Strange and Curious Sects: The Millerites

Today's edition of "Strange and Curious Sects" concerns a now-defunct religious group, but one which has offshoots that survive to the present day. Like the stories of John Frum and Sabbatai Zevi, it's also a lesson in the almost limitless capacity of the human mind to rationalize away disappointment.William Miller was born in 1782 in Massachusetts. A voracious reader, he converted to deism when he was young, but his belief in an intervening god would be restored in the War of 1812. Miller … [Read more...]

Left Behind and Selective Literalism

In "The Rapture and the Fig Tree", I wrote about how end-times believers are always looking to reconstruct the past, seeking to force-fit the present into a framework of scripture written to apply to events in long-gone times. Given that many of these verses apply to people and places that no longer exist, a major part of this contrived exegesis is what I call "selective literalism": interpreting one verse literally and another one metaphorically, or even interpreting different parts of the same … [Read more...]

The Rapture and the Fig Tree

The formation of the state of Israel in 1948 was a tremendous excitement to apocalypse-cheerleading Christians. For the end times to occur as described in the Bible, Israel must exist, so it's no surprise that its establishment following World War II convinced many believers that the end times were on the way:There is little doubt among Bible scholars that the establishment of the State of Israel, on May 14, 1948, is the fulfillment of the prophecy of the fig tree... Most agree that this says … [Read more...]

This World Is My Home

A famous Christian gospel hymn titled "This World Is Not My Home" sums up how religious views of an afterlife shape believers' views of this life:This world is not my home,     I'm just a passing through, My treasures are laid up     somewhere beyond the blue; The angels beckon me     from heaven's open door, And I can't feel at home     in this world anymore.For millions of people, this verse is more than a … [Read more...]

Strange and Curious Sects: Sabbatai Zevi

Past editions of Strange and Curious Sects have explored religious splinter groups that came into existence relatively recently. Today's edition will focus on an older cult that still has lessons to teach us: the bizarre story of the would-be Jewish messiah, Sabbatai Zevi.Sabbatai Zevi was born in 1626, supposedly on the anniversary of the Roman destruction of the Temple, to a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family in Smyrna, modern-day Turkey. In his youth, he studied the Talmud and especially the … [Read more...]

Thank God for Pre-trib Rapture

Among Christian groups who hold to belief in a literal apocalypse, the most common view today is "pretribulationist" - the belief that God will remove his faithful from the world in the Rapture, following which there will be seven years of suffering and bloodshed as unsaved humanity is tortured by God and ruled by the Antichrist. ("Pretribulation" refers to the timing of the Rapture, in this belief system preceding the seven years of tribulation.) There are differing views in Christian theology … [Read more...]

On One-World Government

One of the recurring fantasies of Christian end-times believers is that, after the Rapture, the world will be united into a single government which will be presided over by the Antichrist. As such, these believers view any sign of increased global peace or cooperation as an ominous sign of growing Satanic influence. (Oddly, increased war is also taken to be a sign of the approaching Rapture - go figure.) Hence, Rapture Ready's Rapture Index tracks "Globalism" as one component of its prophetic … [Read more...]

On Torture and "Tribulation Saints"

"What if she doesn't flip? How long do you give it?" "If you can't get to 'em somehow in the first forty-eight hours, more of the same isn't going to be any more effective." "Starvation isn't a motivator?" "Would be for me, but I guess they've proved it with prisoners of war. The ones who can survive that first round of psychological and physical torture aren't likely to ever break, no matter how long you keep it up."—from Armageddon, book 11 of the Left Behind series, by Tim LaHaye and … [Read more...]

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 … [Read more...]

A Religion Not Made for Success

Were I inclined to believe in them, I would say that the New Testament gospels were a set of maddeningly strange and frustrating documents. Although they contain some beautiful ideas, they always stop just short of bringing them to their logical conclusions. They contain moving admonitions of universal love, but never go so far as to extend that compassion to women or the enslaved. Although Jesus is said to have had pity on the sick and the infirm who came to him and cured them of their … [Read more...]