Thoughts on why I found the May 21st 2011 Rapture prediction fascinating

A collection of comments about the recent Rapture-that-wasn’t, along with some thoughts on my experiences with churches in general.

As many people know, Harold Camping, founder and president of Family Radio (a fringe religious organization), recently predicted that the world would ‘end’ on May 21, 2011 at 6pm local time.

At the time of this writing (early morning, Monday, May 23), it is obvious that his prediction was incorrect.

There is plenty of information to be found about it, particularly on the internet. I’m not going to provide any links to the general story; a simple search using some variation of the terms ‘Harold Camping’, ‘Family Radio’, ‘Rapture’, or ‘Doomsday 2011’ will quickly bring you to news articles, in addition to live rapture blogs, an abundance of humorous material regarding the subject, video interviews with Camping, articles and posts from religious leaders who strongly disagreed with the prediction, stories of people who literally sold their livelihoods and personal possessions for the cause, and so on.

To many, it was a joke. To some, it was heresy. To still others, it has turned out to be a life-changing experience-gone-wrong.

* * * * *

I heard about Camping’s prediction, which (I believe) first came to the surface at some point in 2010, sometime within the past few months. Like many, I didn’t pay it much attention when I first heard about it, but found myself becoming highly interested in the goings-on as this past week progressed.

Let me say a couple of things here. First of all, I did not believe the prediction. While I am not a Biblical scholar, I am well-versed enough to know that the idea that a ‘religious leader’ could predict the day and hour of Jesus’ return to earth is basically anathema, a paradox. According to Matthew 24:36, Jesus himself stated “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels in heaven, but my Father only.” (KJV)

Everything that I have learned about what the Bible says about the Christ’s return, in contrast to Camping’s contention that ‘the Bible gives accurate and correct information about the day that Christ will return’, puts me on my guard against those such as Camping who would dare to reject the verses that seem to be so clear about how it’s actually supposed to happen.

Secondly, there is a reason that this fascinates me.

I grew up attending a small church in a rural area, between the ages of seven and seventeen. When I was there, the church developed into what is termed a charismatic church; in this case, the church was not associated with any denomination, and basically believed in the whole ‘God’s spirit will move through the church’ thing: people spoke in tongues, gave prophecies, called out sinners, danced in the spirit, etc. Sunday morning services were characterized by an interminably long ‘worship service,’ with lots of droning, repetitive music to allow for the spirit to come into the church and move among the people, followed by a sermon that was sometimes followed by more music/worship. The church services were also characterized, in my memory, by a heavy emphasis on the end of days, the end times, the idea that Jesus was coming back any day, the Rapture… it’s all the same, and the reason I list several similar ideas is because we went through a stretch of years where this was the dominant message of the church.

Now, I was a pre-teen in these years. My nights, from about age ten on, went like this: I would go to bed, listen very quietly to the broadcast of St. Bonaventure’s basketball game on the radio if they were playing, and then lie awake afraid that I would wake up the next day alone, with all of my family gone (raptured) while I was left on earth because I was a sinner.

It was a traumatic experience. It dominated my life, likely because church dominated my life for much of my childhood. In addition to the Sunday service (Sunday school plus the service and sermon went from 9:30am to 1:30pm on most Sundays), we had the Sunday night service, the Wednesday night service, and the Friday night Youth Group service. As such, considering the emphasis on the message, being ‘left behind’ forever by Christ was a topic that I was exposed to early and often during my childhood.

As a child, it was pretty scary.

Eventually, during my late teens, I became so disillusioned that I stopped going to that church. I had a part-time job at a restaurant, busing tables and washing dishes, and Sunday morning was the second busiest time of the week. Work made for a serviceable excuse to get out of going to church, although eventually I got a different job that gave me Sundays off, but I never went back to that church.

* * * * *

As an adult, many of my views and values have changed. In many ways, I’ve come to a better understanding of who I am, and am thankfully not simply a product of my religious upbringing. However, as a result of (or a reaction to) the heavily apocalyptic teachings that I experienced, and the turmoil that they caused within me, I have come to strongly abhor the selling of fear, particularly when it comes to religion.

