Saturday, May 28, 2011

Signs of the End

What are some of the signs of the end of days, or the Second Coming? Ever since I was a child I’ve heard people tell me that we are living in the last days because the signs the bible speaks of are being fulfilled daily. And here are some of the things they mention:

“There will be wars and rumors of war.” Even as a child, I knew that there had always been wars. The Old Testament is full of war. There has never been a time throughout history that has been totally free of war and rumors of war. If this is a sign of the end of time it is no wonder that every generation of Christian thought that theirs was the last.

“There will be famine and disease.” Ok, there is famine and disease in the world today. But is it any worse than it has ever been? Actually, no. The pestilence, famine, and horrendous death caused by poverty and poor living conditions are bad in places. But those places are fewer and farther between than at any other point in history. Just consider the bubonic plague. It wiped out a third of the population of an entire continent during the Middle Ages. And there were probably Christians who believed that Christ’s return was being heralded. Consider, too, the debtors’ prisons in England that existed in the 18th and 19th centuries. Consider mandatory child labor in the U.S. prior to the introduction of child labor laws. And consider the famine and pestilence that spread across this country during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. I think today we actually have it quite good, in comparison.

“The earth will shake and there will be natural disasters in diverse places.” Yes, we still have earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, and tsunamis. But it’s not like we ever didn’t have those natural disasters. Consider the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in Italy in AD 79. It killed more than 10,000 people. That occurred back when Christianity was still very young. I’m sure many early Christians thought that was a big sign of the end, because most first-generation Christians thought Jesus would return before they died. Even Jesus, himself, predicted the coming of the Kingdom of God within the lifetimes of many of his disciples. His was the first end-of-the-world prediction in the Christian era and the first of many to be wrong. Then there was Krakatoa in Indonesia that erupted and killed 36,000 people in 1883. It produced the loudest explosion in recorded history. I know there were many who thought that was a sign of the end. Tsunamis, earthquakes, and floods have occurred in all past eras. Are they occurring more frequently today? Not according to the USGS and NOAA. Since the world is more populated now, with many more large, sprawling metropolitan areas, and since we now have instant worldwide communication, more people are affected and more people hear about the disasters that do happen. But there are no more of them now than there ever has been.

“There will be false prophets and apostasy.” Well, Harold Camping is certainly a false prophet. I’m tempted here to point out that since prophesy itself is a sham, all prophets are false. But there has always been so-called prophets and soothsayers and today is no different. Consider Nostradamus. He has a large following even today because, just like the prophecies of the bible, some of them sound pretty good if read from a position of hindsight. As for apostasy, that’s actually a good thing. It means people have started thinking more rationally, unless they leave one religion just to join another. But there has always been apostasy, too. A new religion can’t be founded unless its founders leave the religion they were once in. Paul had a terrible time with apostasy, which is why he had to write so many letters to the Corinthians and others. Today’s apostasy is no more insidious than it has been throughout history.

So are the signs of the times really anything new or different? If you are a conservative Christian, the zeitgeist might be to expect Christ’s Second Coming very soon, surely within your generation. But looking at the signs, none of them are new. None of them are even particularly more pronounced or troubling than what they were in the past. They are only new to some because they don’t know their history well enough.

Many Christians don’t look for signs of the end but take a stance of watchful waiting. But, seriously, what are they waiting for? It has been 2000 years folks. Jesus is not coming. Jesus died two millennia ago. He’s still dead, as is everyone else who ever lived in those days. How many more failed predictions and unfulfilled signs will it take before people come to their senses?

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Praying to God is a Waste of Time

Flood zone victims are “praying every day” for relief from the rising waters. So says a headline on one of my news feeds. Last month, the governor of Texas officially announced a “Weekend of Prayer” to pray for rain to alleviate the Texas drought. Well, how’s that working out for you, Governor? Perhaps the two groups should get together and pray for the rain that is already falling to move farther to the west and solve both problems.

When I was a kid, I prayed every night, whenever I didn’t forget. I went through the usual rigmarole of listing all the people in my family that the Lord should bless and to make tomorrow a good day, etc. I would be a little concerned that maybe God wouldn’t hear or grant my prayers if I didn’t say them quite right: Should I always say “In Jesus’ name” at the end? What if I forgot to say “amen”? Do I pray to God directly or to Jesus?

To cover my bets, sometimes I would pray to God and Jesus and also say it in Jesus’ name and then wrap it up with an amen at the end. That should get the attention of the Almighty. But even as I went through the process of saying prayers while sometimes half asleep I never really, down deep, believed they would work. When I was sick or someone else was sick, I would pray about it, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that I was doing any good. It was a formality of my upbringing.

Even well into my adult years, I continued to pray occasionally when in distress about something or if I was worried over something. I always thought I would pray about it “just in case” there was something to it. But something always bugged me about prayer and praying in general. I never really thought much about it, but something wasn’t quite right.

