The Rapture Scare.

The Rapture Scare. April 23, 2015

As you have no doubt noticed, the world appears to have not-ended this month in the wake of yet another Rapture scare, this one colloquially termed the “Blood Moon Prophecy” because its irresponsible originator, John Hagee, mistakenly thought that certain sets of lunar eclipses were predicted in the Bible as heralding various important events in the past and the Rapture real soon now.

What’s amazing to me is not that we have yet another Rapture scare, because I don’t think that fundagelicals would even know what to do with themselves if they didn’t have one looming over their heads at any given time, but that it’s so similar in tenor to all the ones that have gone before–and yet Christians don’t seem to even remember all of those earlier ones, much less have learned from them.

Myself? Well, I learned a lot from a similar Rapture scare that my fundamentalist denomination of Christianity went through in the mid-1980s. It took a while to learn those lessons, but I got there eventually.

The Rapture!
It was supposed to be just like this. But.. uh.. why is the cat still there? (Credit: Robert Couse-Baker, Flickr, CC license.)

I was about sixteen and had been out of the Southern Baptist megachurch for a few months when a friend of mine from school, Angela, invited me to her little Pentecostal church. She said there was a revival meeting at her church and she really wanted me to go so I could hear about this incredibly important thing that was happening soon.

Angela was in every way what one might consider a perfect Christian; she’d converted a year or so beforehand out of a very sinful, worldly lifestyle marked by Sheena Easton clothes and snazzy makeup and rather a lot of boyfriends (and ZOMG she’d probably had unapproved sex). Now she wore handmade cotton print dresses, let her gorgeous curly hair grow long, avoided makeup, and spoke always in a meek, sweet, and loving tone of voice. She didn’t seem to have a care or fear in the world, and she was effortlessly brilliant, kindhearted, and creative. So yes, I was happy to accept her invitation. I was in awe of her.

What I heard at that event just horrified me, though. These preachers were talking about the Rapture, which I had never heard of before.

Rapture–in the sense that fearmongering preachers mean it, at least–is a doctrine that became popular about 200 years ago. It revolves around a poorly-understood Bible verse that talks about how true believers will one day be snatched up from the Earth to fly to heaven to be with their god, leaving this world behind. Christians who buy into Rapture theology are divided about just when this’ll happen; some believe it’ll happen right before a massive persecution of Christians called the Tribulation, which does not look a thing like the so-called War on Christmas that Fox News shits its pants about every winter. This Tribulation period precedes the final battle (called Armageddon for the place in the Middle East where it’s thought to be taking place) right before the end of the whole world. Other Christians believe it’ll happen midway through the Tribulation. Others still believe it’ll happen after the Tribulation. Some Christians, like most Catholics, flat-out reject the whole idea.

Making matters more complicated, Rapture believers of all types all have appropriate Biblical backing for their particular views and think dissenters are completely wrong. Unsurprisingly, this “money for nothing,” easy-out mindset hit America at just the right time (at the 1830s-40s, during the Second Great Awakening, a period of great fervor–and anti-intellectualism; sound familiar?) and has only grown in strength since its introduction. In my direct experience, the sort of people who go in for money-making scams and conspiracy theories are most susceptible to its overtly pandering and self-serving blandishments; it’s rare to find a really enthusiastic Rapture believer who isn’t also involved in money-making schemes or an avid believer in some sort of science denial, and I don’t need to mention what political party and social stances Rapture fanatics tend to identify with.

And disturbingly large numbers of Christian leaders (evangelical especially, Southern especially) not only believe that the end of the world is coming in their lifetime, but that the Rapture will be part of the festivities planned by Jesus.

The particular Rapture scare I saw that night long ago was called the “88 Reasons” scare. This was the first version of it I was involved with (like most failed Rapture predictions, when the date came and went, its creator pushed the “real” date further and further back). The guy who orchestrated the scare, Edgar Whisenant, eventually wrote a book that would come to be called 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. I can’t remember if it was him on the dais or one of his cronies, only that it wasn’t the church’s regular pastor speaking that night.

And I was beyond terrified to my very toes!

Rapture scares are a stock-in-trade for preachers, a guaranteed shock tactic to make unbelievers re-assess Christianity’s claims. The threat of getting “left behind” works marvelously on a number of levels. The idea of not having to die assuages people’s fear of death. The concept of being so ultra-special to a god that he’d pluck his most super-special followers (and only them!) from the earth itself to fly them to heaven tickles people’s egos and pride. Rapture’s got it all–there’s something in that rank mess for everyone.

88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will be in 1988, by Edgar Whisenant, cover of book. Biff read his copy of this book to pieces! (Source: Amazon.com)
88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will be in 1988, by Edgar Whisenant, cover of book. Biff read his copy of this book to pieces! (Source: Amazon.com)

The pre-Tribulation version of Rapture theology is the message I heard that night. It seemed that this guy had decided the Rapture was going to be very, very soon, and unless I got baptized and became a hardcore Christian, I’d miss it and have to deal with seven years of gruesome persecution. Now, I had always been a Christian, but clearly I had not ever been as hardcore as these people were. Even by Southern Baptist standards they were pretty rowdy. By Catholic standards they were out of their minds. They danced, waved their hands, and babbled in weird baby-like syllables that I was told were a heavenly language. They scared me, but also intrigued me. They claimed that they were the only real Christians out there; they said that they were trying their best to live like the Bible said, and believe exactly what it said, with no man-made additions or alterations.

