Christians have historically been fixated on the end of the world. The reasons are more complex than they appear.
By Laura Ortberg Turner
Viktor Vasnetsov’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1887. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
The world did not come to an end on September 6, 1994. Nor on May 21, 2011, or October 21 of that same year, though Harold Camping had said in each case that it would. As I sit typing in the year 2016, the world is still rotating on its axis, spinning 19 miles per second around the sun.
Like so many Christians who came before him, Camping was possessed by the idea of predicting the end of the world, and talked ceaselessly about it on his radio show at Family Radio Network, of which he was president. Listeners contributed to what became a $100 million campaign to convince the world of the May 21 judgment day (known in Christian theology as the Rapture), when Jesus would take all his believers to heaven. Like many would-be prophets, Camping moved the target each time he was wrong. After the October 2011 date passed, he just let it go. Even prophets can get confused.
Today, if you want to know how close we are to the world’s end, all you need to do is check the Rapture Index, a frequently updated scoreboard of 45 factors that point to the nearness of the Rapture. (A score of over 160 indicates it’s time to “Fasten your seat belts.” We are currently at 181.) The popularity of the Left Behind series and songs like Larry Norman’s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” among certain evangelical communities indicate an ongoing cultural fascination with End Times and a willingness to help usher them in by proclaiming how rotten things are in the world right now — a key tenet in Rapture theology, as in life, is that things usually get worse before they get better.
Why are Christians so obsessed with the end of the world? Mostly for the same reasons Christians are obsessed with anything: It’s in the Bible. The Old Testament is full of terrifying, cryptic prophecies about the End Times: “The two kings, their minds bent on evil, shall sit at one table and exchange lies,” the prophet Daniel says. “But it shall not succeed, for there remains an end at the time appointed.” (Two kings exchanging lies sounds ominously like the plot to Game of Thrones.) Then, in the New Testament, Jesus tells his disciples that “the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory.” The Second Coming of Christ involves its own vocabulary; words like “Postmillennialism” and “Pre-Tribulation” get tossed around in End Times crowds like confetti at a parade.
Some Christian denominations are more likely than others to be interested in eschatology. Southern Baptists will talk with you about the End Times over coffee and donuts after a Sunday service; Episcopalians will talk about politics, sex, or money with you before they’ll wander into end-of-the-world territory. It’s inherently creepy stuff, the idea that the world will end not because the sun has burnt out or a comet has destroyed the Earth but because an omnipotent being wills its destruction. But it’s on our collective minds: As of 2010, Pew reported that 41 percent of Americans believe Jesus will “probably” or “definitely” return to Earth by 2050.
The early church believed that Jesus would return very soon, even during their lifetimes, and Christians have been revising that prediction ever since.
Judgmental Christians are easy targets for ridicule and disdain, and, to be sure, Christians have perpetuated some of the worst (and silliest) ideas about the end of the world. At the same time, most religions have at least some rather outré ideas about the way the world will end. For many Christians, spreading the word about the Rapture is an act born of genuine concern.
“The urgency was that the Rapture could happen at any time,” says Melisa Blankenship, a San Francisco-based church information manager who attended Calvary Baptist Church in San Mateo, California, in her youth. One night, Blankenship’s church held a special service to screen the film A Thief in the Night, the first in a series of films about the Rapture. In the film, young Patty Jo Myers wakes up one day to find her family gone along with millions of other people, and has to live through the Tribulation, a time period referred to in Daniel 7, during which war, famine, and other plagues ravage the Earth and kill most of those who remain. Blankenship remembers being “terrified” watching the movie as a seven year old. As an adult, though, she can see what motivated the pastors at her church: “In a weird way, I think it was compassion on their end.” If you were convinced the world was going to end in a fiery war zone and you could take your loved ones with you to heaven, wouldn’t you want to do the same?
