Did you find yourself just a little distracted Saturday night, May 21st around 6:00pm? If you were, you weren’t alone. It was hard to ignore the latest, confident predictions by fundamentalist Christian preacher and Family Radio Network owner Harold Camping about the end of the world. Never mind that he had predicted the same “rapture” of the few faithful, the destruction of the world and the suffering of millions left behind before. And had been wrong, of course.
His predictions, sent around the world via radio, newspaper articles, billboards, internet posts and video links gave him a platform of influence like never before. People persuaded of his insight are said to have sold homes, cashed in pensions, quit jobs and left incredulous families behind to publically warn their neighbors, just like Old Testament prophets of old. The date came and went. But Camping didn’t miss a beat, saying he hadn’t had all the data he needed, the real day for the rapture, he now says, is this October 21st.
Camping isn’t the only source declaring dates of doom recently. Others are focused on the end of a major cycle for the Mayan calendar in 2012, convinced that the ancient civilization had some special insight into space and time. NASA, that great brain trust of space exploration, measurement and science, has been talking about an increase in solar flares next year, and has thousands of people sending in on-line questions, wondering what might happen to everything from communication satellites to the magnetic poles of the earth.
While all the anxiety about the end of the world is as old as developed human cultures, the current anticipation reminds me of several different waves of religious people waiting for the end. I think of some early Christians who sold their belongings and waited on the hills of Rome, believing Jesus literally would return “soon.” A wave of hysteria flew around Europe at the turn of the first millennia, thousands filling cathedrals in fear as the year 999 turned into 1,000 AD. And in the periods of religious revivals from 1800 into the early 20th century known as the 2nd and 3rd Great Awakenings, ignorant, charismatic preachers had hundreds and thousands expecting the rapture at multiple turns of the calendar.
All this religious energy around the judgment of God, the return of Christ, and the mention of a special “rapture” of the faithful in the New Testament is centered in three primary religious perspectives, not shared by most American Christians.
1. The Bible as Code. In this perspective, only specially gifted preachers can figure out the messages of the Bible. Instead of the Bible as a library of ancient documents written to a culture and people that takes some education, care and patience to understand, the Bible is treated like a codebook for an elite few.
2. Human beings as Good or Bad. Instead of seeing individual human beings as both good and bad, capable of great imagination as well as petty selfishness, this perspective puts people in one of two camps: in/good; or out/bad.
3. God as Angry Judge. It takes a certain theology to believe that God has given up on the world, that God is no longer actively holding the world together, and interested in humanity’s future. This theology believes it knows the mind of God, and that God is finished with the world and not only is finished, but is ready to act in violent judgment.
The next time you hear someone telling you they know exactly what the end of days will look like, have compassion on them. They operate with some pretty extreme beliefs about the God and world, convictions that makes living their lives pretty hard. Chances are, that fact alone makes them anxious for God to put an end to everything they know and have them begin anew in paradise. For them, it seems like the only real way out. And that is a sad way to live, don’t you think?