My timing and rhythm with these blogs has been pretty bad lately. I’ve sort of set myself the task of writing one each weekend, but then lately I’ve missed some here and there or published mid-week instead. If I had been hired to write these for a periodical or something, I probably would have been fired by now. But my bad timing on this is nothing compared to that of people who keep predicting “the Rapture”.
This past week, as an American and religious education teacher in a Finnish public school, I’ve been repeatedly asked by students, “What is the Rapture?” Nor are my current students the only ones wondering about such things. What is all the strange fuss about among these American radical Christians? Is the end of the world supposed to be coming or something? Then some of my students have also seen one of my former acquaintances and “Facebook friends” joining into the chorus of apocalyptic predictions (admittedly without any May references) giving rise to even more of these questions. Thus I should probably take this time to do some ‘splainin’ here.
I should also insert a basic disclaimer first: what I have to say is based on my own experience of, and readings about, a wide variety of conservative (and not so conservative) Christian movements over the years. I have figuratively had one foot in and one foot out of many of these (I seem to have lots of figurative feet!), but I have no particularly strong alliances with or rights to speak for any of them. Take it for what it’s worth, and if you want to make sure you have the details of their positions straight turn to these groups’ more official messengers. This is just an overview for those who are trying to get some basic handle on what the hell such folks are talking about; and perhaps a bit of helpful perspective for others who, like myself, have seen a lot of Rapture predictions come and go over the years.
The starting point for all this is the fact that Christianity began as a radical, viciously persecuted, underground religion. Nobody liked these “little messiahs” (the literal meaning of the etymological root term for “Christians”) with their weird secret rituals, unorthodox perspectives on the Jewish scriptures and complete lack of political loyalties. The first historical reference that we have to Christians by a non-Christian was from Pliny the Younger, who was asking the emperor Trajan how aggressively he was supposed to be hunting them down. His basic take on Christians was that they seemed to be utterly insane, but basically harmless. That leaves an open question with no solid documentary evidence to answer it as to why they were being hunted down in the first place. But whatever the case, “Christian hunting” remained one of the major pastimes of Roman governors for the next couple of centuries thereafter, hardening the idea of a battle between good and evil, and expectation of divine intervention and deliverance into the basic Christian psyche.
An important part of these early Christians’ understanding of “spiritual warfare” was based on a book that Jews take as general fantasy literature, but Christians consider to be prophetic: the book of Daniel. Daniel is all about the experiences of the Jews as the colonial vassals of the Persian Empire, with Zoroastrianism as their state religion. That religion is all about the battle between spiritual forces loyal to the creator of the universe and forces which have rebelled against the creator; so it seems to be more than coincidence that, after some exposure to Zoroastrian religious influences, Daniel began to write about an awesome battle between supernatural forces of good and supernatural forces of evil as applied to Judaism.
This added a whole new dimension to Jewish mysticism. No longer was their religion merely saying, “We screwed up and we’re being punished, but if we get our act together God will help us out and put things right for us.” Now there was an added element of, “the Devil is trying to stop us from realizing God’s plan for our nation, and for all humanity, but if we join God’s forces in fighting against this cosmic enemy, victory will eventually be ours.” That theme from Daniel was eventually picked up and expanded upon in the last book of the Christian canon: Revelation, the mother of all end-of-the-world tales.
Meanwhile, however, there was the issue of Jesus’ disappearance to take into consideration. A few days after he was brutally tortured to death by the Romans, in a way that left no room for credibly believing that he lapsed into a coma and later recovered, no one could find Jesus’ body. From there many started to claim that they had seen him alive again, but in a form where, even though he could eat normal food and stuff, he could also walk through walls like a ghost. Then after a month and a half of theses kinds of sightings a bunch of his followers said that they had gone up onto a hilltop with him and watched him levitate up into heaven, after which a couple of angels told them, “He’ll be back later. Get busy.” Then another week and a half after that they experienced the mass euphoria of the “Holy Spirit coming,” and all heaven broke loose.
