Rapture Postponed: The Consolations of Moderate Belief
Saturday, May 21, 2011, seemed like a good enough day for the Rapture: with spring in full flower throughout the Northern Hemisphere, we Left-Behinds would have enjoyed the prospect of a few more balmy afternoons before the final tribulations began. Unlike those who would be spirited away, we’d be able to savor a final hike, picnic or trip to the hardware store before we endured a wave of earthly torments and plummeted into the fiery pit for all eternity. Sadly for all of us, including the true believers, it was not to be.
Pity poor misguided prophet Harold Camping, the geezerly prognosticator who personally calculated the Day of Reckoning based on scrupulous attention to Biblical numerology (though he mysteriously doubled the magic number so the resulting date wouldn’t fall in the middle of the Viking era). Pity his followers even more: not only were they expecting to break bread with Jesus by Saturday night, but apparently several of them quit their jobs and unloaded their earthly possessions in preparation for the grand event. They should have known better: this was the second time Camping had predicted the Rapture, and after all that fanfare the man still has his feet squarely planted on terra firma.
By now we’ve seen enough Rapture jokes to fill an e-book, and it’s not my intention here to heap cruel and unusual mockery upon the faithful. As numerous Bible-believing Christians have accurately pointed out, Jesus explicitly told his disciples that no man knew when God’s kingdom would arrive — not even the Son of God himself. “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.” (Matthew 24:36).
In fact, the word “Rapture” never appears in the Bible. As if to confuse the matter even more, certain Bible verses imply that the unbelievers and other wicked folk will be whisked away while the saved souls stay behind — precisely the opposite of what Mr. Camping and his fellow Rapturists would have us believe. Read Matthew 13:41 for a taste of this Rapture-in-Reverse: “The Son of man shall send forth His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity.” (Maybe He should start with Westboro Baptist Church.)
Yet St. Paul implies, like Mr. Camping, that God would gather his flock into the heavens before the nasty tribulations that afflict the unsaved: “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we [i.e., the believers] which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” (1st Thessalonians 4: 16-18)
I delved into the conflicting views of “pre-trib” and “post-trib” Rapturists, just to satisfy my curiosity. I actually sat down and pored over a generous sampling of Bible verses relating to the end of times. And all I can report with any certainty is that the Apocalypse is not for sissies. In fact, I came away with the belief that one can go insane attempting to conjure up a coherent, Biblically correct vision of the Last Days — because apparently there is no coherence.
Those who claim to know their Bible have simply picked their favorite interpretation and staked their souls on it. Meanwhile, they’ve screened out the verses that contradict their chosen beliefs. It’s easier and more convenient than going insane.
As for me, I’m continually haunted by these controversial words allegedly uttered by Jesus himself as he addressed a crowd of his contemporaries: “Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man [i.e., Jesus] coming in His kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28)
Well, every one of those contemporaries tasted of death nearly two thousand years ago, and the Son of man still hasn’t returned, with or without His kingdom. Was Jesus wrong? Did Matthew (or some early Church father who edited Matthew) put false words into his mouth? If Jesus was wrong, then he couldn’t have been divine. If Matthew was wrong, then the Bible isn’t the word of God. Either way, this single verse opens up a gaping hole in the credibility of the Bible. And it’s only one of many such verses.
If we can’t trust the accuracy of the Bible — if, in fact, the Gospels aren’t gospel — what are we left with? The way I see it, we can follow one of two paths: we can toss out the entire Holy Book as nothing more than a compendium of ancient mythology and fabrications, which is the fashionable view of today’s New Atheists… or we can follow a more moderate course and use the Bible as a springboard for belief. You can probably guess which road I’ve taken.
I’m willing to keep my spiritual receptors open to belief in God — even if the Bible turns out to be a jumble of wanton lies, or (as is more likely) a fascinating conglomeration of truth, legend, embellishment, hallucinatory prophecy and inspired guesswork. Too many sneering atheists make the mistake of reasoning that if the Bible is mythology, then it follows that God must be a mythical creation like Zeus, Wotan or Quetzalcoatl. They neglect to consider that God might exist independently of the scriptures we’ve scribbled in his honor. Our flimsy pretensions to belief or unbelief have absolutely no bearing on whether God is real.
