Rev. Douglas Taylor
Predictions of the complete destruction of the earth and all life as we know it have gathered quite a large following of late. And these predictions are told in vivid detail down to the specific sorts of suffering to be visited upon anyone not a part of your particular saved or chosen group. Nostradamus and Messianic Taoism, the Hopi and the Hindu: it seems like everyone has a grand prophecy of how the world will end.
In the year one thousand, almost all of Rome emptied out onto a hill to witness the end of history and the second coming of Christ. It was exciting and tense until night fell and everyone went home … disappointed … and amazed that it had simply been another ordinary day.
In 1994, for example, a group led by radio preacher Harold Camping felt sure the Lord would return that September. When the date began to look doubtful, Camping recalculated and said that Jesus had to come by October 2. He didn’t.
The year 1988 saw the publication of a little book by Edgar Whisenant titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988! Whisenant sold 4.5 million copies of his book, which nevertheless turned out to be dead wrong. Undeterred, Whisenant announced he had forgotten to account for the year 0, leaving him off by one year. He then published another book, Final Shout, claiming that Jesus would really return in 1989 … and again wound up with egg on his face. (The Merciful God of Prophecy by Tim LaHaye p256)
Mark Twain’s assessment is that there won’t be a grand catastrophe, no terrible calamity. We will be finished instead, he says, by our small fears, the daily compounding of what Twain calls, “one damn thing after another.”
The nice part seems to be that most of the prophecies and predictions also include the perk that after a major cataclysm there will be an unprecedented era of peace and harmony. I fear, however, that it too easily leads to a mentality whereby we can justify a lot under the idea that we should be destroying the world to save it.
According to recent polls, 40% of Americans believe in the final battle of Armageddon; 59% of Americans believe that the prophecies in the Book of Revelation are literally true. People see the wars in the Middle East as good indicators, as essential steps in the biblical prophecy. Even environmental crisis, like global warming, species extinction, and massive deforestation are welcomed as eschatological blessings.
One scholar, Barbara Rossing, is speaking out eloquently against such beliefs within her own tradition. Rossing is an ordained Lutheran minister and a professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. In her book, Rapture Exposed, Rossing claims that the Left Behind authors’ interpretation of prophetic biblical verses is “fiction.” Rossing believes that this biblical vision is meant to inspire humanity to seek out “repentance and justice.” She contends that “most Christian churches and biblical scholars condemn Rapture theology as a distortion of Christian faith with little biblical basis.”
While the belief may be something of a betrayal of the accuracy and purpose behind the book of Revelation, a significant faction of the American public still believe it to be the ‘gospel truth.’ Bill Moyers, in the essay “A Shiver Down the Spine,” reflects on the implications of a belief in the Rapture. He asks, “What does this mean for public policy and the environment?” Indeed, that is the pivotal question that sends a shiver down his spine. With people in high government positions espousing a belief in the evangelical protestant version of the end of time, what ramifications are we witnessing in the development of public policy and protection of the environment?
Well, we just saw an attempt to slip Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling into a military bill before Congress. Thankfully that didn’t work. Laws to protect the environment are weakly enforced, international treaties on the environment are called “out of date” and promptly ignored, and corporations are given favor over environmental rules. For an administration swept into office for a second term under the banner of “moral values,” there seems to be a disconnect here. When did it become “moral” to exploit the good earth with no thought for the needs of future generations? And Bill Moyer eloquently uncovers the answer: “Why care about the earth when the droughts, floods, famine, and pestilence brought by ecological collapse are signs of the apocalypse foretold in the Bible?” (Ibid, p 8) Indeed, the earth seems to be the big loser in this equation.
I Googled the Rapture Index as Moyers suggests and found the fascinating website that is like a Dow Jones of the Apocalypse. The index tracks world events such as floods, famines, and wild weather as well as the economy, unemployment, and nuclear proliferation. These categories, I will admit, do fit on even my list of how to tell if the world is in trouble. But they also include things like Ecumenism, Apostasy and the great evil conspiracy known as liberalism. The differing events are then totaled into a single number. If the total is below 85 it is considered Slow Prophetic Activity. Between 85 and 110 is considered Moderate, while 110 to 145 is considered Heavy Prophetic Activity. Over 145 is called Fasten Your Seatbelts.
