For those of us with friends and family who are still engrossed in the Armstrong mythos, discouraging their delusions may well become a matter of contention. There are those who take the view that doing so is needlessly confrontational: that the beliefs they hold are harmless fantasies at worst. So, why go through all the pain and discomfort of telling it like it is? We’re all free to believe what we want, right? Sure.
But what if it isn’t just a harmless fantasy? What if certain teachings are potentially very harmful? One could make a case for the potential harm of many Armstrongist doctrines, but I’ll be focusing on one in particular: the belief in a “Place of Safety,” or, “the faith to flee,” as Flurry’s cult calls it.
For those of us who don’t remember (or never could be bothered paying attention), Armstrong taught us that the world would end in 1936, then 1975, and finally, “any day now” (after he stopped “setting dates” because they kept stubbornly refusing to yield to his predictions), and this led to at least one self-proclaimed prophet and progeny of Armstrong declaring his own set of ever-moving apocalyptic deadlines. According to Gerald R. Flurry, the “Last Hour” began May 5, 2001. This means your friends and family may be calling you any time now with the good news–that it’s time to flee! And you can be sure that if they really, really love you they will pressure you into coming with them so you too can escape the absurd multitude of horrors supposedly destined to befall those who don’t have the faith to flee.
So what is this faith all about? The biblical definition of faith can be found in Hebrews chapter 11, verse one: “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” This means that biblical faith is (you’ll forgive the redundancy) blind faith, an unaccountable certitude based on nothing more than hope. And this kind of blind, credulous certainty, coupled with some of the most childish Utopian fantasies, is what is supposedly required for one to be protected from a mythological Tribulation. Interestingly, it is also what is required for one to be duped. Charlatans and frauds have been banking on faith for the entirety of human history.
Let’s consider some extreme examples of how faith can go horribly wrong. On November 18, 1978, it was faith that allowed Jim Jones to preside over a mass suicide, in which over 550 faithful cult members murdered their own children (247 of them) and then took their own lives. Over a span of three years in the early to late 90s, about 74 members of the cult, Order of the Solar Temple, killed themselves because they had faith in their cult’s teaching that by ending their lives they would escape to the star Sirius. In the Spring of 1997, true believers in the doctrines of the Heaven’s Gate cult rode their faith to a spaceship in the tail of a comet–by which I mean they committed mass suicide. Examples of such lunacy abound (entire books have been written just detailing cases like these), and it’s all brought to you by faith.
Certainly, though, direct mass suicides are not a realistic danger in most cults, but the principle cannot be denied: faith spells trouble because anything can be justified by it. Faith doesn’t require you to examine evidence or utilize common sense. Worse, it allows you to ignore these precautions and believe in spite of them. That can, and often does, lead to people clinging to some potentially dangerous delusions.
History is littered with failed Utopias, deadly missionary endeavors, and disastrous attempts at colonizing hostile environments, most of which can reasonably be explained by their participants’ “wing-and-a-prayer” approach to preparing for such serious undertakings, and their unshakable certitude that either God or history (or both) were on their side. The hallmarks of faith (whether the ideology be religious or secular) are stamped upon some of the most infamous tragedies humanity has inflicted upon itself.
…And the Ditch They Fall Into
We will now explore a few scenarios that might happen as a result of the “faith to flee.”
1) Nothing. The most likely scenario is the least worrisome in this specific context, and it hinges on a rudimentary consideration of the track record of Armstrongist eschatology, which can be summarized as a litany of prognostic failures. We have been on the cusp of Tribulation several times since Armstrong began his prophetic career, and each time it failed to materialize. Each time, the hysteria failed to manifest itself in a migration of the faithful to a desert Utopia. Based on this precedent it is safe to say an Armstrongist’s ever setting foot in a Place of Safety, even an imaginary one, is highly improbable.
2) Legal and Bureaucratic Entanglements. But let us assume for the sake of argument that one or more of these cult leaders sticks to his guns and (no doubt upon some criteria with equal measures of inscrutability and inanity) decides to give the command to flee. A sudden influx of possibly several thousand immigrants into the city of Jerusalem (remember, we were supposed to go there first) would not likely be feasible just from a customs perspective. The appropriate visas would be required (not to mention valid passports) for all cult members, along with several other official documents. A quick Google search yielded this interesting quote in a list of required papers: “Religious personnel must have an A-3 Visa stamped in Passport and Third Party Guarantee [whatever that is].” One can get a feel for the absurdity of even starting such a mass relocation by imagining the cultist’s likely answers to the customs official’s inevitable questions, “Why are you traveling here, and how long will you be staying?”
Israel even has a special task force, called “Operation Walk On Water,” assigned to monitoring the activities of Christian cults in their country. During an especially active period around the turn of the millennium, one such group was arrested and expelled on suspicion of planning to instigate violence. Whether these charges were true is debatable. What is undeniable is the Israelis are far from pollyannaish about cults: “Says a source familiar with Israeli security issues: ‘It must be your first assumption that these [cultists] are not logical or reasonable. They can do almost anything at any time.'” That is the attitude Israeli security officials have towards doomsday cults, so one can be sure they will not take a surge of Armstrongists into their country lightly. In light of these facts, if they even manage to make it to Jerusalem, it isn’t far-fetched to assume that anyone with the faith to flee will spend the first weeks of the “Tribulation” languishing in an Israeli jail awaiting their eventual deportation back to their home country.