* * * * *

I think that there is a serious problem with how religion is sold in this day and age. I grew up in the church, and I am still a Christian… but I do not attend church, for better or for worse. I am far from perfect, and have sinned and made many errors in judgment, mistakes, and so on. However, to me church is a bad dream.

As an adult, I attended a Bible Fellowship Church for a while. BFC churches, which broke off from the Mennonites in the 1850s, are very different in some ways from charismatic churches (particularly in the format of the service), but also share similarities. In my opinion, many churches are too political, and the leadership and membership expect their members to adhere to the ‘beliefs of the church’ or risk being called out or ostracized. I’ve experienced this throughout my life with religious institutions, from growing up in the charismatic setting to attending a college affiliated with the Wesleyan Church, to my time with the Bible Fellowship Church.

I never actually became a member of the BFC, although I attended regularly for three years. Members had to agree with certain church statutes with which I could not agree (they hold that women cannot be church leaders, that homosexuality is a depraved, sinful choice, etc.) as well as certain unofficial, yet very real, social factors (vote Republican or go home!, etc.). Additionally, the church conducted itself in an amazingly exclusive manner; for instance, the church held a ‘block party’ every year that invited people from the neighborhood to hear God’s Word as well as eat good food, play games, attend musical performances, and so on, but in 2004, when I asked if there was going to be any partnership with the Lutheran Church next door, I got a terse ‘No.” in response.

I found it to be amazing, presumptuous, and rude, for a church to hold a block party for the neighborhood and not partner with the church next door.

But that’s how too many churches are nowadays (not all, but many) – divisive, arrogant, exclusive, even with respect to fellow Christians.

* * * * *

I kind of got off track there for a bit.

As I said above, Harold Camping’s prediction of May 21 as the day of the Rapture, based on several assumptions that he used to create a numerical formula for the day and time of Jesus’ return, fascinated me. At this point in my life, my feelings on Harold Camping are pretty etched in stone (I am completely skeptical of him), and so, as he stated that he would be glued to the TV to watch the destruction unfold, I also checked the news sites regularly on Saturday to see what was or wasn’t happening.

It was generally a case of ‘all quiet on the western front’. And by that, I mean that there was very little to be found on major news sites about it. It was a non-story, for the most part – given all of the other important and unimportant things that are reported in the news these days.

Before the predicted date, when Camping was asked about what he would do or say if the prediction wasn’t indeed accurate, he stated that he doesn’t “even think about those questions, because I won’t even be here. It’s going to happen. It – Is – Going – To – Happen.” (This is a YouTube link, skip to 8:45 in the video for the specific question and answer.) Such was his certainty. However, I’m the kind of person that is overly curious about what goes on in a person’s mind in a situation like this. With that in mind, in addition to reading about the earthquakes that didn’t happen, I searched several times on Saturday for any info on what his reaction might be. To this point, however, he has made no response.

On Sunday night, I did read that he intends to make a statement by Monday night about it, according to a story by International Business Times. I am definitely curious to see what he has to say. Will he simply chalk it up to incorrect math? Will he admit that he was in defiance of what most Christians hold to be true, that no man can truly say when Jesus will return?

We’ll see. I think he’s going to chalk it up to incorrect mathematical assumptions, at least in part, but I’m curious about what else he has to say. The IBTimes article states that “Camping, who looked dazed and confused, said that he needed some time to think and recover.” What fascinates me is the following question: does he need time to reconsider his errors on a spiritual basis, as a moment of true self-doubt? or does he need time to think about how he will save face, like a politician involved in a massive failure or breaking scandal?

