I was living in New York the spring of 2011. I was riding the subway one day when I saw a poster inside a train saying the Rapture would happen on May 21st of that year. It was a warning to all the heathens and pagans to repent of their sinful ways and be saved from total annihilation. Looking into it a little more revealed that not only would the Rapture be on May 21st, but the entire universe would be utterly destroyed five months later.

My first thought: “Cool, now I don’t need to figure out my retirement fund.”

My second thought: “Wait, are they actually serious?”

Serious they were, and what defies logic even more than the actual prediction is that thousands of other people across the country took it seriously as well. It was well-publicized, as the NYC subway poster told. For a few months, some people appeared to have lost their minds.

Harold Camping with Bible in hand

This whole thing was started by Harold Camping, head of the Family Radio Christian network. He came to the date of May 21st, 2011 using no sources other than the Bible. He said, “I know it’s absolutely true, because the Bible is always absolutely true.” I guess he skipped over the part in Matthew where Jesus says, “No man knows the hour.”

People bought into it, and then some. There were reports of people just giving stuff away because they wouldn’t need it once the rapture came. And I’m not talking iPods or ab-rollers or commemorative beer mugs. One guy sold his house and gave away his life savings, all because some guy with zero authority on the subject said the world would end on one particular day. Camping didn’t even have a good track record – he’d been wrong about this very thing before, saying in ’92 that the Rapture would occur in September of 1994.

I remember seeing a news item on TV about some believers who had gathered in Times Square to await 6pm (the exact moment  Camping said Christians would be taken up to heaven). I can hear the question before you ask it. “But what about 6pm in New York being 3pm in LA?” Not to worry; the Rapture would go time zone by time zone! Christians were going to stagger into heaven by the hour; I guess there wasn’t room on the Heaven Bus for us all. Anyway, 6pm came and went, no Rapture, and Robert Fitzpatrick, the guy who organized the Times Square event, looked like the most colossal of morons.

Robert Fitzpatrick checks his watch at 6:01

Every eye went to Camping at that point, but he responded with a “My bad! The Rapture is REALLY gonna happen on October 21st, simultaneous with the end of all existence.” I don’t have to tell you how THAT worked out.

This seems like comic book stuff, the kind of thing you would read in a H.G. Wells novel. But one thing forces me away from laughing derisively about it and makes me very sad, and that’s the damage it does to Christians in the eyes of the world. When a guy like Harold Camping makes a ridiculous and laughable statement like this wearing the label “Christian” on his forehead while he’s doing it, it’s we Christians who pay for it. It’s like a few radical Muslims who crashed some planes and blew up some buildings ruining everything for every Muslim on the planet. Immediately after 9/11 and for a few years, there was so much anger in the American culture against Muslims and Islam in general, blind hate born out of ignorance.

The same thing happens all the time for Christians, only it’s not hate; it’s derision. “Those crazy Christians don’t know anything, and I can feel comfortable rejecting every last thing they profess because one guy said the world was gonna end this afternoon.” After May 21st passed without even so much as stubbed toe, there was a series of billboards that said things like “Fool me once…” and “Every day is judgment day. Use yours. Use reason.” Those are sentiments I agree with, but the billboards were put up by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an organization dedicated to making all religions and their adherents look like idiots.

My own feelings about the matter are complicated. First, I laugh mockingly that Family Radio could make such an insane and obviously wrong claim. Then, when people lump nuts like Camping in with all other Christians (including me), my defenses go up and I say “Hey! …I’m not like Harold Camping!” It’s tragic in this case, but the loudest voices are usually also the most extreme, most inflammatory, least educated and least logical.

But I like the reaction from some Christians. A church in Milpitas, CA held a service on Sunday, May 22nd to comfort Camping’s true believers. A deacon there said, “It’s easy to mock [these people]. You can go kick puppies, too; but why?” Even though people fooled by Camping were stupid and gullible, they’re still human beings who deserve our compassion. And they got enough kicking from the non-Christian world. More than 830,000 Facebook users registered for a country-wide “Post Rapture Looting” event. In a practical form of mocking, the Seattle Atheists formed a Rapture Relief Fund, “to help survivors of any Armageddon-sized disaster in the Puget Sound area.” When no such disaster occurred (what a surprise), they fund instead financed a camp for kids that teaches about critical thinking.

And, of course, we may go through this all again in the coming months, since December 2012 is approaching and the Mayan calendar end there, suggesting the Mayans thought the world would end there, too. If you want my opinion, they just ran out of room…

Next: The end of the world means the beginning of Ziggy Stardust.