By N.S. Palmer
Harold supposedly didn’t know jack. Poor Harold.
The Rapture is an evangelical Christian idea based on a few passages in New Testament. It asserts that when Jesus returns, believers will be snatched off the earth’s surface to “meet Jesus in the air.” They will then be taken to Heaven to sit out the Tribulation, during which all hell will break loose on earth. Meanwhile, the unsaved people left on earth will have to struggle against the Antichrist (either Michael York or Sam Neill, depending on which movie you watch).
One could say a lot of things about Camping and the idea of the Rapture.
Camping seems to make money on his predictions. Hmm. It doesn’t mean he’s insincere, but hmm.
As for the Rapture, the Catholic Church historically didn’t want the Bible to be available in common languages for everyone to read. Interpreting Biblical passages requires a certain amount of knowledge and context. As long as it was only available in Latin and Hebrew, only priests, rabbis, and other clergy could read it. The Church feared that if just anyone could read and interpret the Bible, then some people were likely to come up with uninformed and dubious ideas.
But that’s not why Gutting claims that Camping didn’t know about the Rapture.
Gutting’s argument is based on the definition of knowledge. Traditionally, knowledge has been defined as justified true belief. Suppose I say that there is an elephant in the living room. Do I know it? That amounts to asking:
- Can I justify my statement by giving reasons and evidence to support it?
- Is it true? Is there really an elephant in the living room?
- Do I in fact believe it?
If all those conditions are fulfilled, then I know it.
Gutting argues that Camping’s belief, even if true, would not have been knowledge because it was not justified. He bases his argument on the unstated premise that support from Bible passages cannot justify beliefs. If beliefs aren’t justified, then they aren’t knowledge (justified true belief).
However, the notion of “justifying a belief” can include many kinds of evidence: scientific, logical, mathematical, and, of course, Biblical. That’s where Gutting goes wrong.
In the early part of the 20th century, physicist Paul Dirac predicted the existence of positrons based solely on the results of some mathematics he had done to describe electrons. No one had ever seen a positron. Fifteen years later, they were detected. Was Dirac’s belief unjustified? It wasn’t based on observation. The same applies to some of Einstein’s theories, and even to string theory, which is the current darling of subatomic physics. It’s not based on observation. Is it not knowledge? (Physicist Lee Smolin thinks it’s not knowledge, but he’s in a tiny minority.)
Likewise, it’s arbitrary to say that Camping’s beliefs were unjustified merely because they were based on his idiosyncratic interpretation of the Bible. That applies whether or not we think it’s okay to base knowledge claims on the Bible.
Gutting applies a different argument to other evangelical Christians who believe in the Rapture but don’t try to predict when it will occur. In their case, he argues that without a date attached, predictions of the Rapture are not “falsifiable” and are therefore not knowledge.
That’s an idea popularized by the philosopher Karl Popper. Popper argued that statements about the world qualified as “knowledge” only if they could be proven false. But consider the following statement:
On the evening of October 25, 1946, at the meeting of the Cambridge Moral Science Club, Karl Popper had precisely three shillings in his pocket.
Whatever is coloured is extended.
Those are both statements about the world that cannot be proven false. Even so, it is possible for someone to know the first, and impossible for anyone (who understands it) not to know the second.
So it’s just as arbitrary for Gutting to claim that other evangelical Christians’ beliefs about the Rapture (and by implication, Orthodox Jews’ beliefs about the Messiah) aren’t knowledge.
To justify a belief means simply to give reasons for it. The reasons might be good or bad, adequate or inadequate. Some justifications are better than others. But if you can cite supporting reasons for a belief, and you can answer objections to the belief, then you’ve justified it.
Notice, of course, that justifying a belief isn’t the same as proving it. When you justify a belief, you show that you can reasonably hold the belief. It might still be false, and future evidence could prove that.
But let’s breathe a sigh of relief that, at least for the moment, we don’t have to contend with the Rapture.
Copyright 2011 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.