When Moyers checked it was at 144. The index is updated regularly and now stands at 154. Largely this is due to the Iraq War, the tension in Israel, Katrina (and to a lesser degree the Afghanistan earthquake which caused greater damage and loss of life, but unlike Katrina it didn’t happen here,) and a special mention is made for the fight over Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays because Ecumenism and Liberalism are the forces behind the ‘secular’ greeting, and thus it is counted as one more step toward the end of the world.
Interestingly, even though the past several thousand years of recorded history has not seen the end of the world despite hundreds of predictions and prophecies and authoritative forecasts, people still really believe this time, in my lifetime, there will be THE event of all history. It is really going to happen this time.
Tim LaHaye, the co-author of the Left Behind series, has a book out titled The Merciful God of Prophecy: His loving Plan for You in the End Times. Just the title drives the point home. There is a very personal and desperate piece entwined in this business. This is about you.
The psychological basis seems to be that lonely yearning to be told that even you are important, you matter somehow in the grand scheme, even if in only a small way: that the really important time is the one in which you now live. I don’t deny that this lonely yearning is perhaps a fundamental basis for all religion, but I think we can address this yearning in a less violent and cruel fashion, with a story that involved hope and love rather than war and plagues!
So how should we respond to all this? What do Unitarian Universalists believe about the End Times? What do we do with these fantastical stories? How do we respond to people who believe in the biblical account and the bonus features, if you will, of the rapture?
One colleague wrote in sympathy for those who hold these apocalyptic beliefs saying:
There is no need to bring doubt into the hearts of fundamentalists– they are teeming with doubts. They are afraid to allow them to be there. The thing we can offer them is kindness. It is cruel to try to shake someone out of fundamentalist beliefs. They are holding onto them for dear life. What we can and should do is have open arms if they start to fall.
Now, it may be just a belief for which we should be tolerant. Tolerance is an important and good component to communal living. And in that case it would be cruel to try to shake someone’s fundamentalist belief in the rapture. And having “open arms to if they start to fall” is a good and noble stance. However, belief in the rapture is not only unscriptural, its implications are harmful. It is therefore entirely fair to compassionately refute such beliefs based on the implications. It is therefore entirely fair to refute the harmful results of such a belief and offer our own vision of the future in its place.
And what vision of the future do we offer instead? Well, pinning Unitarian Universalism down on a belief is not going to happen, but I bet you would be hard pressed to find any who believe in the rapture. At the close of each sermon I offer a phrase that can serve as the beginning of our vision. Perhaps you’ve noticed. I end each sermon saying, “In a world without end, may it be so.” I’ve only been asked about why I say that a couple of times. I say it because I mean it. I say it because it provides a context for everything I have just said: This matters because no one is going to pull the plug on this if a problem comes up. If there is a virus in the system, we’re just going to have to deal with it here and now. The problems and pain in the world are not to be praised. The world will not be ending, the patient is not terminal and we can not abandon our healing responsibilities.
Included in that is the hope for change. Included in my end of sermon phrase is the recognition of the grand picture and the possibility to make a difference. We like to say that every day is a new day, every day is like the first day of creation: Creation is a dynamic event that continues to take place again and again. Well, let me also say that Judgment day is that way too. Today may be the first day of the rest of your life, but it is also the last. It is today, not some future day when the trumpets sound and mountains crumble and sky turns dark. It is today. Today you will be called upon to account for the pull of both good and evil in your heart and in your deeds. Today you are called upon to say if you have dealt justly and compassionately with others. Today you are called upon to say if you have been true to your faith and your principles, today and everyday. We have loopholes in other places but not here.
Judgment day in our circles is more concerned with spreading more peace instead of war, more food instead of famine, more healthcare instead of plague, more people recognizing they are in grand plan that includes everyone rather instead of the exclusive members-only version. Today is Judgment Day and we have been called to offer more justice and compassion and good deeds done for those in need. Today and every day you are called upon to answer for your actions. Here we honor life, there is far too much work to be done to spend time dreaming up elaborate schemes of exclusion and suffering, for indeed there is far too much of that already. Judgment day has come. The end is now. And indeed a new day has just begun again, with hope and peace enough for all.
In a world without end, may it be so.