Talking about the End Times is also an urgent way of sharing the gospel of Jesus, “promot[ing] a strong emphasis upon evangelism of the lost,” according to the Pre-Tribulation Research Center. Run by Thomas Ice and Tim LaHaye (the latter of Left Behindfame), the Pre-Trib Research Center acts as a clearinghouse for Biblical prophecy scholars to share their work on the Rapture and their interpretation that the church will be raptured before the Tribulation. “The most unloving thing you can do is not [share] the gospel,” says Ice, who also disputes the wisdom of predicting a specific date and time for the Rapture. “There is a lot less date-setting now than there has been in the past,” he says.
Math and religion, on the face of it, don’t seem to mix well. Hundreds of Christian groups have tried to use the Bible to predict when the world will end, using a (hardly clear-cut) combination of events mentioned in the apocalyptic Book of Revelation. The early church believed that Jesus would return very soon, even during their lifetimes, and Christians have been revising that prediction ever since. Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister who was influential in the construction of the Salem Witch Trials, announced that the world would end in 1697. Heavily influenced by Revelation, Mather was convinced that the presence of witchcraft in America combined with the appearance in 1682 of what we now know is Halley’s Comet (celestial events and motifs are significant in Revelation) spelled the end of the world. When that year came and went without event, Mather revised his prediction: 1736, according to the Bible, would be the year of the world’s end. Just kidding! Unhappy with 1736, he soon moved the date up to 1716; when that year came and went, Mather suggested the world would end in 1727. While a large earthquake did shake Boston that year, the only thing that quickly came to an end was Mather, who died in February 1728.
Mather is part of a centuries-long tradition of Christians who have made these bold predictions. There’s an entire Wikipedia page full of entries about people who thought the Earth was near its final day; the reasons varied from an event where British hens laid eggs with “Christ is Coming” etched into them (sadly, a hoax) to numerology based on Revelation, Daniel, and other books of the Bible. Disciples of William Miller, a Baptist pastor who claimed the world would end on October 22, 1844, had to put up with those who “tauntingly inquir[ed], ‘Have you not gone up?’” This failed prophecy led Millerites to suffer through The Great Disappointment, a confusing period of time in which some of their churches were attacked. Having been played for fools by someone with sincerely held beliefs, many Millerites returned to the denominations they came from or started new ones altogether — the Seventh-Day Adventist Church formed as a reaction to Miller’s failed prophecy.
Thomas Ice of the Pre-Trib Research Center distinguishes between the Rapture (believers being carried up to heaven) and the Second Coming of Christ (Christ coming down to Earth, which will happen seven years after the Rapture). Being accompanied by other believers on your way to heaven can beget some unique fears, as Lyz Lenz wrote for this magazine in January: “I worried about being raptured on the toilet and having all the ungodly see my butt. So I held it until I thought I would burst, racing to the bathroom and praying to Jesus he’d hold off on any magnificent return until I could just pull my pants up.” I asked Ice whether he felt any tension between the mundanity of daily life and the weight of constantly thinking about the end of the world as we knew it. Ice mentioned 2 Peter 3, which warns that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief…. While you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.” The point, Ice told me, is to wait in patience while “constantly cultivating a relationship with Christ.” At the grocery store, picking up the kids from school, going to the bathroom — wherever you are, awareness of the Rapture and its possible imminence can lead a person to a sense of constant vigilance.
“There was no sense of peace, even with the people that were saved,” Blankenship says. “You always had to be vigilant to make sure your salvation was real.”
There is another, final reason Christians may be so obsessed with the Rapture, and it isn’t high-minded or Biblical: It’s the simple truth that none of us know with absolute certainty what will happen to us when we die. We all want to be sure that something good will happen to us, or, at the very least, that nothing particularly bad will befall us once we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil. Maybe heaven is a story we tell ourselves in order to live.
Harold Camping died in 2013 after suffering complications from a fall at his home. Embarrassed, he had retired from his work at Family Radio and apologized for misleading his followers. Family Radio Network posted an update saying Camping had “passed on to glory and is now rejoicing with his beloved Savior!” The prophet had foretold the end of the world but not his own death, and Family Radio memorialized Camping with a verse from Revelation: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”
Armageddon Awareness Day is Pacific Standard’s special report for Earth Day 2016, in which we confront our fears about the apocalypse while celebrating those things that make our planet worthwhile.