Still on Earth, the eternal question remains

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I'm still here. You too?

"The Rapture" was supposed to happen on Saturday -- or so said some radio evangelist I'd never heard of, and boy, did that get a lot of media attention!

If you ask me, that old preacher, Harold Camping, has a screw loose, but that didn't keep me from remembering his prediction a few times on Saturday and glancing at the clock.

I was still here at 11:29 p.m. So was my husband. Had we been left behind? Were we goats and not sheep?

"Are you really a goat?" I asked him, but he was already asleep.

It was too late to call my parents. If any two people were going to make the cut and get "raptured" out of this sad old world, it would be the Rev. Parker Stokes Dailey and his lovely wife, Thelma Jean.

I waited till Sunday morning to call and ask if they were still on the planet. I admit I worried a bit when their cell phone rang endlessly before going to voice mail.

But Mom returned my call a few minutes later, and when I told her I was just checking to see whether Jesus had "come like a thief in the night" and I'd missed it, she giggled and said, "That's crazy!"


Believing that Jesus will return to Earth someday is not the crazy part -- not to the world's roughly 2 billion Christians. Even if only at Christmas and Easter, we regularly recite these words: "He will come again to judge the living and the dead." Jesus is our promise of present grace and eventual justice in a world that so disastrously lacks both.

But you can't expect 2 billion people to agree about the "when." We barely agree about the "who" and the "why."

Jesus himself said, in a long passage (Mark 13) about the end of time, "[The] day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."

Apparently Mr.Camping has some inside connection unavailable to Jesus. He combined numerology with arbitrary dates for Noah's flood and Jesus's crucifixion, and thus arrived at May 21, 2011, as the date when true believers would be "raptured" -- "caught up" -- into heaven.

Mr. Camping predicted this before -- back in 1994 -- and he was wrong then, too. My husband, Andy, used to hear the radio evangelist in the 1980s while scanning the Philadelphia dial. Though new in his faith, Andy knew enough to think the guy was full of beans, but he would listen sometimes anyway. He says he was ensnared by the "mesmerizing drone" -- probably the same reason he married me.

These predictions of Jesus' imminent return started pretty much as soon as he departed. First-century Christians thought he would return during their lifetimes, since the destruction of the temple of Jerusalem (prophesied in that same passage from Mark) had just taken place.

Those who followed Martin Luther's steps in the Protestant Reformation believed the "Great Tribulation Period" had just ended with the break-up of the Roman Catholic Church and the overthrow of church-state tyrannies. What with endless wars and bubonic plague, they were understandably eager to depart.

And recent American history is rife with stories like the "Camping Alert," where true believers give away all their possessions to the unenlightened -- or, more disturbingly, splurge on luxuries thinking they'll never have to pay the bill.

My sister attended a Christian university amicably divided between those who believed in a rapture of believers before the great tribulation (the Baptists) and those who did not (the Presbyterians). My Baptist sister would tease her Presbyterian friends by insisting on leaving her keys with them so if the rapture happened while she was out of town, they could still get into her house and feed her cats.

Yeah, it's a religious joke -- kind of an inside thing -- but if we didn't laugh about this, we'd cry. Thousands of lives have been ruined, families torn asunder and sincere hearts wounded by putting faith in these false claims.

They're "false," of course, only within the framework of the religion we espouse. A nonbeliever would say we could avoid the controversy by disavowing the whole enterprise in favor of science -- as if science and religion have to be mutually exclusive!

Last week wasn't a high point for secular science either, as Stephen Hawking asserted that heaven doesn't exist. I'm sure he concluded this by rigorously applying the scientific method to prodigious empirical evidence.

No thanks. I took Pascal's wager a long time ago. I choose to believe. And endless speculation about when and how Jesus will bring the agonies of human history to a close distract us from the most pressing question we face, as summed up by the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel: "How should we then live?"

Ruth Ann Dailey: .


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