And I was young, trusting, and inexperienced enough to be a perfect mark for this message.

In retrospect, I had no reason not to trust these people. I’d been taught that Christians were moral and didn’t lie, and I had always been rather naive. I’d never learned the skills needed to sift truthful claims from false ones; I didn’t even know such skills existed, much less that anybody needed to learn them. The only standard I knew by which to judge a Christian’s assertions were how well those assertions tallied up with the Bible (“rightfully dividing the truth,” this was called, and it was about as much as I ever got taught about critical thinking; the verse has become Christianese for “coming up with the correct answer according to the party line”).

So far from examining what I was seeing with a critical mindset, I realized that this was what I’d been searching for. I’d been looking for a way to get closer to Jesus, and this seemed like it. Plus, if I went with what these guys were saying, I’d be spared the Tribulation. I didn’t know at the time what Pascal’s Wager was, much less understand its very serious shortcomings as an argument in favor of Christianity, but my innocent teenaged mind went through the known options and came up with “Sounds legit.”

That night I joined that Pentecostal church and got baptized again (they insisted I do so, since the first time, with the Southern Baptists, had been in the name of the Trinity, and these were Oneness Pentecostals who believed such a formula was pagan and demonic–and, as with Rapture, you may rest assured that both sides had ample Biblical backing for their wildly divergent views and were convinced that any opposing view was not only wrong but possibly demonically-inspired).

Pentecostalism is a very attention-consuming denomination. It all but subsumed me into the Borg collective. There was one problem in paradise, though: I didn’t speak in tongues, which was a huge disappointment to the church, since they thought everybody spoke in tongues once baptized because that was the sign God was “filling” that person. I didn’t feel moved to babble like they did, but I did love God and want to serve him with all my being. I prayed constantly for this “infilling,” I did everything they said a young woman must do to get it, but never got it. I was stabbed anew in the heart every weekend seeing these ecstatic people dancing in the Spirit, getting “slain in the Spirit,” getting “words of prophecy” and interpretations of them, but I never felt that bubbling-up of infilling that they said would indicate that I was in the Cool Kids’ Club. I continued to pray, attend church several times a week, sing in the choir, and dress and act the way they said I should, and hoped that if I just walked in faith, eventually it’d happen for me (and it did, I’m afraid–just not during that go-round). I spent every moment I could at church; I studied; I prayed; I tried so hard. I was so terrified.

Oh, and yeah, I made a huge pest of myself to my friends and family alike because I was completely convinced that they were going to Hell if I didn’t personally stop them and convert them! Sermon after sermon got preached about this exact burden. I worked myself into a damned-near frenzy trying to meet these impossible demands and insanely-high stakes.

Now I look back and I realize that it was totally wrong that my church even put such a burden on anybody, much less on someone who wasn’t much more than a child. I was put to the task of controlling and manipulating those around me–including my parents and teachers. I heard dozens of sermons holding me responsible, personally, for each and every soul “left behind” if I didn’t at least broach the subject of religion with them all.

Look, I took “Just Say No” seriously. How do you think I responded to that burden?

I was a mess.

The night of the Rapture, I spent it at church in a lock-in (that means they let us in, then locked the doors from the inside because who even knew what rioting mobs would be out there after the saints had been taken!), praying my guts out, crying, hysterical, just like all the other Christians around me.

Part of me was aching for the Rapture to happen.

Part of me resented that it was going to happen before I’d ever really had a chance to live. I’d never been married; I’d never fallen in serious love. I’d never gone to college or lived on my own. I’d never “had the prawn vindaloo,” as Red Dwarf’s Lister would lament years later at the idea of his own impending demise.

For a divine miracle that was supposed to prevent me from ever dying, when viewed up-close the Rapture sure felt exactly like I imagined dying felt like.

Every minute was agony. Every second was a ticking bomb in my hands. Finally I snuck a look at my watch.

The midnight hour had been and gone (and yes, of course the Rapture had a deadline of midnight local time).

We were safe.

Headcounts got made. We were all there still.

People began to look at each other in hesitation, then wonderment, then amazement. Then the sobering realization of what had happened–or rather had not happened–hit us.

We knew we hadn’t been “left behind,” which left only one alternative:

Just like all the other days predicted for Rapture always had, this day had passed without a Rapture.

My life suddenly stretched out before me again like the unfurling of a red carpet in a cartoon–suddenly everything opened to me once more, all the doors flew open, and all the possibilities fluttered into view again. And now I had to figure out what to do in the wake of the humiliating failure of this prophecy I had put so much effort and faith into.

So pardon me if I don’t trust every wackadoodle zealot brandishing a diagram! My sympathies are with those who put their hearts and souls into these fearmongering, irresponsible leaders’ opportunistic threats. That’s where we’ll take up next: putting the pieces together after one of these scares has come and gone.

Looking back though, I’ll say this before we take up here on Friday: I’m so, so, so, so glad I’m out of a religion that seems so incapable of reining in the people responsible for frightening so many people so unnecessarily.

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