The Rapture Trap
Well it’s Monday and it looks like we’re all still here. The predicted Rapture event failed to occur, and now Harold Camping is scrambling to come up with an excuse. While it’s tempting to revel in this man’s exposure as a con artist, we should temper our enthusiasm just a little bit.
For one thing, though we all knew that the rapture would not be occurring because, well, there won‘t be a rapture (also see Carl Olson’s excellent book on the topic), there will be a final day of judgment. It could very well have happened on Saturday, and it may happen next week. Or next year. Or a billion years from now. We simply don’t know when the final hour will be at hand, and if nothing else maybe this story can remind us to live our lives in anticipation for Christ’s second coming.
Moreover, though Camping deserves much of the scorn heaped upon him, we should remember that there are people who were taken in by this fraudster and who gave up everything because they truly believed that the end was nigh. Writing at The New Republic, Tiffany Stanley explains why we should not be overly gleeful about this past weekend’s non event.
Here at TNR, we thought about joining the circus. Last week, when we learned that Camping was predicting the apocalypse, I was tasked with spending May 21—the day of the Rapture—with a few of his true-believing followers, who have been filling websites, billboards, and city squares, handing out pamphlets, and generally warning the world to repent. What an amazing story, I thought. I’ll spend time with people who believe the world is going to end, and then be able to watch their reactions when it doesn’t.
But before long, I had second thoughts. First, I ran into some accessibility snags. While the media-friendly end-timers wanted to warn heathens beforehand, they really just wanted to spend their last day on earth surrounded by loved ones, in quiet preparation. Their response to me was something like: Why would you want to follow us around on Saturday? We’re not going to be here anymore. Yes, there was a certain humor to this. But the more I looked into the story, the more it began to turn my stomach to think of spending my Saturday evening in someone’s living room, waiting for that gotcha moment when they realized it was all a lie—leaving me to file a story the next day, poking fun at their gullibility. I decided I couldn’t do it.
She reminds us that there were real people taken in by this scam.
Do the end-timers seem ignorant? Yes. Are they insane? Possibly. But should our reaction to them be chuckling glee or something more like sadness? Pay attention to their individual stories—their willingness to sacrifice everything in anticipation that their earthly lives are over—and I dare you not to feel the latter. Ashley Parker of The New York Times writes about a mom who stopped working, and stopped saving for college for her three teenaged children. One of the kids admitted, “I don’t really have motivation to try to figure out what I want to do anymore because my main support line, my parents, don’t care.” At NPR, Barbara Brown Haggerty reports on a young couple, with a toddler and a baby on the way, who are spending the last of the savings. The wife says, “We budgeted everything so that, on May 21, we won’t have anything left.”
Of course they did all this willingly, and they aren’t completely off the hook for their own gullibility. But what of the children who must suffer through no fault of their own?
There is one thing in this column that I take just slight issue with. Stanley writes:
Laughing at religious fanatics is nothing new. And, at some level, there’s nothing wrong with it. But this story didn’t just take off in popularity because people wanted a quick laugh or some insight into a quirky subset of our country. There’s a cruelty underlying our desire to laugh at this story—a desire to see people humiliated and to revel in our own superiority and rationality—even though the people in question are pretty tragic characters, who either have serious problems themselves or perhaps are being taken advantage of, or both.
In a sense she is right. There’s definitely an element of schadenfreude at work in the reaction to this story, but that’s not the entire explanation. I believe that there’s a tinge of anti-Christianity in some of the revelry we have seen. To some, Camping was more than a fringe cultist – he was a typical Christian spreading a crazy belief to his followers. And if you think I’m exaggerating, you only have to scroll down to the third comment on the story to see what I am talking about.
