So this is it. Saturday, May 21st, 2011 will be the last day on earth for those Christians who have been judged to be the most devout, the most righteous, and the most faithful of God’s followers. The faithful and the true will be Raptured up into heaven to await Judgment Day while those of us who are unworthy remain behind to suffer through the Tribulation. At least, that’s what’s supposed to happen according to Harold Camping, a fundamentalist American Christian who has claimed to have calculated the exact date and time (6pm local) of the Rapture. For those of us who are left behind, Mr. Camping has apparently claimed that we won’t be Hell-bound, but rather will simply cease to be conscious of anything, ever again.
That’s a fun word to say, isn’t it? The word ‘Eschatology’ (from the Greek Eschatos meaning the farthest; the last) refers to a particular component of theological tradition which deals with the end-times of a given religious tradition. In Christianity – particularly evangelical Protestantism – the end-times we’re concerned with is Armageddon, which of course contains the Rapture, as well as the Tribulation, the Second Coming (yep, it’s a link to the poem by Yeats… which I love), and the Last Judgment. These issues are dealt with primarily in the New Testament book of John, also known as the Book of Revelations (if you’ve never read it, do so – and use the King James Version of the Bible… it is Epic). In Revelations, the visions of John the Prophet are laid out, including his visions of the ultimate end of all things. It is from this particular book that we learn of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The timeline of Armageddon is actually quite a lengthy one, and one which prominently features the use of ‘mystical numbers’ – in this case, the number Seven. There are Seven Seals which must be broken, followed by the blowing of Seven Trumpets – each one denoting a different cataclysmic event. Following the fanfare, there will be the pouring out of Seven Bowls, corresponding to seven major signs or omens of Christ’s return. Once the final bowl has been poured out, and Christ has returned to earth (at the head of a host of angels and warriors of God – the Faithful and True), the battle of Armageddon will be fought, during which Satan will be defeated, chained, and cast into the Abyss for one thousand years. After Satan’s imprisonment, Christ will resurrect those who were killed during the period of time when Satan ruled the earth (Bowl Five). During this thousand year period, Christ and the Saints rule the Earth as a sort of Celestial Bureaucracy, then for some reason, they decide to release Satan briefly and he will spark off a second conflict between heaven and hell (although there is some controversy here, as apparently there is no mention of this ‘thousand year reign’ of Christ in the Bible… doh). A final war is waged and Satan and his heralds are ultimately defeated and destroyed. Christ then resurrects the dead and judges them according to their deeds, which is rather puzzling given that most Protestants hold that one will go to heaven merely by really, really believing in Christ. You’d think they would have remembered this part here. Oh well. After this judgment, God decides to make a new Heaven and a new Earth, and brings a heavenly city (New Jerusalem) down to earth where it will apparently become an earthly dwelling place for God and the saved; sorry all you dogs and idolaters and sorcerers and filthy unbelievers; no shining city for you, only brimstone and hellfire.
This is good stuff; there are good guys and bad guys, a war of light versus darkness, and the good guys win in the end. All the bad guys get to burn, and all the good guys get tea and cake with God. The imagery is powerful – as all good myths should be, but what Revelations does is reinforce what most atheists have to say about the Christian God in the first place; he’s a tyrannical, bloodthirsty monster who seems to delight in the suffering of those who don’t slavishly follow his every edict. Remember that before the nightmarish end-times begin, God has already led his select few followers away; it’s only after he’s tucked them away somewhere that he gets down and dirty, unleashing Satan on to the world, sending War, Famine, Pestilence, and Death to each control a fourth of the planet; he rains down fire, locusts, ulcers and boils, and then, finally, consigns the pitiful survivors of these calamities to the flames of a holocaust of death and destruction not once, but twice. If God is the most powerful being in creation – the Alpha and the Omega – then all that comes to pass is by his will. And his Will is Evil. God unleashes Satan after the thousand year reign of Christ; God deigns to turn the earth into a battleground in the first place. God orders the abjection and eternal torment of all who do not follow him. Let’s say that again: GOD COMMANDS TORTURE of those he deems to be unfit, and not just torture, but ETERNAL TORTURE from which there is no – can be no – reprieve. It’s no wonder that surveys have shown that evangelical Christians are more likely to accept the use of torture than non-believers.
