Picking Up the Pieces After a Rapture Scare.

Picking Up the Pieces After a Rapture Scare. April 24, 2015

I wrote last time about a Rapture scare I went through as a teenager–the so-called “88 Reasons” scare based on a half-baked book by what amounts to a religious conspiracy theorist–and today I’ll look back at what happened after the scare’s date passed.

When I realized that the Rapture hadn’t really happened, I was both elated and emotionally destroyed. Not to be all click-baity here, but I had no idea what was coming next.

One could even say "exit through the gift shop," in a metaphysical sort of way. But you know I'm not wild about metaphysics. But I am wild about gift shops.
It was like this. (Credit: Nicolas Raymond, Flickr, CC license.)

As the people praying in church that fateful night began to slowly realize that nothing had happened, the pastor made his way back up to the podium and took the microphone. He began to murmur reassuring phrases while the organist began to play something nondescript.

I don’t know what everybody else was thinking, but I was torn in half. On one hand, I was hugely disappointed that it hadn’t happened as predicted. I don’t think it’d be fun or awesome at all now to be Raptured, but back then it was sold as the most amazing thing that could ever, ever happen, and learning that I wasn’t going to fly through the air and go to Heaven was of course devastating (egad, typing it out really brings home to me what a beyond-puerile, childish little fantasy that really was/is).

But on the other, now I might have a shot at having a normal, real life with all the stuff I dreamed of happening: marriage, friends, a career, a college degree, vacations, maybe even horses. I felt like I had a second lease on life, like I’d been given a reprieve.

I really wonder sometimes if people who get caught up on Rapture scares realize that Rapture means the total end to everything they have ever hoped for or planned in their lives, an end to the friends and family they’ve built up in life (since most folks won’t be Raptured, let’s face facts), and a stop to their favorite hobbies and the taking-away of their beloved pets (unless someone can make a theological case for Heaven having Xboxes and cats and corgis). Rapture is exactly like dying, except perhaps without the pain–and I don’t notice in the Bible anything that says that Rapture won’t be painful, not that its sparseness of information stops Christians from formulating all sorts of folk wisdom and lore about the topic.

Even when a change is for the better, it’s stressful. People don’t like change much. People who identify as conservatives (which would probably include most of the Christians who believe in the Rapture) like it even less. I wasn’t much different in that respect. Change can be scary. There’s adjustment that must be made. And this change would be just as huge as death, if not more so. Rapture wasn’t just like moving house; it is going from the known–this life–into the nearly-totally-unknown next life.

I didn’t really think about any of that though. I just felt the rush of conflicting emotions, some of which I wouldn’t understand for years, as I got to my seat and tried to process everything that’d happened. I don’t remember what the pastor said much; he uttered platitudes and got people calmed down enough to drive home. We filtered out singly and in pairs in the darkness, into a large city that never really slept, into street lights that worked, cars that sped past, signs that announced restaurants and shops (mostly closed at that late hour, in that neighborhood), and homes where people slept blissfully unaware of the bullet the world had dodged.

Now I can see that the church’s pastor had always hedged his bets on this whole affair, well enough that I didn’t even realize that he’d seen a lot of these scares. To the contrary: to hear him talk about it, this was the first and only one ever. He’d never come out one way or another on the subject; his whole attitude had always been a winking “one never knows!” and an admonition to make sure we were all ready for Rapture at any time, not just on a specific date. If he ever mentioned that false prophets had made false predictions about the Rapture many times before this one, I sure don’t remember it. I don’t think he ever did; if he had, I know it would have helped even me out quite a bit. A huge part of my panic was due to the fact that I didn’t know these scares are a constant presence in fundagelical Christianity.

I don’t remember getting home that night. At school, my Pentecostal friends–many who’d converted alongside me over this specific Rapture scare–didn’t really talk much about it. My mom casually asked the next morning, “So, it didn’t happen?” and I had to sheepishly admit that it had not. That was about all anybody said that I can remember. I’m actually thankful my parents didn’t rub it in my face. They had always treated the Rapture scare the same way they’d treated my other weird ideas–generally supportive and glad that I was keeping myself busy, but shying away from the point of buy-in.

