What Fresh Hell Is This?

May 30, 2011

On The End That Wasn't - An Agnostic Ponders

During the course of one weekend in late March fourteen years ago, thirty-nine people (in three groups over the course of three days, by the way) living in a rented house in a suburb of San Diego ingested large amounts of phenobarbital washed down with vodka. Lying in their bunks and dressed in identical clothing (right down to the brand new Nike sneakers) plastic bags were secured over their heads to induce asphyxiation. The first group of fifteen succumbed that Saturday, the next fifteen the next day and the last nine the next.

The bodies, decomposing and shrouded in liturgical purple, were discovered by the police on Wednesday. The stench must've been overwhelming.

This was the Heaven's Gate cult and they did this voluntarily because they firmly believed that an extra-terrestrial space ship travelling behind the Hale-Bopp comet would take them to the "next level above human" if only they would shed the "vehicles" that were their human bodies.

It was an extreme act of faith to say the least.

Now here is a most dangerous questions to ponder:
  • Did they make it? That is to say, did they make it to the next level above human?
Everything hinges on that question. If they made it to the next level then we really can't say they committed suicide, can we? Certainly not in the same sense that we say that Kurt Cobain or Vincent van Gogh or Vince Foster committed suicide.

If they made it then those 39 didn't ingest all that phenobarbital with a vodka chaser to end their lives but to continue their lives.

So again I have to ask, did they make it? And if you answer no then how do you know that they didn't?

You could point out that there was no ship following the Hale-Bopp comet, that with the world's telescopes focussed on the comet, no one saw (or said they saw) a spaceship following it. Ergo with no ship, no journey to the next level etc.

Ah, but this is where the discussion gets dangerous, doesn't it? If you are going to use logic and scientific evidence (or lack thereof) to undercut an act of faith or other metaphysical assertion then you have to allow scientific evidence to be used to verify any other act of faith or metaphysical assertion.

For example just as there was no scientific evidence that there was a UFO following the Hale-Bopp comet, there's also no scientific evidence for the existence of Heaven. Or of The Resurrection. Or of God. Believing in each is, in itself, an act of faith.

You could point to other afterlife belief systems from other religions and say that because what the Heaven's Gate group believed wasn't among them, it was therefore incorrect. But that gets you into trouble as well. Does one ascend into Heaven via one's good deeds and faith or via faith alone? Depending on who you ask it's one or the other that's wrong. One faith, analysed through the the tenets of another, will always come up short.

So saying Heaven's Gate theology was wrong because it wasn't more like other, more mainstream, theologies isn't saying much at all. All you've really said is that it was different.

So all that being said, we now turn to Harold Camping's end-that-wasn't. How do we know it didn't happen? Well, for one thing, most everyone that was here on May 21 is still here now.

Even Harold Camping.

And he's moved the goal posts. From the AP:
A California preacher who foretold of the world's end only to see the appointed day pass with no extraordinarily cataclysmic event has revised his apocalyptic prophecy, saying he was off by five months and the Earth actually will be obliterated on Oct. 21.

Harold Camping, who predicted that 200 million Christians would be taken to heaven Saturday before catastrophe struck the planet, apologized Monday evening for not having the dates "worked out as accurately as I could have."
Precisely. There's more:
Through chatting with a friend over what he acknowledged was a very difficult weekend, it dawned on him that instead of the biblical Rapture in which the faithful would be swept up to the heavens, May 21 had instead been a "spiritual" Judgment Day, which places the entire world under Christ's judgment, he said.

The globe will be completely destroyed in five months, he said, when the apocalypse comes. But because God's judgment and salvation were completed on Saturday, there's no point in continuing to warn people about it, so his network will now just play Christian music and programs until the final end on Oct. 21.
The New York Times points out that Camping's prophecies have been "widely derided" by mainstream Christianity. It has been for a while. How do they know it's untrue?

The P-G's own Ruth Ann Dailey explains:
Jesus himself said, in a long passage (Mark 13) about the end of time, "[The] day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."
More specifically, it's Mark 13:32. So if Jesus tells us no one will know the answer then how can Harold Camping? That was Ruth Ann's apt rhetorical question.

But was Jesus himself a reliable source of information on the End? Perhaps not. In the scripture verses that immediately precede Mark 13:32 we read in Mark 13:30-31:
Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.
The "these things" are the signs of His immanent return: the sun and the moon darkening and the stars falling out of the sky. All those things were supposed to happen within the lifetimes of the people who lived during Christ's life.

Jesus said so. It's in the Gospels.

And yet that didn't happen either. He must've gotten it wrong.

I'll end with my own rhetorical question (I believe this is from Bertrand Russell, though I can't find the original): Why should we believe any proposition for which there is no evidence? That's where human beings get into trouble.

These aren't small meaningless questions either. Just think about the millions of human beings slaughtered over the course of human history for believing in the wrong faith or the wrong God.

1 comment:

Vannevar said...

You ask and ponder the great questions, which is a worthy pursuit.

Is there any difference between the Heaven's Gate folks, or the Branch Davidians, or Harold Camping's group, and "mainstream" religion other than the number of adherents?

Do we categorize all "believers" into one group, or do we make distinctions among them?

Is there a difference between religion and faith?

Tremendous evil has been done by believers of various stripes. Maybe more good has been done than evil; maybe not.

Socially/politically, do we in this country permit freedom of religion?


And so, (at best) we each choose and decide for ourselves. It is, perhaps, a great spiritual and philosophical adventure.

I know fine people that have chosen all sorts of answers to these hard, hard questions. Myself, I believe.

All the best, V.B.