Coming Soon to an Apocalypse Near You

Any informed observer of religious folly knows that setting dates for the apocalypse ranks among the major pastimes of fundamentalists and fanatics the world over. (The next most-popular pastime is explaining why those dates failed to pan out.) In fact, throughout human history, the years in which the end of the world has not been predicted to occur are probably far outnumbered by the ones in which it has. But what’s most astonishing is the way these prophecies, after they have failed, are often taken up and recycled by the next generation of apocalyptic believers without a trace of shame, usually with little beside the date changed.

For example, take the Left Behind series written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Despite the authors’ claims that theirs is the “first fictional portrayal of events that are true to the literal interpretation of Bible prophecy”, the truth is that the idea of novelizing the Rapture has been done not just once, but multiple times before. As Catholic critic Carl Olson points out, Salem Kirban’s 1973 novel 666 – published by Tyndale House, LaHaye and Jenkins’ publisher – has the same plot, right down to many small details, including the opening, where a main character who is a nonbelieving reporter witnesses the Rapture while on an airplane flight.

And before Kirban, Sydney Watson also fictionalized the Rapture in a trilogy – the last novel of which, In the Twinkling of an Eye, was published in 1916. Again, as Slacktivist points out, this series too employed several tropes and stock characters that would later show up in Left Behind.

Still more works of Christian apocalyptic literature – some intended as works of fiction, others not – flourished in the 20th century. Herbert Armstrong’s 1975 in Prophecy! forecast the end of the world in the titular year, due to a nuclear world war waged by a Europe united under the Nazi banner. More famous still was Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, a blockbuster 1970 book which argued that the end was imminent. A slightly revised sequel, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, was published thereafter and boldly proclaimed, “The decade of the 1980s could very well be the last decade of history as we know it.”

Lindsey was not the only one swept up by prophecy mania in the 1980s. A previously obscure Bible student named Edgar Whisenant rose to prominence in that decade after publishing a book titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Could Be in 1988 – specifically, on Rosh Hashanah of that year. Whisenant was taken so seriously by Paul and Jan Crouch, founders of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, that they altered their programming on that date to show prerecorded tapes giving advice to those who had been left behind. Shockingly, despite Whisenant’s many reasons, the Rapture somehow failed to occur on schedule.

The 1990s, too, saw their false prophets – such as radio evangelist Harold Camping’s book 1994?, which opened thusly: “No book ever written is as audacious or bold as one that claims to predict the timing of the end of the world, and that is precisely what this book presumes to do” (source). (For reference, Camping’s Family Stations radio network broadcasts worldwide, with more than 150 outlets in the U.S. alone.) Undaunted, Camping has since published a sequel, Time Has An End, which forecasts the end of the world in 2011.

Christian fundamentalists are not the only ones who’ve made a career out of erroneously predicting the apocalypse. New Agers have also gotten in on the act, via beliefs like the “Photon Belt“:

Nevertheless it appears that for mankind on this planet the photon belt encounter will be essentially a spiritual experience–but this really depends on man. If we are sufficiently evolved at the time, great advancements will occur in our consciousness as we attune to the high-frequency photon rays. If we are negative, that is, possess too many lower vibrations, the result of selfish actions, we are not expected to survive the radiation. In other words, there will be a natural spiritual selection.

How photons, which according to the laws of physics are constantly in motion at 186,000 miles per second, are supposed to sit in place to form a “belt” is not explained – but no matter. When are we going to encounter this marvelous celestial phenomenon?

Scientists around the globe in 1992 predicted that the encounter would occur within months to a year; with significant disagreements.

Not to worry, however – the date of Earth’s encounter with the “photon belt” has been revised to 2012. Like every other false prophet, these ones rarely experience anything more than a temporary setback as a result of their errors. Though some believers become disillusioned, many more who’ve invested their entire lives in the cult and are unwilling to walk away will eagerly accept whatever flimsy rationalization the founder offers to excuse their failure.

