Happy Rapture Day?
It’s that time again. That time of year when the fall semester gets into full swing, the leaves in the Midwest and New England begin to change color (or maybe not this year, thanks
Obama climate change), and certain conservative Christians go into a frenzy about the rapture. You know, that glorious event when, accompanied by the sound of trumpets, Jesus is supposed to appear in the sky, and the “saved” will rise to meet him, ascending to heaven. According to the most popular interpretation of what’s called premillennial dispensationalism (which entails what’s often referred to as a “pre-trib” rapture), the rest of us will be left to go through seven years of apocalyptic horrors known as the Tribulation, which will just go to show, again, how “morally superior” the conservative Christians are. (You can tell how morally superior they are from how very eager they are to punish anyone who thinks differently from them). Anyway, given that we’re undergoing one of those episodes when rapture speculation breaks out beyond the Evangelical enclave community into the public eye, I thought I would take the occasion to set down a few thoughts on growing up “living in the end times” and deconstruction from toxic Christianity, in addition to clearing up a few common misconceptions and oversimplifications related to rapture theology.
Disappointingly, the conspiratorial crackpot responsible for this round of public rapture speculation, “Christian numerologist” David Meade, has already walked back his prediction that the world will end today, suggesting only that today is “the beginning of the end” and the world will be somehow very different from the way it is now at the beginning of October. David, David, David, everyone knows you play this language game of revising your rapture speculation only after the apocalypse has not occurred on the day you initially predicted it for. Mr. Meade’s amateurism aside, rapture speculation is often stepped up in the fall, because of the importance that rapture believing Christian theologians lend to the dates of the Jewish High Holy Days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (For more on Christian Zionism, click here.)
This year, some may find apocalyptic fear-mongering more resonant than usual (and perhaps even seemingly convincing on a visceral level), given the way that Caribbean nations, Texas, and Florida have been battered by unusually massive hurricanes; the fact that Mexico has recently been hit by two large earthquakes; tensions in the Middle East; the presence of an incompetent blowhard with too keen of an interest in using nuclear weapons in the American presidency (illegitimately); and the looming possibility of nuclear confrontation with North Korea. (It’s a little known fun fact from the history and sociology of religion, by the way, that church attendance was 10-20% higher than usual on October 28, 1962, the Sunday when the Cuban Missile Crisis came to a close, as noted by Angela Lahr in her excellent study Millennial Dreams and Apocalyptic Nightmares: The Cold War Origins of Political Evangelicalism). For my own part, I find that I no longer have much emotional response to rapture predictions, which I think represents progress in personal healing and growth.
You see, when it comes to experiences like religious PTSD and deconstruction from indoctrination in toxic ideology, sometimes it takes your emotions a long time to catch up to your mind, to what you know to be true. For example, I was deathly afraid of hell for years after I stopped intellectually believing in it, and previous episodes of very public rapture speculation, such as that associated with Harold Camping in 2011, have also unnerved me. In recent years, I’ve learned that experiencing anxiety around rapture predictions and hell is very common among ex-Evangelicals, so if you’re still dealing with anxiety despite believing in neither of those things, you’re not alone. (For an annotated list of resources you may find useful in your recovery from Evangelicalism, click here).
Growing Up in the End Times
Growing up, I was taught that we were living in “the end times.” The belief that the rapture could happen any day now was ubiquitous in my social environment. And boy was that a mindfuck. I must say that the 80s music they’re playing in the coffee shop where I’m typing this, along with today’s rapture frenzy, is kind of taking me back (only we couldn’t dance when we wanted to–at least, although it did not impose a blanket ban on dancing outside of school, Heritage Christian School in Indianapolis would not host dances, although in the 1980s I was in elementary school and too young to care). This end times thinking creates all sorts of opportunities for stress and even terror in young (and even not so young) minds. While thinking along these lines was not so traumatic for me, I have talked to many ex-Evangelicals who report being at times very frightened that the rapture had happened and they had been left behind. I did occasionally have the thought the rapture might have happened without me, when I couldn’t immediately find someone else at home and I expected them to be, but while this has scarred some people, I wouldn’t say it particularly scarred me.
I did, however, stress quite a bit about the likely impending rapture in high school. It didn’t help that Heritage Christian School’s chemistry and AP biology teacher was an apocalyptic mystic of sorts (he also taught physiology and AP chemistry, courses I didn’t take). He would usually start class with a “thought,” a rambling, bizarre devotional that might end up taking half a class period. Often, especially in the fall, these “thoughts” would wander into rapture prediction territory. Now I should note that the Evangelicals I grew up with were mostly against making precise predictions for the date of the rapture. They were fond of saying “no one knows the day or the hour,” a reference to Matthew 24:36, and yet nearly everyone in my social environment was sure that the numerous “signs” (“wars and rumors of wars,” etc.) of the coming of the end could be observed, and so were confident that the rapture would happen soon.
Our high school chemistry and AP biology teacher, however, took it further. Rambling on and on about how “this year” was probably “the year of Noah” because “sin” (especially gay “sin”) was supposedly increasing in the world, he would note that red heifers were being genetically engineered so that they could be sacrificed for the ritual purification necessary for the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem to be rebuilt. He would conclude with the prediction that the rapture would “probably” happen “this fall around Yom Kippur.” He said this the two years I had him, and I believe he said it for many more years as well. He would sometimes also relate apocalyptic dreams: “I dreamed I was standing before the Great White Throne. Christ was separating the sheep from the goats, and I was so nervous, running around to see if any of my students were among the goats.” He added that he was relieved to find there were none of his students among the goats. (#SorryNotSorry, Mr. Terry, but it’s nice here on the apostate side. We have cookies.)
