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Thoughts on the Rapture That Never Was

May 21st has come and gone, and I’m experiencing a mix of different emotions towards those believers who thought that the end would arrive this past Saturday. As a Christian, I admire their conviction and willingness to surrender all earthly things in the pursuit of something better. But as a regular human being, I’m horrified by their recklessness and general inability to conceive of alternative viewpoints.

This brief, unplanned discussion with my brother about the topic helps to sum up some of my viewpoints:


I’ve been reading a lot of stories about the rapture that never was. The NYTimes has a nice catch-all piece about those whose lives have been affected by years of false prophesying. New York magazine has a heartbreaking story about a marriage on the rocks due to the end times that never came. Many pieces also dealt with the aftermath, such as the LATimes, which wrote about a rapture-believer named Keith Bauer:

Keith Bauer, a 38-year-old tractor-trailer driver from Westminster, Md., took last week off from work, packed his wife, young son and a relative in their SUV and crossed the country. If it was his last week on Earth, he wanted to see parts of it he’d always heard about but missed, such as the Grand Canyon. With maxed-out credit cards and a growing mountain of bills, he said, the rapture would have been a relief.

Slate wrote about what happens to doomsday cults when the world doesn’t end. Answer: they slightly modify their beliefs to overcome the cognitive dissonance of having devoted their lives to spreading the word about one rapture end-date. And sure enough, rapture-proponent Harold Camping has since come out and said that his original prediction was off by six months, and that the rapture will in fact be happening on November 21, 2011.

Perhaps my favorite piece about the whole topic is this letter to Harold Camping’s followers, about what to do now that Judgment Day missed its mark. It addresses those who were wrong with grace, forgiveness, and encouragement:

When you want to believe something, and someone you respect tells you to believe something, and everyone around you also believes and wants to believe the same thing, those are extraordinarily powerful forces. I wish that you had not believed in the May 21st prediction, because I fear that it damaged the credibility of Christians in the eyes of some. But I see no reason now to belabor that point. Rather, I hope you have grace with yourselves.

  • Great discussion Dave, this is why I come here everyday. My favorite exchange:

    "There is something clearly wrong with their logical process"
    "Is there?"
    "Or is their crime simply believing too much?"

    This, to me, cuts to the heart of it so profoundly. You could either say that it's the devotion and conviction that is the crime, or rather the actual ideals and teachings that the followers are devoted to.

    I personally think it's the former. I think extreme devotion and conviction is the crime, and I think it's one of the worst crimes of all. Just think back in history to what happens when unchecked devotion and unshakable conviction are paired together on a mass scale.

    Unfortunately many religious institutions strive to instill these traits. (To be clear, I'm not referring to an actual Religion or holy scripture, but rather that organizations that teach them). For what purpose? Does it make you a better Christian by being 100% convinced that your beliefs are the "right" ones? If you live your life according to Christian teachings, but are willing to admit you could be wrong, are you a worse person?

    I don't think extreme devotion and conviction actually serve any real spiritual purpose. A political purpose, absolutely.

    Thanks again Dave for a great post.

  • Daanish,

    Thanks for your insightful comment. But I think the problem is that Christianity DOES demand that you believe in everything 100%. Paul, writing in 1 Corinthians, says "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men." In other words, if Christians are wrong about the afterlife and heaven and their beliefs, then they are the most pitiful of all people.

    Why? Because Christianity demands complete sacrifice and complete devotion, which will result in ostensible heavenly rewards. If I am not willing to sell all my possessions, to quit my job, to preach the Gospel, etc., then why bother with the belief in the first place?

    This is the tension that Camping's rapture followers bring out in modern Christianity.

  • I think the ugliest thing to have come out of this was how some 'mainstream' Christians called Camping's followers "delusional" and "irrational".

    Mainstream Christians believe that Jesus' Second Coming and Judgment Day will definitely happen on a future unspecified day. Camping and co. believe that Jesus' Second Coming and Judgment Day will definitely happen on a specific date. Essentially the same article of faith-based belief with a slight difference in detail. It reminds me of that Chinese folk tale about two soldiers deserting and running away from battle. One ran 50 steps and the other ran 100 steps. The one who ran 50 steps laughs and calls the other soldier a coward.

  • I suppose you are right. I guess requirement of devotion is pretty explicit, the story of Isaac and Abraham come to mind. But if somebody is willing to sacrifice everything for their beliefs, how can you ensure that devotion is not co-opted? And in a world where religious extremism is so prevalent, can complete devotion still be considered a virtue?

    I would like to hear a religious authority's take on this. A possible future Chencast?