Reflections on The Rapture That Wasn't

It appears that we needed the rapture more than it needed us.  The cultural and political landscape was ripe for Harold Camping and his May 21 prediction.  We have witnessed earthquakes, tsunamis, flooding, and tornadoes that rival the most devastating natural disasters on record. We have seen, time and time again, religious leaders state that these events were doled out as punishment, or warnings, from an angry god.  We have heard repeated claims that President Obama is the antichrist.  This was simply the next step in ratcheting up the heightened religious rhetoric of recent years.  But Camping and his ilk are really not as crazy as we'd like to think.

In America, 38% believe that God employs natural events to dispense judgment.  If we look at evangelicals, this number jumps to 60%.  So, clearly, this idea of an angry god who punishes non-believers is far from fringe stuff.  Nearly 4 out of 10 people actually believe that God punishes humans through violent devastation and catastrophic loss of life.

Is it really a stretch to go from belief in an angry, punishing god to the belief in the rapture?  Based on modern interpretations of the rapture, the wrath doled out during the tribulation would include war, disasters, famine, sickness, etc.  The same stuff, yet on a grander scale.  And approximately the same numbers believe in the rapture as believe God punishes us with disasters: 41% say the rapture will occur within the next 40 years (80% believe the rapture will occur at some point in time). 

So, when we look at Harold Camping and Family Radio, most of us see a bunch of loons.  Yet so many of us believe the same things Harold Camping believes.  How do we reconcile this?  There is only one detail that separates him from 80% of Americans: the fact that he believed he knew the date. It reminds me of the Woody Allen joke:

This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, "Doc, my brother's crazy; he thinks he's a chicken." And, the doctor says, "Well, why don't you turn him in?" The guy says, "I would, but I need the eggs."

Family Radio is a tax-free non-profit venture. They own 66 radio stations worldwide, and are worth $72 million according to 2009 IRS statements.  Most of us find this to be maddening.  He has amassed a fortune by swindling people into believing his crazy stories!  Yet, his story is one with which 80% of Americans agree -- except that one detail: the date.  If he preached all of the same stuff, yet never set a date, he wouldn't be any different from the majority of us.  This should be alarming.

I wonder if perhaps the difference between Camping and the other 80% of Americans who believe the rapture will occur is the fact that Camping (and many of his followers) were willing to put their money where their mouth was.  If the 80% of rapture believers were put to some kind of test -- whether putting their face on a billboard that says, "I believe that the rapture will occur!" in the town that they live and work, or, for those who believe the rapture will occur in the next 40 years, signing over all their belongings at the 40 year mark, I wonder how many would think again.

The failed rapture prediction was not harmless.  Many sold all their belongings and wiped out their savings.  Families were torn apart.  In Vietnam, hundreds of ethnic Hmong were forced into hiding after security forces dispersed thousands who had convened to await Jesus' return.  There are reports of rapture-related suicides.

One of the more heartbreaking stories involved a California woman who slit her two daughters' throats with boxcutters, before slitting her own throat. Her intention was to save her family from suffering the tribulation. Fortunately, all survived, but certainly the event has caused irreparable psychological damage that will affect this family, and those close to them, for the rest of their lives.  Of course, we do not know if this woman was mentally ill (one would certainly think so), but if we take the rapture claims into consideration, the act could be considered one of great compassion.  When we believe in fantastical religious concepts, we can justify nearly anything.

We are able to cast judgment on others who do things that we believe to be crazy.  We believe these people to be crazy because their beliefs are different from ours.  Often, however, their beliefs are closer to our own than we might realize.  How many degrees separate our beliefs? How many degrees until our beliefs cross the line into delusional?

We often forget that the Bible is full of crazy.  It is full of crazy by anyone's standards.  Let's take a look at a few examples:
  • No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 23:1)
  • If two men, a man and his countryman, are struggling together, and the wife of one comes near to deliver her husband from the hand of the one who is striking him, and puts out her hand and seizes his genitals, then you shall cut off her hand; you shall not show pity. (Deuteronomy 25:11-12)
  • Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourself every girl who has never slept with a man. (Numbers 31:17-18)
  • Happy [shall he be], that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones. (Psalm 137:9)
    • This is what the Lord says: Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass .... And Saul ... utterly destroyed all the people with the edge of the sword. (1 Samuel 15:3,7-8)
    • The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The Lord takes vengeance on his foes and maintains his wrath against his enemies. The Lord is slow to anger and great in power; the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and clouds are the dust of his feet. He rebukes the sea and dries it up; he makes all the rivers run dry. Bashan and Carmel wither and the blossoms of Lebanon fade.The mountains quake before him and the hills melt away. The earth trembles at his presence, the world and all who live in it. Who can withstand his indignation? Who can endure his fierce anger? His wrath is poured out like fire; the rocks are shattered before him. The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. (Nahum 1:2)
    Yes, a real refuge in times of trouble, it appears.

