Neil Carter took time out from his busy Apostacon preparations to write a great post recently about how evangelical beliefs make adherents more gullible marks for false prophets to deceive.
I think it was a great post–and spot on. One of my most popular posts on Ex-Communications was one I wrote last April about the exact prophecy Neil discusses in that post–the Blood Moon rapture scare, and how similar it was to one that frightened me into converting to Pentecostalism as a teenager (the “88 Reasons” scare).
Indeed, like most Rapture scares before it, the Blood Moon scare has given itself quite a lot of wiggle room by providing a wide range of dates for its predictions.* In this case, the end of the world will be on one of four different dates ranging from April 15, 2014 to September 28, 2015. And like most Rapture scares, its authors are being painfully vague about just what the end of the world will look like, as one of them said:
I’m just saying there’s a good chance there could be a war with Israel. . . I’m also saying there’s a good chance there could be economic calamity. And I’m basing that on the Bible and patterns.
Really. Mysterious patterns hidden in plain sight, that favorite of wingnuts the world over. But could it also maybe be zombies? Or how about a meteor strike? Back in the 1980s, we assumed it would involve some kind of war in the Middle East, which is apparently still on the table if the unwarranted popularity of the Left Behind series is anything to go by, but we weren’t nearly as imaginative back then as fundagelicals are nowadays.
All these spurts of strangely-specific information meshed with strangely-vague guesses reminds me a bit of that joke from Airplane! where Ted shares his orders with Elaine:
Ted: My squadron ships out tomorrow. We’re bombing the storage depots at Daiquiri at 1800 hours. We’re coming in from the north, below their radar.
Elaine: When will you be back?
Ted: I can’t tell you that. It’s classified.
In the same way, it is simply bizarre to me that people who have built up this total conspiracy theory around all these “Bible codes” and arcane secret societies and government plots seem to be so incapable of coming up with what really should be one of the easiest parts of their predictions: what’s going to happen, exactly, and when.
But that’s not even the worst part of these constant streams of Rapture scares.
Fear of (Not) Flying.
On Neil’s post I shared a comment regarding how awful it was to be a true-blue bright-eyed little Pentecostal lass during the height of the “88 Reasons” scare. I wasn’t even kidding. It was horrifying to imagine that everyone I knew was going to suffer and probably die, and that I couldn’t make them understand the danger they were in. I lived in a sick dread that got worse with every passing day.
I probably got more obnoxious to be around with every passing day, too! My church talked a lot about metaphors like “OMG it’s just like they can’t see a bus bearing down on them but we can!” and we built strategies around how to make everyone we loved see the invisible bus we thought we saw. None of these strategies involved providing any solid evidence for our claims; if someone didn’t buy into the same worldview we did and didn’t accept that the Bible was a divine document or that global politics or governments worked the way we thought they did, then we didn’t have anything else at our disposal to make our case for us.
What a lot of folks don’t realize is that the “88 Reasons” scare actually lasted several years. I began hearing about it early on, and it scared the tar out of me. But after that first scare didn’t pan out, its author decided he’d been off slightly and issued new predictions all the way till 1997, when he finally faded into irrelevance and died a few years later.
I wish Christians understood that there is “nothing new under the sun” when it comes to these scares. They’ve been popular in Christian mythology and folklore ever since the religion got rolling centuries ago. As Christians began desiring greater and greater dominance in society–and losing more and more of it through the inevitable dilution of denominational branching–their leaders figured out very quickly that fear and flattery worked wonders on their marks.
Here’s What Fear-Based Marketing Looks Like.
I was sold a manufactured need based on my natural human desire to avoid danger.
Fear lies at the heart of Christianity, not love–though oh, wouldn’t Christians just love it if they could muddy that point! You can see the dynamic at work every single day when Christians fail to convert their targets with love and pull out the threats to try to ram their points home. And behind all of the lovey-dovey Boyfriend-Jesus witnessing lies a monstrous threat that even most “nice” Christians acknowledge readily: that if someone fails to appreciate this cosmic boyfriend to
his other Christians’ satisfaction, then an eternity of torture awaits them for their “choice” in rejecting his “free gift.”
For people who are aware of fear-based marketing tactics these attempts to terrorize fall on rocky ground and don’t sprout. But people who are raised with fear and who understand fear aren’t prepared to withstand this most dreadful of threats. People who’ve never learned to critically evaluate threats and sales techniques alike are also woefully unprepared to stave off this kind of manipulation. So to them, whoever comes up with the most dreadful threat and the most manipulative sales technique wins their devotion.
Rapture theology wins on both counts.
I was flattered constantly by my leaders for buying into their claims.
I was in on the ground floor of one of the most important truths that could ever be told–second only, really, to the truth of Boyfriend Jesus’ lavish “free gift” in the first place! Not everyone had the discernment to understand how precarious humanity’s situation was, but I’d been oh so very wise. I’d seen the light. I’d accepted the truth. Wasn’t I just amazingly smart? (And pretty too, once I fully bought into the denomination’s rules about “modesty.” Modest women were just soooo pretty and sexy, in a godly kind of way of course. “Worldly” women were just so ickie.) I was so smart that I could avoid that terrible end awaiting everyone who rejected the sales pitch!
We were the Chosen People.** We were the ones who were smart enough to escape the horrific Tribulation to come. We had diagrams.
As you can imagine, when I hear Christians go on and on about the importance of humility and humbleness, I just laugh and laugh on the inside. Flattery amid fearmongering is a huge part of the appeal of this flavor of Christianity.
My ignorance was preyed upon.
