My commentary this week is a risky exercise because I am going to offer some thoughts on the end of the world – which some Christians believe shall begin with what’s known as the rapture, the moment when Jesus returns to earth and gathers up the saved. It’s risky because if one group of Christians is right, then this piece is only going to be accessible here on television or online for a few hours, for Jesus will have begun shutting down creation on Saturday, May 21 – and if that happens, presumably folks are going to have other things to think about than what’s new over at PBS.
In other words, my friends, it’s time to pack your tote bags, because the end is nigh. I’m hoping mine can withstand flames, because I have feeling I’m headed to the warmest of climates. Still, I’m willing to gamble that viewers and readers will be able to see this, because I don’t really think Saturday is the end of the world, unless the Yankees lose another game in what has been a miserable May.
In case you missed it, here’s the background. Harold Camping, the leader of a Christian group called Family Radio, did some calculating from the Bible and determined that the rapture is May 21, 2011, which will then be followed by five months of horrors on earth before the Lord totally destroys the earth and all those who failed to accept Jesus as savior. The specificity of the date prompted online interest and talk – and ended up with my colleague Alison Stewart suggesting that I weigh in on all this.
Which I shall briefly do. Among the many problems with taking the Bible literally is it reduces the most mysterious and complex of realities to simple – even simplistic – terms. Yes, scripture speaks of fire and damnation and eternal bliss, but the Bible is the product of human hands and hearts, and much of the imagery is allegorical, not meteorological. Whether there’s a heaven and a hell, or one or the other, and who gets to go where, are questions I am afraid I am unqualified to answer. Sorry, Alison. And I’ll go further: I don’t think anyone is qualified to answer questions of eternal fate definitively, much less pinpoint it to a given day.
The usual point to make in a discussion like this is that apocalyptic movements spring up at hours of great political or social stress, but every hour has its great political and social stresses, so I don’t put much stock in that line of analysis.
Here’s what I do put a lot of stock in: there is an immense and interesting canon of critical work about the Bible and its implications and applications that needs and deserves a wider audience. My own favorite is the former Anglican bishop of Durham, England, N. T. Wright, who writes of religious matters with the faith of a believer and the rigor of a scientist. The more we can do to support and promulgate the intellectual traditions of the Abrahamic faiths – of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – the better armed we will be to fight fundamentalism.
I’m not being dismissive of religion: I am a Christian (albeit a bad one). But I believe God gave us reason as well as scripture. William Porcher Dubose, the great Episcopalian priest and theologian, was once asked what he made of the book of Revelation. “I have no idea,” he replied. Ah, for the humility to be so honest – on the day of judgment, and every other day.