What Happens Post-Rapture?
Vaughan Bell at Slate runs down some history on what happens to doomsday cults and the like when their prophecies about the end of the world don’t come true. It’s an interesting piece because Bell does a good job of explaining why it is that failed prophecies don’t generally result in a loss of faith for most believers. What really happens is that the believers readjust their models to incorporate the new data.
I have a little experience with this myself. I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, and was a member until I was 26, which I’ve written about some in in my first book of poems, A Witness in Exile. The Witnesses have gone through a few crises of this kind, one of which while I was a member. And strangely enough, that wasn’t the reason I left the church.
The one I heard about most growing up was the fiasco of 1975. They didn’t refer to it as a fiasco, of course–it was just a misunderstanding of scripture combined with the sin of presumptuousness. The Witnesses, like many millennialists, are big fans of numerology, especially when it comes to applying it to Biblical prophecy. 1975 was a big year for the Witnesses because they had calculated that it represented the 6,000th year since Adam’s creation, and they felt that there was a chance–the Witnesses never actually came out and said this was definitely the year–that based on the scripture that a day in God’s eyes is as a thousand years to man, that the start of the seventh millennium would mean that the end of the world was here.
Obviously, that didn’t happen. I was six for most of that year, far from understanding the intricacies of prophecy which led them to such a conclusion. It’s no real surprise in retrospect that their numbers fell the following year, but they didn’t fall hard, and in fact the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide started climbing the following year and stayed on the upswing through the rest of the time I was a member.
So how did they explain that mistake? Well, the first thing they did was admit an error. They reminded everyone that “only God knows the day and the hour,” and so that was something better left to the divine. We mortals should just stay faithful and trust that the signs of the end were still valid. And so we did, though that didn’t stop us from scouring scripture for more possible hints as to when the great battle between good and evil might start.
By the time I was old enough to be baptized and be a full member of the congregation, the teaching had shifted from a specific year to a range of time. The belief was that the generation which had seen the beginning of the End Times (which the Witnesses dated to 1914) would survive to see the end. When I left the church in 1996, that generation was getting a bit long in the tooth, and now, 15 years later, they’re bordering on extinction. So what’s next for them?
As I understand, the teaching has now become even more vague, and the Witnesses focus more on the “only God knows when” side of things when they talk about it at all. It seems like a good long-term strategy, though it takes away some of the urgency that has served them so well over the years when it comes to their proselytizing work.
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