So much has already been written and ridiculed about the prediction that this coming Saturday, May 21st, will be the Christian Rapture that I’m loath to add more, especially on this blog network that is largely dedicated to science. But apparently I am, because amidst all the other parts of this belief that seem preposterous to unbelieving, atheistic me, one part stands out as particularly nutty. (I know; don’t even start.) Chalk this up as a commentary on the nature of irrational beliefs.
According to some strains of Christian theology, the Rapture is when the good and faithful of the world will be drawn up physically into heaven. Depending on interpretations of the relevant verses in Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians, the Rapture may or may not also mark the return of Jesus to earth, and may or may not mark the start of a hideous period of Tribulations for us left behind. Apparently, there’s even some disagreement about whether the living saints pulled into heaven then return to live among us. (The Left Behind books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins represent just one best-selling and oh-so-cinematic version of these prophesies.) The Rapture has been foretold many times in the past: for 1844, 1914, 1918, 1925, 1942, 1975, 1981, 1988, 1989, 1992, 1993, and twice in 1994, according to Wikipedia. Preacher and radio evangelist Harold Camping was responsible for the second of those failed 1994 predictions. Yet, undaunted, he is also the one whose numerological mumbo-jumbo is primarily to blame for raising expectations about the supposed Rapture for this Saturday.
Not that I’ll be part of it in any sense, but I began to wonder what time on the 21st the Rapture is supposed to occur. At the very least, if people are going to shoot into the air, I’d like to have a camera ready. Going through Harold Camping’s exegesis on the subject was singularly unhelpful to me: his divination of May 21st as the date seems to have a sprawling, complex numerological basis but I couldn’t find anything that related to the time of day. Nevertheless, Camping has apparently been saying that the Rapture would occur at 6 p.m. Because he is based in Oakland, Calif., I assumed that meant 6 p.m. Pacific time. This time struck me as odd, however, because it would mean that by the time the Rapture started, the date would no longer be May 21st in Asia, Africa, Australia and Europe. Of course, given that the international date line is itself an ultimately arbitrary human artifact, such a rigid and precise determination of the Rapture from scripture seemed baffling, anyway. I suppose the faithful should be glad for Daylight Saving Time, since that means the Rapture will arrive an hour earlier than it otherwise might.
And yet it gets worse. Because various people assure me that the actual belief is that the Rapture will not occur at 6 p.m. Pacific time but at 6 p.m. locally, all over the earth.
I realize it’s absurd to say this about an event that supposedly involves people vanishing or flying up into the sky at Heaven’s command, but I’m sorry, this part about 6 p.m. local time just isn’t believable. Why would that that be the case? How would that even work? Doesn’t this mean that every time zone around the world experiences its own separate Rapture, with great longitudinal swaths of the population transcending in blocks on the hour while the true believers to the west wait 60 minutes or more for their turn?
Bear in mind that the Rapture, within this theological framework, marks the beginning of the end times, leading up to Jesus’s millennial rule of the earth and Judgment Day. It is what Christian theologians throughout the ages would have called a really big deal. Why, then, would the transcendent and omnipotent God of Creation shape the timing of this nigh-climactic event to reflect the political and economic invention of time zones?
Or maybe I’m picturing this wrong. Maybe the salvation of Rapture sweeps across the globe in keeping with the sun, so that it happens everywhere at 6 p.m. local astronomically. Yet that idea has problems, too. First, in that case, the Rapture won’t actually occur at 6 p.m. according to most people’s clocks. “Between 5 and 6 p.m.” would actually be a more accurate prophecy.
Moreover, I thought that part of the point of the Rapture was that it very abruptly separated the pious believers from the sinful and disbelievers, who had rashly ignored all the teachings and testimony preceding the event. If the Rapture moves slowly around the world, however—and by modern standards, an event unfolding across 24 hours is slow—then people to the west of the international date line will have plenty of time to hear about what’s happening, repent by 5:59 p.m., and Rapture their way out of damnation or Tribulations or whatever the heck it is that’s supposed to happen. Would God stage a Rapture that let the sinful game the system? Or would God stop listening to people’s prayers and repentance once the Rapture started? And if God then wouldn’t care about their prayers, why would God care what time it was for them?
Nope. I realize that not all those who believe in the Rapture subscribe to this 6-p.m.-everywhere version of it (just as not all Christians believe in the Rapture, period), but I’m baffled how anyone can. I suspect that as with many beliefs in the paranormal or supernatural, this particular one works in part because believers can let themselves get caught up in a general enthusiasm for an idea without engaging more thoughtfully and critically with what that idea actually means or implies.
As for me, it sounds like brunch is still on for Sunday.
Update (5/21): Oh, what a surprise. It’s Saturday, and yet there’s no sign of any Rapturing going on. But as a consolation, here’s a link to Vaughan Bell’s fine essay on what happens to doomsday cults when the world doesn’t end.