I can remember my first brush with an “urban legend”. In the early 1970s, I was in a group for Christian boys, and we got a monthly magazine, similar to “Boys’ Life”. One article passed along the following story, saying it was solid fact:
In a southern state, two men were traveling along a rural road. They saw a hitchhiker and decided to give him a lift. He sat in the back and chatted with them. Then out of the blue, the hitchhiker made the statement: “Jesus is coming back, you know, and very soon.” When they turned around to ask him what he meant by that, they saw that…the stranger had disappeared! They immediately braked, thinking he might have fallen out and gotten killed. They drove back and forth and couldn’t find him, so they pulled over at the next town to alert the sheriff. When they told him their story, the sheriff said, “Normally this would constitute an emergency; nevertheless, you’re about the tenth person this week to tell me they’ve had this same experience!”
Maybe you’ve heard the same story and are certain that it happened to a friend of a friend. Well, I too was a believer and repeated it as true. It didn’t strike me as odd that the details were a little vague: Now, where exactly did this happen? When? What was the sheriff’s name? In what newspaper was this reported? and so on. It was years later than I learned that I’d been pulled in by an “urban legend” – a story that is repeated again and again over many years. In fact, Jan Harold Brunvand, the authority on urban legends, titled one of his collections The Vanishing Hitchhiker. The whole phenomenon fascinated me enough that I got in touch with Dr. Brunvand and we exchanged several stories. In 2009 “the vanishing hitchhiker” started turning up again, with the new twist that now he says, “Gabriel is putting the trumpet to his lips; the Lord is coming back” (click HERE). People on this blog who affirm that the story is true report the experience happened to the aunt of a friend of my husband; my son’s friend’s mother; the friend of a friend of a co-worker. See the pattern?
Pushups to Pay for Donuts to Illustrate Christ’s Death. A new one for me is the story of “Steve is made to do over 300 pushups to illustrate Christ’s death and to win donuts for his fellow students.” There are several versions; one starts off: “There was a certain Professor of Religion named Dr. Christensen, a studious man who taught at a small college in the Western United States. Dr. Christensen taught the required survey course in Christianity at this particular institution. Every student was required to take this course his/her freshman year, regardless of his or her major.” This story was circulating in 2021, and one version I found from 2002 implied that it had been circulating for some time: among evangelicals to be sure, but apparently it is a Mormon favorite as well! Notice once again the clues: a certain university, a certain professor named Christensen, the (very long) story concludes with all the students being floored by the gospel. Its university setting reminded me of The Unbelieving Professor, see below.
The line between “myth” and “urban legend” is fluid. Let us say that, a myth is something like the story that there is a massive computer in Europe, called the Beast, which keeps tracks on all the details of every person on earth (see my article on Christian Myths HERE). Urban legends are stories that conceivably could have happened at some time, but are now characterized by rootlessness (it happened in Ohio; it happened in California; it happened in the 1980s; it happened last year) and vagueness regarding to details, which change as the story moves from person to person. If you have ever heard the story of the woman who tried to dry off her poodle in the microwave; or the one about the kid who bought a Porsche for $50 from a wife who was seeking revenge on her cheating husband (I read that one in Ann Landers years ago); or the story of the “kidney heist” where a man flirts with a woman in a bar, who then drugs him and harvests his kidney while he sleeps – well then, you’ve heard an urban legend. The perennial favorite is the one about poison or razor blades in trick-or-treat candy – despite all the rumors there is not one case of this ever having taken place in the US. There is even a Hollywood thriller called “Urban Legend” (1999), in which someone murders college students in imitation of certain legends.
Urban legends are easily identified as stories said to have “really happened” to a “friend of a friend” (a FOAF) – almost always, someone who cannot be tracked down. Still, people will swear that the story is true, since they heard it from someone reliable. In Christian circles, we might appeal to the “famous preacher” as the source; after all, why would a man of God tell the story if it weren’t absolutely true? I can guarantee you, that if you were to track down “the aunt of a friend of your husband”, aunty would tell you, “Well, no, it didn’t happen to me personally, but to a friend of the brother of my college roommate.” Or the news says that “local parents are concerned because…” And so on. But no-one claims, “I was there and saw it myself, and here are the details.” [A later example – Claude Ignerski (“Christ will return in September 2015!”) quoted in his book that he had a letter from a man who said that in 2012 some friends of friends in France and Switzerland had picked up that same hitchhiker!]
