Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Waiting for the Rapture? May 21 Is Just Days Away

The unusually wet and rainy May weather has a lot of us feeling chilly this week.

A good number of our fellow humans are, at the same time, feeling a bit chiliastic, because they have accepted the prediction of radio preacher Harold Camping that the Rapture will begin this Saturday, May 21, with the world itself coming to an end five months later.

Camper is the owner of a network of religious radio stations called Family Radio, based in Oakland, California. As Stephen Cox noted in Liberty magazine in December 2010 (PDF; pp. 19ff), the network has some 100 stations in the United States and an unknown number of other stations elsewhere. He also points out that Camper predicted the world would end in 1994, but turned out to be wrong.

Not that Camper is alone. He's just the latest in a long line of false soothsayers whose predictions prove groundless. (I won't misuse the word "prophet" to describe Harold Camper. In a theological sense, prophecy has nothing to do with predicting future events. It's much more about speaking truth to power, as Nathan did with King David.) In fact, beginning with the Millerites in the 19th century, predicting the end-times has become something of an American religious tradition.

This sort of fascination with the end-times is, in fact, a fairly recent phenomenon. While the early Christians seemed to accept the idea of an imminent return of Jesus Christ, that belief dissipated rather quickly.

E. Ann Matter, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in an essay called "Exegesis of the Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages" (found in The Year 1000: Religious and Social Response to the Turning of the First Millennium, edited by Michael Frassetto):

The last book of Christian Scripture, with its vivid imagery and sweeping promises of the triumph of the faithful over the persecutions of Antichrist, has always captured the imagination of Christians. Some contemporary groups fully expect to see the Last Days soon, and they offer exacting interpretations of the clues hidden in the last book of the New Testament for how this could happen. Sometimes these interpretations take the form of fiction [citing Tim LaHaye's and Jerry B. Jenkins' Left Behind series]. This is a long tradition. In fact, the Apocalypse was among the first biblical texts to be systematically explicated in Latin, even as it was one of the last to be accepted into the canon of the New Testament and given a liturgical role.
That early exegesis was, however, soon rejected by most orthodox Christians, and the Revelation of John took on a more allegorical function, beginning with interpretation of the book by St. Jerome (translator of the Bible into Latin). As Matter notes, "it would seem that at least from the earliest stage, the book appealed especially to those whose theology deviated from the orthodox consensus" [p. 29].

Several pages later, after reviewing the literature from the third century through the ninth and tenth, Matter goes on to point out:
All the Apocalypse commentaries from the Carolingian world thus show the continuing assumption of the text as an allegory of the Church, and a continuing process of filtering specific interpretations from earlier commentaries to support that assumption. There is little in these texts that shares the radical assumption of the imminent end evident in the Apocalypse which was such a subject of fascination to the earliest Christians and now again attracts a following. Instead, early medieval exegesis presents the Apocalypse as a book about the integrity and purity of the Church on earth [p. 36].
Last year, I interviewed Charlottesville writer Kristin Swenson about her widely-reviewed book, Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked About Book of All Time.

She explained what the book is about in just a few words:
The book is for general readers. It does not take a particular religious perspective. It’s also not dismissive of persons of faith but provides background information about the Bible: what is the Bible, where does it come from, [and] what’s in it, so that folks can make sense of the way the Bible shows up in contemporary culture.
In Bible Babel, Swenson takes a couple of pages to discuss end-times theology and how different branches of Christianity -- not to mention Judaism -- hold very different views on the Rapture and the Second Coming. Let me quote her at length:
The idea that Jesus will return and take the faithful up into heaven at some dramatic moment in the world's last days has captured the imagination of thousands of fundamentalist, evangelical, and nondenominational Christians. "Rapture," the term used to describe this event, is not actually in the Bible. Bible-based Jews, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and many other Christian denominations do not accept the premise, yet Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins's creative depiction of the rapture in the Left Behind series has clearly struck a chord. Tens of millions of these books have sold since the first was released in 1995, and several have become popular movies.

