How Do You Explain the Rapture to a Secular First Grader?

How Do You Explain the Rapture to a Secular First Grader? April 28, 2016

I grew up in an evangelical home. My daughter is growing up in a nonreligious home. One of the weirdest things about this situation is attempting to explain concepts that made perfect sense to me as a child—because they were all I knew, and all the adults around me believed them—too my children, who have no context for any of them. My son, Bobby, is still a bit young for such discussions, but my first grade daughter, Sally, is not. She is becoming more and more curious and more interested in the world around her, and that means she has questions.

Let me give you a scene. The other day my daughter called me into the bedroom, excited. She wanted to show me that she had laid out her outfits for the next couple of days. She’s notoriously slow about getting dressed, so this was a good thing! However, rather than stacking each set of clothing she had laid each out on the ground as though an invisible someone was wearing them, with the socks at the bottom of pant legs or at a distance from the end of the shorts, and so fort.

“Woah, it looks like the rapture happened in here,” I said. “This would have freaked me out when I was a kid.” And it would have.

“What’s the rapture?” she asked.

I paused, suddenly daunted. How to explain this?

“Well,” I finally responded, “evangelicals believe the end of the world is coming, and that when the world ends it will start with everyone being zapped up to heaven, but not their clothes, and their clothes would sort of just fall to the ground. But only Christians. Anyone who wasn’t a Christian would be left behind. That’s why this would have freaked me out, because if I had come upon clothes like this, it would have meant I was left behind, and wasn’t a true Christian.”

She stared at me. And I understood why. Explaining the rapture to someone with no context or prior exposure to the idea was, to put it simply, weird. It sounded weird, and it felt weird, and frankly, it highlighted the absurdity of the concept—a concept I accepted wholeheartedly for all of my childhood and the beginning of my young adult life. When I set out on this whole parenting journey as a newly nonreligious adult, this moment is not something anyone prepared me for.

This past Easter, Sally told me she wanted to know more about the history of the holiday. So I told her. I explained it all and read her a (Christian) book on the subject, and yes, also talked about the pagan aspects of the holiday, the history of the holiday’s development and disagreements in the early Christian church, as well as the solstice, and global celebrations of Spring. In all of this, Sally got hung up on two things. First, she insisted that if Jesus was dead from midday Friday until Sunday morning, that was not three days. And second, she was agog at the very idea of the Trinity. I tried to explain, but no banana. She wasn’t buying it.

There was actually a third thing, too. I forget why it came up, but I also explained the eucharist to her—I was Catholic for several years in late college and early graduate school, remember—giving her a brief primer on transubstantiation. She was beyond not convinced—she was horrified.

If nothing else, this experience has reminded me why many scholars of religion are transitioning to calling cults “new religious movements” rather than, well, cults. Namely, the idea is that all religions have beliefs that those outside of them would consider strange or bizarre, and that cults differ primarily in that they are new, and that their ideas are therefore not widely known or accepted.

I have worked hard to teach Sally compassion for others and an understanding that everyone has their own journey and their own beliefs. I’ve tried to explain some of the history of the development of religion, and the psychology behind its continued popularity. I’ve gotten books from the library on various cultures’ religious beliefs, and I’ve taken Sally to church with the family when we visit each set of grandparents. We attend the local Unitarian Universalist church because I want her to understand and value diverse religious traditions (while also pushing back against beliefs that promote bigotry or result in harm).

Sally gets very hung up on whether stories are “true” or “fake.” I’ve worked to explain that all stories have meaning, and that our society is rich with stories that help build our identities and collective experience whether or not they truly happened. From Harry Potter to the Lord of the Rings to Game of Thrones, the stories we tell tell us something about ourselves, but also help us create our own sense of meaning and identity. Religious stories are no different, though it’s true that those who had their sense of identity and meaning shaped by Harry Potter growing up probably never thought the boy wizard actually lived. Religious stories are often built on an original thing that actually happened, but then shaped and embellished over time, their meaning growing or changing.

Still, I doubt I’ll ever quite get used to the way my daughter Sally responds to learning about the beliefs I held as an evangelical child and young adult. I wonder, sometimes, how I so easily accepted beliefs like the rapture when I was her age myself. I suspect it had a lot to do with being taught about the rapture by adults I respected and who fully believed in the rapture themselves. Sally is convinced that global climate change is occurring because the trusted adults in her life (and the scientific experts they trust) believe it is occurring. Is it so odd that I believed the rapture was coming because trusted adults in my life (and the theological experts they trusted) believed it was coming? Perhaps not.

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