Last updated on 22 Jun 2018
So, if you are reading this, then the Rapture didn’t take you. I spent a fair bit of May 21 Tweeting various ways in which it didn’t happen in Australia. A bit of harmless fun, but I noted something as I did so: every so often I had a twinge of “what do I do if at 6pm Jesus returns?” It lasted a millisecond, but then, I was inculcated into Evangelical eschatology when I was in my teens, and even now, a Chick Tract can trigger that twinge. It never survives the heat of a bit of reflection, of course, but that has me wondering why people allow themselves to be taken in by these obviously silly beliefs?
So to start, let us consider two extreme views: end, the standard skeptical view that the likelihood of the Rapture (or any other millenarian belief, like the Mayan apocalypse or the Communist Revolution) is vanishingly small. At the other end, that it is almost if not actually certain. The cost of the belief being true and you not believing it is very high, just as in Pascal’s Wager, which this is a form of. So as the likelihood approaches some threshold, it will become rational to accept the truth of the belief.
Hence, the key strategy for Apocalypticists is to convince people that there is sufficient likelihood of the truth of their predictions. This is where our evolved heuristics can fail and fail badly. We do not have an innate ability to realistically evaluate risks. We tend to over-interpret, finding many false positives. Where the cost of a false positive is low, this can be tolerated – it is better to be jumpy but evade predators when they really are there than to be blasé and get eaten. Jesus’ return is like being predated upon.
But false negatives have a cost too. It takes energy to be jumpy. And sometimes, that anxiety can lead to vulnerability to disease, failure to thrive in society (because you are unable to take advantage of opportunities), and most of all it can lead some proportion of the population to act so fearfully they will, for example, try to kill their children to “protect” them.
Conceptual formation can be usefully seen as an economic process. We invest heavily in our beliefs in terms of time, energy and resources. We commit to social relations through our conceptual commitments. If I believe Jesus will come back with a vengeance, then those who share my belief are more strongly tied to me and my welfare than either of us are to you heathens and heretics. Once you make that investment, you are loath to abandon it, and you end up with a kind of conceptual Gresham’s Law, throwing good resources after bad. This is why people will continue to believe in Camping’s teachings even after two failed Raptures. Not all of them, of course – some will drop away – but many will find their investment so great that to give it up would destroy everything they have. That’s tough (I speak from personal experience here).
So while I mocked, at the same time I felt along with these believers. They, like everybody else, are trying to make sense of a complex and usually intransigent world that doesn’t come with a manual. Even Camping himself, I think. False positives can be tolerated, we all agree. What we disagree on is how many, and at what cost. Risk assessment is a difficult business, and prediction, as Yogi Berra is supposed to have said, is hard, especially beforehand.