* * * * *

A couple of abstract notes on these thoughts:

  1. I generally do not think that this was funny. I can appreciate the abundance of humor that this prediction and its incorrect-ness has spawned, but I personally don’t take any joy from the failure of Camping’s certainties, for both spiritual and human reasons. On the human side, let me say that there are too many people who threw away their jobs, a lot of money, and credibility because of a belief in the May 21st Rapture prediction, and to me that’s a shame. There are too many people for whom this has created a lot of problems.
  2. The thoughts in this post do not consider things from the perspective of the atheist. I have respect for atheists, but the points I make here talk about the differences between what the Bible says and what a fringe religious group believed. To an atheist, the entire thing must be completely ridiculous and/or hilarious. As I said, I respect that point of view, and acknowledge its merits. My point of view is that of a skeptical Christian who is very interested in the topic, based on my upbringing and my worldviews, and I hope that that can be respected as well.
  3. As of Sunday night, Family Radio had been quiet on the subject of the Rapture. Several news sources have stated that radio stations have been filled with normal programming, while the web stream has apparently been overloaded and not working for most of the weekend. I find these two screen shots interesting: taken just after midnight on May 23rd:

This is a screen shot taken in Google Chrome. It shows what has looked like for several days, including the countdown clock. News sites are saying that this has not changed, and according to this screenie, that is true.

. . .

I write all of my posts in Firefox now, because it is the only browser that doesn’t mess up my formatting on the Mac. When I searched for the Family Radio website in Firefox, I got this:

This is, I believe, what normally looks like. I find it interesting that would take me to different site formats with the same root address in different browsers.

* * * * *

Thanks for reading this. I apologize for the rambling bits. It has been a long time since I’ve posted on this blog, and this has turned out to be one of my longest posts. I’m not surprised. 🙂

My friend Andrew has a much shorter, very sane commentary on the situation, entitled International Facepalm Day, at his blog, Systemic Babble. I really liked his comment about how events like this can be damaging to more moderate believers:

As much as I try to be understanding and accepting regarding the religion of others, it’s nonsense like this that fuels the derision that fuels the more outspoken atheists out there, and harms the moderate (and sane) believers.

I agree with you 100%, my friend.

* * * * *

In closing, it is my hope that those who upset their lives so greatly, in the name of the May 21st Rapture-that-wasn’t, will recover. I probably won’t comment on Harold Camping’s forthcoming statement, but I will be very interested in whatever he has to say. Ultimately, whatever he says will not change or affect my beliefs or my life at all – it just… fascinates me.


2 Comments on “Thoughts on why I found the May 21st 2011 Rapture prediction fascinating”

  1. Saniel says:

    Good to see you posting again. (I somehow missed the last 3…)

    I’m in a pretty similar place as you. I was raised Catholic and for a long time (through my early- and mid-teens) it was a pretty central part of my life. When I finally put some distance between me and the church routine (college), I became very disillusioned, very quickly. (I used to get really upset when someone called themselves a “recovering Catholic.” Now I wholly understand.)

    I hardly even call myself “Christian” anymore, though I still get offended when I hear people (particularly outspoken Athiests) lumping all Christians into the same category of over-zealous, blind imbeciles and I try to remind them that some (most, even) can be very reasonable about it. I like your choice of works with “skeptical Christian.” That feels like it fits well.

    It’s interesting to note that this is Camping’s 3rd wrong prediction. I read somewhere (although I can’t find it now) that his two previous wrong predictions resulted in $81M in donations to his “non-profit.” It sounds like this one did better than those two combined. It’s also been suggested that his employees knew very well they were expected to report to work this morning. This is all hearsay, but it raises interesting questions about the guy.

    Other than the fact that social media has exploded recently and so it’s very easy to get a lot of people talking about these kinds of things, it’s interesting to see what kind of life this latest “prediction” took on. I think a lot of the buzz came from that fact that a lot of people who otherwise dismissed the claims, myself included, still have a little nagging voice in the back of their head going, “What if…?”

  2. Tesh says:

    Speaking as a Christian, I can’t take guys like this seriously when they show such a fundamental incompetence in understanding simple scripture.

    The really sad part is the people that he effectively scammed, intentionally or not.

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