Have you heard the one about the pastor who predicted the Rapture and the end of the world? Which one, you ask? Yes, despite the unusual amount of media attention this is getting, the predictions for this Saturday are not unprecedented. Even my beloved John Wesley got it wrong, thinking the antichrist was set to show up in 1836.
I remember the 88 Reasons the Rapture Will Be in 1988. That false prediction is the traumatic memory for many younger Christians like Jason Boyett and Matthew Paul Turner, both of whom have written eloquently about that event. But in 1988 I was an adult, a newlywed, and less susceptible to apocalyptic fever. I’d already been through it.
I have memories of being a little girl in the 1970s and watching movies like Thief in the Night (Mr. Right reports being scarred by that one as well), of hearing the grownups at church discussing The Late Great Planet Earth and seeing prophecy charts hanging in the Sunday school rooms. The end of days was always just around the corner back then, and it was terrifying.
Of course, I felt guilty for being terrified. I was supposed to be praying “Come, Lord Jesus,” wasn’t I? Sometimes I worried that my parents would be raptured and I would be left behind. I had my childish version of secret sins, and even though I loved Jesus I wasn’t sure I loved him enough to compensate for the bad things I thought and did. Later, as a teenager, I was more confident of my standing before God, but I prayed that the rapture wouldn’t come before I had a chance to marry and have children. I knew that heaven was supposed to be more wonderful than all of that, but the descriptions of heaven didn’t connect with anything I knew. And so to my secret sins, I added the secret guilt of not being anxious to go see God.
Now it’s Harold Camping’s turn to concoct a brew of fear and guilt and religious ecstasy. His prediction that Christians – well, some of them, anyway – will be raptured out of the world this Saturday, May 21, is delivered with the kind of absolute certainty that renders it instantly credible to some believers. Camping and his followers repeat his Rube Goldberg version of prophecy over and over, never shaken from their story, unwilling to even consider the possibility that they will be here to see May 22.
A few people believe Camping is right, but most others are having a good laugh. You know who’s not laughing? People who’ve lived in the midst of these failed prophecies before. Read Boyett and Turner’s posts. They aren’t amused: they are sad and angry and worried. They’re worried about what will happen to the people who have staked their lives and livelihoods on this prediction coming true. And even more, they are worried about the children caught up in this. It’s concern born of experience, and I share it. One of Cheesy’s friends – a second grader, mind you – came home from school last week and told her mother that a classmate had said the world was going to end on May 21. I felt sick to my stomach hearing that. Children shouldn’t have to carry the weight of such things.
I’m not buying the numerology that Harold Camping is selling for the usual reasons: Jesus said no one would know the day or the hour, except the Father, and Camping has been wrong before. Other than that, I may not have changed that much since I was a child. I still love Jesus and I still worry sometimes about where the future is headed, to be honest. It’s a crazy world out there. But I’ve pinned my hopes on a God who is a restorer and not a destroyer, who has not given birth to this entire teeming, beautiful universe for the purpose of eliminating all but a tiny remnant of human beings. Whether my end of days comes on Saturday (because, hey, anything is possible) or 50 years from now, I won’t spend my energy trying to see it coming. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I won’t get fooled again.