    I'm not naive. I know that the above scriptures cannot be cherry-picked and paraded around as evidence of God as a maniacal, genocidal, barbaric, egotistical monster. There is context, to be sure. (Although, I'm not convinced that context can explain away some of those examples.)  I also know that we cannot ignore these passages and only cherry-pick those which suit our carefully honed personal idea of God.  You have to accept him, warts and all, or do a hell of a lot of shoehorning. 

    My reason for listing a few examples (believe me, there's plenty where that came from) depicting God as what we would define by modern DSM standards as psychopathic is to illustrate that folks like Camping, and the lady who sliced her girls' throats, are really no crazier than the scripture which likely informed their ideology (and their actions).

    What do you believe? And why? Are your reasons rational? Isn't life and death (and possibly eternal life) important enough for us to really examine the rationale for our beliefs? Are your beliefs supported by anything other than an ancient text which we know to be replete with contradictions, errors, and highly questionable morality? (Yes, there are also many wonderful instances of beauty, and fine instances of morality as well.)  Are these beliefs essential to living a fulfilling life as a contributing member of society?

    There is a thought experiment put forth by Sam Harris in The End of Faith that underscores the fact that most of our beliefs have more to do with tradition and our place in space and time than they do anything else:

    "What if all our knowledge about the world were suddenly to disappear? Imagine that six billion of us wake up tomorrow morning in a state of utter ignorance and confusion. Our books and computers are still here, but we can't make heads or tails of their contents. We have even forgotten how to drive our cars and brush our teeth. What knowledge would we want to reclaim first? Well, there's that business about growing food and building shelter that we would want to get reacquainted with. We would want to relearn how to use and repair many of our machines. Learning to understand spoken and written language would also be a top priority, given that these skills are necessary for acquiring most others. When in this process of reclaiming our humanity will it be important to know that Jesus was born of a virgin? Or that he was resurrected? And how would we relearn these truths, if they are indeed true? By reading the Bible? Our tour of the shelves will deliver similar pearls from antiquity, like the "fact" that Isis, the goddess of fertility, sports an impressive pair of cow horns. Reading further, we will learn that Thor carries a hammer and that Marduk's sacred animals are horses, dogs, and a dragon with a forked tongue. Whom shall we give top billing in our resurrected world? Yaweh or Shiva? And when will we want to relearn that premarital sex is a sin? Or that adulteresses should be stoned to death? Or that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception? And what will we think of those curious people who begin proclaiming that one of our books is distinct from all others in that it was actually written by the Creator of the universe?

    There are undoubtedly spiritual truths that we would want to relearn—once we manage to feed and clothe ourselves—and these are truths that we have learned imperfectly in our present state. How is it possible, for instance, to overcome one's fear and inwardness and simply love other human beings ? Assume, for the moment, that such a process of personal transformation exists and that there is something worth knowing about it; there is, in other words, some skill, or discipline, or conceptual understanding, or dietary supplement that allows for the reliable transformation of fearful, hateful, or indifferent persons into loving ones. If so, we should be positively desperate to know about it. There may even be a few biblical passages that would be useful in this regard—but as for whole rafts of untestable doctrines, clearly there would be no reasonable basis to take them up again. The Bible and Koran, it seems certain, would find themselves respectfully shelved next to Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Egyptian Book of the Dead."
    I know that the above passage will anger many who read it.  We put up defenses when our long-held beliefs (and for many, our religious heritage) are compared to the many dead religions of the world.  Yet we must not hide from the fact that there will be a time when our civilization will share shelf space with the ancient Greeks, the Mayans, or the Egyptians who built the pyramids.  To deny this is to deny the vastness of time.  How and why are your supernatural beliefs going to outlive our civilization? (If the rapture doesn't come first, of course.)  If you, like 80% of Americans, believe that the rapture will occur, why do you believe it?  Most likely, because you read it in a book or heard it in church.

