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Rapture and risk

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.


  1. I hate to break it to you, John. But the rapture did happen and we’re now living in Paradise.


    • FAUSTUS. Where are you damn’d?
      MEPHIST. In hell.
      FAUSTUS. How comes it, then, that thou art out of hell?
      MEPHIST. Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it

  2. Ian H Spedding FCD Ian H Spedding FCD

    Sorry, this can’t be Paradise. There are other people here.

  3. Mark Mark

    There’s a great short film that addresses this “end of the world” neurosis, it’s called “Take Me 2012” and it’s pretty hilarious:

  4. I give more credit than most to the theme of apocalypse, though I don’t think about the end of days theologically and find the book of Revelation an evasion of the actual issue. Heidegger claimed that human existence was framed by the prospect of death, “the possibility of no more possibilities;” but he was being inconsistent in speaking of this horizon as individual death since he recognized that our existence (Dasein) is social all the way through. The real possibility of no more possibilities is not my death but our death, the end of humanity.

    • jeff jeff

      “The real possibility of no more possibilities is not my death but our death, the end of humanity.”

      Is there a way of telling the difference?

      “Heidegger claimed that human existence was framed by the prospect of death, “the possibility of no more possibilities;””

      One of John’s favorite philosophers, if I recall. I remember going to a dentist to have my wisdom teeth removed. He gave me IV valium and told me to count back from 100. When I got to 93, he said, “They’re out – I know what you’re thinking: when did you take them out?”. From his perspective I was unconscious for several hours, but from my perspective I was never really unconscious. The same can be said of a nights sleep. Certainly dreams are a different kind of consciousness, but consciousness all the same. Based on these experiences (data), one might conclude that death is not the end of consciousness. But if it is, that would be equivalent to there being nothing rather than something.

      • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

        I read Sein und Zeit as an undergraduate. By the time I reached the end of my masters, I had largely recovered, with minimal damage. Now let us never speak of it again.

        This argument is, it seems to me, silly. It’s a classic case of subjectivistic projection – what is true of me must be true of the whole universe. When I die, the world proceeds pretty much as if nothing happened, just as it did before I came upon the scene. Only to me and those who value me (these days, my bank manager alone, now that I no longer have pets) will my death be the cessation of something important, and not even to me once I am finished the unpleasantness of doing the dying.

        Sure, humans are able to understand that death is coming, but I suspect we aren’t alone in that (apes probably do also). So what? It isn’t how you die that matters, but how you live, as every philosopher from Epicurus and Gautama Buddha on has noted.

        • jeff jeff

          “It’s a classic case of subjectivistic projection”

          You might very well say that. I couldn’t possibly comment.

          “It isn’t how you die that matters, but how you live, as every philosopher from Epicurus and Gautama Buddha on has noted.”

          Well of course I agree with you. Some philosophers (and scientists) might be dissappointed at the suggestion that figuring out the object of the game isn’t the object of the game. But there are all kinds of demons in this hell.

          It seems to me that eternal non-existence and eternal unconsciousness are equivalent concepts for all practical purposes, and that they are a kind of philosophical singularity where rational thought breaks down. But what I was saying (poorly), is that I cannot actually remember ever being unconscious. I can remember back to 4 or 5, but I don’t know if I was conscious before then or not. Nor do I know if death is the end of consciousness forever and ever amen. That means I cannot even say if my life is framed by non-existence.

        • Granted John’s well known feelings about the guy, I probably shouldn’t have used Heideggerian lingo to try to make my point, which, to be clear, involved pointing out a crucial internal inconsistency in Sein und Zeit. It’s absolutely true, however, that I take the book very seriously. I don’t like Heidegger and I always found him an objectionable person, even back in the 60s, when it was commonplace to excuse his politics as somehow irrelevant to his philosophy or to claim, quite erroneously as has become increasingly clear over the years, that he was an ivory tower intellectual who didn’t realize what Hitler was really about. What struck me right off the bat was the way that the man played to the cheap seats by tarting up his redescription of human existence with genuine–I was going to say authentic–Black Forest kitsch. That said, there are elements of his philosophy that I’ve found quite indispensable to my own thinking, albeit my selection of what’s valuable in existential phenomenology would have outraged Heidegger himself. (I don’t think he would have been very happy to discover that his ideas had been taken up by a bunch of computer scientists either.)

  5. My first book Conditional Futurism will propose the conditions for the apocalypse.

    • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

      Based on what data?

      • The data comes from the Bible. For example, the apocalypse in Daniel 4:19-27 along with classical prophecies in Jeremiah 18:5-10 and Ezekiel 33:12-16 teach that the outcome of prophetic judgments are conditional. These verses teach that when the Lord speaks a prophetic judgment against a nation or individual human, then genuine repentance of the nation or human will alter the outcome of the judgment.

        I explain this more in few blog articles

        • John S. Wilkins John S. Wilkins

          You and I have rather different interpretations of the meaning of “data”. But I see what you are doing: attempting to formulate a coherent and consistent theology based on diverse writings from a period of over a thousand years.

          I was hoping instead for an account of what would have to happen in the physical world for there to be an apocalyptic event.

          Incidentally, doesn’t that imply that God is inconstant in his decisions?

  6. “I was hoping instead for an account of what would have to happen in the physical world for there to be an apocalyptic event.”

    This is hard to pinpoint. Various events described in the apocalypse could typologically happen at anytime, while Jesus made a big focus of being ready at all times for the unexpected. For example, I’m among the critics of Camping who do not do predictions.

    One point I propose is that the Antichrist will appear before the return of the Lord. However, the Antichrist could repent, which would drastically alter the outcome of the prophecies. Ironically, the appearance of the Antichrist himself is an apocalyptic event, which might have no prerequisites other than Christianity spreading in some degree to all nations.

    I suppose I have no data according to your question.

    “Incidentally, doesn’t that imply that God is inconstant in his decisions?”

    I see nothing inherently inconsistent with implicit conditions for divine judgment.

  7. One of the things that gets me about Camping is that he is a cessationist, which means that he teaches that there is no modern day gifts of prophecy and healing. I know this because in the mid 1980s, he had the only local Christian radio station in my then area. In his own radio program, he would rail against the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement while proclaiming cessationism. But as the station owner, he rented airtime Charismatic/Pentecostal radio ministries. Anyway, Camping so-called reinterpretation of his “data” that he proclaimed on Monday has nothing to do with him claiming to be a prophet. However, I do not have the time to carefully listen to that speech and try to decipher the “logic” of his claim.

  8. harleymc harleymc

    Bill Benzon has raised a delightful issue, would we ever know that the Rapture has occurred?
    If we accept the premise that the weight of evidence is against the soul being able to interact with the physical world, and that I can not prove or disprove the existence of my hand and by extension the world how can I tell if anyone has been Raptured?
    It may be that my agnostic soul or someother non-physical thingy/dimension is capable of having an Umwelt that can incorporate rapture, but if that can not interact with the physical world then that raises the question what is the measure of the potential cost of not believing? It certainly will not cost in evolutionary/ natural selection effects.

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