Around the end of the first century of the common era a writer on the island of Patmos, probably reacting to the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Domitian, wrote a strange, violent book of visions.
This apocalyptic book (apocalypse means “unveiling”) is Revelation, and the authorship is ascribed to St. John the Divine. It seems, to say the least, unlikely that John the son of Zebedee wrote it, and in fact, though the Western Church accepted that ascription of authorship early on, many figures in the Eastern Church rejected it and opposed its inclusion in the New Testament canon.
But it squeaked by and Christianity is stuck with it. Worse, as much as it was obscure at the time of its composition, it now carries centuries of accretion of interpretation, a good deal of it crackpot.* For it describes the Parousia, the return of Christ in glory to sit in judgment over the living and the dead and to terminate this earthly order, and thus becomes the blueprint for anyone attempting to calculate the date of the Second Coming.
Recent descriptions of the End Times lean heavily on a strain of interpretation called pre-millennial dispensationalism, which dates from the nineteenth century and includes the Rapture, in which the godly faithful are to be carried up into the sky to escape the coming tribulation that will precede Christ’s return.
I mention this because Harold Camping, whose calculations proved to be a little off last May 21—remember all those billboards?—has recalibrated and concluded that October 21—yes, this Friday—is the date on which the balloon goes up.
I will remain at my post. As a damned latitudinarian Anglican, not to mention a hireling of the Mocking Eastern Liberal Media Establishment, there’s not a chance in a thousand of my being enraptured. And if you are a regular reader of this blog, chances are excellent that you too will be Left Behind.
Mainline Christianity does not go in for such calculations, in part because it holds that it is presumptuous and impertinent to pretend to know the mind of God, and also because it does not go in for the literalist reading of Scripture that is essential to the operation.
Fundamentalism, in its Christian, Jewish, and Islamic flavors, as Karen Armstrong described in detail in The Battle for God, is a reaction to secular and scientific trends of the modern world. Those who hunger for certainty and authority double down. The people who quit their jobs and gave up their property on the strength of Harold Camping’s prediction last spring are an extreme example, but there are many more whose need for belief forces them into contortions.**
Religious faith, I am sorry to say, is not uniformly distributed, and serenity is not given to all believers. All humans face existential issues—our knowledge that we will die, our craving for freedom and our fears of exercising it, our confrontation with the dominant cultural values of our time—and believers very commonly have to struggle, as Paul and Augustine and Luther and innumerable others have. The world is what it is (the only time I ever plan to use that cant phrase), and our understanding is temporal and limited. We would do well to face what is in it without resorting to cranks and nostrums and easy answers.
*Those of you eager to purge schools and libraries of books that are potentially dangerous influences on young minds might want to give a close look to the Bible.
**I direct you to an article by Peter Enns at patheos.com about the Reverend Doctor R. Albert Mohler Jr. of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and his argument for the “apparent age” of the world. To compress the history of the planet into the 6,000 years that his literalist reading of Scripture demands, the reverend doctor argues that fossils and other geological phenomena were put at Creation to make the world look older. So, you see, if God had built a house, it would be new upstairs but would have broken furniture and half-empty cans of paint and a dripping faucet in the basement. (Yes, this is the same Reverend Doctor R. Albert Mohler Jr. who argued last year that Christians shouldn’t practice yoga because of its origins in Hinduism.)