Yes, yes, it’s my own fault for reading the comments. It’s TNR – I should know better. Aside from the general anti-Christian attitude that seeped through more than a few of the comments, there was this gem by “rayward”:
If today’s end-timers are insane, then so are all Christians, for it’s fundamental for a believing Christian that Jesus will return and the elect will rise up to be with the Lord while those left behind will suffer a horrible fate. For a non-Christian, this may seem, well, insane. There is a simple explanation. Paul and the early followers of Jesus (the “Brothers”) had the difficult task of creating a “religion” from the teachings of Jesus, an extremely difficult task since those teachings were not written and He was dead. Thus Paul’s emphasis in his letters (Paul’s letters, not the four Gospels, are the oldest account of Jesus, though Paul never actually met Jesus) on the divinity of Jesus rather than His teachings. And what better proof of His divinity than He would come again on Judgment Day. Paul’s method obviously worked. The emphasis on the divinity of Jesus has ebbed and flowed over time. The Founders for the most part emphasized the teachings of Jesus, not His divinity. Thomas Jefferson consolidated the four Gospels in chronological order and excised all such divine references, leaving the teachings of Jesus as the “Jefferson Bible”, a copy of which was given to new Congressmen and Senators until some time in the 20th century; one can buy a copy of the Jefferson Bible from Amazon, which is where I purchased mine. Of course, the Jefferson Bible, and Mr. Jefferson himself, has no place in today’s evangelical Christian churches. For some Christians today, it’s the teachings of Jesus that are central to our (yes, including me) faith. Sure, we believe in the divinity of Jesus (the church is always looking for signs of such blasphemy), but we also believe that He was sent for the primary purpose of teaching us how to live a better and more rewarding life. Indeed, some of us believe that basing one’s Christian faith on fear of the rapture isn’t faith at all.
One is tempted to respond thusly:
But I suppose it’s worth taking a closer look at some of the arguments. Let’s look at his very first sentence:
If today’s end-timers are insane, then so are all Christians, for it’s fundamental for a believing Christian that Jesus will return and the elect will rise up to be with the Lord while those left behind will suffer a horrible fate.
Bzzzt. Wrong, try again. Well, technically the part about it being a fundamental belief for Christians that Jesus will return is true, but the second part is only accurate for a small number of Christians. The rapture is not at all dogmatic for Catholics and most mainline Protestants. The idea is essentially confined to Evangelical Christians.
Ray Ward’s (I’m assuming that is his name) “explanation” as to how this belief came about is remarkably muddled. You see, the idea of a second coming was the only way to convince those early Christian rubes about the divinity of Christ. Silly old me, I thought that whole rising from the dead thing would have been enough to convince most people of Christ’s divinity. Luckily Ray here has figured out Paul’s game for us.
The emphasis on the divinity of Jesus has ebbed and flowed over time.
Really? Seems like it’s been pretty central for roughly 2,000 years, at least among us Catholics. I don’t think there was a time when we stopped distributing Communion at Mass.
The Founders for the most part emphasized the teachings of Jesus, not His divinity.
This is what’s called a non sequiter. What do the beliefs of some of our Founders have to do with the overall course of Christian belief in God’s divinity? I guess Ray was eager to show off his appreciation for Thomas Jefferson, but all he has really accomplished is to demonstrate further why much of what Jefferson ever said or wrote, especially with regards to religion, should be taken with heaping tablespoons of salt. Sure the Jefferson “Bible” is impressive from a purely historical and perhaps artistic standpoint. I had the honor of seeing the book at the Smithsonian recently as they worked on preparing it for exhibit, and it’s actually pretty cool. Jefferson cut out portions of the bible in four different languages and pasted them into a notebook. It was a remarkable bit of craftsmanship and patience. Of course Jefferson didn’t include all the miracles and all that supernatural stuff, so Jefferson essentially turned Jesus into a sort of Deepak Chopra for his time, therefore missing the entire point of Christ’s mission. This is all to say that TJ is to be pitied, not admired for his beliefs.
Of course, the Jefferson Bible, and Mr. Jefferson himself, has no place in today’s evangelical Christian churches.
Once again, that’s to their credit considering that it eliminates the central reason why they (and we) come together and worship on Sunday. I’m sorry, but I’d have a difficult time giving up my Sundays and all the other time that I devote in the interest of my faith if this was all for some really smart preacher. Without the Resurrection there is no point to what we do, and therefore Mr. Jefferson’s neat little book should have no place in any of our Churches.
but we also believe that He was sent for the primary purpose of teaching us how to live a better and more rewarding life
So God sent his only begotten Son to be a glorified self-help guide? This is the central tenet of your faith?
It looks like the rapture enthusiasts aren’t the only one deserving of our pity and prayers.