Well, it looks like we’ve all been reprieved – Harold Camping has apparently announced that he was out in his calculations by 5 months. Better repent now while you have the chance, as I’ve no doubt he’ll be proved right this time. 😉
Testament to gullibility
I can’t say I feel too sorry for Mr Camping – though nor do I think he’s a ‘false prophet’ or antichrist; just hugely misguided, theologically illiterate and a complete raving nut-job to boot. I do feel sorry for his followers though, those who’ve banked everything – literally in some cases – on the accuracy of his ridiculous predictions.
The whole silly affair is yet another testament to human fallibility and gullibility; the strange propensity of otherwise reasonable people to believe ridiculous and impossible things if they’re proclaimed with confidence, backed by apparent authority (“The Bible says”, or some self-styled Bible expert claims it says), and especially if they happen to chime with some deep inner desires (to be taken away from this current mess to a place of bliss; to be vindicated and see your opponents punished or made foolish).
Of course, sceptics and atheists would say that that last sentence is a pretty good summary of the religious impulse in general. In their view, all Christians believe crazy and impossible things – such as the virgin birth, the resurrection and eternal life – because we want them to be true and because we’ve been told that they are by someone we view as authoritative (parents, the church, the Bible). To which I’d respond that, unfortunately, a fair amount of religious belief does fall into that category – groundless superstitious fantasy that gratifies our greed and flatters our ego. Scientology would be a prime case in point, or the so-called Prosperity Gospel (‘name-it-and-claim-it’). Atheists are right to mock these examples. However, I would argue that these are not typical or normative of the whole – they represent the effluence rather than the essence of the religious impulse.
I’d hope that even the most ardent atheists could recognise something different and good in the religion of some of its better proponents – the Mahatma Gandhis, Martin Luther Kings, William Wilberforces – and above all, Jesus. In these there is humility and wisdom combined with great humanity – practical compassion and active care for people and the world, without judgementalism, exclusivism, sectarianism or violence. In short there is a quality of goodness which is hard to define or explain but easy to recognise, and which is sadly lacking in so many fundamentalist preachers and prophets of doom.
Part of me wants to say that this kind of thing – the whole Harold Camping fiasco – could only happen in America, but my good US friends will quickly and fairly point out that this is blatant anti-Americanism. And it’s true that people all over the world have been confidently – and wrongly – predicting The End pretty much since The Beginning (who knows, maybe the dinosaurs had their own prophets of doom when they looked up and saw a big flaming rock in the sky heading their way).
People have also been predicting Jesus’ return with equally poor accuracy since about 10 minutes after he left the first time. Disasters, dictators and ‘darkest hours’ have come and gone over the last 2000 years, nations have risen and fallen, and all the great and terrible events which were thought to have presaged the end have in retrospect turned out to be just part of the ongoing groaning of creation. Many today feel that we are surely living in the last days, that things simply cannot go on this way for much longer – but then many have felt that in all ages. Jesus’ return may possibly be imminent, but it may equally not be for another 2000 – or 20,000 – years. We really don’t know. It’s one of those matters we’re right to be agnostic on.
What really boggles me though is how ‘Bible-believing’ End-Times fundamentalists are always so sure they do know, despite the unequivocally clear words of Jesus: “No-one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matt 24:36).
Of course it’s not just religious types who get all apocalyptic, with predictably lame results. Remember the Millennium Bug, which was going to wipe out computers across the globe as the clocks changed to 2001? Some people are now getting all excited about the year 2012, with the threat of a Solar Maximum combining nicely with the mumbo-jumbo of the end of the Mayan calendar. And if nothing major materialises (as it won’t), we’ve still got the prospect of an environmental apocalypse just round the corner, heralded by various earthquakes and tsunamis, and the recent record numbers of tornadoes in the US. Back in the 80s, it was the threat of the bomb and imminent nuclear holocaust at the press of the Red Button; the mushroom cloud on the horizon.
On the other hand, people – and Christians amongst them – have been rightly mocking Harold-Camping-style end-times millenarianism for a good long time too. Take Chaucer’s 14th-century Miller’s Tale for example, a fantastically ribald story of an amorous student cooking up a false prediction about an imminent second Noah’s Flood as a ploy to cuckold his credulous landlord. (Incidentally, I had a dream the other night in which I bumped into Harold Camping on a London bus and he admitted that he’d made up the whole Rapture prediction as a ruse to sell his car. I’m not kidding. I won’t claim that it was a prophetic dream though.)