At the point in my life that I began to take a critical look at my religious beliefs I also took a critical look at the efficacy of prayer. I came to realize that praying is a completely futile effort and the only good it can do is to perhaps make someone feel better about themselves or to provide a certain level of comfort. But in realizing that prayer is useless, even the comfort-giving nature of prayer is removed.

What was it about prayer that I couldn’t wrap my brain around? Why did I always, even as a child, question its usefulness? For one thing, I came to realize that all my prayers were not being answered. I remember reading and hearing about bible verses that told of how all you had to do was to pray for something and it would be yours. I realized that praying for something selfish probably wasn’t covered, but most of my prayers were not for selfish purposes. And yet, most were not answered.

Adults would always tell me that “God answers prayers in his own way and in his own time” and that sometimes the answers to my prayers come in a different form than what I might expect. But that sounded like a cop-out to me. It’s what people tell themselves about God to cover up for the fact that God doesn’t answer prayers on a regular basis.

Then I started thinking about the Lord’s Prayer, where it says “Thy will be done.” God’s will is always done because it is part of his divine plan. That’s what preachers in the churches I attended when I was young always told me. I was also always told that God knows everything, even the future. “He knew you long before you were even born,” I was told. Well, if all that is true then what is the point of praying for anything? If God’s will is always done and if he knows the future, then my prayer will be answered only if it happens to be in line with God’s divine plan. And it’s not that my prayer itself is answered but that it only seems to be answered because God was going to take the action anyway. In other words, even those who believe in God must realize that petitionary prayer is useless if they also believe that God has a divine plan.

Another thing that bothered me about prayer was the idea that maybe someone else is praying for the opposite to happen. What if a farmer prays for rain while next door the little boy looking forward to his Little League playoff game prays for the rain to hold off? What if both teams in a football game pray for victory? God can’t possibly answer all prayers because sometimes they conflict.

I no longer pray at all, because in the process of reflecting on my own religious beliefs, I came to realize that prayer of any kind is a complete and utter waste of time. Prayers are answered in exact accord with the laws of probability. As the late George Carlin once noted, praying to Joe Pesci would work just as well as praying to God.

If you don’t believe me, or Mr. Carlin, try it for yourself. For the next month, pick a topic and pray about it to God as usual and take note of how often your prayers are answered. Then, the next month, pray to anyone or anything else, maybe your left shoe, and record how many times those prayers are answered. My bet is that the prayers you offer to your shoe will be answered just as often as the prayers you offer to God.

Oh, wait. Wouldn’t that be putting the Lord, your God, to the test? Isn’t that prohibited in the Old Testament? Perhaps, but maybe it’s time to take a lesson from Gideon. Do it anyway.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Mass Suicide or another New Religion?

So what happens in the minds of the deluded when they wake up on Sunday morning, May 22, and have not been raptured? They won’t talk about it now. They say to even think of the possibility that they might be wrong is an insult to God. That is how they keep themselves focused. It is how they tell themselves not to listen to the naysayers or nonbelievers.

Some of them are more deluded than others. Some have quit their jobs and are living on their savings, budgeting their money to run out on May 21. Others are hedging their bets. They say they believe whole-heartedly that the Rapture is coming on May 21, but they continue working their jobs or going to school. They continue putting money into their savings accounts and 401(k)s. Down deep they have doubts.

I don’t know how many people actually believe that the Rapture will be here as Harold Camping, minister of Family Radio, has predicted. I don’t know how many who say they believe it really, really believe it. But I am kind of worried about them.

When May 22 gets here and they are still around, like the rest of us nonbelievers, what will they think? There are only two possible reasons they will still be here: One is that they will understand that they were wrong after all, and the other is that they will believe that they were right but have been left behind, unraptured.

To believe something whole-heartedly and then find out it is totally wrong and that you have been misled is traumatic enough. But to believe that the Rapture has actually come and that you have been left behind, especially since you believed with all your heart that you would be one of the elect, would seem to me to be an insurmountable problem.

So what will they do? Some of them will be so distraught that they will consider suicide, and some might go through with it. Those who have given up all for the belief that this world will end on May 21 will be left in poverty, with families to raise. Others, believing they have been left behind, will decide to end it now rather than wait until the end of the world in October.

Camping, himself, might even be one of them. He is 89 years old, so he may decide to go out with a bang if he is proved wrong yet again. He predicted the end in 1994, but now he claims his calculations were off and that he has them right this time.

In the 19th century William Miller made a similar prediction of the Second Coming. It was supposed to take place on October 22, 1844. As now, there were then a great number of people who had given up all to gather and wait for the Rapture, which of course, didn’t happen. That led to what is historically referred to as the Great Disappointment.

But after it became clear that Miller had been wrong, instead of committing mass suicide, the people simply formed a new religion, the Seventh-Day Adventists. Psychologically, it is known as cognitive dissonance, a means of rationalizing a new belief to rectify what someone believes must be true with what they perceive as reality.

So maybe there won’t be mass suicide after all come May 22. But there may be something even worse coming, another new religion populated by those we already know are highly deluded.