The following is a somewhat expanded and revised version of a post I made five months ago, the last time the Rapture didn’t happen.
From suggestions that we should all release blow-up dolls filled with helium at exactly noon on May 21, to an invitation on Facebook for post-Rapture looting (here’s the Oct. 21 event; after all, many cars will be “unmanned,” you know), it seems that the world has taken notice of the latest prediction of the Rapture, although not quite as much notice as it did five months ago. Even atheist Stephen Hawking grabbed a headline or two with his characterization of Heaven as a “fairy story.” Well, today’s the day, at least according to (revised!) calculations by Harold Camping, who has figured on the precise date of the Rapture’s occurrence as being October 21, 2011. The bit back in May turned out not to be the Rapture, but was rather the deadline for “getting saved.” (If you didn’t make it in by then, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.)
The Rapture is that moment a certain minority of Protestant Christians believe that Jesus will come back to Earth, hovering in the air, and then call all the true believers to fly upwards with Him, leaving the rest of the human race to suffer through some years (depending on your particular Dispensationalist eschatology, this could be before or after and be of varying length) of terrible tribulation—wars, earthquakes, the formation of a world government run by Satan, etc. An even smaller minority claims to be able to predict when the Rapture will take place. Some people make books and movies capitalizing on the idea.
Most Christians do not believe in the Rapture. (After all, it’s less than 200 years old as a doctrine.) They do believe in the Resurrection of the Dead, which is when Jesus will come back, raise all the dead, and then everything will all be over.
That said, though, predicting the end of the world (sometimes preceded by the Rapture) is nothing new. Indeed, my personal favorite new discovery is a 1956 booklet called 1975 in Prophecy!, which bafflingly does not mention my August 29th birth. Nor does it even mention the clearly apocalyptic omen of a presidency by a man elected neither president nor vice president. Surely Gerald Ford must be worth something to apocalypticists. Alas, poor 1975.
Of course, Harold Camping originally predicted in his book 1994? that the world would be ending around September 15-17, 1994 (a three-day stretch, sure, but he needed some wiggle room, and I guess that question mark bought him another 17 years).
What occurs to me especially on this Second Apocalyptic Moment here in 2011 is a higher-order question: How do you know that what you believe is true? This is of course a big question, and one which I imagine a few of Harold Camping’s followers must have asked themselves on May 22, especially those who’d cashed out their life savings, quit their jobs, etc. Why should you trust a preacher? If you belong to a religion, how do you know that your religion’s teachings are true?
A Christian may believe the Bible, sure, but there are a lot of ways to read the Bible, and there are many contradictions between the doctrines of those who claim to be relying on it solely. Why is Harold Camping right, and others are wrong? Or, if Harold Camping is wrong, why is your preacher right? What is the basis of his authority?
For most Protestant Christians, the history of their particular traditions can be traced no further back than the 16th century Protestant Reformation. To be sure, the first Reformers believed that they were restoring primitive Christianity, but on what basis did they make that claim? If it’s just on their reading of the Bible, well, again we have the problem of whom to believe. They had that problem themselves, as Protestantism began splitting almost the instant it appeared.
For Roman Catholic Christians, the history of their tradition does indeed extend back to the primitive Church, to the very 1st century. For them, the question of authority rests on showing that that primitive Church is identical with their own Church. Analyzing that claim is somewhat more complicated, because it means looking at 2000 years of Christian history to determine whether Roman Catholicism stayed on track the whole time. As an Orthodox Christian, I do not believe that it did, especially in terms of teachings such as papal supremacy and papal infallibility, neither of which are apparent in the primitive Church. (Indeed, papal infallibility can be handily dated to the 19th century.)
For Orthodox Christians, the question of authority is similar to Rome’s, but of course as an Orthodox Christian, I believe that the evidence is in Orthodoxy’s favor—it teaches the same things it did 2000 years ago, and that consistency is constant throughout all those centuries.
In the end, though, even if you can determine which Christianity (and there are many!) is the right one, that leaves the question of whether Christianity is true, whether Jesus Christ is God, and, indeed, whether there is a God (or gods) at all. The atheist would claim to give an easy answer to this question: “I see no god(s), therefore there must be none.”
But what does “see” mean? There are a lot of things we cannot see or cannot yet see—that, it might be said, is one way of describing the history of science. We seem to take it for granted that skepticism should be our default philosophical position—believing nothing without incontrovertible evidence—yet we do not live our lives depending on such evidence for everything we do. We all live by faith in one way or another. It would be utterly exhausting to constantly be measuring and testing whether the floor on which my chair rests in fact is not going to collapse out from under me. Perhaps it might!
So there are lots of reasons not to trust preachers. But there are also lots of reasons not to trust other people who make truth claims, even scientists, who (if they are good scientists) will admit that scientists are often wrong. (It’s part of what keeps the new ones in business.) It probably goes without saying that politicians are often wrong, too, and not to be trusted on their face. (“Trust, but verify,” as one of them once said.) The more painful truth, however, is that I cannot necessarily trust myself. I am not, after all, more qualified than anyone else in the world so that I might judge them all.
My hope is that, on this second day of likely disappointment in terms of major eschatological import for 2011, we would all ask ourselves what we have faith in and whether it’s worth putting our faith in it. I also hope that we would, as part of searching for the answer for that question, investigate our worldviews, whether they really stand up to some scrutiny, especially historical scrutiny.
The key virtue in all this is humility. Without it, the doors to the truth will always remain closed. But with it, they will keep opening.
After all, today really could be the Rapture.