    Dave Muscato, of MU SASHA (University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics) wrote:
    Now, imagine that a pharmaceutical company had a drug that repeated, controlled-condition clinical testing had confirmed did not work. If the pharmaceutical company were to say about this drug, “We know that scientific tests and clinical trials demonstrate that this drug is actually ineffective. But despite that, we believe that it works, and selling this product, including implying and telling people directly that it really does work if you just believe it, too, should not be considered fraud on that basis.”
    Muscato states that there would be an uproar. We would not stand for it.  This is what Harold Camping and his ilk do on a daily basis, tax-free, as they rake in millions of dollars, and continue to scam followers out of their money.  Yet, Camping is a Man of God, and is entitled to do what he does.  He can rationalize his beliefs in the same way you rationalize yours, using the exact same text. 

    Harold Camping was MIA on Saturday, May 21. His Website was scrubbed of any information about the Rapture.  He didn't comment immediately on the failed prediction.  According to the Associated Press, the Family Radio camp has responded to the failed rapture prediction with the following:

    May 21 had instead been a "spiritual" Judgment Day, which places the entire world under Christ's judgment, he said...But because God's judgment and salvation were completed on Saturday, there's no point in continuing to warn people about it, so his network will now just play Christian music and programs until the final end on Oct. 21.

    Certainly, fewer people will be lining up to be raptured as were on May 21.  Once bitten, twice shy.  However, there will be others who continue to believe Camping. Others will ignore the realities of life and march towards Oct. 21 with the expectation that they will no longer have a need for money, a home, a car, or a family.  And Americans will continue to gawk and remark how crazy it is that these people believe that  all the Christians in the world will be gathered into the air to meet Jesus when he comes down from heaven on October 21, when in actuality all the Christians in the world will be gathered into the air to meet Jesus when he comes down from heaven some other time.

    There is no scientific basis for Harold Camping's rapture predictions, or for any religious rapture scenario, period.  There are plenty of ways, explainable in scientific terms, in which the end of the world might actually occur.  Each possibility is extremely unlikely to occur in our lifetime. Each possibility is infinitely more likely to occur than the rapture we find in Christian eschatology. 

    Religious beliefs have consequences.  Our beliefs should not interfere with the lives of others, specifically those who do not share them.  They certainly should not lead to the cutting of throats of children.  It is in society's best interest to call into question religious claims for which there is no basis in reality, especially those which prevent or impede others' pursuits of life, liberty, and happiness. 

    As Dave Muscato, in the aforementioned MU SASHA blog entry, writes:

    I don’t care one bit if people want to believe irrational things in the privacy of their own minds, so long as their outward actions are in accordance with what logic, evidence, and reason would lead them to do. There is no logical, evidential, or reasonable excuse for not allowing gay people to marry. There is no logical, evidential, or reasonable excuse for barring stem-cell research. There is no logical, evidential, or reasonable excuse for teaching creation myths in science classes. There is no logical, evidential, or reasonable excuse for denying women & transgendered men the right to safe and affordable abortions.
    What does Harold Camping's failed rapture prediction have to do with all of this?  It provides us with an opportunity to see firsthand that our religious beliefs can greatly affect the lives of others.  It provides us with an opportunity to examine the variety of beliefs regarding the rapture.  It provides us with an opportunity to question whether any number of our fantastical, supernatural beliefs culled from ancient texts are reasonable.  It allows us an opportunity to celebrate reason and to remind ourselves that many of the claims of scripture have been explained away (geocentrism, the firmament, the Genesis creation narrative) as we have learned more about the way the natural world works and how our holy books came to be.  Mostly, it reminds us that our religious beliefs are based on traditions -- constellations of beliefs, many drawn from a variety of previous traditions -- handed down generation by generation.   And often these beliefs (such as our modern ideas of heaven and hell) feature post-biblical components.  At any rate, these are not beliefs that are based on evidence.  As such, there are really no religious beliefs any more or less credible than Harold Camping's.

    For now, we will continue on living our lives until the end of the world fails to materialize on October 21. We should have confidence that the scientific community will let us know if and when we have reason to fear a cataclysmic event of global proportions.  But people will continue to make claims about the end of the world -- without a doubt.  We have the evidence to support this.


    1. If Harold Camping so zealously believes the end is near, He has no need for his millions... I can find a much better use for them.

    2. would be nice to see him give some to joplin, mo, who appear to be dealing with their own apocalypse.