There are all sorts of urban legends; let’s think of some more that are popular with Christians:
The Unbelieving Professor (click HERE; this supposedly happened in the last few decades, although the story has been circulating at least since the 1920s). A certain philosophy professor at a big university was a rabid atheist. For years he ridiculed the faith of those who believed in God, and always summarized his talk by saying, “If God existed, he could stop this piece of chalk from hitting the ground and breaking. Such a simple task to prove he is God, and yet he can’t do it.” And every year he would drop the chalk onto the tile floor of the classroom and it would shatter into a hundred pieces. A Christian freshman had to take the course. The story goes: Finally, the day came. The professor said, “If there is anyone here who still believes in God, stand up!” The professor, and the class of 300 people looked at him, shocked, as he stood up at the back of the room. The professor shouted, “YOU FOOL! If nothing I have said all semester has convinced you that God doesn’t exist, then you are a fool! If God existed, he could keep this piece of chalk from breaking when it hit the ground!” He proceeded to drop the chalk, but as he did it slipped out of his fingers, off his shirt cuff, onto the pleats of his pants, down his leg, and off his shoe. And as it hit the ground it simply rolled away, unbroken. The professor’s jaw dropped as he stared at the chalk. He looked up at the young man and then ran out of the lecture hall. (Chick Publications has this story in one of its comics; they are in fact known for their general willingness to publish legends, myths and hearsay, especially about the King James Version and the “Alberto” story). There is a new version that involves an atheist professor who challenges God to knock him off the podium, and a Navy SEAL who punches him; see HERE.
Urban legends are as popular as they are, because they “prove” something we believe or suspect to be true. In the case of the heisted kidney, the lesson is clear: “Men, don’t flirt with strange women!” In the tale of the microwaved poodle, which story began life in the 1970s, when home microwaves were an innovation, the lesson is that new technology can be dangerous, and also, well, that women and technology are an especially bad mix. There are many legends that involve a couple being attacked while they’re at Lover’s Lane – the underlying lesson is, “Be careful, young girls, sex is dangerous!”
Angel bodyguards: (click HERE): On a college campus, there had been an alarming number of muggings and rape. One girl fell asleep in the library; when she woke up, she was afraid to walk to her dorm. She prayed, “O Lord, place your angels around me!” and walked safely to her front door. Just then there was a terrible scream and she heard another female student being murdered, right where she had walked seconds before. It turns out the thief had been hiding and decided to attack the next woman who passed by. When he was asked why he didn’t attack the first student he replied, “Why would I rob someone who had two giant men on either side of her?”
I’ve heard this legend told in another version:
Angel bodyguards on the mission field: There are missionaries in Africa. They had heard that some warriors were going to murder them, so they gathered in their hut and prayed for the Lord’s protection. The attack never came. Later, one of the tribesmen came to Christ, and was asked why he hadn’t carried out his plan. “I would have,” he said, “but when we approached your hut we saw that it was surrounded by a group of powerful men in shining white robes!”
Now – I am sure that some reader is saying, “But wait, I know that’s true, it happened to a missionary who spoke to our church!” But if you were to track the missionary down, you would undoubtedly hear that it hadn’t happened to him, but that he had heard it from someone else, probably from another missionary; but most certainly you will hear that “it really happened!” The same happens with wartime stories of angelic apparitions, such as the Angels of Mons during WWI: the story originally ran that ghostly English soldiers from the past staved off a German attack and saved many lives; later it became angels. However, there are no eyewitness testimonies, and again, it was a “friend of a friend” or “my grandfather’s friend’s lieutenant.”
Tongues in Africa. Here’s one for our Pentecostal friends. Many of us have heard or passed along the story of the missionary who is captured by African tribesmen. He is taken to the chief, and knowing his end was near, he kneels and begins praying in tongues. The natives fall strangely silent; they confer, and they let him go. Later on the missionary is told that he had miraculously prayed in the native language, frightening them into halting their plans.
Yet who among us can produce the confirmed testimony of the tribesman or the missionary, or report the details of how it happened? Such stories are extremely difficult to trace to their original source, let alone to prove. Missionaries carry the story from conference to conference, spreading it near and far, until it becomes gospel truth.
Again with tongues, the following has all the marks of an urban legend, but is passed around as fact, even by an internationally famous preacher:
Faked Tongues. In order to discredit them, a seminary student goes to a local meeting of Pentecostals. He stands and recites Psalm 23 in Hebrew. Someone gets up and “interprets” it as a divine message for some woman in the group. The student then reveals the subterfuge, and confusion breaks out.
As in many urban legend, the story ends with a shock.
Who knows, maybe some student actually did this at some time, but the fact that for 40 years I have heard this repeated as “news” makes me doubt it.