All these false prophets made the same mistake, the only truly fatal mistake in religion: they made a claim sufficiently specific that it could be conclusively disproved by evidence. LaHaye and Jenkins seem to have learned from their predecessors in this regard, refusing to commit to any specific date or time frame, despite their repeated coy hints that the Rapture will be soon, probably within their lifetimes. (Fred Clark of Slacktivist suggests looking at their estate planning to see if they really believe that themselves.) But in either case, they are deluding themselves. Once several more decades have passed and the Rapture still has not happened, today’s Left Behind books will look as silly as the earlier Rapture novels, whose authors likewise foolishly believed they were living just before the end.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Mobius 118

    Actually, the date with 2012 is in reference to the Central and South American Mayan, Aztec, and Incan prophecies of doom set for December 21, 2012. Since their calenders have been precise, in comparison to our own, we might actually have to give them credit, or at least more than those silly Christians or Muslims.

  • Mobius 118

    Actually, the date with 2012 is in reference to the Central and South American Mayan, Aztec, and Incan prophecies of doom set for December 21, 2012. Since their calenders have been precise, in comparison to our own, we might actually have to give them credit, or at least more than those silly Christians or Muslims.

  • http://www.angelfire.com/crazy/spaceman Secret Rapture

    My inaugural address at the Great White Throne Judgment of the Dead, after I have raptured out billions! The Secret Rapture soon, by my hand!
    Read My Inaugural Address
    My Site=http://www.angelfire.com/crazy/spaceman

  • Pi Guy

    …prophecies of doom set for December 21, 2012…

    That the predicted date is so precise is not an indication of its accuracy. OTOH, I have a box of slightly used photons in the basementthat are starting to get a bit run down. Maybe we’re closer to Armageddon than I thought.

    What if The Rapture has already occurred and we’re the one that have been left behind? Hmmmm…

  • http://thestoneoftear.blogspot.com Callandor

    “What if The Rapture has already occurred and we’re the one that have been left behind?”

    Maybe the true religion was that of the cargo cults. Praise John Frum!

  • Polly

    …specifically, on Rosh Hashanah of that year. Whisenant was taken so seriously by Paul and Jan Crouch, founders of the Trinity Broadcasting Network,

    I have a vague recollection of the Crouches interviewing him on TV. I recall him saying that despite the fact that the Bible says:

    “No man knoweth the day or the hour…” (Matthew 24:36)

    he could still narrow it down to within 3 days without violating this prohibition – because he doesn’t know which of the 3 days around Rosh Hashanna it would occur. It’s been a long time and I didn’t buy it then, so I don’t remember the exact details.

    Given that the NT repeatedly says that no one can predict the end, it’s fair to say that these xian prognosticators are engaging in another favorite fundy pastime: ignoring their sacred book.

  • Tom

    Oh, you’re forgetting the wonderfully freaky apocalyptic movies from the A Thief in the Night series! The church where I grew up used to screen these on New Year’s Eve each year as a way to get us thinking that maybe this was the year Jesus was coming back. Way to scare young kids into loving Jesus!

  • Polly

    Way to scare young kids into loving Jesus!

    I was going to mention that, too. My earliest memory of “inviting Jesus into my heart” was immediately after one of those movies. I was very distraught about getting “left.” (1986 seems a bit late, though. It might have been an earlier one. Or maybe I was just a dweeb :) )

  • Freeyourmind

    “Given that the NT repeatedly says that no one can predict the end, it’s fair to say that these xian prognosticators are engaging in another favorite fundy pastime: ignoring their sacred book.”

    Happens all the time….

  • mithraman

    Did ya hear the one about the fundamentalist flea? He was carrying a sign that said “Repent! The end of the Dog is coming!”

  • bassmanpete

    What if The Rapture has already occurred and we’re the one that have been left behind?

    Can’t have been many true believers then ‘cos I haven’t noticed any dip in the world’s population. If it’s going to happen let it be soon. Imagine a world with no religious nutters – at least we’d have a spell of reason before we were all consigned to the abyss :)

  • exapologist

    The most spectacularly false apocalyptic claims come from Jesus himself (To paraphrase: “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place”; “..you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes”; “Some of those standing here will not taste death until they see the Kingdom of God”) That should’ve been the end of it, but alas…

  • Finland

    It is very interesting to follow this conversation from Europe.Even having the catholic church here, nowhere is society so religious than in USA. Man, how is it possible that there are so many fanatic morons?

