I’ve written about the 1988 Rapture scare that I went through as a teenager, the one that scared me into joining a Pentecostal church, but I want to mention briefly what it was like for me to be a teenager during a Rapture scare because I think we’ve kind of forgotten the harm that these scares can wreak on vulnerable minds, and now that another one is looming, this seems like a good time to talk about what happened then.
We hear about adults getting convinced that the end of the world is coming. We giggle and point at them selling their houses or depleting their kids’ college funds to buy billboards imploring people to convert before it’s too late. It all seems so utterly ridiculous and impossible, like who’d ever fall for something so obviously fake? Even most Christians kinda roll their eyes a little at their more zealous brethren, which is a bit like an anti-vaxxer conspiracy theorist thinking reptilians are too out-there. Real scientists have to spend their time talking about the most ridiculous things–like how impossible it really is for a stray planet to hit the Earth without us getting many years of advance notice, or just why 2012 isn’t anything to fear. (Does it remind you, too, of that scene in Ghostbusters where an esteemed talking head asks the heroes in an interview about how Elvis is doing? I’ve seen scientists asked about 2012 give the same look that Ray gives in that interview: “Wait, wait, I’m trying to process your ignorance into a recognizable question that I can actually answer.”)
It’s not in me to mock these folks for going to the lengths they did during that last big scare in 2012, when the many-times-failed fake “prophet,” Harold Camping, made his last prediction. He later called the prediction a “mistake,” but not till after the date came and went without a Rapture happening. I wasn’t surprised that he died not long after making that admission; when I watched footage of him, he seemed like a broken man. This Rapture idea had been what had fueled him and given him purpose, and very clearly the threat of it resonated with a lot of people and got him a whole lot of attention.
I can certainly remember a time when his manufactured scare would have resonated with me.
When I was just a teenager, I got caught up in the fervor around the “88 Reasons” Rapture scare. This scare was based on the writings of Edgar Whisenant, who–like Harold Camping would later be–was convinced that he had figured out exactly when the Rapture would happen. Mr. Whisenant wrote a book called 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988, which I’ve linked to here so you can marvel at it for yourself. And for some reason this fear completely caught on in fundamentalist circles in Houston where I lived at the time.
I remember my friend Angela–a very fervent Pentecostal who later became one of my best friends–inviting me to a church service to hear a very important message, she said, and I went with her and sat among all the other kids (many of whom were fellow students at our high school) and got totally terrorized by the idea of a Rapture.
I had no reason not to believe what I was hearing. I was already Christian, after all, and I didn’t have the critical-thinking skills necessary to judge the validity of what the impassioned preacher on the dais was claiming. I bought into it hook, line, and sinker.
So friends, let me tell you something: If I’d had the money to buy a billboard when I got similarly impressed with a Rapture scare as the folks in Harold Camping’s church did, I totally would have done it. If I’d been able to get away with spending my days passing out leaflets and shouting at people to convert, I’d have done it in a heartbeat. The only thing stopping me was lack of funds and parental cooperation. I was absolutely convinced that the end of the world was coming. I saw this horrible danger that nobody else could see. I read my 88 Reasons book all the time and every time it scared me a little more. Like the heroine in a disaster movie, I saw the way out of this awful, dreadful danger. I could see what needed to be done. I got downright frantic trying to tell people what I saw and what they needed to do.
And nobody believed me.
I didn’t understand what this resistance was all about. I thought it was demons. I didn’t realize at the time how many Rapture scares had come and gone in Christian history. I didn’t know about the Christians who were apparently speaking against this particular scare and the apparent errors that Mr. Whisenant was committing in the making of his prophecy (here’s one retrospective listing a number of them, and if you read it and feel like you’re watching two prepubescent kids arguing about some inconsistency in the Marvel Comics universe, you’re certainly forgiven because that’s what I always seem to think about as well). I was too young to really understand the emotional manipulation inherent in a lot of Christian doctrines–Hell and Rapture especially.
But as young as I was, I was old enough to realize what I was going to miss because of the Rapture.
I’d never gone to Prom. At that point I’d never had sex. I’d never been married. I hadn’t been to college. I hadn’t found my place in life at all, and now everything was going to be destroyed.
The 1980s were an absolutely incredible time for someone like me. They were a bright, flashing neon roller-coaster of skyscraper-high waves that I surfed, a nonstop adventure of music, friends, books, games, and school. I realize that this was not the experience of everybody in the 80s, but just imagine growing up as a student in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Sixteen Candles. These movies were all but documentaries for my teenaged years–just throw in a lot more video games and D&D and a near-obsession with Elfquest. I was part of a rushing mighty wind full of young people just like me who were going to change the whole world. We were the great surge of progress, of change, of solutions. We were the cosmic shriek of advancement in every direction. We were being equipped to handle the problems of the next generation and I can tell you for a certainty that most of my peers and I felt up to that task.
And now the world was ending.
I felt an incredible sense of loss at the idea that I’d only just now gotten to this party and now it was ending. I knew I was supposed to feel exhilarated and happy that Jesus was finally kick-starting the end of the game, but just between us, I was actually a bit resentful. The older folks in my Pentecostal church were all a lot closer to the end of their lives than the beginning, and they were all looking forward to their big reward for a lifetime of good service. But us younger folks, who had never really done anything of note and were about to leave this world? We had a very different outlook on the situation. How could it all be over and we’d never even really experienced it? It just seemed so unbelievable, and I don’t think the older people in the church understood our thinly-veiled disappointment.
