It’s (not really) the end of the world as we know it (again)

The internet is abuzz with the fact that tomorrow is evidently going to be the last day on mortal sod for God’s elect. According to Harold Camping, president of Christian broadcast network Family Radio, the world is unequivocally going to end on May 21, 2011, and the destruction of the unbelievers will be complete by October 21, when a massive fireball engulfs the earth. Check out this video synopsis:

If you grew up in the Message, like me, you can probably imagine what’s being said in Message pulpits. Believers will cautiously distance themselves from Camping’s predicted date in order to save themselves from ridicule. Many of them learned that lesson well in 1977, when a large consensus of Message believers agreed upon a date for the Rapture, with the usual results. There is a certain pride in Message believers’ refusal to set a date now: they won’t fall for Camping’s trick. They know better.

Worse than pride, though, are the likely implications of Message thinking for this event in particular. Message believers are likely to argue that precisely because denominational Christians (a.k.a. “the world”) expects the Rapture on May 21, it will not happen on that date. If it did, it would not be “as a thief in the night.” No, Message believers are likely saying, the end will come when all the fuss has died down. When the world calls for “peace and safety,” they’ll piously remind you, “then sudden destruction cometh upon them all.”

That little clause is convenient. It allows Message believers to avoid the possibility of failure (by refusing to acknowledge the date set by other evangelicals) and feel superior (by claiming to have “greater revelation” than denominational Christians led astray by false dates) while still participating in the hype and terror. There is no reassurance in thinking that The World is wrong this time, because, they say, the Rapture is still coming and is definitely closer now than it was five minutes ago.

There is a common theme here. The Fear must never be allowed to subside for a moment. The Rapture’s imminence, after all, is what ensures the persistent absence of doubt and questioning in Message congregations. The Fear is the mechanism by which social control is exercised, not by pastors, but by the system of thought that is the Message itself. There is no man behind the machine anymore, but that doesn’t mean the machine has stopped working. The Fear must always be maintained, because it’s Fear, not a human being, that sustains the system. Those who appear in charge are as much in its grip as its lay followers. All are subject to the Fear.

For Message believers, being caught with a sliver of doubt or a “scratch of bitterness” in your heart on the day of the Rapture is like being caught with a suitcase full of heroin on a flight from Baghdad to DC. Rapture tickets are nonrefundable and subject to cancellation if you happen to glance too long at the attractive stranger ahead of you in line before your seat number is called.

Now, to be serious again for a moment:

The world is not going to end on May 21 or October 21. There are no meteors currently slated for impact with earth anytime in the next three months. There might be some earthquakes, but then again there are just over one million recorded earthquakes a year on average. The sun is going to rise on May 22, 2011 and you will be just fine.

But what’s not fine is the way eschatological predictions are made to ruin the lives of young people. Harold Camping can put all his cards into May 21 in part because he’s 89 years old. He doesn’t stand to lose his entire life. But the girls sitting at that convention in the video with their weeping mother are facing the end of their lives before they’ve begun to live. The little boys at the table are being told their lives are over before the 8th grade.

I fear for the families in the aftermath. I fear for all the eyes that will open on Sunday morning and the minds that will decide that they’ve missed the Rapture, rather than that the Rapture was a lie. I hope that minds will be opened, that brave hearts will decide not to be afraid, not to believe what they are told anymore. But I am afraid for the hearts that will be broken this weekend for fear their Lord has forsaken them.

If anyone is listening, you haven’t been lost, left behind, damned or thrown out. The earth still bathes you in air to breathe and warmth to survive. Throw out the Fear. Those who would use it to control you are wrong. And no, they aren’t evil, conniving manipulators. Their fear is genuine, too. But it’s genuinely wrong. Take a step away and look around. Take off the blinders that make the world shrink around you. You don’t have to be afraid.

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