2 years ago: Disappointment, despair and Harold Camping

May 19, 2011, on this blog: Disappointment, despair and Harold Camping

The old preacher, you see, was a “Bible prophecy” enthusiast. He was a devotee of John Hagee, and of TV host Jack Van Impe and of anyone connected with Dallas Theological Seminary and its premillennial dispensationalist obsession with the End Times as interpreted through their crazy-quilt re-editing of Revelation and Daniel. He eagerly devoured all of their books and many other, even stranger works — self-published volumes of cryptic numerology, cramped and fevered tomes identifying the Antichrist as Kruschev or Kissinger or Ted Kennedy.

And somewhere, in one of those fringe-of-the-fringe books, he had encountered and adopted the idea that cremation rendered a body immune to resurrection. When the last trump shall sound and the dead in Christ are raised, when the sea gives up its dead and every grave is opened, he believed, those who have been cremated would remain only ashes.

The idea fit somehow with his stubborn illiteralist approach to the Bible. Those verses that spoke of the graves being opened or of “those that are asleep” being raised from their graves said nothing about those who had no graves but whose ashes had been, instead, scattered to the winds. And the idea was fortified by whatever author or radio preacher promoted it with a diatribe against cremation as a supposedly unholy, “pagan” practice — as though it were some sort of evil anti-sacrament that trumped every means of grace. I think he may have identified cremation, somehow, as the supposed “unforgivable sin,”  a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

And it terrified him. Constantly. He expected the Rapture to occur any day, any moment, but he also knew that he was an old man and that, if the End tarried another year or five or ten, he might well die before Jesus came like a thief in the night. Once he was dead, he would be powerless to prevent the living from having his body cremated and if that happened he would be eternally separated from God. This is what he believed and what he lived in fear of every day.

Witnessing that terror and hopeless fear, seeing the suffering that it brought, I stopped thinking of his “Bible prophecy” obsession as a kooky, but mostly harmless set of beliefs. I began to realize that it was a framework that burdened its followers with the inevitability of disappointment, false hope, denial and an inconsolable fear. Its adherents were its victims. There were other victims, too, but its main damage was wrought in the lives of those who most believed it.

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  • Ben English

    It occurs to me: cremation, were it a sin, is not a sin you could even commit yourself. By that logic, you could be damned forever because your loved ones were too poor to afford a coffin and professional burial.

  • heckblazer

    The Catholic Church formerly forbade cremation as it implied a denial of a physical resurrection and because “She [held] it unseemly that the human body, once the living temple of God, the instrument of heavenly virtue, sanctified so often by the sacraments, should finally be subjected to a treatment that filial piety, conjugal and fraternal love, or even mere friendship seems to revolt against as inhuman.” So yes, cremation was once regarded as a sort of devilish anti-sacrament by Catholics. In the 1960s cremation started to be tolerated, and currently it’s acceptable as long as it isn’t used as a way to give the finger to the Church or its teachings. Acceptance of cremation is one the things that bug the hell out of sedevecantists like the Society of St. Pius X and makes them think the Catholic Church isn’t Catholic enough anymore.

  • Makabit

    Or because you died in the camps. Judaism goes to a lot of trouble to keep remains together, in part because of traditional beliefs about resurrection, but the idea that actions performed on your body after your death can affect the movement of your soul…issues.

    On the other hand, it seems to me to go along with traditional and neo-traditional ideas that being raped makes you unchaste. As though it’s what happens to your body, not what you believe or do, that affects your spiritual condition. I’m aware that these are not unheard-of religious ideas, but they don’t seem to fit well with Christianity, at least as I understand it.

  • Makabit

    I felt really badly about l’affaire Camping. There were some people on TV. A couple with three kids. They’d quit their jobs, sold their stuff, and basically budgeted just enough to keep going until the Rapture. Another man had liquidated all his assets to print up literature spreading the word. I really hope they’re doing OK.

    Believing any damn thing you want about the Bible is one thing. Telling other people about it with an air of authority, and getting them to do insane things with their money and their children’s futures is something else again.