Here’s another missionary tale:
Rock Music and the Missionary Kid. A family is working in Africa (in urban legends, the missionary is usually in Africa). The teenaged son has some recorded rock music, which he plays within the hearing of the “natives”. Upon hearing it, the locals take the father to one side to tell him, “Why, this is the exact same music that we use to conjure up demons! Why is your son listening to it, if you claim to be against the devil?” I’ve heard another version, where the natives say that the rock beat is associated with homosexual activities – I guess for some of us, it’s scarier to be thought gay than thought to be demonized. In some versions of the story, the music is Christian rock: again, the lesson is clear – just because it’s “Christian” doesn’t mean it’s not of the devil. The story, which I guess might have happened to someone, somewhere, seems to have been circulating since Elvis recorded “Hound Dog”.
I heard the following story from dozens of sources. During the Cold War it always took place in the Soviet Union; now it supposedly takes place in China or a Muslim nation:
The persecuted church. In Russia, a church was gathered in an illegal meeting. Out of nowhere, two soldiers burst in, their automatic rifles pointed at the crowd. “We’re here to kill all the Christians!” they bellowed. “Anyone who isn’t ready to die for Christ, get out right now!” Some people flee. At that point, the soldiers slammed the doors shut and threw down their guns. “We are Christians too, brothers! But we had to make sure there weren’t informants or spies here.”
How to spot an urban legend: if it happened to a “friend of a friend” (FOAF), which friend can never seem to be positively identified. If the details seem fluid as to when, where and how it happened. And if the story’s ending is ironic, proving a point just a little too neatly. If many people tell the same story with different details, it’s an urban legend. It doesn’t matter if you heard it from a pastor or a missionary – they too pass along stories without checking them.
Urban legends are tracked by people with an interest in modern lore; www.snopes.com is my website of choice; they also post warnings about computer viruses and spams; they likewise give the straight word on these Facebook posts, about how if you click this you’ll help a baby who needs a transplant, or you will win a free iPad. Whenever I hear a story that seems a little too “tidy”, to Snopes I go.
We Christians have to have a high regard toward the truth, pledging to ourselves that we won’t passively or actively pass along shady “real stories” we’ve heard. This is why I’m disappointed to see how the “Unbelieving Professor” story is handled on this website (click HERE): “This story is most likely an urban legend, but it is still encouraging.” Well, I’m sorry, if this story is false, then it is not encouraging, it is disappointing to see Christians with a low respect for truth. In fact, many of the popular Christian urban legends can be found on atheistic websites: unbelievers quote them in order to prove how gullible we Christians are (for example, click HERE). Is it worth discrediting the gospel for the sake of a snappy story?
Let us strive to live by the highest possible standard of truth and accuracy, so that even our detractors must admit, “Say what you will about Christians, they’re not easily hoodwinked.”
For other information, see http://www.christianstories.com/urban-legends/
Gog of Magog is dead…and I have seen his grave
“Christian urban legends,” by Gary Shogren, PhD in New Testament, Professor of Seminaro ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica
Hi and thanks for sharing!
With regard to your specific points:
1. You say ‘”We are “the Church” — His ‘body’ His bride; and His Church, with the Holy Spirit (Retainer) during the specific Church (by grace) “time frame.” He wouldn’t let — His bride — go through His wrath; designated as the last “70th week” of Daniel 9, and specifically established for dealing with Israel (Jacob’s trouble).’ May I suggest that your reasoning is basically circular. Your are asserting that which you are trying to prove. If I may simplify what you are saying, it is, “The Lord will not permit us to go through the tribulation, because he wouldn’t let us go through the tribulation.” I do not find that convincing and my practice is to ask, “Show it to me in the Bible.”
2. You say, if I understand you correctly, that the post-tribulation theory is “new”. In fact, it has been the teaching of all branches of the church since the earliest patristic church, that the saints will pass through the final tribulation. On the other hand, no-one taught the pre-trib rapture before the early 1800s, no-one has ever been able to produce evidence that the idea existed before then.
3. Again, you argue that if we teach the post-tribulation rapture, we won’t help new believers see the love of Jesus. Well, as I understand it, we teach people the love of Jesus by teaching them precisely what Jesus taught, no more and no less. I find it, frankly, a difficult idea to say that it is discouraging to tell people they will go through tribulation if they follow Christ – which is precisely what Christ himself told us would happen, in John 16:33 among other passages: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” Was Paul discouraging to the Thessalonians when he wrote them, that they shouldn’t be “unsettled by these trials. For you know quite well that we are destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted? (1 Thess 4:3-4). And it turned out that way, as you well know.” In countries that do not experience persecution these days, it’s easier to believe that we are not destined for it. And so, would we really want to tell the stalwart believers in China, North Korea, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Nigeria, that God loves them less because he lets them go through persecution and tribulation?