    Here in northern Europe, only Jehowas Wittnesses and individual lunatics have been making these Rapture guesses – and they do it only among themselves.

    Quite a many I know are really afraid of those lunies getting the power to “push the button in the name of Christ”. Hey, if God doesn’t understand when the End is to come, then _someone_ must do it!?

  • Jeff T.

    I just want to state that not all christian denominations believe in the doctrine of the rapture. The church that I was raised in did believe it. The word is not in the bible (to my knowledge). Theologians derived the idea of the rapture from phrases in the bible such as ‘I will come as a thief in the night’ and ‘twinkling of an eye’. Some theologians then constructed a belief system containing the following order of events:

    1/ Rapture (Xians are swept into the clouds with Jesus)
    2/ Anti-Christ arrival
    3/ 3.5 years of bliss and happiness (everyone gets a mark of 666)
    4/ 3.5 years of torture (the horses of the Apocalypse unleashed upon the world)
    5/ The Second coming of Christ (not the Rapture but the return of Christ to fight the Anti-christ at Armageddon)
    6/ 1000 years of peace under Christ
    7/ Satan unleashed from hell to tempt all humans born in this 1000 years
    8/ Final battle of Christ against these ‘insurgents’ and Satan
    9/ Great White Throne Judgment

    I mention this just to clarify the terminology of Armageddon, Rapture, and Apocalypse.
    I think Hal Lindsey’s books went into great detail about how modern military vehicles and weapons could be the beasts and angels of death referenced in Revelation…

  • Polly

    @Jeff T.:
    1-9 That is exactly what my mother believes. Just this past weekend she was telling me how China is building up its millitary. She equates that with the “kings of the east” from Revelation marching against Israel.
    Every time a story about injecting chips into pets comes up, it initiates another round of “here comes the mark of the Beast.” She is absolutely convinced that we are in the “last days.”
    Uggh! I just sit and listen, nodding my head. It’s so awkward. My wife enjoys the expression on my face. She’s a xian but she doesn’t hold to this stuff.

    For those who really njoy stupid prophecy stuff:
    I heard once, probably on TBN or Jack Van Impe, that VISA was supposed to be the “Mark.” “VI”=6 and “S” and “A” were somehow equivalent to 6 or 66.
    The EU, of course, was the Beast with 10 heads (back when there were less than 10 member nations presumably.) And the Catholic church was supposed to give rise to the anti-christ (hehe) the POPE!
    During the summer last year, a respected pastor gave a series of Bible studies at my church (I’m still in the closet) on Revelations. Basically, at the end, Jesus will rule over the whole world from Jerusalem with King David as his right hand man. That was the 1st time I had ever heard of that one! What he described was a two-tiered human race. The Jewish people would rule the Earth (my mother also believes this and is honkey-dorey with it) from the (floating?)golden cube city described at the end of Revelations, while the gentile converts would get to live under the benevolent dictatorship of JC and King David in their own lands.
    It’s been sugested many times that the USA is not mentioned in prophecy because it will no longer be around due to of all of our sin in “letting” homosexuals have rights and the pornography. The stranfe thing is I never hear “greed” as a reason. go figure.

    Ah, good times. Sorry to keep posting, but it’s all coming back to me. I stopped believing the apocalyptic stuff long before I gave up xianity. You should have seen the bible study leader’s face when I even suggested that Revelations was not canonical in some eastern churches and its canonicity was dubious from the beginning – this, while I was still a xian. You’d think I had suggested using scripture for TP.
    This post reminded me of all the junk I used to hear. Hopefully this is of some interest or at least amusement.

  • andrea

    nah, not floating, but on the “earth remade”. With a lovely view of the fiery pit so people can enjoy the torture.

    first time I’ve heard of King David beign brought into the whole mess. And waht about that 144,000 eunuchs/virgins?

    also hadn’t heard about the Visa thing either. Hysterical! I’ve also heard the SSN numbers, UPC symbols, names, the requirement of a Sunday day or worship (go fig, the 7 Day Adventists thought up this one), etc. Heinlein had it being 6 to the power of 6 to the power of 6, 6^6^6^ which would be hmmm, a really really big number.

