1988: The End of the World that Wasn’t
Flashback to the fall of 1988. Radio stations were playing way too much George Michael, Die Hard was about to be introduced to the world, and the Soviet Union was beginning its death spiral. I was nine years old, a third grader at Sidney Elementary School. A new school year had just begun. Little did I know, but my world was about to change forever. Sometime between September 11 and 13, Jesus was going to return to Earth to rapture His followers before seven years of tribulation swept across the world, climaxing in the battle of Armageddon and the establishment of Jesus’ kingdom on earth.
How did we know such an epic event was about to happen? Because Edgar Whisenant, a retired civil engineer who worked at NASA (NASA!) wrote a short booklet called, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will be in 1988. Based on his calculations, the rapture would take place during Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year. (If you’d like to read all of Whisenant’s 88 reasons, you can read the booklet here or purchase it on Amazon; even if you don’t want to buy it, you should read the reviews.) Rapture fever took over many Evangelical churches in the country as Whisenant sold 4.5 million copies of his booklet. Some Christians even quit their jobs or sold their houses. Though my parents didn’t buy into Whisenant’s prediction, they did write a letter to leave in our home if Jesus did return, telling anyone who was looking for us what had happened. Just in case.
September 11 was a Sunday, which probably ramped up people’s expectations even more. They waited in worship services across the land, thinking Jesus would rapture them while they sang songs and listened to sermons. Admittedly, I was excited. Waiting for September 11 to come felt like waiting for a hurricane or snowstorm – a mixture of anticipation and dread. If it sounds like I was getting too much into the prediction, cut me some slack – it was my first failed rapture prediction. I wish I could remember more details of what those days were like, but it was a long time ago.
I’d like to keep the tension of this story going a little longer, but you already know the ending. The trumpet did not sound. The skies did not part. No Christians disappeared. And Jesus did not return. I was left to go to third grade. Some people who had bought into the prediction lost their faith, jaded because their certainty had been shaken.
Most soldiered on, including Whisenant. Undaunted, Whisenant updated his prediction to October 3, saying, “The evidence is all over the place that it [the rapture] is going to be in a few weeks anyway.” When even that failed, Whisenant claimed he made an error based on a fluke in the Gregorian calendar, and the rapture would come during Rosh Hashanah 1989. Wrong again, the former engineer persevered, predicting Jesus would return in subsequent years, but after a while, fewer and fewer people took him seriously. He died in 2001, which probably prevented a few more failed predictions (once you get the rapture predicting bug, it’s pretty hard to shake!).
What do we take away from Whisenant’s failures? 1) People will continue to make foolish rapture predictions, even though these have been failing for two thousand years. 2) People will continue to believe foolish rapture predictions, even though these have been failing for two thousand years. 3) We should not make or believe foolish rapture predictions because these have been failing for two thousand years.
That all seems simple enough. In fact, we might want to even temper the little remarks we make like, Jesus is definitely coming back soon, the time is short or anything to that effect, because people have been saying stuff like this for two thousand years, too. Jesus will come when He comes. Our best approach is to echo the simple prayer that concludes the book of Revelation, “Even so, come quickly Lord.”