WHY CAMPING IS WRONG – BY HIS OWN STANDARDS
It’s a given that Camping is wrong about the world ending on Saturday; by any standard of evidence or reasoned inquiry he’s wrong. But he’s also wrong by his own Biblical metrics. Let’s take a look at why.
1. There is no ‘Rapture’ mentioned in the Bible – at least not the kind currently espoused by Camping. 1 Thessalonians 4 briefly describes the Second Coming of Christ, and claims that his believers (the dead in Christ) will be caught up and carried into the air by him, but there is no indication when this is supposed to happen. There is no mention of living believers of Christ being ‘caught up’ along with the dead, so this idea of being raised bodily into Heaven (not just into the air) while still alive seems to be a bit of creative artistry on the part of contemporary preachers. If Harold Camping were truly a biblical literalist, he’d know this.
2. According to the Bible, no one alive knows when the Rapture will occur. The Rapture is sort of a TBA event; God apparently knows when he’ll bring down the hammer, but he’s not going to let us know until right before it happens. Camping apparently feels that he can read the mind of God and has divined the precise date and time for this event.
3. According to some of the Gospels, Christ himself was said to have believed that the end times were upon them – that some of those who were alive with him then would live to see the End. Camping is off in his predictions by about two millennia. By his own calendar, the Rapture has come and gone, and we are all now living in the era of Heaven on Earth. How fortunate for the rest of us.
4. Camping has done this before and was wrong then. Alright, this isn’t really a Biblical reason, but come on; the dude has tried this crap before and was wrong then. And he’s not alone; people have been ‘predicting’ the Rapture for as long as there have been followers of Christ. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have predicted the end about a dozen times so far with no luck; I suppose if they keep it up, they’ll eventually be right.
WHY CAMPING IS WRONG BY THE STANDARDS OF REASONABLE PEOPLE
1. The Bible is a work of fiction. Even if there was a God, and even if said God wanted to end the world with a Rapture, the Bible is so riddled with inaccuracies, contradictions, and outright forgeries that there would be absolutely no way for us to discern anything of this God’s plan from such a document.
2. Nope, that’s it.
Thinking about the end of the world is something we have been doing as a species for a very long time, if our religious texts are of any indication. It seems to me to be one of the defining questions of the human condition; what is to become of me? How will our time in this universe end? I think our end will be prosaic – even anti-climactic. After several billion years, our sun will swell in size to engulf the orbits of Mercury, Venus, and Earth. The oceans will boil, the land will melt, and the skies will burn away. Our world will be reduced to a cinder before the sun finally goes nova and ends its life as a tiny, white dwarf.
Over the next several billions of years, our galaxy will collide with others in the local supercluster, whereupon it will merge to form a larger galactic structure filled with untold trillions of stars. One by one, those stars will explode, burn out, and grow cold; as the universe expands, the light from other galaxies will disappear over the curvature of spacetime, and the observable universe will be dark. Far into the distant future, the universe will be a black and empty place; all that will remain of it will be a faint, background radiation. Heat death.
Long before this however, our species will be gone. All species go extinct after a time; we are not immortal – and if we were ever to become so, we would cease to be human. Another sentient species may evolve, billions of years from now, or we may transition our existence into some other state – perhaps artificial, but human beings, as we are now, will cease to be. This isn’t pessimism; it’s just a realization that all things have their endings, and we are no different. Our species will continue to huddle together on this tiny, rocky ball in a backwater region of the universe until, through accident or arrogance, we are no more. Knowing how finite our existence is, and therefore how finite the existence of all other humans are, should make us want to strive together to construct meaning in the universe in the limited time we have. It seems the very height of foolishness to instead fight and hurt and kill one another, because the myths we’ve invented have given us licence to be judgmental and xenophobic and bigoted and cruel.
Harold Camping isn’t a holy man or a prophet; he is arrogant and emblematic of one of the greatest failings of our species; hubris.