  • It is not what goes into a person’s mouth that contaminates him, but what comes out of it~

  • Rhubarbarian82

    My mother has asked us a few times not to cremate her. She doesn’t believe it as strongly as this particular preacher (thank goodness), but she still raises it a couple times a year. Hopefully she doesn’t start to obsess over it as she grows older. None of us have any intention of cremating her, anyways, and since we’re all on good terms I don’t think it’s something that bothers her.

    I never really understood it anyways; I imagine the bodies of a lot of believers buried a thousand years ago look pretty much the same as the bodies that were cremated. The length of time it takes for bones to decompose ranges widely, but “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” is said at funerals for a reason.

    I guess one could plan on having their body buried in Antarctica.

  • P J Evans

    One friend died suddenly and was cremated. The ashed were scattered at sea, and his daughter described him as being on an ‘indefinite round-the-world cruise’. (He’d become fond of cruises.) Everyone who knew him and was at that particular memorial broke up. Later, someone took several stick-on ribbons from the various memorials down to the beach, burned them, and threw the ashes in the ocean … because he’d also collected ribbons.

  • FearlessSon

    Here is hoping that they have long and successful careers as motivational speakers, warning other people against the danger of panicking over crazy end times theology lest they be duped and suffer like they did.

  • FearlessSon

    When the last trump shall sound and the dead in Christ are raised, when the sea gives up its dead and every grave is opened, he believed, those who have been cremated would remain only ashes.

    It sounds like a zombie apocalypse, and that cremation is the best way to prevent it.

  • I’m afraid of worms. Terrified. The idea of worms eating my body — yeah, I know I won’t be there to feel it. I don’t care. It’s cremation all the way for me, and I hate the idea of the stuff that happens when you decompose so much, I cannot grok how anyone could want that instead of cremation.

    Plus you can put your cremated loved ones on a shelf in a pretty urn. :-D

  • Nick Gotts

    I’ve arranged to have my body used in medical education, if possible (there can be reasons a body’s not suitable). It will be of no further use to me, and I understand there is a shortage of cadavers for medical students to dissect, at least here in the UK. I think the body is cremated when they’ve finished with it.

  • flat

    You know I want to be buried, can I see the flowers from beneath.

  • aim2misbehave

    Similarly, because I’m a scientist, I’m all for having myself hauled off to University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center… save my family some cash on a grave plot, too. (And, in what I think is absolutely hilarious in a morbid way, after they’re all done with everything and are keeping your bones in their reference collection, your loved ones can come visit your skeleton)

  • Rckjones

    Bravo. I wish more people would consider this option. I recently had the privilege to work with human cadavers for the first time, and it was a surprisingly beautiful experience. I felt overwhelmed that those people’s last act on Earth was to give even their most personal possession for us to learn from. And there is most definitely no substitute from learning how to identify muscles and other structures on an actual person’s body versus an illustration. Looks COMPLETELY different in real life.

  • ReverendRef

    I wish more people would consider this option.

    Although I remember reading somewhere that universities have received enough bodies that they are unable to keep up with storage requirements. Granted, that could have been one school in particular, or it could also have been wishful thinking on the part of the university (as in, “I wish we had the problem of too many bodies”); I just can’t remember.

    If a person were wanting to do this, they might want to call around first and see who has room.

  • ReverendRef

    I’m afraid of worms. Terrified. The idea of worms eating my body —

    This made me think of Gary Larson’s book, There’s a Hair in My Dirt!

    In his own Far Side way, he was able to break down basic biology and mix it with his own twisted sense of humor. Not saying that this will help you overcome your fear — just saying your comment reminded me of that book.

  • I’m an organ donor. I dunno what will be left of my body after they slice it up for parts — I guess it depends on how old I am when I die, and so how useful those parts will be.

  • ReverendRef

    If people think that God can’t bodily resurrect a person post-cremation, then I think they believe in a very small god, indeed.

  • That’s a cute book. The worms are so anthropomorphized, I have no problems with them. I have no trouble with drawings of worms, anyway. It’s their actual presence, their wriggling, the fact they can live when cut in half, just… ugh.

  • Camping’s a bit extreme. Most of them probably figure that God could reassemble someone from ash, but reckon the only reason anyone would get cremated would be to give the big guy the finger and shout “Oh yeah! Try ressurrecting THIS!”

    Y’know, the same waythey assume the only reason someone would be gay is to spite Jesus.