3) Financial/Psychological Ruin. That brings us to the fallout from such nonsense. The cults often imply that before fleeing, members will be encouraged to sell all their property and settle all their debts. After all, they don’t expect to be coming back, and they have faith that Yahweh will provide all necessities for their desert adventure. It has been said that plans are what one has until the bullets start flying, but when faith is what passes as a plan, its utter dissolution can be catastrophic. When the fleeing fiasco falls through, many cultists may well be financially solvent, but how many of them will have homes to return to? How will they manage the cognitive dissonance when their faith betrays them so completely?
4) Failed Utopia. The least likely of scenarios is that, by some unimaginable set of circumstances, some or all the cultists make it to whatever site their fearless leader(s) will have chosen to be the official Place of Safety. That site (for all concerned parties) is most likely to be Petra. Once ensconced in their rocky refuge, though, establishing a Utopia will (as it always does) become a farcical nightmare before the cultists can say, “All hail King Flurry!” There are several available paths to ruin, all of them dangerous and none of them mutually exclusive. Nor is this list in any sense exhaustive. Try to imagine some of your own–certainly the faithful aren’t going to think of them!
4a) Jihad. Remember that all of the scattered remnant of Armstrong’s once centralized institutional core will be watching for essentially the same prophetic signs indicating the time to flee. However, although they will all probably agree on the time and the place, which man to surrender autonomy to is likely to be a matter of great contention. Sectarian squabbles over which group is comprised of the most lukewarm Laodiceans are already problematic; transport them to a desert wilderness where resources are scarce and the “law of the land” is not so clear, and you may see some pretty dramatic displays of animosity. It wouldn’t be too hard for these imaginative interpreters to find scriptural support for holy war, and the faith to flee can be quickly transmuted into the faith to fight.
And this holds true not only for squabbles among Armstrongist sects, but also between the Armstrongists and the residents of Wadi Musa and/or the local Bedouin communities. Which brings us to…
4b) Lebensraum. Living space. Seriously, where are they going to live? Imagine thousands of wild-eyed foreign cultists converging on your peaceful, agrarian tourist town, looking to set up an ideologically driven commune basically in your backyard (Petra is just a short walk from Wadi Musa). How would you feel? Now, how would you feel if they didn’t have any money?
There has been talk from the pulpit of taking up residence in the many hotels of Wadi Musa, but, assuming they think to take money with them for the purpose, what happens when the money runs out? Maybe they should plan on living in Petra’s various natural and man-made caves. But Petra is a major tourist attraction and a World Heritage Site, closely guarded by several organizations (like the NGO, Petra National Trust) as a national treasure. The ancient city’s traditional inhabitants, the Bedul Bedouins, are already severely limited by the government in their use of the site. It is doubtful the royal family of Jordan (especially Queen Noor) would look very kindly on foreign squatters holing up in, for example, Al Khasneh and frightening visitors with stories of Jesus sightings–or begging for food.
4c) A Desert Paradise? Let’s assume for the moment that regional conflicts will reduce tourism within Jordan to a trickle (while simultaneously missing the country entirely with regard to direct military action, as per Armstrongist doctrine). So, under this paradigm, perhaps Petra will be relatively free for the cultists’ taking. Then what? What are they going to eat?
Some say mana. That’s right. The magic sky cake. One can only guess how much faith they will put in that basket, and for how long. But certainly none of these groups seems to be preparing for their supposed role of making the “desert blossom as the rose.” Flurry’s group once indulged in an agricultural program, but they abandoned it long ago. Learning the finer points of arid rangeland management must not be nearly as lucrative in the short term as prophetic pontifications and political punditry. But if they find themselves trying to eek out an existence in a desert wilderness, with no applicable practical skills and no training in Arabic, they may regret their former priorities.
We Should Be Warning Them
The scenarios laid out in the paragraphs above are only the tip of the iceberg regarding what could happen to such a misguided group attempting to set up a wilderness Utopia on the basis of naked superstition. We must come to grips with the fact that our loved ones in the cult are…in a cult! It makes no sense for us to be defensive or fearful. Quite the opposite! Their beliefs are nonsense, and the fruits (if that is all that will sway you) are abundant to prove as much. They are being led in their naive credulity, like sheep to the slaughter, on a perilous journey of sacrifice, dehumanization, and disengagement from reality–all for the enrichment and glory of a few madmen and duplicitous frauds. They (and their innocent children) are in real trouble. If we love them, then we should be warning them.
So the next time a true believer attempts to frighten you with violent fantasies of the “Great Tribulation,” complete with accounts of you eating your own children, just interrupt them and ask them if they think running off with some loony cult into the wild, unprepared, with a madman at the helm, is really a good parenting decision.