, Calif., puts it.
"The Bible makes it clear that no one knows day or the hour," Rutherford says. "You can know the season when Jesus is coming back, but anytime someone makes a prophecy that this is the day, I know it's not the day."
In the movie, John Cusack plays an L.A. limo driver and struggling sci-fi writer who saves his family from cataclysmic disasters beginning Dec. 21, 2012—the day the Mayan's 5,125-year "Long Count" calendar ends. On that day in the film, a solar storm results in changes in the Earth's core, crust and atmosphere, triggering gigantic earthquakes, super-volcanoes, and other Brobdingnagian-size disasters.
David Morrison, a senior scientist at NASA's Astrobiology Institute who hosts the web-based "Ask an Astrobiologist," has received thousands of questions from people asking whether these are the last days. He tells them the Mayan doomsday predictions—fueled by websites, talk radio, and books—are a hoax.
"I've even coined a term for all this—cosmophobia, a fear of the cosmos," Morrison says. "My main concern is not the movie, but the thousands of people who have written me from all over the world who are genuinely frightened about 2012 and think the world is going to end."
Scholars say the ancient Mayans viewed the end of the 5,125-year cycle—the last of five great cycles spanning nearly 26,000 years—as a time of "destruction and renewal," but they didn't specify what would happen.
"It's been Hollywood-ized," says Eleanor Harrison-Buck, a Mayan expert and an assistant professor of archeology at the University of New Hampshire. "It taps into our own fear of collapse and the idea that the world might come to an end."
Jesus predicted that false prophets would arise and deceive many people, says Tim LaHaye, co-author of the Left Behind series, which sold more than 65 million copies. LaHaye believes the 2012 mania is distracting people from what the Bible predicts regarding the Rapture, Tribulation and Second Coming.
"The date has been picked up by so many groups and cults that you have to conclude that someone or something inspired all these writers to come to essentially the same period—and that would be divination or spiritism," LaHaye says. "It's probably satanic because there is nothing in the Bible about it. In fact, the Bible forbids us to even think about a day and an hour."