Stop the World: I Want to Get Off

by Rev. Dr. Edward Frost

Presented 2011 August 07 to the congregation of Mountain Light Unitarian Universalist Church in Cherry Log GA.

William Camping is an 89 year, multi-millionaire radio evangelist. Early this past spring, Mr. Camping predicted--based on his calculations drawn from books of the Bible and current world events--that the world would come to end on May 21st. Why this particular prediction stirred the press with such vigor mystifies me--but newspapers, radio and TV the world over considered his announcement newsworthy. And then there were the dozens of billboards Camping paid for and spread around California. I don't doubt that television and radio anchors announced Mr. Camping's declaration with tongue in cheek and that newspapers carried his story as comic relief from the usual horrors of daily events.

Few people took the apocalyptic warning seriously though there were reports that one man sold his worldly goods and climbed the requisite mountain to await the end. And a reporter interviewed a disappointed 36 year old trucker who had driven from Maryland to Oakland, California in hopes of being taken up in the promised rapture. "I was hoping," he told the reporters who outnumbered the believers outside Camping's radio station. "Heaven," he said, will be a lot better than this earth."

You may have noticed that the prediction was not fulfilled. Camping has done some re-figuring and now declares that we can expect the end in six months from May 21st--somewhere around November.

Perhaps we should not be too unkind with the red-faced: Mr. Camping: after all, he is far from being the first to declare the end--the apocalypse, armageddon, the second coming of Christ, the rapture--the end of it all. An Assyrian clay tablet was unearthed, dating to approximately 2800 B.C. that bearrs the words, "Our earth is degenerated in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common."

If bribery and corruption signs of the end we'd better get ready to face Camping's prediction for November.

If 2800 B.C. was the first known prediction of the end times it certainly was not the last. Just about every era of human history has had its prophets of doom and gatherings on the mountaintops to await the end.

The prophecies of the "end times" proliferated with the coming of the Teacher, Jesus of Nazareth on the world's stage and the fanciful, mis-remembered and manufactured accounts of his teaching bound into scripture following his death.

The Gospel of Luke has Jesus saying about the end time, "Watch, therefore, and pray always, that you may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, "and to stand before the Son of Man." That appears with so many other biblical passages containing words Jesus is unlikely to have said but were inserted into scripture by the church to support it's doctrines.

For two thousand years self-proclaimed prophets and predictors have fiddled with the so-called "apocalyptic" books of the Bible--the strange visions and fantasies of the Book of Revelation, the Book of Daniel and the book of Ezekiel--misunderstood and misused to predict the years and months and days of the end of it all.

Not only lone prophets and quickly disappearing cults but several major Christian faiths today continue to hold end of the world convictions as a major anchor of their faith. William G. Miller--early founder and leader of the "Millerites"--who eventually became the "Seventh Day Adventists"--made several prophecies in the 1800s concerning the fateful day--none of which, obviously, came to pass. Miller's ministry was supported by Sister Ellen G. White, who was considered a true prophet and whose writing "The Key To The Scriptures" continues to be revered today by Adventists as having equal authority with the Bible.

The famous Christian writer, C. S. Lewis wrote of Miller: "Poor William Miller in 1843 (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 21s and went home to late breakfast on the 22nd, followed by the jeers of a drunkard."

Nevertheless, the Seventh Day Adventists boast about 25 million members and are one of the fastest growing religions in the world, mostly due to mass conversions in third world countries. Converts continue to be attracted to end of the world faiths that promise a paradise to come any day, at any time.

The end of the world faith with which I am most familiar are the Jehovah's Witnesses. An early 19th century founder of this end times faith was Charles Taze Russell a fervent preacher of the second coming of Christ. His sermons, tracts, lectures and pamphlets total nearly 50,000 pages.

Among all those pages Russell wrote that the "clear unfolding of truth" within his teachings was due to "the simple fact that God's due time has come; and if I did not speak, and no other agent could be found, the very stones would cry out."

I think I have mentioned at least a couple of times that my grandmother was converted by the Witnesses from her former convictions as a spiritualist. Since neither of my parents were church-goers or religious in any way that I can recall, my religious instruction fell by default into my grandmother's strong hands. I can still remember the graphic pictures of the suffering of the-- damned she showed me in her "Awake" and "Watchtower" magazines publications which evolved from Pastor Russell's writings.

The Witnesses teach that the beginning of the end came in 1914 when the "first among angels," Lucifer, angel of light, challenged God's power and was cast out of heaven--provoking the World War. (Witnesses at that time did not expect there would be another.) Lucifer, the devil, so the teaching goes, was given a brief time (in heavenly terms) to do his worst on earth to turn humanity to his side--then would come Armageddon, the awful battle between Satan and his followers and the mighty Archangel, Michael.

Needless to say, Satan will lose this terrible battle. Following the holocaust, 144,000 believers will join God in heaven. Unbelievers (those who are not Jehovah's Witnesses) will be destroyed. The earth will be cleansed and become a paradise ruled by Christ and inhabited by those believers who were not taken up to heaven.

My grandmother poured into my young ears accounts of the coming day when the air would be filled with the screams of the dying and the streets would run with blood of the destroyed. Naturally, as child, I was all for joining hands with those saved--those who would live forever, knowing no disease or death. I must say that it was my grandmother's greatest sorrow when reason prevailed and I turned my back on all that gore and opted for a gentler faith.

