Not crazy and/or demeaning to Christian doctrine: Believing that a select few worthy disciples of Jesus Christ will spontaneously disappear into Heaven– specifically “the clouds” and “the air,” as Paul called it in his first letter to the Thessalonians. (Not entirely sure where the word Rapture appears in the Bible, even in Greek.) And believing that the rest of us will boil in burning rivers or suffer in other general plagues that a vengeful omnipotent savior chooses to inflict upon us in His rage.
Crazy and/or demeaning to Christian doctrine: Predicting when that might happen based on evidence from scripture.
If you read commentary from many Christian circles surrounding last weekend’s non-Rapture, you’ll find the expression of those exact sentiments, albeit unwittingly. Our own Brandt Merritt writes:
Harold Camping’s prediction proved to be false, which wasn’t much of a surprise to most Christians who believed Jesus when He said no one would know when He plans on returning.
But the coverage that the story garnered certainly portrayed Christianity in a less-than-desirable light. Atheists seized the opportunity to discredit Christians and the Bible in general, when in fact it was a VERY small group of people who simply interpreted the Bible incorrectly.
For the record, Brandt’s exactly right in one respect. I know absolutely no one, Christian or otherwise, who believed the Rapture was coming over the weekend. And I truly despise it when someone ascribes a belief or inclination to me based on the behavior of someone with whom I ostensibly share ideological or moral affinity. Ridicule by association is unfair.
However, those of you who believe in a Second Coming that includes a Rapture and Tribulation or something approximating such glorious mayhem for the suffering godless like me do not get to wiggle off the hooks of your beliefs that easily.
Indeed, after dismissing Camping, Brandt goes on to write this bit of speculation:
As I was looking for different takes on Camping’s prediction, I came across a really interesting look at the rapture on Christianity Today. Matthew Dickerson writes in this piece that it’s his belief those are who saved will be the ones “left behind” at the rapture when Christ returns to establish His kingdom on earth. Everyone else will disappear from existence.
It’s an idea that I admit I’d never really heard before, but he has good evidence from scripture to support it. [emphasis B.T.] So I suggest you check it out.
And consider this from Matt Pleasant’s elegant and subtle Ledger story (yay, Matt) on the Rapture:
Many have pointed out Scripture that says the rapture’s arrival is unknowable. Those who believe it can be predicted are imposing a modern, scientific world view on a text whose authors didn’t have that in mind, said Peter Althouse, a Southeastern University theology professor.
“It’s not for us to know,” said Althouse, whose field of theology deals with end times. The predictions are “an attempt to wrestle out of the hands of God something that only God knows.”
OK. Fine. So the Rapture is a thing defined by uncertainty, for which too much attempt at literal translation begins to wrestle from God that which is God’s.
Perhaps, in that case, Brandt and Althouse will tell us if they own any of the Left Behind books.
If not, which fringy splinter groups of Christianity bought the more than 65 million copies of Left Behind and its sequels that made its authors deeply rich? If a prediction of the date of the Rapture steals God’s prerogatives, what does a detailed recounting of the mayhem the Rapture will inflict, set in a specific time, do? And why are so many Christians willing to engage in that detailed portrayal? If date prediction is silly and offensive, why is the detailed, almost pornographic, depiction of violence and torture visited upon the unsaved both profitable and evangelical?
Why are you Rapture-believing Christians embarrassed by Harold Camping while proudly displaying Tim LaHaye’s authorship across three feet of your bookshelves?
As a person who dwells somewhere between atheism and awe at creation, who finds the night sky and DNA helix greater evidence of divine power than tossing Nicolae Carpathia into some sulfur hole, I have a few theories.
First of all, I suspect you’re angry at Camping mostly because called your bluff and forced America to wrestle for a weekend with the reality of what you think you believe. He pulled the Rapture out of abstraction and gave it to a broad secular audience. And you couldn’t defend it. You were embarrassed to even talk about it.
And you should be.
You think my family and I stand a good chance of enduring the torture and misery unleashed–or allowed to happen–by a vengeful God bent on teaching us some sort of lesson because we don’t share your doctrine. You’ve bought books and watched movies fantasizing about how specifically it will happen, through which you can imagine the flesh melting from my children’s bones. If I believed anything that bizarre and hideous about my neighbors–if I considered Left Behind an important work–I’d be embarrassed to talk about it publicly, too.
You’re absolutely entitled to buy those books and hold those beliefs. But you’re not entitled to respectful treatment of them. You can think I’m damned to locusts all you want, but don’t whine when you get mocked and/or despised. As I’ve said before, beliefs have consequences.
More broadly, though, why does the idea of Rapture seem so appealing to so many Christians? Here I think it’s a little unfair to single out Christians. Rather, I would argue that the Rapture, as a deeply human fantasy, holds a sort a universal appeal.
Ayn Rand wrote about the Rapture in Atlas Shrugged. She didn’t call it that, but what else is Galt’s Gulch but a kind of heaven for the saved–err Galtian supergeniuses. Where else can all the difficulties of living as humans melt away with the help of magical perpetual motion machines and super-reflecting/refracting rotating camouflage mirrors? And where else can you look on with great satisfaction as the moochers and looters suffer from the Tribulation, errr, tyranny of bureaucrats and unions?
I’ve been working over in my mind how it is that people who worship the Left Behind books and those who worship the famously atheistic Ayn Rand have come to form a happy alliance in the core of the “conservative movement”. They will tell you, if you ask them, that they have nothing in common. And yet they share the most important thing–a firm belief that they are part of the elect, the worthy. They’ll be saved, because that’s just how they roll. And painful, tortured judgement is coming for the rest of us.
This instinct bleeds down into life as we live it. For instance, the various parents flocking to McKeel Academy’s county average writing scores are Rapturing themselves into some heaven of status they can brag to their friends about. Every gated community, at a time of historically low crime, is its own little Rapture cul-de-sac.
Indeed, I would argue that the Rapture is the most human and earthly of divine beliefs. It has nothing to do with God. It translates roughly into this: Other people suck. I’m great. I should be rewarded. I should have power. They should be punished–and then ruefully pitied. Please, God and/or Ayn Rand and/or McKeel Academy, make that happen. Please, Allah, give me my virgins.
Newsflash to Rapturists in all their forms: The rest of us often think other people suck, too. We might even imagine ourselves possessing some magic wand that would rid us of many of them, at least for a second. Then we get over it. We realize that Creation, with its humans and messiness, reflects a more powerful and mysterious and worship-worthy God than the Kim Jong Il in robes that you imagine is waiting to torture us all into loving Him.