I hadn’t really had a “plan B” for this one. I’d put a lot of stuff off, thinking the end of the world was coming. I’d sacrificed schoolwork (it was the beginning of the year, but still!), friends, free time, and even what little spending money a jobless teen manages to acquire. I’d spent my time in religious study, keeping “prayed up,” and trying to convert everybody around myself. After the scare, I spent a few weeks totally floundering in uncertainty trying to regain my moorings. (Much later, I’d totally identify with how lost the followers of Harold Camping seemed in the wake of his similarly failed Rapture prediction.) I’m just glad I was a teen with so much less to lose than adults do.

Though our pastor gave gentle admonishments to continue in faith that night and over the next couple of weeks, he–and for that matter his entire ministry team and the high muckety-mucks in our denomination–never condemned the person who had made these predictions or the mindset that led to the creation of these scares. If you look, if you try, you will not find many such condemnations of false prophets within Christianity. One group, it seems, did contemporaneously publish a scathing criticism of the “88 Reasons” scare after it’d passed–but it looks like that happened only afterward, and I sure never saw their words when I was a young Christian lass.

Even in my dizzying fear and disappointment–and anger–I couldn’t help but think of the Biblical verse commanding the Jews to abandon or even outright kill prophets whose prophecies don’t come true. And yes: the old Southern saying, Big lie, little lie.

Big lie. Little lie.

Not everything from the South is wrong. Not by half. Not always.

Very hesitantly, I realized that this church couldn’t possibly be the real deal after all when its leaders refused to speak against the failed prophecy or its author. I’d been involved with these people for six months of absolutely hardcore searching and involvement, but at that point I stopped attending that church. Since I couldn’t trust them to deal honestly with this prophecy, what else could I not trust them to do?

I’m sure my mother was vastly relieved when I stopped attending that church, but I remained uncertain as to what direction I should go. I didn’t think Catholicism was an option anymore for me as I’d become convinced that prideful people had tampered way too much with the Bible’s original message, but beyond that, I was unsure.

What I hadn’t done was examine just why it was that someone could make a prediction like that–and why my pastor at the time had not done more to put that claim into context. I didn’t know at the time just how common these predictions are, nor that every single one of them boasts oodles of Bible verses to justify its existence. Knowing that alone would have helped. My pastor must have lived through many dozens of these scares and probably ones that were far more compelling than this relatively-contrived one had been. “88 Reasons” was to Rapture scares what the Chocolate Milk Diet is to dietary plans; pretty obviously a gimmick, but a convincing one to those who like quick, easy answers.

I really wish I had been able to remember that disappointment and anger a year later, when my future-boyfriend Biff would claim he’d been exorcised during a revival service at that same church. I wish I’d had the information at my fingertips that every single first-world citizen has today to see for myself how common Rapture scares are. We’re very lucky nowadays; information is as easily accessed as typing a phrase into a cell phone’s built-in search engine. But back then, I didn’t even know what question to ask. I took for granted that of course Christianity was true–or at least some version of it. I just needed to figure out what version!

At that point it simply did not even occur to me that maybe none of it was true. Like my peers, I tended to forget disproven and debunked claims, and I leaped alongside them to the next claim as if nothing had happened. I had to force myself to look away from a lot of dissonant facts to maintain my beliefs. At the time, I kind of thought of those disturbing truths and glaring absences of evidence as things I’d deal with later–but later never seemed to come. When all the stuff I’d forgotten and put off thinking about hit me in the face all at once, years later, the sheer weight of it all proved to be exactly what I needed to break free.

I’m sure that what happened to me is not some unique anomaly.