Despite many predictions of the signs of the end time and of the terrible Armageddon to come, Armageddon being the last battle between good and evil before the end of the world as we know it. Obviously, time after time, prophecy failed and the people of the earth have continued to slog through the mire of their ignorance and sin.

The Awake and Watchtower magazines and the lay leaders (there are no ministers) now avoid predictions of the day and hour of the terrible final battle of Armageddon. A recent issue of Watchtower magazine quietly acknowledged that Jesus was right after all when he said "No one knows the day or the hour." But make no mistake, the day and the hour will come. A spokesman says, "The end is still close. "We just can't put numbers on Jesus's words."

And what were Jesus' words? The Apostle Paul's letter to the Thessalonians says that after the great holocaust "The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, "and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. "And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words."

"...We who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air." Ah, yes--The Rapture.

You may be familiar with--or at least heard of--the no less than sixteen best selling novels of Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins. The series, starting with the book called "Left Behind," is based on interpretations (or misinterpretations) of the "end of the world " prophecies in the Biblical books of Isaiah, Daniel, Revelation and Ezekiel.

Barbara Rossing, Professor of New Testament studies at the Lutheran School of Theology at the University of Chicago, begins her book on the phenomenon of fascination with the Rapture with the words, "The Rapture is a racket." She points out in her book that the biblical Book of Revelation has nothing to do with predictions about the end of our days. It is not a story to frighten backsliders with visions of mass slaughter. The Book of Revelation is actually a book of hope for the Jews under Roman oppression--promising the imminent end of merciless Roman rule. But LEHAYE and Jenkins have made an adventure series--and millions of dollars--out of the so-called prophecies of the "end times" when the righteous will be "raptured," taken up into the clouds to be with the Lord, and the unbelievers trodden under the hooves of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Sales reached almost 100 million with only the twelfth book of apocalyptic adventure. The plots are one long nail-biting serial starring born again Christians Rayford Steele, his daughter Chloe, the pastor Bruce Barnes and a young journalist named Cameron "Buck" Williams. They are on a quest as "The Tribulation Force" to help save the lost and prepare for the coming "Tribulation:" in which God will rain down judgment on the world for seven years.

Jerry Falwell says about the first book of the series, "In terms of its impact on Christianity, it's probably greater than that of any other book in modern times." I might mention that Falwell and LEHAYE Co-founded the "Moral Majority."

The rollicking success of these fantasy books--Christian science fiction--is a clear indication of the fascination--and the fear or the longing--of millions of people for any faith or fiction about the end of the world. Why are so many so eager to stop the world and get off--or stop the world and kick their unbelieving neighbors off? My personal theory has to do with Hope and Retribution.

I know that there are many true believers who simply accept as fact, like others throughout history that this world is going to end--one way or another. They hardly think about it at all. They don't belong to religions that thump their pulpits about it and scare the little children in Sunday Schools with it. They just believe there will be an end to this world--and their belief is part and parcel of their belief in God, the virgin birth and resurrection: beliefs they never talk about and which affect their lives hardly at all. But for many others, the conviction that we live in the end times and that the Rapture, the Second Coming, Armageddon is at hand fills their hearts and minds and all but governs their lives as they wait, watch and pray, clutch at signs and portents and hang on the predictions of self-proclaimed preachers and prophets.

The expectation of the end of the world as we know it--by the Hand of God or the sword of the Archangel--is for many a source of hope. When a globe-shattering earthquake erupted on Easter of the year 1000 one recorder wrote, "...from here already our hope grows more certain." After all, when we speak of the end of the world as we know it we perhaps need to be reminded by those who read the signs with hope and longing that the world as we know it is not a thing of joy and beauty for millions who suffer in it. Their hope is for an end to this world which holds for them only suffering, disease and hunger. and their dream of a better place--a place of eternal beauty, health, fulness and happiness forever.

My Jehovah's Witness grandmother was put out to work on a farm at the age of eight. She was married young to a faithless and brutal man. She had little to hope for in her life--except the prospect of a new life to come. Her belief in the promise of a new world sustained her. She lived for ninety-six years and at the age of ninety-five was still knocking on doors, handing out Watchtower and Awake magazines determined to convince others to share in the eternal bliss of a new world to come. But if the end time is to be a time of joy for some it is a time of wrath and regret for others. Some who await the end are eager for vengeance and retribution.

Many eagerly await the downfall of their oppressors and endure their lives of misery in envisioning the torment of those who will not enter paradise. A black slave cried out in her despair: "There's a day a-comin! I hear the rumbling' of the chariots I see white folks blood a runnin' on the ground like a river and the dead heaped up high. "O Lord! Hasten the day when the blows and the bruises and the aches and pains shall come to the white folks. "O Lord! Give me the pleasure of living to that day."

For some, Doomsday, it is believed, will be a day of gladness. And for others a Day of Wrath. As for me, in spite of my beloved grandmother's teaching I don't think I ever expected to see the Archangel, Michael come and cleanse the earth.

As a child, I was too young to envision it and as a young adult I became too rational to accept it. There are those who teach us that there is an eternity in each of our days --in each of our hours. Whether or not there is an end to it all, we have this day, these hours.

Thoreau wrote, "Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each." "Heaven is under our feet," he wrote, as well as over our heads."

If our much-vaunted reason has robbed us of dreams of pearly gates and streets of gold, it has also given us the capacity to choose this life as our eternity, to rise each morning in thanks to whatever hallowed gods abide in us for whatever moments that lie before us, for this day, our daily bread, our trespasses forgiven. And, as for me, if the rapture does not come in my lifetime, I shall not be disappointed.