It could well be that Yahweh, the God of the Bible, is a creature of manmade myth. Personally, I find it hard to believe that the God of nature — the inscrutable moving force that may (or may not) have created atomic particles, the elements and all the billions of galaxies out there — would worry about whether his Jewish followers on Planet Earth ate shellfish or trimmed their forelocks. If God exists, surely he’d have to be more vast and brilliant than the often petty, jealous and judgmental male deity who purportedly reigned over the Hebrew tribes three thousand years ago. Our earthbound mammal minds simply aren’t equal to the task of imagining anything as great as a bona fide God.
That’s my belief. I have nothing to verify it other than my own fumbling grasp of the universe and how it works. I entertain no certainty of an afterlife, blissful or miserable. I like to believe we can tap into the essence of God, but don’t ask me for evidence. A hopeful inner voice tells me that the face on the Shroud of Turin actually belongs to Jesus, but I wouldn’t bet my life savings on it. I’m skeptical about the doctrine of salvation — that the Crucifixion somehow cleansed us of our sins, or that we even need to be cleansed — yet I’m also convinced that our society is the poorer for having thrown Judeo-Christian morality out the window. In short, you could say I’m stranded in the religious equivalent of No Man’s Land, midway between the warring factions of believers and atheists.
Sound familiar? It should. A moderate in religion is like a moderate in politics: reasonable, resistant to dogma, and spiritually homeless. We deny ourselves the comforting certainty enjoyed by believers and atheists alike. We don’t mind standing out in the cold, but a cozy hearth can look inviting to the perennial outsider.
Does God exist? Maybe, maybe not.
Did he create life and set evolution in motion? Who knows? We can’t rule it out but we can’t prove it, either.
Is he a just and loving God? I have my doubts — why would a benevolent God have ordained that some animals exist to be eaten alive by other animals?
Does he care about us as individuals? If one child anywhere in the world dies a lingering and miserable death, I’m afraid the answer has to be no.
Was Jesus divine? I’ll concede that he was special… that he very likely performed miracles… even that he may have been a unique spiritual conduit to God.
But was he God? No… even Jesus never directly claimed to be God. He repeatedly referred to himself as the Son of man, though he also hinted at something more. He’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma.
Did Jesus rise from the dead? It’s improbable but not impossible; why would his disciples have risked their own lives promoting belief in a supposedly immortal man who failed to triumph over death?
If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, have Christians simply been hoodwinked for the past 1,980 years? Well, “hoodwinked” is a harsh word, but it probably fits. Still, there’s an abundance of spiritual wealth to be mined from Jesus’ ministry; what happened (or didn’t happen) in his tomb is of secondary importance.
Is he planning to return in glory to gather the faithful? It’s pleasant to think so, but I’m not holding my breath.
Do I believe in heaven? Ask me when I get there.
You might wonder, with some justification, what feeble consolations a moderate believer can enjoy. After all, most of our fellow humans crave certainty the way an investment banker craves a seven-figure bonus. In fact, most of those humans feel vaguely uneasy around people with ambiguous opinions. Even Jesus loathed the lukewarm believer.
A moderate believer, like a moderate in politics, has to be comfortable with discomfort. We tolerate that discomfort — even embrace it — not because we’re masochists but because we know no other way that satisfies a mind hellbent on searching for truth. Unquestioning believers and atheists alike have stopped searching.
Are we simply afraid to take a stand, proudly and unambiguously? No, but maybe we’re reluctant to take a stand that’s wrong. You’ll never catch a moderate predicting a date for the Rapture.
Oh, and in case you haven’t heard the news, Harold Camping has rescheduled the Rapture for October 21. This time, we’re told, he’s absolutely sure.