I wasn’t the only teenager who converted on the basis of the “88 Reasons” Rapture scare–not by far. There were probably a dozen kids in my high school alone who converted because of it, and dozens of kids from other schools besides. I don’t remember exactly what the tally ended up being, but at my church alone it was easily into the three digits. My pastor–a genial older gentleman with a folksy down-home just-folks manner–worried aloud sometimes about how his Youth Ministry would get all those kids safely indoctrinated before they drifted out again, but at the time none of us even imagined that we’d ever leave.
We sure didn’t think that he was worried about what we’d do when the Rapture didn’t happen on schedule.
We definitely didn’t know that there’d been a great many Rapture scares before this one. We were too young to have lived through any of them, and we didn’t know anything about the history of fundamentalism beyond oft-repeated popular mythology about the original Azusa Street Revival that had, we were told, sparked the beginnings of modern Pentecostalism.
Had I even suspected the truth about Rapture theology and previous Rapture scares, a lot of things would have gone differently for me. Looking back, I don’t remember a single middle-aged person who converted because of a Rapture scare. The older people who bought into it did so because they were lifelong Christians who had always been taught that the end of the world would happen in their lifetimes–and that meant they didn’t have long at all to go!
I was deliberately kept frightened.
My fear was exhausting in every single sense of the word. I woke up terrified–and relieved, and disappointed that I was even still alive–went to school in a daze of fear, and came home to more fear. I went to bed terrified that I wouldn’t wake up. I went to church every single day and sometimes got myself sick worrying that some unconfessed sin would keep me out of the Rapture that was surely coming any second. My friends were in the same exact boat with me, all of us worried and fretting and frantic and reeling and hysterical.
My pastor and various ministers had to have seen how scared we were–how scared I was. I’m not one of those people who can keep stuff bottled up–I’ve always been a very expressive person, easy to read. My denomination counseled believers to stay very close to their pastoral team, and all of us were therefore on very personal terms. So I refuse to accept that they simply were in the dark, totally, about where I was emotionally.
At any point during the most terrifying days of the “88 Reasons” Rapture scare, my leaders could have sat me down and told me not to be so worried, and could have told me why I shouldn’t be so worried.
At no point whatsoever during that scare did any of them do so.
The rewards, to them, were greater if I were scared and ignorant than if I were unafraid and aware.
It’s worth noting, too, that only the younger people seemed really scared about making the cut. The older Christians–who, remember, had seen previous scares aplenty–weren’t worried about that at all. They all took for granted that they’d be Raptured! I never even noticed that difference myself, not for years after deconverted.
Mojitos in Jesus’ Party Van: the Second Selling Point.
When you see Christians frantically handing out tracts about the Rapture or buying billboards or haunting conventions with their signs and diagrams, for the most part you’re seeing people who are duped and tricked into thinking that there is a good reason to be afraid. Chances are they don’t even know that there have been so many previous scares. Fear is the selling point they have fallen for.
But what about the older Christians, the ones who’ve been through many scares in the past?
Those are the ones you need to watch out for.
And you especially need to watch out for Christian leaders who try to sell new Rapture scares to their flocks. Vindication is their selling point.
Such preachers will rope in ever-decreasing numbers of people who’ve never ever heard about other Rapture scares, sure, but mostly they’re talking to themselves and selling their snake oil to ever-tightening cores of True Believers who are in it for the less-flattering rewards they get for buy-in. There are a lot of those rewards, too: feeling flattered for being smart and wise, sure, but also that glittering-eyed smugness one sees in Christians who announce, loudly, what terrible punishments are coming outsiders’ ways for not listening to them.
Christians who know that there’ve been other Rapture scares in the past look at new Rapture scares like other folks look at lottery tickets: sure, they’ve always failed to win in the past, but this time might be the big payoff. The problem is that their payoff happens for the worst reasons and at the expense of those who disagree with them. It’s like they’re all saying in their own heads (and sometimes out loud, if you let them):
Those meaniepie non-believers will get what’s coming to them. They’ll see. They’ll know one day that we were right, but it’ll be too late for them. And we’ll wave to them over our mojitos in Jesus’ party van, and we’ll watch them scream and suffer and we won’t lift a hand to help them. Indeed why would we? They should suffer for laughing at us in this life. We’ll laugh at them in the afterlife and taunt them, and there’ll be nothing they can do about it. They deserve this end, just as we deserve the one we’re getting.
This is the heart of modern Rapture scares, right here, beating thick sludgy blood into the minds of its older adherents: fury, revenge-lust, overweening pride, and narcissism. What they ache for most is vindication.
When you see Rapture preachers selling their snake oil to the flocks, look to see how they do it: are they selling fear to newer converts or non-believers?
Or are they selling vindication to long-existing Christians who are already in the tribe?
Because both still sell to the right crowds, and both keep the money train going for their authors and preachers. More than anything else, both selling points are nothing but a cynical grab for what little money and attention can still be fleeced from Christian sheep. As badly as these sales pitches fail and as badly as they backfire, as much credibility as these scams destroy, there are still enough rewards for the people making them that we haven’t seen the last attempt to predict the end of the world.
Christians themselves are making sure of that.
* The mechanism is exactly the same for “psychics” who cold-read mourning relatives. “Does his name start with D? How about G? How about F? Was it Fred? Frank? Great! Frank says not to worry about him because he went peacefully. Oh, it was a car crash? Well, after the crash I mean. He’s a little garbled and all. He says you should look under the rrrr… the frrr…. the fridge.” It’s indeed very very curious that so many ghostly relatives seem to be incapable of speaking plainly.
** Right now a whole bunch of people who actually understand anything about Judaism are fetching their eyeballs from the ceiling. It’s okay, we’ll wait for y’all to get ’em screwed back into their sockets.