Sunday, July 08, 2007

The End Times are near! (Sooner or later, give or take several thousand millennia.)

Listening to and reading about the fundamentalist Christians who subscribe to the Rapture, those End Times are very, very near and will no doubt happen within the lifetimes of those who believe in such things. The rest of us seem to think that this entire concept is nonsense and go on about our daily lives, content in the knowledge that when the Earth does indeed perish, it won’t be because some cosmic clock on God’s wall ran out and He decided to push the Ultimate Button.

One of the myriad of things that detract from this particular scenario is that “true believers” of all religions, cults and whatever lays between them have been predicting the end of the Earth for as long there has been a written record to record it. It seems that all three Abrahamic Religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have such a concept. Because Orthodox Jews believe the Talmud specifies things exactly (such as a day equals 24 hours) and should not be given a more “symbolic” reading, then, by their calculations, the world will come to an end at or before the year 2240, which is 6000 years after the creation of Adam and Eve. Islam has two different versions, Shia and Sunni. They seem to not be so prescient as to predict the actual date of the coming destruction. And, of course, Christianity has literally a plethora to choose from. There is the End Times of Catholicism, Protestantism, Preterism (who seem to have got it very wrong, since they predicted the end to be in the First Century, A.D., within the lifetimes of the Disciples of Jesus), Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of the Latter Day Saints, Rastafarians, etc. etc. There’s even the Heaven’s Gate people, who were so convinced that the End Times were upon us that they committed suicide so that they could ride in a spaceship with Jesus that was hidden in the comet Hale-Bopp.

No one can seem to agree on much of anything, other than the End Times will be very apocalyptic.

The major End Times movement these days in America is, of course, Dispensationalism. No one really calls it that. That’s much too cumbersome and unwieldy a name for a movement that has an absolute conviction that they are, without question, the final authority on the End Times. It is simply know as The Rapture.

The Rapture, in its present form, was formulated in the 1820’s and 1830’s by a radical Calvinist by the name of John Nelson Darby. The teachings were circulated by the notes of the Scofield Reference Bible. The history of this movement, and the introduction into North America, make for some fascinating reading. The modern movement has built upon this concept that, initially, could only be considered as a cultist idea. It is now a full-blown industry, with millions of copies of the Left Behind books being sold and movies being made for those “true believers” who are convinced that we are staring at the headlights of the End of Days bearing down upon us all.

There are numerous things that I find very distasteful about this movement. One obvious one is the fanaticism of the adherents. Fanaticism of any kind makes me very nervous. When someone is absolutely convinced that their view of reality is The Truth, without any facts or evidence other than their conviction to back them up, they become very difficult to reason with. In fact, fanaticism and reason are rather contradictory in nature.

People might criticize me for believing that science is able to provide many (but not all) of the answers to questions that, for centuries, were being provided by the multitude of religions around the world. I suppose I can be criticized for my "fanaticism" regarding fact-based science, just as I am being critical of others for their fanaticism about their religious beliefs. However, as I have written before, science is based on proven facts and observed phenomena. Reasoned speculation is included, but only when it is based on those facts and phenomena that others can agree on and replicate. And when new facts are discovered and phenomena observed that don’t support that reasoned speculation, then that speculation must be junked or modified to fit the new framework. That is called the scientific method. That is what I believe in, not specifically the results from that method. Those results are changing on a daily basis, so one must not become too wedded to them. You might get the rug yanked out from under you at any time. This is simply not the case for those who engage in fanaticism, religious or otherwise, where they put their entire faith in the answers, and not the methods that produced those answers. They don’t care if the rug gets yanked out from underneath their feet. They just simply refuse to acknowledge that has occurred.

With that, I hope I can head off any discussion about my own fanaticism. I believe there is a difference.

Now, let’s return to the discussion about The Rapture. I recently saw a clip of a thirteen-year-old girl making a statement that went something like, “People who say that the Rapture isn’t true are just the same as people who stand in the middle of a freeway and refuse to believe in the truck that is just about to run them down.” It was phrased in that kind of language. She may have come up with that metaphor by herself, but I doubt it. More likely, she has had this notion of the End Times force-fed to her by her parents and others in a position of authority, until she know believes that she has come to this conclusion by herself. You cannot convince me that this girl had done serious study of all the writings available on the subject and has come to this conclusion on her own. To me, this is a mark of fanaticism. On the face of it, Jesus swooping down and scooping up all the True Believers to take them to Heaven, while leaving the non-Believers to seven years of torment before the Earth is destroyed, does not make any sense. There are no good reasons to believe this, other than someone else told you it was true.