4. You say I should pay more attention to the Old Testament. In fact, I know of no pre-trib theologian who teaches that a pre-trib rapture is taught in the OT; this is the reason I focus on the NT. The theory usually runs that it was revealed as a “mystery” only in AD 50, when Paul wrote 1 Thess 4. Or, do you have texts in the OT that teach that Christ will come before a final tribulation to remove his people?
5. Nowhere does the Bible say we will experience God’s wrath. Romans 2, 1 Thess 1:10 and 5:10 say we will not, as do 2 Thess 1:6-10 – “God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.” At the second coming, the topic of this chapter, the wicked experience God’s punishment, trouble, everlasting destruction, that is, God’s wrath. The believers do not. And the Day of the Lord (“the day” of 2 Thess 1:10) will not occur before the Man of Sin and the Great Apostasy take place (2 Thess 2).
6. Absolutely I agree that there is nothing new under the sun and the the Word abides forever. That’s why I insist that we stick to the Bible and not teach what we think ought to be so. But, in fact, the pre-trib doctrine IS relatively new to history, it is less than two centuries old. There is nothing in 1 Thess that indicates that Christ will take his people to heaven before the tribulation, and much information in 1 Thess 5, 2 Thess 1-2, that indicates that that is NOT his plan. Every single description of the eschatological tribulation states or clearly implies that believers will be present on the earth for it. In no passage, not even in 1 Thess 4, does it state that there is a “second” second coming.
May I share two articles with you:
I’ve heard some of these as well from pastors preaching in a service. One I heard many years ago from my mother’s pastor was the tongues one but with a different take. Something to the effect of a service in Africa, a woman starts praying loudly in tongues and no one could understand it except one woman because it was in her native language. The woman praying in tongues did not know this language either. I don’t remember what the message in tongues was but it was some neat miraculous just-what-I-need message just for the one and only woman who could understand it.
Another was one my mother believed many years ago she heard on a religious radio program. A preacher picks up a hitchhiker. After a bit the hitchhiker draws a gun demanding money. The pastor stops the car and begins to pray. The hitchhiker fires a few times but the bullets just fall out the end of the barrel onto the seat. The hitchhiker gets out of the car scared and starts to run, but the pastor convinces him to come back and then is able to lead him to Christ.
Hi Tony, thanks!
I wouldn’t want to say that these events never happened – perhaps all the urban legends mentioned here took place. The issue is that they have been circulated, often for decades, and that the stories change substantially in the retelling: for example, it took place in New Orleans; no, in Boston; no in Africa. That is, they are “rootless” and free-floating, and it is with great difficulty that one might find the original storyteller.
My policy is to be dubious about such stories, but positively focus on what help they might give me to live better.
Enjoyed this, Gary. Regarding the previous comment, I understand his point of view, but I think that an intellectual skeptic will at least search for the truth. I received many such emails when Barack Obama became President. When I pointed out to a friend that the email she had forwarded to numerous people was largely untrue, she stated that she did not care, did not like him, and would continue to forward these types of email. Delete is my favorite key for most emails.
Have a blessed day, Gary.
Della, hi! Many thanks! I’m appalled, frankly, that a group of people that is supposedly committed to telling the truth, plays fast and loose when it’s rumors about a political opponent. Under Pres Obama it’s been worse than ever, although there were plenty of rumors under George W. Bush and Pres Clinton too.
It’s the level of accuracy of the words we speak about our opponents that reveals our respect for the truth. If I don’t tell the truth about my opponent, then I am not a truth-speaker, period.
“Thou shalt not bear false witness” is right up there with “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not commit adultery”.
Very well said Gary, I appreciate your blogs very much and will continue to read them. Thanks for the truth…
Many thanks, blessings.
I could put you in touch with colleagues who work in an office a couple doors from mine (when translating) who were protected by angels who looked like tall people, when their new Christian friends were threatened by death. The crowd parted as they came out from the meeting called by the town authorities. They later found out that the people armed with machetes saw huge folks walking in front of them.
I appreciate your article, in terms of being witnesses and a testimony, rather than gullible or naive people. Sometimes, however, the enemy uses another trick: to get intellectual Christians to be skeptical, and I simply wanted to voice this, so we do not fall into the ditch on the other side. As you say, the reason many of the legends seem credible is that we know such things could happen.
Thanks LeRoy for the good word. When we talk of urban legends, we mean events that might happen and in fact might have happened, but which now are “rootless”. I would very much like to hear the details “straight from the horse’s mouth”, if you can ask your friends to respond to this blog. Blessings!