But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.
– 2 Peter 3:10
God does not play dice with the universe: He plays an ineffable game of His own devising, which might be compared, from the perspective of any of the other players [i.e. everybody], to being involved in an obscure and complex variant of poker in a pitch-dark room, with blank cards, for infinite stakes, with a Dealer who won’t tell you the rules, and who smiles all the time.
– Neil Gaiman, “Good Omens”
When I was still cloaked in the dewy innocence of youth, attending a church whose members I loved (even as the first of many theological questions that would eventually lead to my departure were brewing in my heart and mind), the youth pastor brought us all together one rainy Wednesday night, set up the projector, and showed us a film. This film – “perhaps the most important film young Christians like yourselves may ever see” – was entitled “A Thief in the Night,” a phrase taken from 1 Thessalonians 5:2 (among other verses) in the Bible. Made in 1972, the film tells the story of Patty, a young woman whose easy-going, live-and-let-live Christianity is out of step with the more fundamentalist, fire-and-brimstone-and-barcodes-on-the-forehead Christianity espoused by the film’s creators. Needless to say, when the Rapture comes, things look pretty grim for ole Patty:
Perhaps understandably, this flick scared the crap out of most of us, leaving us terrified that at any moment, all our loved ones would disappear, leaving us trapped in careening, driverless cars or screaming our heads off at the sight of unmanned razors bearing an inexplicable resemblance to transistor radios. I couldn’t sleep properly for a week. And all of this, mind, was done in the name of preparing us for “paradise.” If we were good, and followed instructions, and made sure we carefully kept our balance on the needle-thin Path of Acceptable Behavior, then maybe we would be swept up to Heaven, leaving behind all the Dirty, Nasty Sinners to puzzle over our empty gaucho pants and platform clogs and Chevy Novas. It was basically the same argument children are given to promote good behavior for Santa Claus – “be good and you’ll get presents; misbehave, and you get coal,” except in this case, the “present” was ETERNAL SALVATION and the “coal” was, uh, burning hot coals.
IN YOUR EYEBALLS.
Fast forward to this past weekend, when your friend and his, Harold Camping, predicted the Rapture would occur. As you are here now, reading this, obviously Harold made some miscalculations on the ole Crazytron 3000. Nor is it the first time he’s done so. But luckily, Harold can take comfort in his faith to sustain him. Well, that and the EIGHTY MILLION DOLLAR PROFIT his, ahem, “fellowship” raised during the promotion of Rapturepalooza 20111.
Camping’s thief failed to show, and he (Camping) is not unique in his chicanery – people have been predicting the end of the world for millennia – but he IS unique in his use of the media to create a tidal wave of publicity for his church and his message. His billboards, adverts and t-shirt-clad henchpeople swarmed the American media, relying on the old saw that “any publicity is good publicity,” and even if people didn’t agree with Señor Crazypants and his Nonpocalypse, they got the message. His message earned him attention, money and followers. But is it a message worth hearing?
I’ve long been puzzled by this morbid obsession some people have with the end of the world. I can understand – to a point – their desire to live a perfect life, free from stress, disease, poverty and hunger; a life in paradise. What I don’t understand is the idea, usually working in concert with the concept of “dominion over the Earth,” that we must hasten this end; that we must, rather than working to make the lives we have NOW better, happier and more fulfilling, subject ourselves to misery and guilt (and those who don’t share our beliefs to endless proselytizing and persecution) in the hope of meeting JesuSanta’s Behavioral Requirements so we can all get a big pile of spiritual presents when we slip loose this mortal coil.
MY questions, in response to the positively GLEEFUL anticipation of Creation’s end, are:
1) Why not devote our resources to making THIS life better for everyone, rather than focusing so much time, effort and energy to making sure some Super Special Gold Reading Group of magical Chosen Ones is prepped for salvation?
2) What sort of merciful God would permit, let alone encourage, the sort of “nanny-nanny-boo-boo” idiocy that many religious sects exhibit, using what little time they have on this rock to lord their alleged superiority over those who don’t subscribe to their particular flavor of “Sky Daddy Likes Me Best,” rather than working to improve the lot of humankind as a species?
3) Must Paradise and life on Earth be mutually exclusive?
After all, what is so very loving about the idea that salvation is something one must squirrel away or send away for with boxtops or have bestowed upon you because You are the Very Best Baby in the Whole Wide World, Yes You Are!? What about the notion (crazy, I know) that the spark that ignites our sentience, the bit of the Infinite that empowers the angel inside our ape, is Divine, and therefore all humans – regardless of station, or culture, or name they give to God – are worthy of respect, of love, of recognition? What if our salvation lies not in the next life, but in each other? Free will being what it is, and God’s plan being high on ineffability, could it be that what is holding us back from Cibola, or Heaven, or Nirvana, or Sofia Vergara’s Bedroom, is our stubborn insistence that although we are cut from the same cloth, only some of us are worthy of the Eternal Armoire?
When the thief fails to show, there’s a palpable sense of disappointment from those who eagerly anticipated salvation – but salvation from what? Responsibility for dealing with the population crisis? The damage we’ve done to our environment? War, famine and strife? The manifold ways in which man is, indeed, a wolf to man? If so, could it be that the “salvation” offered in this context is merely a hall pass to evade one’s role as a productive member of the human race? After all, there is little incentive to care for the Earth, its limited resources or each other if one is motivated by the idea that our planet is God’s lobby, a mere layover on the Rapture Express, and all that is required is that one follow the rules until it’s time to get on board.
“Rapture” comes from a Latin root meaning “to snatch or grab.” The common notion – that the virtuous will be snatched up and taken to Heaven, while the sinners settle in for a century or two of problems before the REALLY bad stuff starts – may require an adjustment. Perhaps, through our poor stewardship of this world while we are in it, we are advancing steadily toward a day when what will be snatched away is our chance to reverse our slide toward Hell on Earth, and we will discover that the dead really are to be envied. It may be that we have in our hands, today, the power to save ourselves, or at least our species.
Saturday night, one of Harold Camping’s followers was quoted as saying, “It’s still May 21 and God’s going to bring it. When you say something and it doesn’t happen, your pride is what’s hurt. But who needs pride? God said he resists the proud and gives grace to the humble.” So, then, let us be humble. Let us look at each other not as competitors, or inferiors, but as members of the same household, working together so we’ll be ready if and when, some starless night, we hear the soft tread of the thief in our halls.