"You've committed your life to Jesus. You know you're saved. But when the Rapture comes, what's to become of your loving pets who are left behind?"
So begins the homepage copy for Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, USA, a new company that pledges to care for your four-legged fuzzy wuzzies when the time of tribulation begins. If God whisks you from earth without warning, your pets will be put into the home of a caring atheist who stands no chance of going to heaven.
The price is reasonable -- just $110 for 10 years of insurance. But be warned: no refund will be tendered if Boots and Precious die before the Rapture. All sales are final.
The brains behind this enterprise belong to one Bart Centre, a 61 year-old atheist from New Hampshire. He has admitted in the past to wanting to devise a way to "cash in on this hysteria to supplement" his income, but he now says that, "if you love your pets, I can't understand how you could not consider this." Over a hundred clients have already signed up.
The hysteria of which Mr. Centre speaks is dispensationalism -- a theological construct that provides much of the "end times" language with which Americans have by now become familiar. This school of thought won massive attention in recent decades due partly to the staggering success of the Left Behind book series, now pushing 70 million copies sold. This series' interpretation of the Bible's Book of Revelation is a scary thing to behold. And for a lot of Christians, it has stuck.
To be sure, dispensationalism is rejected by Catholics, Orthodox Christians, many evangelicals, most mainline Protestants (like Presbyterians and Lutherans), and the vast majority of theologians. Indeed, early church leaders such as St. Augustine insisted on a metaphorical understanding of Revelation, which he took to symbolize the struggle of faith that Christians undergo in their personal lives. But the belief in dispensationalism remains widespread -- certainly widespread enough for clever entrepreneurs like Mr. Centre to exploit.
The danger that this new pet business represents is not just that a few credulous people will lose their money, though there is that. More broadly, it serves as a reminder that the millions of people who think the end is near have very little stake in the future of the world.
Polling data suggests that about 20 percent of Americans believe Jesus will return to earth within their lifetimes. That's no small fraction when we're talking about one of the most populated nations on earth, and for now the most significant. If the world as we know it will be gone in a few years, why work to make things better? Why stop climate change? Why reduce the national debt? Why preserve Social Security and Medicare? Why pursue peace between Israelis and Palestinians?
Why do anything to help future generations if those generations won't even exist?
It's no coincidence that we rarely hear about dispensationalists fighting for social justice. People won't fight for a future that they think will never appear.
Accordingly, the biggest sin of dispensationalism is that it focuses people's minds on exiting this world rather than caring for it. Its emphasis is on the waiting, not the doing; on being There, not being Here. In short, it holds that life is in the leaving. And that makes everybody in this world, our world -- the only world human beings will ever have -- worse off.
We can only hope that in the marketplace of ideas, more constructive views of human progress will eventually win out. And that those who prey on the well-intentioned yet gullible won't find it quite so easy to make a buck.
"If we thought the Rapture was really going to happen," Mr. Centre told BusinessWeek, "obviously our rate structure would be much higher."