Barking up the wrong tree
So no, millenarianism is not just a religious or an American phenomenon (incidentally, does anyone else think ‘millenarianism’ sounds like a cross between hat-makers and a super-race? Now there’s a thought). However, there do seem to be more Harold Campings to the square mile in the US than in most places, which I suspect is due to a particular local brand of End-Times-obsessed Christian fundamentalism. Look at the popularity of LaHaye & Jenkins’ dispensationalist Left Behind (TM) series which begin with a literal Rapture and which are laughably hopeless as theology – though admittedly fairly entertaining as thriller yarns. (Though why anyone should name a series after the sinistral buttock is anyone’s guess.)
Camping and LaHaye may or may not be barking mad, but they are certainly barking up the wrong tree. I wish they’d just read Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope or Keith Ward’s What the Bible really teaches and save themselves and their followers a whole lot of disappointments.
I don’t know why, but the Rapture always makes me think of that awesome K-tel kitchen product from the 80s, the Rap’Tou. Either that or a Raptor – I’m imagining ‘The VelociRapture’ as a kind of Left Behind / Jurassic Park mash-up. Or maybe a hip-hop/classical fusion genre, the Rap Overture. Sorry.
‘Rapture’ theology basically derives from a misunderstanding of 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. Both Keith Ward and Tom Wright point out that these ‘Rapture’ verses have been read without any understanding of their strong Old Testament allusions – Moses coming down from the Mount of Law-giving to the sound of the trumpet blast; the Daniel 7 passage about the ‘Son of Man’ appearing on the clouds (which Wright argues is primarily to do with Jesus’ Ascension, not his return). To these references, Paul has also added in an imperial Roman metaphor about an emperor visiting his provinces and being greeted outside the city (‘in the air’) by its citizens in order to welcome and escort him into the city. So the passage can really be understood as believers escorting Jesus to earth, rather than the usual fundamentalist ‘Rapture’ interpretation where they are taken by Jesus to heaven.
Wright argues that at this time Jesus’ current ‘secret’ or hidden presence in the world will change to a palpable presence which will be obvious to everyone. It will not be a ‘rapture’ where believers are whisked away to heaven to escape the troubles of this world; rather, they will participate with Jesus’ new, visible reign in setting this world to rights, bringing an end to oppression, enslavement and injustice. One of the problems with Rapture theology – apart from that it is plain wrong and a bit daft – is that it encourages its followers to take no active part in the redemption of this present world, from which they believe they are soon going to be ‘rescued’. Instead it encourages passivity, vindictive judgementalism and lack of compassion.
Fundamentalist eschatology is furthermore based on a complete misunderstanding of the Apocalyptic literary genre. ‘Apocalypse’ literally means ‘unveiling’ or ‘revealing’, and the genre is not primarily intended to provide predictions about the End of the World. Its intent is rather to reveal or unveil God’s activity and judgement within the world at particular key moments of history. It is about God acting to expose and deal with injustice, corruption and evil – particularly among his own people (so it’s not just about punishment of enemies). It is presented in highly-charged symbolic and visual language, often rooted in Old Testament prophetic imagery and related to actual historical events and people. Treating the Bible’s Apocalyptic literature as a complex code to be deciphered utterly misses the point of its complex and layered symbolism. This is one of the big problems with fundamentalists – not that they respect or believe the Bible too much, but too little; they fail to treat it on its own terms and they impose their own forced – and false – system of interpretation on it, with dismal results.
Keith Ward identifies three strands to the interpretation and fulfilment of biblical ‘End-Time’ prophecies:
1) Historical (‘realised eschatology’) – many of the events foretold have already taken place in the persecution of the early church, the rise of false prophets, the desecration of the Jerusalem Temple and destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD.
2) Post-historical – the end of all the ages, the future looked-for completion of all things when God is ready to bring history to an end and to bring all things together under one head, Christ. There is no telling when this will come but Ward argues strongly that the world is not yet in anything like a state of readiness for this time.
3) Spiritual – the sense in which Christ is always drawing the physical and temporal (the here and now) up into the spiritual and eternal, as we and the world are progressively redeemed and brought into his life.
I would argue that this third sense is the important one for us to focus on here and now, rather than trying to predict the end of all things. It’s not only hard to get a handle on The End of the World, but generally a bit pointless. What we can understand though is the little everyday ways in which people’s worlds do actually end – through death, bereavement, loss, the break-up of a long-term relationship. And we can perhaps also start to see – and even be part of – the redemption which Christ is bringing here and now into those real lives and real situations, rather than just sitting back and booking our tickets for the Rapture.
Though come to think of it, imagine The Rapture (TM) as a theme park ride… I’m surprised Tim LaHaye hasn’t taken out a patent on it already.
- Surprised by Hope by Tom Wright
- Who’s afraid of the big bad fundamentalists?
- Christian responses to Osama bin Laden’s killing
- Atheism/agnosticism 1: Atheism okay…
- Atheism/agnosticism 2: Agnosticism better…