  • Polly

    @andrea

    first time I’ve heard of King David beign brought into the whole mess. And waht about that 144,000 eunuchs/virgins?

    I challenged him about the David thing, but he really insisted it was in the Bible!
    It really irritated me that the 144K were described thusly: Rev14:4)These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they kept themselves pure. So, these “pure” people can only be male and they didn’t ruin their purity with those evil woman temptresses. How sexist.
    Doug Bachelor, 7th Day Adv’ist, is a big one for the Sunday-worship day being an example of the antichrist’s “changing the times and laws” and the idea about the Catholic church being the Beast.

    nah, not floating, but on the “earth remade”. With a lovely view of the fiery pit so people can enjoy the torture.

    That’s right! I forgot about that. And no more oceans, either! I was always saddened by that. What about all the dolphins and whales? Do porpoises make baby Jesus cry?
    And where are all these sinners supposed to be, anyway? Can they grasp at the ankles of people walking by? Can it really be such a nice place with people being tortured right at your doorstep? Geez, so much for empathy!

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    Can’t have been many true believers then ‘cos I haven’t noticed any dip in the world’s population. If it’s going to happen let it be soon.

    I don’t know – would a world with ~6 billion in it even notice 144,000 virgin men disappearing… I mean, they wouldn’t be politicians or pilots or reporters, would they? “Keeping themselves pure” would be pretty hard for anybody not locked away already.

  • KShep

    I’d like to see LaHaye and Jenkins sued for plagiarism, for lifting their goofy story lines from the earlier works mentioned above.

    I know, wishful thinking. But it is a lazy Sunday afternoon and the Tigers are winning big……..

  • KShep

    I’d like to see LaHaye and Jenkins sued for plagiarism, for lifting their goofy story lines from the earlier works mentioned above.

    I know, wishful thinking. But it is a lazy Sunday afternoon and the Tigers are winning big……..

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    And no more oceans, either! I was always saddened by that. What about all the dolphins and whales? Do porpoises make baby Jesus cry?

    In the last Left Behind book, one of the things Jesus does upon arrival is to cause an earthquake that lifts every ocean basin and flattens every mountain on Earth to the same elevation. It’s not explained why this doesn’t result in the planet becoming one uniform shallow sea.

    Still, I find it particularly ironic. It’s as if the authors were unconsciously giving us a vision of unvarying physical conformity to match the unvarying mental conformity they expect the saved will display during the thousand-year earthly kingdom of God.

    Every time a story about injecting chips into pets comes up, it initiates another round of “here comes the mark of the Beast.” She is absolutely convinced that we are in the “last days.”

    The fundies must find it quite irritating that, to the extent these chips are proposed for human use at all, the only injection site I’ve seen discussed is the upper arm. You want a fleshy part of the body that doesn’t move too much, which rules out both the forehead and the hand.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    And no more oceans, either! I was always saddened by that. What about all the dolphins and whales? Do porpoises make baby Jesus cry?

    In the last Left Behind book, one of the things Jesus does upon arrival is to cause an earthquake that lifts every ocean basin and flattens every mountain on Earth to the same elevation. It’s not explained why this doesn’t result in the planet becoming one uniform shallow sea.

    Still, I find it particularly ironic. It’s as if the authors were unconsciously giving us a vision of unvarying physical conformity to match the unvarying mental conformity they expect the saved will display during the thousand-year earthly kingdom of God.

    Every time a story about injecting chips into pets comes up, it initiates another round of “here comes the mark of the Beast.” She is absolutely convinced that we are in the “last days.”

    The fundies must find it quite irritating that, to the extent these chips are proposed for human use at all, the only injection site I’ve seen discussed is the upper arm. You want a fleshy part of the body that doesn’t move too much, which rules out both the forehead and the hand.

  • Yoyo

    Does anyone know if this is only an american thing? In my very short religious stage at age 13 with the bethel baptists (in aus) they were happy to show young children movies involving maggots and burning fire and the “joy” of escaping via rapture. However they were an american based church and considered a fair bit “out there”. My emerging feminism drove me away from them and happily towards aetheism. Are there other western countries that have a high belief in an imminent rapture? if not, I’d really like to hear any thoughts on why this is so strong in the US.