Among Christian groups who hold to belief in a literal apocalypse, the most common view today is “pretribulationist” – the belief that God will remove his faithful from the world in the Rapture, following which there will be seven years of suffering and bloodshed as unsaved humanity is tortured by God and ruled by the Antichrist. (“Pretribulation” refers to the timing of the Rapture, in this belief system preceding the seven years of tribulation.) There are differing views in Christian theology – midtribulationists, posttribulationists – but the pretribulation view has the most currency today. The bestselling Left Behind books teach this view, as do prominent current or past preachers such as Hal Lindsey, Jack Van Impe, John Hagee, Jerry Falwell and others.
And all I can say – and I say it with full irony – is, thank God for that.
Of course, it would be far better if no religious groups believed in the apocalypse at all. Belief in the imminent end of the world has led to a multitude of harms: instilling pointless terror and dread in innocent lay believers, encouraging powerful churches to advocate environmental decimation and war in the belief that there’s no sense trying to preserve the world if God is soon coming to destroy it. But since apocalyptic belief is widespread, this is the best variant we could have hoped for. To be blunt, pretribulationism keeps the nuts and fanatics in check, because they believe the show won’t start until after they’re gone. We don’t realize how fortunate we’ve been in that respect. If a different eschatology had become prominent, it’s very likely that, by now, some religious group would have tried to start Armageddon themselves in order to hurry their deliverance along.
Even with things as they are, we hear power-crazed lunatics like John Hagee and Rod Parsley ranting about how it is Christianity’s (or America’s – the distinction is not a clear one to them) God-given destiny to destroy Islam in a final apocalyptic battle. We are very fortunate indeed that they believe the cosmic showdown won’t happen until after they’ve been raptured away. If they believed that it would happen prior to their salvation, they might already have had our armies marching into the Middle East to take on the whole Islamic world, expecting that Jesus would appear at the climax.
It’s tempting to speculate on why the pretribulationist view has become dominant, and I have a hypothesis of my own. The Bible’s teaching on this subject is confused, to say the least. The Rapture as a doctrine is nowhere explicitly stated, and has been inferred from a pastiche of vague verses from different biblical books mashed together with little regard for context. Ludicrously complex theories have been drawn up based on these verses, and defenders of the different eschatologies argue endlessly, each citing their own preferred interpretations. Out of the confusion, the pre-trib view has risen to dominance not because it’s the best supported scripturally, but because it makes for the best story.
In much the same way that alien abduction stories have converged on a consensus description of the aliens based on popularity, Christian rapture belief has been shaped by which interpretations give the most dramatic details for an evangelist to announce. And the pre-trib view certainly has that going for it: a world suddenly missing millions of people, airplanes crashing, lawnmowers left running in empty yards, crumpled clothes in heaps on street corners… and the confusion and panic among those left, slowly coalescing into a creeping dread as they realize that it was true all along and they’ve missed their chance. It makes for a great horror story, no doubt about it. And we shouldn’t be surprised that the value of a good story has shaped the evolution of religions, considering their often explicit teaching that we should believe whatever we most want to be true.