Diplomacy was never these early Christians’ strong suit, and they soon made a lot of powerful enemies and started getting themselves killed even. But whenever things got really tough for them, they would tell each other, “Don’t worry. He’ll be back soon enough, and when he does come those bastards will be sorry for what they did to us!” That sort of hope and expectation gave them an incredible level of power and confidence to face those who were hunting them.
With this sort of expectation that Jesus would be coming back again, after which they would see a climactic kick-ass showdown between Good and Evil, Christian traditions regarding the apocalypse developed in a number of interesting ways. One particular part of the New Testament which is often referred to as part of this debate is St. Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. Here in particular, Paul wrote about Christians’ sufferings for their faith being part of a battle between Jesus’ army and Satan’s. He made it perfectly clear that he expected to see Jesus’ return within his lifetime, to give the bad guys what they had coming, but he also wanted to comfort the Thessalonians about those who have died already, in disappointment at not seeing Jesus come back within their lifetimes. “Don’t worry,” he says, “Jesus will come get those of his believers who have died first, so they’ll be get the front row seats to in heaven to watch this final battle. Then after that he’ll come back to get the rest of us who are still alive at that point” (I Th. 4:13-17, Huisjen paraphrased edition).
But then after that apparently someone was spreading rumors and forging letters in Paul’s name saying that Jesus had in fact returned already, sorry you missed it. So in his second letter to this church Paul tells them not to believe such crap. He makes some veiled references to some secret information he gave them in person about who the real bad guys were and tells them that the wheels leading to the final showdown and the end of history were already in motion. He goes on to tell them evil was already on the rise, but it would have to raise its head just a bit higher before Jesus could come and lop it off. Don’t worry though, he insists, our deliverance is coming real soon.
Paul was part of the late first generation or early second generation of those who ended up dying in disappointment over not being able to witness Jesus’ return to Earth. There have been many more since. And in spite of the fact that things didn’t entirely go down as Paul expected, his words to the Thessalonians –– together with those of old Daniel, “John, the revelator”, the Muslim prophet Muhammed (yes, Muhammed, who had one Christian wife, also talked expectantly about the second coming of Jesus) and Nostradamus –– have been continuously analyzed by various sorts of believers as key to deciding what kind of apocalypse to expect. The essential elements in all of these messages are that A) the world is getting more and more evil all the time, B) eventually the forces of evil will get so strong that God will have to send Jesus back, together with an army of angels, to deal with them, C) this final showdown will be a literal blood bath, and D) after that there will be a long period in which the good guys will be in charge, until the final end of human history, another 1000 years or so later.
One thing that those who take these predictions seriously disagree with each other about, however, is whether or not believers will be involved in that final battle between good and evil. Many interpret the book of I Thessalonians as saying that since this is a matter of God’s judgment on mankind’s evil, and since believers have had their own evil deeds entirely forgiven already, it only makes sense that God would take all of Jesus’ followers out of the picture before this final blast of excrement hits the rotary aerating device. This is known as the “Pre-tribulation Rapture” theory. It has a long history of making people say and do stupid things.
One of the most famous and embarrassing cases of rapture anticipation came in the northeast US in the 1840s. They were called the Millerites. William Miller, a Baptist minister from New York state, calculated that Jesus would be coming to take all of his followers out of the world by the 21st of March in 1844. When that one missed he tried again for a lunar month later: April 18th. After that miss it was actually a colleague of his, Samuel Snow, who made a third try at predicting the Rapture for that year: on October 22nd. For those silly enough to get their hopes up on that October day this became known as “The Great Disappointment”. An appropriate name, don’t you think?
Out of the Millerites came a group of Christians that later became known as the Adventists. They basically calmed down about making predictions about the coming of the Rapture and focused on other radical forms ways of living out their faith, like swearing off all meat and caffeine consumption, or moving the Christian weekly worship day back to Saturday. Other groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, took over the Rapture predicting racket. Yet out of this Adventist branch of Christianity we’ve had such phenomena over the years as the “Branch Davidian” movement, with their famous show-down with the FBI in Waco, Texas.
