The lure of rapture

Fundamentalist Christian minister Harold Camping of Oakland, California, has widely publicized that today is the day of the Rapture, when according to some interpretations of the New Testament true believers ascend to heaven to escape impending misery and turmoil on Earth.  I am writing in the afternoon, and can’t guarantee just yet that Camping is mistaken.  But let’s assume he is: He was wrong before, and he is just the latest in a long string of mistaken end-times prophets.  I promise to post a prompt, heartfelt apologetic retraction if he turns out to be right — and if the internet and I survive the initial cataclysm.

I have a few reflections on end-time prophesies, starting with the admission that I’ve always found them oddly alluring. As a child, I knew I would be alive in the year 2000.  In my young mind this futuristic date glittered with flying cars, modular glass homes, one-piece unisex jumpsuits that somehow didn’t look absurd, and one or more Moon colonies.  But in addition, I had repeatedly heard predictions that Christ’s Second Coming would coincide with the new millennium.  Although there is plenty of theological controversy on this point even within Christianity, and even though I was not raised to believe anything of the sort, it always struck me as exciting that  such a grand moment might actually take place in my lifetime.

With the year 2000 come and gone, most end-time attention has since moved to 2012, when, among other things, the Mayan calendar supposedly runs out of dates.  Even so, I wonder whether Mr. Camping, who is 89 years old, is consciously or unconsciously motivated by the possibility that this greatest of historical events might occur in his remaining natural lifetime.  Perhaps it is human nature both to hope and to believe that we live in a unique time.  A touch of narcissism perhaps?

Psychologists and others have wondered, and occasionally studied, how believers deal with mistaken prophesy.  What will Camping and his followers do or say tomorrow?  Leon Festinger’s classic 1956 study “When Prophesy Fails” suggests that rather than recanting his beliefs, Camping is apt to rationalize his failed prophesy.  For example, he may realize his calculations were off, or declare a divine 11th hour reprieve for the world.  Of course, some followers, perhaps the majority, are apt to feel disillusioned and humiliated.  The “Great Disappointment” of 1844 offers the historical precedent of a similar failed prophesy.

There is a non-religious definition of rapture: “n. the state of being carried away with joy, love, etc.; ecstasy.”  In a larger sense, we all seek to connect with something bigger than ourselves.  For many, it is religion and its connection with God.  Others find connection and larger purpose in humanitarian or political work.  Playing music or team sports with others can satisfy this need to some extent, as can being part of the crowd at a concert or other event.  Even mobs and riots satisfy this need, albeit in destructive ways.  The lure to belong, to share experiences with others, to have a larger purpose, to be “in a groove” seems innate.  I once saw a greeting card that read, “People who never get carried away… should be.”

It is really no surprise that doomsayers capture headlines and our attention.  Whether we expect to rise to heaven today with God’s Chosen, or join others in ridiculing the gullible — or blog to readers on the internet — we all can be part of a grand spectacle.  It makes this sunny Saturday more special than it would otherwise be, and ourselves a bit more connected to feelings, purposes, and forces greater than ourselves.

5 comments to The lure of rapture

  • TK

    Here’s what I don’t get. People and religious leaders are predicting the End of Days all the time. (There’s probably a guy on lower Market Street holding up a placard right now prophesying that very thing). Some of them are very specific about time/place. So why the heck did this “prediction” capture the popular imagination, and the media imagination? Beats me.

    • Hi TK, nice to hear from you. I think it was good publicity, not the specific message, that garnered public attention this time. Mr. Camping has a radio show, and more important, conducted a major advertising campaign, something like 5500 billboards I read somewhere. This was apparently enough to capture coverage by the media, amplifying his message. Once such an idea is sufficiently publicized, I believe it sparks popular imagination by its very nature: the “lure of rapture” I posted about.

    • SP

      I wonder what happens to the die hard belivers that cashed in retirement bonds, closed bank accounts maxed out credit cards,quick there jobs,failed to renew there lease or let there mortage lapse. The level of depression among his followers must stagering

  • Interesting post. I was once one of those people trying to predict the end of the world. I quickly discovered that this is a futile and sometimes exhausting thing to do. I stubbornly stuck to my beliefs until my second semester in college when I enrolled in a college course. The Bible mentions that no one knows the day or hour, not even the angels of heaven, but only the Father. I realized that I was one of these people that was trying to set the date of the rapture, which made me a hypocrite. No one likes a hypocrite.

    I admit that there is a lot of allure to the subject of the rapture. It often brings a sense of certainty and stability in an unstable and uncertain world. No matter what happens in this world, the rapture will happen and Christ will return to this earth. This can bring a lot of strength to people, but it can also be fairly deceiving as well. Overly zealous people may claim to have heard from God that they know the day and hour of the rapture. The Bible does caution against this, as I have mentioned earlier. It also says to not believe those that are claiming to know this time, as they are deceptive liars.

    Another interesting thing is that the rapture that is often talked about in Christianity is never actually mentioned in the Bible. It is more assumed, based on a few verses scattered in the Bible. Whether or not there will be a rapture is hotly debated among theologians and based on how the Bible is interpreted.

    And I love how you had mentioned the non-religious definition of rapture. One can be raptured on a daily basis and not really be aware of it.

    Overall, I think that Christianity is based off of the way that we live. While it is good to go to church and tithe, that is not all there is to it. You can be an example of an excellent Christian in the way that you live: be merciful to those that need mercy and give to those that request it (within your own means of course). Religion is not all about piety, but is about whether or not you demonstrate love to other people, and that crosses over to many religions in this world and isn’t exclusive of Christianity. I think all of us can agree if there is no love, religion is worthless.

    I enjoy your posts and look forward to other ones in the future!


  • Sharon

    he changed the date its coming this friday 10/21/2011 the other dates where practice apparently

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