Yes, I know, fourth post in a row about the end of the world. I can’t help but find the subject of a failed Rapture fascinating. The following story came out of the idea of a calling that worked, but not quite in the way that anyone expected.
It’s a big old world out there, and everyone has their own ideas about how it’s going to end. It would be silly of me to suggest that the Christians have the whole Empty Earth thing wrapped up. And anyway, the concept of The Rapture bothers me. I think the whole idea of a chosen few being whisked away to safety leaving all the non-believers behind is incredibly selfish. There’s an element of that in all religions, of course. Our way is the right way, and the rest of you can (quite literally) go to hell. It also gives a whole new spin on the idea of Christian family values.
Every culture has a view on the apocalypse. The Abrahamic tradition (your Jews, Christians and Islamics) tend to view it as the end of all things. God ringing down the curtain as punishment, or rebooting creation as it’s started going a bit funny and his spreadsheet package has frozen. Buddhist and Hindu philosophy tends to think cyclically. As one age ends, another begins. It’s almost a seasonal thing, the endless cycle of death and rebirth. I can sympathise with this. Every time I think I’ve wrought the End Times on the weeds in my garden, back they come, regular as the new Golden Age.
Most religions seem to agree that we are living, if not in the End Times, then at the corrupted end of a cycle. Hindus call it Kali Yuga. The thinking goes that as we and our world go through time, we devolve from divine beings that know nothing of sin, into the sort of base creatures that can happily watch the X-Factor. According to Buddha, our life spans are also attached to this cycle. In the past, people lived for 80,000 years and were endowed with beauty, grace and strength. Over time, as we took on more worldly habits (organised religion, frozen stuffed crust pizza, Sky Sports) our life span and the gifts that go with it started to decline. Eventually, as the cycle comes to an end, we will live for ten years, become sexually active at five, and hunt each other for sport. Once only a few of us are left to repent that we ever thought Eastenders was any good, we will somehow regain virtue and become again divine. See, much more sensible than this Rapture nonsense.
I’m intrigued by the idea that most religions think that we are living in a time that is significantly more corrupt and evil than any that has gone before. I’ve heard that argument before. From my nans, mostly. Things were so much better when they were kids. There was Hovis for everyone, and there was none of this war stuff, you know apart from the war.
This hearkening back to a mythical Golden Age, and dire warnings for our future if we don’t behave, has been going on for longer than you think. Sumerian cave writings have been found that gloomily document a society grown weak, venal and corrupt – a society that, the grumpy writer predicts, will soon collapse into rubble. These writings, surely the first example of a Daliy Mail editorial, have been conservatively dated to around 2800BC. Which goes to show. If we really are living in Kali Yuga, we have been doing so for a veeeeery long time.
Well, I hope you’re all packed and ready. According to Christian radio show host Harold Camping, 3% of the world’s population will be gathered up to Heaven in some sort of holy Hoovering tomorrow morning. The rest of us will then have five months to wait until God draws the curtains and shuts off the lights for good on October 21st. The fact that most churches have scheduled regular services for Sunday shows how seriously Mr Camping is being taken by the religious community at large.
In eschatological circles, Harold is a bit of a pipsqueak. He’s predicted the Rapture four times thus far, giving up (or rather, diving back into the books for a bit more of a considered approach into the numbers) in 1995. This is small potatoes. Fire and brimstone preacher Charles Taylor saw the end coming 12 times between 1972 and 1992. That’s got to put a crimp into your long-term savings plans.
The end-of-the-world racket is a fascinating subject for study, and stuffed to the brim with nutballs, loonbags and conmen of all stripes. It’s surprisingly easy to pick a date for the Four Horsemen to gallop over the horizon and then backtrack when the sun sets when nary a hint of apocolypic hoof beats. For example, Edgar Whisenant wrote a best-selling book 88 Reasons Why The Rapture Will Be in 1988. His prediction: final trump to sound between September 11th and 13th. When those dates turned out to be trumpet-free he pushed the date forward, first to the 15th, then October 3rd. Still nothing. This didn’t deflate Whisenant, though, who released another book the following year, The Final Shout: Rapture Report 1989, and would continue to release updates until 1993.
Predictions of the end time are born out of intense, numerology-heavy readings of the Bible, and as reactions to ongoing world events. The recent triple-whammy of disaster landing on Japan has, as you’d expect, sent the scene into a tizzy. But events as varied as the Rodney King shooting, the founding of the state of Israel and any manner of celestial objects getting within astronomical spitting distance have all sparked doomy predictions. As for the close-study readings, Camping’s method is an exemplar of clarity and logic compared to some I can mention. Dan Brown’s got a lot to answer for…
None of this would be a bother if it didn’t involve hucksters conning gullible rubes out of their hard-earned, and self-styled prophets setting themselves up as cult leaders. End of the world predictions can mean exactly that. Suicide cults like Heaven’s Gate and the followers of messianic maniacs David Koresh, Jim Jones and Joseph Kibweteere are all evidence that apocalypses can and do happen, and are events that we cannot see coming, and have no way to prepare for.
As for Camping and his Rapture? Well, his past record isn’t encouraging, and frankly his methodology has holes wide enough to steer the Halle-Bopp comet through. I’m not convinced. And anyway, aren’t we supposed to have until December 2012, when the Mayan calendar runs out?
Tell you what, while we’re waiting, let’s have a little dance, shall we?
This post would not have been possible without reference to Chris Nelson’s extraordinary Brief History of The Apocalypse, which is anything but brief and will eat your day if you let it.