I also object to the almost giddy delight to which the proponents of this movement make their pronouncements. Many people seem to take great pleasure in the fact that they are certain they will be among those that are personally rescued by Jesus, and that everyone else (including their neighbors, classmates, co-workers, and even family members) will be left to eternal torment. I have read some passages from the book “Left Behind” noted earlier. There is a passage that describes Jesus, walking astride a flaming Earth, casting the non-Believers into crevices with a flick of his hand. In my mind, that is not a very pretty picture for anyone. And, even though I am no one’s idea of a Christian, I also find it very insulting that people would project their intolerance of other people’s faith onto Jesus. I have no doubt that a person named Jesus existed, preached a message of faith and peace, and was killed for it. However, my personal idea is that the Jesus, the real person who existed over 2000 years ago, would find this idea repugnanat that he would personally stalk the earth and kill everyone who didn’t believe him, much less believe in a very certain, narrow brand of Christianity. Catholics and Jews need not apply, even thought Catholicism and Judaism existed long before Protestantism, to say nothing of the followers of Islam, the Buddha, etc. The people who believe this version of The Truth are condemning, in their minds, perhaps over 95% of the earth’s population to eternal torment. And they seem quite cheerful about it.

I strenuously object to that. They are setting themselves up on a special pedestal named “Salvation” and smirking that everyone else is doomed. I suppose that the idea that you and your tribe are special and somehow better than everyone else that has ever existed is central to being human. After all, each individual person experiences the universe through his or her senses. It is all filtered though something called “the Self”. That automatically puts you at the center of the universe. At least, your particular universe. It’s not hard to understand how a person experiences the universe can be warped into a belief that you are somehow special. Each person is unique to the universe, yes. Special, no. Therefore, I find the idea repellant that a person or group of persons can, by the very fact that they believe something that, on the surface is a rather outlandish concept, come to believe they are better than everyone else. I disliked it in high school cliques. I dislike it in major religious movements. Anointing yourself and your group as “The Chosen People” no doubt makes it easier to survive very difficult times, whether you are Jewish slaves in ancient Egypt or black slaves picking cotton in the broiling sun in 1820’s Louisiana. However, for those who don’t belong to the “Chosen People”, the claim looks very egotistical and delusional.

I also think that, when people start believing the End is right around the corner, they can start acting in a very dangerous manner to the rest of us who don’t subscribe to such theories. If you were to believe that, for example, your house was going to burn down next week, then there would not really be a pressing need to paint the living room or even vacuum the carpet. Another way to put it is in the old saying, “no one has ever washed a rental car”. If someone refuses to believe the Earth is going to actually be around for much longer, then there really isn’t any need to try to take care of it. Long term planning, such as the conservation of scarce natural resources, isn’t necessary. Neither is worrying about too much pollution. “Hey, it’s a nice place, but we’re just on vacation here. We’re leaving tomorrow. Why bother taking care of it? We’re heading for a MUCH nicer place than this.” That seems to be the reasoning behind a lot of the objections to environmentalism. I have heard many complain about the militancy of some environmentalists. I have yet to see them acknowledge the militancy of their own cause.

Even more destructive is when people of power or people with a megaphone and a pedestal start advocating a certain course in attempting to steer world events so it will advance what they see as the necessary preconditions for the coming apocalypse. I have seen some speculation (and I freely acknowledge that this is just speculation) that some people would like to see Israel really start a war in the Middle East, as that would advance their timetable by fulfilling the necessary milestones that are first required to occur before the End Times begin. That idea was behind some of the support from part of the U.S. in the very recent, very disastrous war that Israel had with Hezbollah in Lebanon. That is a very dangerous course indeed. If this is true, then select groups of people were actually advocating full-scale conflict in the Middle East, in which vast numbers of innocent people would be killed and the entire region destabilized, just because it would advance their particular religious beliefs.

This world and all its inhabitants do not belong to those who subscribe Rapture theory. They should not be allowed to treat it, and us, as their possessions. One person’s “Truth” is another person’s cult, and the number of ardent proponents of any particular faith or religion does not confer “Truth” upon it. Otherwise, I have a hard time understanding why we shouldn’t all worship the Gods of ancient Egypt or Greece.

Yes, I believe in the end of the Earth, as well as the ultimate end of the entire universe. I just don’t believe that either of those two events will occur in the next billion years, and it certainly won’t happen in the manner that it is being depicted now by a small percentage of the population of one particular religion. What we should be concerned about, and actively doing something about, is a possible collapse of our society due to the effects of global climate change and the depletion of easy, relatively inexpensive energy sources. The possibilities that exist from those two things coming to pass could make what happened in New Orleans during and after Katrina look like a spring shower. Yet, we are closing our eyes and effectively burying our heads in the sand, rather than try to confront the problems that could be right in front of us. It makes me very angry that some people would rather feel very good about themselves, secure in the knowledge that they will be “Saved” when Jesus comes down to personally escort them to Heaven, when the rest of the population of the Earth is sentence to eternal punishment just because they had the audacity to believe something other than they do.

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