Thursday, May 19, 2011


I've been shying away from expressing opinions in this blog that might not be shared by some of the folks I know read it -- especially political and religious opinions.  As a result, I don't weigh in on many of the issues that are the major topics of discussion in the culture around me, and I certainly don't bring my theological perspective to bear, even when the topic is religiously charged.

It's been a surprise to me to find, while moving the posts in my old blog to a new location, that expressing exactly such opinions used to be my common practice.  In fact, I'll go so far as to say that having a place to have my say on these subjects was one of the main reasons I started blogging.

I find myself rejecting many potential writing topics because I know my opinion on them is strong but not necessarily congruent with some segment of my audience.  I'd like to modify that practice -- not in order to offend people, but in order to think through some subjects where I might quite naturally be entitled to an opinion.

So in that spirit, it is incumbent on me to mention that the devotees of a powerful fringe radio network have become convinced by their leader that the rapture is going to happen at around 6 pm on May 21, two days from now.  Interestingly, Harold Camping (the originator of this prediction) asserts that this 6 pm scheduling isn't Jerusalem time or Greenwich Mean Time, but local time -- that is, believers will be caught up in the air (as Paul first suggested) when the clock strikes 6 in their time zone, and the rapture will ripple around the world hour by hour.  That's a new one on me.

Mainstream Christian thinkers and scholars have already given many reasons for doubting Camping's timetable, based on the naive, relatively recent, and checkered pedigree of premillennial dispensationalism. Anybody with some historical knowledge should already be skeptical, since such definitive and dated assurances have been made many times previously and have always failed.

I grew up in a church where the Rapture was a fervent article of faith, and a near-future historical event that we all looked forward to.  We saw it in films, heard about it in revivals, sang songs about it around the campfire.  But I came to realize, during my university education in religious studies, that the Rapture is not a prophecy of an end-times event that can be pinpointed in the Bible, but instead is a piece of a larger theory created by assembling a complex puzzle from verses scattered all over scripture -- including verses that quite clearly were not intended by their authors or understood by their original audiences to be prophecies of the end times.

So not only am I confident the Rapture isn't happening on May 21, I'm confident the Rapture isn't happening at all, ever.  Even if I were a biblical literalist, I wouldn't believe in the Rapture as it's preached and in the system in which it was invented and remains embedded -- as a removal of believers from the earth prior to the rise of the Antichrist and the time of tribulation.  Because that's a combination of Paul's statement that the dead in Christ will rise first and believers will meet Christ in the air when Jesus comes again -- that is, as the sequence of events in a single happening called the second coming -- and the Revelation narrative with its seven-year periods and various Satanic figures and awful plagues.  There's nothing obvious or literal about combining those two parts of Scripture, written by different people for different reasons in completely different political and religious circumstances at least fifty years apart (notably, one before the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and one after).  The fact that many people regard this combination as natural and obvious is a testimony to how thoroughly this century-old system of interpretation has infiltrated parts of the evangelical world.

Wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to deal with our long-term problems or care about the future of the world's oppressed and poor because the world was going to end?  If the countdown to the new heaven and the new earth relieved us of our responsibilities to each other?  I know that thoughtful Rapture believers would never advocate such a perspective.  But I also know that the end of the world and Judgment Day, if asserted as actual near-future historical events, are bound to relativize the value of all our other mandates and efforts.  

So I encourage everyone to pay their bills and leave their 401(k)s alone and get the oil changed in their cars.  We'll all still be here May 22, and on the day after the next predicted end of the world, and basically until the world is done with us -- not when God decides to pull the plug.

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