During my high school years, despite my crisis of faith beginning, a part of me believed that this man–this science teacher who wasted class time with endless apocalyptic ramblings and who would not teach us the evolution chapters in AP bio, but told us to read them on our own and regurgitate them for the exam–had a special connection to the Holy Spirit. When I was afraid I’d committed the unpardonable sin, he was one of the people I went to talk to. And so when he told us the rapture would likely happen “this fall around Yom Kippur,” every fall, a part of me couldn’t help believing him, and this made me nervous for a variety of reasons. There was a part of me that very much wanted to grow up. There was a part of me that was doubting, and so I likely did experience some stress about the possibility of being left behind, even if it didn’t register too much. And yes, there was a part of me that didn’t want to die before “getting married and having sex,” which I imagined happening in that order, of course, as I was not one to challenge the damaging Evangelical orthodoxy on sex, sexuality, and “purity” at that time. I then endlessly guilted myself for feeling that way, for wanting something so superficial as getting to have a full human life on earth and experience sex before going to heaven. The only time I remember actually hoping the rapture would happen was during a high school physics exam I didn’t feel especially prepared for. In general, it was always a relief when Yom Kippur passed without incident.
Some Brief Comments on Rapture Theology and Common Misconceptions
There’s a common oversimplification (and some related misconceptions) I run into on Twitter that Evangelicals are trying to bring about the end. Well, yes and no. Evangelicals do long for the end. Like other utopian radicals, they seek to escape from freedom, and the end would free them from all the gray messiness of life that their authoritarian, paranoid personalities, which insist on dividing everything into black and white, cannot handle. The rapture also helps conveniently absolve them of having to take seriously issues like environmental problems, acting in some cases as a defensive fetish, in a Lacanian sense, in a way similar to how their abortion obsession serves that function for them. And most American Evangelicals (I will not lay out all the various schools of eschatology here) do adhere to a few beliefs about what must precede the second coming of Christ, which they understand in association with the rapture. These include the restoration of Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as the necessity that the gospel be preached “to every tribe and tongue,” which is a driving force behind Wycliffe Bible Translators’ attempts to translate the Bible into every human language in existence.
Certain conservative Evangelical activities and policy positions are thus heavily shaped by the group’s most widespread rapture theology, premillennial dispensationalism. And even though those most dangerous and despicable of all Calvinists, Christian Reconstructionists, reject the concept of the rapture and espouse postmillennial eschatology, many of them also expect massive human catastrophe to precede Christians “taking dominion” in order to build God’s Kingdom and bring about the second coming. Catastrophism, with its imaginary filled with redemptive violence, is a destructive, authoritarian way of thinking no matter how it’s sliced. To get back to the premillennialist pre-trib rapture believers, however, the timing of the return of Christ still ultimately depends on God, and these Evangelicals–in a way that is certainly in tension with their attempts to help the rapture along by bringing into existence what they believe to be the conditions necessary for it to occur–understand their role to be to bear witness and oppose the Antichrist. Thus to those who suggest on Twitter and elsewhere that Evangelicals would purposefully elect the Antichrist for president in order to make the end come, I must say #YouDontKnowEvangelicals, and you ought to listen to the reasons they give for supporting Trump, whether they understand him to be a “baby Christian” or just “doing God’s will” despite not being one of them.
You can bet many Evangelicals do expect God’s will to be to bring about the end of days soon, and there is a dangerous likelihood that, in the conditions we face, their end times speculations could become human-caused self-fulfilling prophecies. Nevertheless, it’s important to understand that they will never see Trump as a potential Antichrist, which is a role they can only see a foreigner or a Democratic president in. There were numerous examples of Evangelical speculation in this regard during the presidencies of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. And despite their longing for the end, Evangelicals have long worked to undermine and oppose the institution they think most likely to bring about a one-world government that will be headed by the Antichrist–and if you don’t know that I’m talking about the United Nations, #YouDontKnowEvangelicals.
Another misconception I encounter is the association of rapture theology only with the book of Revelation as opposed to the gospels, in conjunction with attempts to place radical Evangelicalism outside of “real” Christianity. This is simply wrong. “Real” Christianity includes both progressive and radical Right/imperial variations. I have even seen progressive Christians themselves try to dissociate pernicious rapture nonsense from Jesus, as if the only possible answer to the popular question of “What would Jesus do?” is something like “preach and live according to the Sermon on the Mount.” Sorry, folks, but Jesus as represented in the gospels was a radical prophet who had an authoritarian side in addition to being the sort of man who often showed kindness and broke down social barriers. “Red letter Christians” should have to own all the red letters, no? And it’s a passage from the book of Matthew, attributed to Jesus, that provides much of the fodder for rapture speculation in relation to war and natural disasters. Here’s Matthew 24:3-8 (NRSV):
3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 5 For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’[a] and they will lead many astray. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines[b] and earthquakes in various places: 8 all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
I hope the above helps clear some things up about how to understand the social import of Evangelicals’ most common beliefs about the end times. And I hope this post might also help those who still experience rapture anxiety to gain at least some slight comfort. If my experience is any indication, the heightened anxiety you experience around times of mass public rapture speculation may fade with time. In any case, we’re more than halfway through September 23, 2017 in most parts of the world, and said world is still here. As are the right-wing Christian populations who are freaking reasonable people out for good reasons.