Every single time a Rapture scare ripples through Christianity, I hear about a few more Christians who, realizing at last that a false prophecy has indeed occurred, are shocked into looking more closely at their religion–just like I did. It might take a little time, but every falsehood and every disproven prediction and “prophecy” has an impact. The exact limit of bullshit everyone can endure may vary, but I think everybody has one. I think that young people, especially, have finely-tuned bullshit meters and are way less likely to put up with the stuff that my generation put up with decades ago. Christianity doesn’t have a lot of time to retool itself and its tactics.

Weird, isn’t it? Making false predictions is one of the worst things Christian leaders can do to their own credibility. The wisest thing a religion can do is make sure to keep its claims utterly impossible to test at all. But prophecies by their nature are tests. Predictions with specific dates set up an absolutely falsifiable, testable claim. “On this day, this thing will happen.” But if this day comes and goes, and this thing didn’t happen, then the prediction is, without question, false. I’ve seen some truly impressive spin-doctoring done at that point by grifters who realize that the con is up, but most folks won’t buy those weak excuses.

As bad an idea as it is, though, to make false claims, the zealots doing it can’t seem to help themselves! It’s like it’s a total compulsion to them. I don’t think they’ve quite figured out how disastrous these failures are becoming. They’ve got more dates for the Rapture lined up, and surely it’ll happen on one of those dates, right? (Don’t call them Shirley!) One might well say that making and freaking out about predictions that never happen is as much a part of right-wing Christianity as praying is, if not more so. John Hagee is already angling his little clown car of failure for his next attempt at the brass ring : a shameless prediction about the United States stock market failing this year. And there’s one more “blood moon” coming in September, so he’s got one more shot at this thing.

If he fails that last time, he’ll have good reason to be grateful that fundamentalists ignore inconvenient and uncomfortable Bible verses–like the ones telling them what to do with those who issue failed prophecies! But who are we kidding? Not only will his most fervent followers and fellow leaders not hold him accountable for deceiving and needlessly frightening so many Christians, but if he isn’t immediately back in the field with more fearmongering and pandering then surely one of his buddies will be–and the flocks will follow mindlessly regardless. “Oops, I forgot to carry the ‘1’” is a time-honored tactic for people like that. “I was off a little–it’s really this date.” Or “We got enough Facebook likes that ‘God’ spared us, but only until this date.” The flocks must be kept terrified and anticipating.

But every time they stumble forward, that flock will be slightly smaller. Just as my fellow new-convert schoolmates and I drifted out of Pentecostalism after Edgar Whisenant’s predictions failed to pass, I hear about other Christians who falter in the same way after getting too invested in one of these scares. Ironically, even that Christian group I linked to earlier that criticized the “88 Reasons” scare knew this:

[The publisher of 88 Reasons, Norvell Olive] further makes the incredible estimate that 100,000 people have been converted as a result of the booklet. (We might also estimate that a great majority of these supposed converts will lose their faith if 1988 fails to bring the Rapture.)

Well, yes. Exactly. But these denominations don’t tend to count converts after baptism. Pastors wring their hands over how to make converts stick, sure, but they still measure success by exactly the metric of conversion numbers, and their outreach methods still concentrate on meeting that metric.

I am so glad to be out of such a dishonest religion. I am so, so, so, so, so glad that I no longer have to pay even lip service to outrageously, blatantly manipulative predictions made by greedy, attention-starved performance artists and then have to force myself to ignore all the times these predictions fail. I’m glad I learned why there is no reason to be afraid of this opportunistic and blatantly fearmongering concept.

The more we talk about these scares and how silly they are–and how emotionally devastating for those who don’t know better–the less bite they have. There are probably kids just like I was in those churches who don’t realize that the scares looming before their dazzled eyes aren’t anything new at all, and adults who were kids like that who don’t know how common their experiences and their hurts are. Even at the time I noticed that my more gung-ho peers just bounced back after the “88 Reasons” scare, but our culture allowed it to happen.

This time, way fewer of us seem like we’re going to allow it happen without a word.

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