I was going through Twitter this morning on the phone before getting out of bed, and suddenly started wondering what all the “rapture” stuff I was seeing was about.
Normally when at home I don’t use US-based news sources much, finding them way too limited — mostly because of a tendency of such sources to ignore the rest of the planet unless it’s somehow impinging directly on the US to the point where it can’t be ignored any more. None of the outside-USA sources I follow have as yet had a word to say about anything rapture-oriented.
However, Google News soon made plain what I’d been missing (partly due to being caught up, among other work, in the final proofreading and corrections on the international edition of A Wizard Abroad) (thank you again, faithful proofers! You caught a whole pile of errors that I missed, and I’m doing your acknowledgment page this morning).
Anyway, my initial response was, “Oh good. At least they picked a date after my birthday.”
As is so often the case, C. S. Lewis dealt straightforwardly with this sort of phenomenon some time back. The full text of the essay “The World’s Last Night” is here, but this bit goes to the core of the matter — Lewis’s version of the question, “Don’t you people read your own docs? And if you do, why do you accept one part of them and ditch another?”
We must admit at once that [the doctrine of the Second Coming] has, in the past, led Christians into very great follies. Apparently many people find it difficult to believe in this great event without trying to guess its date, or even without accepting as a certainty the date that any quack or hysteric offers them. To write a history of all these exploded predictions would need a book, and a sad, sordid, tragi-comical book it would be. One such prediction was circulating when St. Paul wrote his second letter to the Thessalonians. Someone had told them that “the Day” was “at hand.” This was apparently having the result which such predictions usually have: people were idling and playing the busybody. One of the most famous predictions was that of poor William Miller in 1843. Miller (whom I take to have been an honest fanatic) dated the Second Coming to the year, the day, and the very minute. A timely comet fostered the delusion. Thousands waited for the Lord at midnight on March 21st, and went home to a late breakfast on the 22nd followed by the jeers of a drunkard.
Clearly, no one wishes to say anything that will reawaken such mass hysteria. We must never speak to simple, excitable people about “the Day” without emphasizing again and again the utter impossibility of prediction. We must try to show them that that impossibility is an essential part of the doctrine. If you do not believe our Lord’s words, why do you believe in his return at all? And if you do believe them must you not put away from you, utterly and forever, any hope of dating that return? His teaching on the subject quite clearly consisted of three propositions, (i) That he will certainly return. (2) That we cannot possibly find out when. (3) And that therefore we must always be ready for him.
…Our Lord repeated this practical conclusion again and again; as if the promise of the Return had been made for the sake of this conclusion alone. Watch, watch, is the burden of his advice. I shall come like a thief. You will not, I most solemnly assure you you will not, see me approaching. If the householder had known at what time the burglar would arrive, he would have been ready for him. If the servant had known when his absent employer would come home, he would not have been found drunk in the kitchen. But they didn’t; nor will you.
…Of this folly George MacDonald has written well. “Do those,” he asks, “who say, Lo here or lo there are the signs of his coming, think to be too keen for him and spy his approach? When he tells them to watch lest he find them neglecting their work, they stare this way and that, and watch lest he should succeed in coming like a thief! Obedience is the one key of life.”
(sigh) It’s not that I can’t occasionally understand (like any other human being) the desire to be swiftly and painlessly snatched out of a painful and annoying world into a better one. Or to have the Creator of the Universe implicitly pat you on the back and say “You got it right: never mind the rest of them, they’ll get what’s coming to them.” But right now I just find myself feeling sorry in advance for the people who will wake up on the 22nd (if in fact they don’t sit up all night waiting for the event they are hoping will mean the end of the world) and who will start desperately making up new stories about how and why it didn’t happen. The word for this in psych is confabulation: it made me sad when I used to see it in my patients, and it’ll make me sad again on Saturday.
Anyway: back to work. Because (as Lewis says elsewhere in that essay) the important thing, should you by unlikely chance be around when the world ends, is to be at your post, doing your job the best you can.