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Peter M. J. Hess, Ph.D.

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Rapture Interruptus: Bursting the Bubble of Apocalyptic Expectation

Posted: 06/29/11 04:02 PM ET

The "day of rapture" predicted by Harold Camping for May 21 was greeted with fanfare and jollity by the unsaved, but it came and went without much incident. Fundamentalists shivered in anticipation, earthquakes struck in various parts of the world, and piles of unoccupied clothing mysteriously appeared here and there. Apparently no one was "raptured," although one man in Northern California who could not swim drowned while trying to cross a frigid lake to meet Jesus. As far as the mortality rolls are concerned, May 21st appears to have been statistically unremarkable.

What is quite remarkable is that the "rapture mentality" and the end-of-days industry should still be thriving in 2011. The fictitious and turgidly written Left Behind series made its authors into millionaires. Harold Camping convinced thousands of people either to leave their jobs and families behind and join his caravans announcing the end of the world, or to part with their life's savings to help pay for his coast-to-coast billboards advertizing Armageddon. Here at the beginning of the third millennium -- as Americans explore nanotechnology and spinal cord regeneration and the possibility of launching missions to Mars -- a substantial minority of U.S. citizens expect the return of Jesus Christ in historical time, if not imminently. Two thirds believe they are the sort of person who would be raptured.

How do we explain the glaring contrast between those who accept the modern scientific worldview and those whose cosmotheology invites "rapture thinking"? How do we burst the bubble of apocalyptic expectation? At the National Center for Science Education we believe that such disparity has a lot to do with state of science education in the United States. To accept a claim that the rapture is imminent, one has to ignore what Western civilization has gained from centuries of scientific learning, and what we know from thousands of years of the religious history of Homo sapiens. In matters ranging from evolutionary biology to climate change, to geology, to the relationship between religion and the sciences, NCSE is in the business of defending and promoting science education. One of our primary tasks is helping teachers, students, parents, and community groups to deal with "science denial" -- the rejection of scientific consensus in favor of pseudo-scientific perspectives springing variously from biblical literalism, popular folk-superstition, or New Age philosophy.

The fact that Harold Camping's "end of the world" prediction gained any traction at all is disturbing on a variety of fronts. Anyone who has listened to even a few moments of his "Open Forum" question-and-answer program on Family Radio in the last few weeks will recognize two things: (1) Harold Camping displays a breathtaking lack of integrity, and (2) his interpretation of scripture is devoid of intellectual consistency.

Camping's lack of integrity was on display at his "train wreck" of a press conference held before a media audience of millions on May 23. In the weeks leading up to May 21 Camping had doggedly declared that "there is no possibility we are mistaken about the date of the physical rapture." Challenged by reporters to own up to the monumental failure of this dire prediction, Camping told the bald-faced lie that he had never said the rapture would be a physical event. In the two weeks since then he has elaborated this further to say that God has now opened our "spiritual eyes" to recognize that the Final Judgment did indeed happen on May 2, but that this was a purely spiritual judgment, the physical to come on October 21.

In addition to his lack of integrity, Camping champions a biblical "hermeneutic" -- if we can call it that -- which is devoid of intellectual consistency. Rather than reading scripture critically and in its entirety −- as a document assembled over many centuries in diverse cultural contexts, and redacted multiple times by communities of faith confronting widely differing circumstances −- Camping treats the Bible as if it were dictation coming straight from the "mouth" of God. And yet, oddly enough, he uses only a handful of verses that he finds convenient for squeezing out his message that the end is near, and that there is nothing we can do to influence our fate, which in any case was predestined before creation.

Camping now argues that the rapture was interrupted on May 21 because "our God" is wonderfully merciful and compassionate. Rather than allowing us to be tortured through five months of indescribable suffering resulting from wars and natural disasters, God will compress all this agony into one day. On October 21, the earth's crust will break into small segments that will melt and sink into the molten magma of the earth's mantle, ending the world and life very quickly for all those of us who are not raptured.

Camping contends that it was actually a good thing that he had mistakenly predicted there would be a physical last Judgment, because it forced the world to sit up and take it seriously. In other words, the objective of preparing people for the rapture justifies telling what was in fact a blatant untruth.

Harold Camping's is not the first apocalyptic cult to push its way into the headlines, only to flame out spectacularly with tragic results, nor probably will it be the last. What sets Family Radio apart is that its coffers are overflowing with donations to command air time and gain notoriety, and Camping exerts an autocratic rule over the content of his message. Any employee or caller to the "Open Forum" show who dares to challenge Camping's interpretation is summarily dismissed without any indication of humility on Camping's part.

How do we prevent future rapture cults from gaining a foothold? I believe one key to bursting the balloon of apocalyptic expectation is education. A solid grounding in science, religious hermeneutics, and the history of our species -- all sorely lacking in American culture -− may decrease the attraction of such cults among the apocalyptically vulnerable.

First, a powerful antidote is science education. Anyone with the slightest acquaintance with cosmology, astronomy, and geology will know that the universe is older by six orders of magnitude than the 13,000 year time frame preached by Harold and company. And anyone who has read books such as Peter Ward's and Don Brownlee's The Life and Death of Planet Earth (Holt, 2004) will acknowledge that there is no scientific reason to believe the earth will become inhospitable to all life for another billion years. Moreover, our sun is but one of a hundred billion stars in one of three hundred billion or more galaxies. To imagine that the entire universe will wink out of existence on October 21 because of the spiritual beliefs of one culture of a species of self-aware primates on one planet is breath-takingly provincial and anthropocentric.

Another antidote is the serious study of hermeneutics, the science of interpretation of meaning across time, geography, and culture. Many religious fundamentalists employ what they consider to be a literalist reading of scripture, although even they are rarely consistent in applying this. They interpret figuratively those passages which it would be inconvenient to their program to interpret literally. Harold Camping's apocalyptic hermeneutic is quite peculiar, as he selects a few verses from one book of the bible and another, ignoring the rest.

A third antidote is careful study of Western religious history, particularly of the Christian tradition, which offers little support to modern day apocalyptic views. Camping's selective biblical interpretation stands in the service of punitive view of the atonement, in which the law of God demanded payment for Adam's disobedience through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, and exacts punishment for sin through the annihilation of sinful humanity. Barbara R. Rossing has done an excellent job of demolishing such a theology in The Rapture Exposed: the Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Westview Press, 2004). She shows that present day Apocalypticism has its roots not in ancient Christian tradition but in the preaching of Anglo-Irish "dispensationalist" evangelist John Nelson Darby (1800-1882). The apocalyptic mindset to which Camping is heir is essentially foreign to the Christian tradition.

The "rapture" appeals to people because it offers a simple and hypnotic solution to their personal problems and the terrifying array of tribulations confronting the world today. There is no easy fix either to these problems or to bursting the bubble of apocalyptic expectation. The only hope I see lies in educating people in science, in hermeneutics, in philosophy, and in the religious history of our species. Those of us in education can use the four months left before Harold Camping's predicted Armageddon on October 21 to open people's eyes and minds and hearts to the beauty of this ancient, dynamic and evolving universe which will long outlast all of us.