My personal associations with Rapture predictors came about in the mid-1970s, when I was in my early teens. The basic theory among those inclined to look for the climax of history at that time was that the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 related to a coded prophecy given by Jesus in Matthew 24:32. As he was talking about the end of the world and all that there, Jesus said, “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.” That fig tree was seen as an obvious reference to the people of Israel, and its leaves coming out must be in reference to them forming a nation again. So that would mean that all the rest of the stuff Jesus was talking about in the chapter must be right around the corner. And sure enough, two verses later Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” Since Jesus’ own generation passed away without all those things happening, he must have been talking about the generation in which “the fig tree” would “put out its leaves.”
OK, so how long is a generation? Well, since the Israelites got lost between Egypt and their promised land for 40 years as God’s means of disposing of an unworthy generation, a Biblical generation must be 40 years. So within 40 years of 1948 all the stuff talked about in Matthew 24 should be over and done with. That would include a 7 year period of hell breaking lose that believers aren’t destined to experience, so that would mean that Jesus would be destined to come and take all of his people out of the world by 1981.
Embarrassing as such beliefs are in retrospect, that was what the majority of the people in the church my family was going to at the time believed was about to happen. At the time this was a rather depressing thought for me. I mean heaven was supposed to be cool and all, but I was afraid that I’d never get a chance to get married and have kids and all that, because the end of the world would be coming too soon. But eventually I realized that such speculations were just that, and really nothing to be afraid of. By the time 1982 rolled around and life continued on as normal, I really wasn’t all that surprised. I did become rather cynical about immanent rapture predictions after that though, and these days the most I can muster for such forecasts is a half-hearted pity smile.
I remember in the mid-eighties getting into a ridiculously heated argument with one guy who still insisted that expecting Jesus’ Second Coming within our lifetime should be taken as an essential article of Christian faith. After I shot down all of his major arguments on the matter, his final tack was to challenge the orthodoxy of my faith by saying, “So I suppose that you think I Thessalonians 4 and 5 don’t belong in the Bible.”
“On the contrary,” I replied, “I think that portion is as relevant now as it was when Paul first wrote it.” Now having a bit more than twice as much life experience as I did then, I would no longer bother arguing about it with such an individual, but I still hold to the same sort of belief I had then: I still believe that some day life on Earth will come to an end, and when it does good will triumph over evil. I still believe that having the assurance that our team is destined to win is vitally important for getting through tough times. And I still believe that expecting Jesus’ immanent return to get us out of all the crap we keep getting ourselves into is a rather foolish form of faith for people to keep subscribing to.
The word “rapture” literally means to be raised or lifted out of oneself by divine power. When it’s not being used by religious nuts to talk about their expectations of escaping from history’s final battle though, these days it refers to something very much like ecstasy. “He sat in a state of rapture as he poured over each line of the long-awaited letter from his sweetheart.” That’s really the only kind of rapture I’m anticipating these days: the thrill of enjoying peak moments in life as a gift from God. Even that sort of rapture isn’t a sure thing: Obviously many horrible things have happened to many wonderful people over the years; and obviously, if this life is really all there is, cosmic justice is a pretty screwed up thing to believe in. But even so, hoping for small favors from God in the form of rapturous moments here and there that make life worth living still makes a lot more sense than hoping for Jesus to come and stomp on my enemies right away.
Last week’s predictions that the Rapture was to happen on Saturday then didn’t really even spark my curiosity. If I had seen it as even remotely likely to happen I wouldn’t have paid that parking ticket. If Jesus were to return this year or next I wouldn’t be particularly afraid to face his critique of my life, but nor am I in any big hurry to see him bring everything to an end either. Such an idea may have a lot of appeal to self-righteous, Obama-hating baby boomers; but it would be a bit of a disappointment to my young adult sons, both of whom would like to be fathers themselves some day. But all things considered, I very much doubt that the Second Coming will prevent the boys from getting their chance.