Ironically, it's the faithful who are described by the term "left behind," in the rapture proponents' central biblical text -- 1 Thess 4:16-17. Paul wrote that passage to assure people that their loved ones who had died before Jesus' return would not be overlooked. Those who were dead, Paul wrote, will rise first, and then the living (the ones who were left behind) will join them, "caught up in the clouds ... to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever." The Greek word arpazo, translated "caught up," is raptus in Latin -- the basis for the English "rapture." Of course, what LaHaye and others mean by the people "left behind" is those who are not caught up at all.

Although the rapture as it's popularly understood has little biblical support, the idea that Jesus will return is prominently represented. Sometimes called the Parousia (reflecting its Greek root in "presence, coming"), the expectation of Jesus' returning to earth to initiate a new age permeates the New Testament, and it is a central feature of Christian doctrine and theology today. Even though the Bible strongly maintains that people cannot predict exactly when Jesus will return, people try anyway. Hal Lindsey wrote The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), fairly certain that his was the end-time (specifically, the 1980s). Not everyone who believes in a coming rapture agrees about its chronological relationship to other end-time events, but they share the certainty that it will happen. Then, as a popular bumper sticker warns, "In case of rapture, this car will be unmanned" -- to which unbelieving humorists respond with the bumper sticker, "Come the rapture, can I have your car?" In a curious twist, the Rapture Ready Index recommends that you "fasten your seatbelts" when the number measuring end-time-like world events indicates the speady approach of the rapture [pp. 215-16].
Stephen Cox concludes his December 2010 Liberty article [PDF; p. 22]:
What will happen next?

One thing is certain: the Rapture will not take place on May 21. Nor will the total destruction of the physical universe occur on the following October 21. But what will happen to Family Radio?

Will the Depart Out movement collapse, like the Millerites? Will the Campingites try to reinterpret their message, as they did after the disappointment of 1994? Will they succeed? Or will there be a palace revolution?

I believe that the last is likeliest. People who have invested their careers in an organization are reluctant to part from it, no matter what happens, and in this instance there has been good reason for dissenters to stay and bide their time. Camping is the sole source of the sect’s peculiar theology, and he is 89 years old. (Not that he is senile — he isn’t. His method of argument is the same that it was 25 years ago, when I first found him on the dial.) It is difficult to imagine that Family Radio’s internal proletariat hasn’t made plans for what happens after his death — or even before it, when May 21 fails to justify his teachings. I look for a battle at Family Radio; and with luck, the battle will be public.

In any case, we are unlikely to see a more informative experiment in what happens when prophecy — definite, ceaselessly emphasized, widely disseminated prophecy — unmistakably and climactically fails. Every student of American civilizationshould plan to tune in to Family Radio on May 21 — not with the possibility of being caught up to heaven, but with the certainty of being caught up in a fascinating event.
In an update ("The End Is Nigh") published on the Liberty web site on May 3 (the magazine converted to web-only earlier this year), Cox makes a suggestion that could make this coming weekend highly entertaining:
Harold Camping is not a politician or a professor of environmentalism, whose prophecies can never be proven wrong because they’re ridiculously non-specific. No, he has said exactly what he means by the end of the world, and he has said exactly when the end of the world will happen. You can check it. I hope you do. Go to Family Radio’s website, find out where its nearest radio station is, and tune in during the evening of May 20 (US time), when, Camping believes, Judgment Day will begin in the Fiji Islands. Then listen through the next few days, as Family Radio responds to the disconfirmation of its prophecies. Or does not respond — until it figures out how to do so (and that should be interesting also).
As for myself, after 16 years of Catholic education (and thus holding a fundamental rejection of newfangled fundamentalism), I think the best way to spend May 21 will be to party like it's 1999 -- perhaps listening to Blondie's classic recording, "Rapture."

Then, we can listen to Harold Camping's explanation for his mistaken calculations.  I have a hint for him:  he forgot to count leap-year days in his meticulous enumeration of the number of days from the Crucifixion to May 21, 2011.

Readers of this blog post may also like:  As the Millennium Turns (Revisited) from December 31, 2004.

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