Wednesday, November 13

Apocalyptic thinking remains wishful, unfulfilled


On the night of Oct. 21, 1844, the northeast United States and thereabouts were all astir. A considerable group of Baptists, inspired by the mathematical prowess of a farmer named William Miller, had come to believe that Christ would come in glory and triumph the next day. Soon enough his Heavenly Tardiness became ever more apparent. That day would go down in history as the Great Disappointment.

Surely you all know the feeling: the acute awareness of the calendar, the fear of impending doom, the hope for sudden salvation. If you are graduating like I am, you must.

But even for those of us wishing for our own imminent salvation, was anyone truly surprised when Harold Camping, the latest preacher to boast apocalyptic foreknowledge, turned out to be wrong?

I confess to feeling unsatisfied when Saturday rolled around without the Rapture ““ when, according to Camping, good Christians (preferably of the born-again variety) would have disappeared miraculously from our world, heralding the destruction of the universe.

Like so many dull delusions, apocalyptic thinking has its advantages. Without a doubt, it makes one’s lot in life seem all the more interesting. It is the expectation that something soon to come will whisk away our troubles. It is the hope for the hereafter.

In grade school, we were read chapters of the Left Behind book series, a fictionalized account of the Rapture and the dystopian disaster and damnation of everyone else that followed. With more than 63 million copies sold, a spot atop The New York Times Best Seller List, movies, video games, a comic book and spinoffs to its name, the series has charmed the fears and aspirations of the eschatologically minded worldwide.

Yet this fascination with the hereafter goes beyond religious circles. There is something very Hollywood about vapid and vain hope; I count Disney among the guilty too.

Suppose that Prince Charming never comes to kiss you from your slumber; Daddy Warbucks never fetches an orphan; that dream opportunity never falls upon your lap. The universe is simply far too boring for your lucky stars ever to align. In all fairness, to think so pessimistically is no less arrogant than Camping’s own predictions.

And though I am no stranger to arrogance, I am averse to absurdity, and putting all of one’s eggs in the Basket Soon-to-Come is precisely that.

Historically, people left their families, their jobs and their possessions to anticipate the End; at the very least, they all looked rather silly.

To put stock in some fantastic future dream is to forfeit all rights to be taken seriously. To wait for something good to come, to expect things to fall magically into place ““ nothing is more fruitless than that.

The principal danger of having hope in the hereafter ““ be it deliverance from unemployment, salvation from stress, comfort from loneliness or the miraculous coming of Christ ““ is that we risk resigning our lives to fate. We place responsibility in the hands of a cosmic cliche, rather than assuming the burden ourselves.

Let us re-evaluate our values; let us give “hope” no greater dignity than it deserves. Let us erect in its place something more constructive: like ambition, or spirit or will. But so long as we suffer hope to infect our hearts and minds, we admit belief in fairy tales.

It is this world ““ our mundane, miserable world ““ that matters; our fantasies are frivolous. “But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven,” objects the Gospel of Matthew; not on earth, “where moth and rust doth corrupt.” In any case, moths and rust are not so bad.

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