Posted by: N.S. Palmer | June 17, 2011

Knowing the End of the World?

By N.S. Palmer

Harold supposedly didn’t know jack. Poor Harold.

Based on his interpretation of the Bible, radio evangelist Harold Camping predicted that “the Rapture” would occur on May 21, 2011.

He was wrong. But in today’s New York Times, Notre Dame philosopher Gary Gutting argues that Camping didn’t know the Rapture was coming even if he had turned out to be right.

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 ( are included.

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  1. Actually, if you believe these things, Gutting is on sold ground. One of the things I hadn’t known about Christian doctrine until I took catechism as an adult is that no one knows when the end of the world will come except God the Father. I had to look up the reference, of course, but it’s Matthew 24:36. In it, Jesus himself disavows the knowledge. To me, who was at the time trying to find a way through to accepting all this, it was another stumbling block. How can Jesus be God but claim not to know what God knows? It’s absurd. It strikes me as being akin to saying “If you see me in blue jeans, I know what day your birthday is. If you see me in khakis, I don’t know what day your birthday is.”

    As a child I wondered the same thing about Jesus on the cross asking “Father, why hast Thou foresaken me?” How could he NOT know the whole game plan? So even as a little boy I reached the conclusion that it wasn’t very well thought-out or put together. When you realize you’re spotting logic bombs in the Story of Everything while you still have milk teeth, you find it kind of disconcerting. I remember being fearful I’d glimpsed something I wasn’t supposed to, because no one else seemed to point this or be bothered by it (little did I know).

    I would tend to agree that the statement on Popper’s shillings is unknowable. But the point is it’s such a trivial matter that no one has any interest in disputing it even if it is a mere assertion. If it were a matter of importance, people would be looking for collateral proofs, such as the documented fact that, later on that evening, he had to order the veal at 2s6d and not the lobster at 3s3d, while others would claim that was only because on the way, he’d bought a copy of The Time Machine for 9d. People argue over such matters where religion is concerned all the time, and the problem is, there’s no establishing any of it, so the arguments never get settled, and sects proliferate, and the wicked or unbalanced fleece the unfortunately overly credulous on the run-up to “Judgement Day”.

    • Good points, LP!

      Of course, Jesus says a lot of things that are puzzling and a lot of other things that are just absolutely great. I believe that he was an inspired moral teacher and a great Jewish prophet, which doesn’t exclude his making mistakes or not knowing things. As for Jesus being God or the son of God, I literally do not know what that means — nor do I think that Christians know what it means. With that, as with many doctrines and rituals of all religions, I think that they are not literal statements, but are ways of orienting ourselves toward the Divine. When Christians say things about Jesus, they get a feeling of goodness and transcendence, so they conclude it’s statements about Jesus that are the important thing, whereas in fact, statements about Jesus are just the way that they turn their minds toward God. Atheists get the same feeling of transcendence when they contemplate the beauty of natural laws and the universe, so they attach religious significance to their atheism. Etc.

      Guttings basic point, as I understand it, has less to do with specific Christian or Jewish doctrines than it does with a kind of backward reasoning. He starts with the premise that Christians don’t have any knowledge of the Rapture. From that, he reasons backward to conclude that if they don’t know anything about the Rapture, then none of their premises for thinking that they know can be valid. And I dunno, I think he’s trying to prove a little too much. Knowledge might require certainty, but knowledge claims do not.

      It doesn’t seem to me that the trivial nature of the number of shillings in Popper’s pocket makes much difference for the argument. I was just trying to show that we can know non-tautological facts about the world that are not falsifiable.

      Thanks for the great comment! You always make me think.

  2. I think I’d have to agree that knowledge claims don’t require ABSOLUTE certainty — I don’t think that’s attainable — but to deny there’s a threshold is to equate knowledge with belief, and they’re not the same thing. Witness Robert Fitzpatrick in NYC who blew his retirement fund buying billboards telling us the end of the world was coming. That was belief masquerading as knowledge, and the upshot is the man will spend his golden years asking if people want fries with that. Knowledge, while never absolute, should be testable and demonstrable. We should keep our lives centred around the things that can be demonstrated to be real, not just the things we wish were true… and someone should have said so to that guy.

    With some obvious exceptions, I think people nowadays get this, and they know the difference. A handful of people like Fitzpatrick got exorcised about the Rapture coming last month — most of the rest of us watched in amusement, disbelief, or disgust. But if tomorrow NASA said a comet would strike the Earth next year, there’d be panic in the streets, because they know the nature of what constitutes knowledge, and who’s credible, and why.

    Popper’s shillings, to me, effectively constitute belief, not knowledge. If there’s no way to demonstrate it, then you can safely believe anything you want as to the contents of his pockets. The only ramifications come when people act of those beliefs, especially in opposition to one another, because there is no way to establish the reality of the matter. This is when the danger of conflating what one believes, from what one knows, to be real, is at its most dangerous.

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