Resent it or not, though, it was happening (or so I thought), so I did my best to warn everybody and to prepare myself for this eventuality. I have to confess to a little surge of pride that I did know about this great and awful truth, that I was in on the ground floor of this huge event. Participating in it felt like being part of this secret cool kids’ club. I felt sorry for the people who didn’t understand and who would be left behind to a ghastly future. I tried my best to warn them and to guard against the sinful pride that lifted me at the thought that I–little old me!–was going to be Raptured to Heaven to escape the coming horrors. They’d see, oh they’d all see if they refused to listen to me and heed my warnings.
Oh, what a burden to push onto such narrow little shoulders! I’m sure I was just insufferable.
The night of the last day I thought I would be spending on Earth (the scare involved several days’ span, from September 11-13, and this was the last of those days), I ended up at church for a prayer meeting. We’d be there till it was all over. If you’ve ever seen a horror movie where the protagonists barricade themselves into some mall or store or church, that’s what it felt like. After the Rapture, you see, anybody unlucky (or rather, sinful) enough to be left behind would face a persecution unlike anything ever seen on Earth. None of us wanted to be stuck here, but just in case, at least we’d be in a church.
Notice that I took utterly for granted that after the Rapture, there would immediately follow an awful persecution. Like many Christians do today, I automatically assumed that Christians would be persecuted with glee if only society could get away with doing it. Nowadays, I know that no, actually, society doesn’t really care what Christians believe and only wants them to at least follow the same rules everybody else must follow with regard to treating everybody with fairness.
You might also have noticed something I didn’t for many years: that we weren’t even wondering about time zones or which calendar to use or anything like that. Houston’s time zone at midnight on September 13 was the last bit of time the entire planet had. Nowadays I’m just flabbergasted that we were so ethnocentric, but back then not a single person brought it up around me at least. Maybe other congregations were a little more sophisticated than we were.
After a protracted sermon, at 11:55 p.m. our pastor (an otherwise sensible old fellow who is okay in my book–he tended not to go in for lunacy, and in retrospect I can look back and see that he wasn’t totally committed to this whole Rapture idea) told us to nose-dive into the pews to pray. I knelt against the blood-red cushions of the pew I’d been sitting on and began to tearfully pour my heart out. All around me I heard the wailing and shouts of people doing the same, and copious amounts of speaking in tongues. I didn’t speak in tongues, but I did trawl my mind for any unconfessed sin that might get me left behind and beg my god for mercy in case I’d forgotten any sins.
The minutes ticked past. I refused to look at my wristwatch.
Part of me was aching for this all to be totally true.
Part of me was hoping desperately that somehow it wouldn’t happen and I’d get to have a real life on Earth before things hit the fan.
After some time, I heard a sudden break in the prayers. But the people on either side of me were still there, all alike wondering at the sudden silence.
I snuck a look at the time.
It was 12:02 a.m. Even considering possible mixups with synchronization, it was time and past for Rapture. I bobbed my head up like a gopher and met the astonished eyes of my peers all over the church. I did a quick head-count.
We were all still there.
“God is great, and greatly to be praised,” said the pastor into the mic he held, his voice soft and (I think now) relieved. Slowly everybody crawled into their seats again.
We prayed a bit more, sang some songs–not the fast ones, either–and filtered out of church. On the way home, we saw no wrecks on the freeway of Raptured Christians’ cars, and the radio didn’t mention anything amiss. My family was home and in bed asleep when I let myself into the darkened house and fell, exhausted, into bed.
The next morning the dawn came, and with it came a new day. I saw it all with eyes that felt newborn. I couldn’t get enough of it–couldn’t drink it all in fast enough. I had a second lease on life.
I was simultaneously relieved and disappointed, at once angry and elated. I realized that I’d been tricked somehow. The Bible did say that if a prophet’s predictions didn’t come true, that the prophet was a false prophet and shouldn’t be heeded further (Mark 13:21-23 among many other verses). I took that very seriously. When my church’s pastor did not denounce this false prophet, I realized that there was a decent chance that my leaders had a vested interest in keeping people afraid of the Rapture. It wasn’t hard to fathom why that might be, and even I worked it out back then.
At the time, it was like the scare had never happened. The weeks of torment, fear, turmoil, stomachaches, insufferable preaching, panic, worry, it’s like none of that had ever even been. It was very hard to wrap my head around just how invisible those weeks became. Meanwhile my peers just lurched forward into the next big fad as if they’d all simply forgotten about the 88 Reasons scare.
Not long afterward, I drifted out of the Pentecostal church for the first time, and wouldn’t return until Biff got converted into it. Even after returning, though, I didn’t get fooled by any other Rapture predictions. “No man knows the day or the hour,” the Bible said, and anybody who wasted time on figuring out the day or hour was someone who was missing the whole point of being a Christian. With primitive intuition I sensed that people who got really excited about trying to predict the Rapture or make too much sense out of the Book of Revelation were people who were maybe more interested in being in that Cool Kids’ Club, in being in on the ground floor of a vast secret, than they were in worshiping Jesus or helping those who needed help.
The experience of living through a Rapture scare has left me sympathetic toward those who still get taken in by these predictions. The human mind is very attuned to invisible, untestable, unverifiable threats–and if someone isn’t versed in combating this particular sort of threat, it can be easy to take it way too seriously. Rapture itself speaks to some of the biggest fears Christians have as well as to some of their biggest hopes and fondest dreams. The very concept of Rapture–and what modern fundagelicals have done with it–is one of the biggest strikes against Christianity there could ever be. The Rapture is the festering sore that betrays the deep infection in the underbelly of the religion.
We’ve learned absolutely nothing from the 1988 scare. One of the more vile and opportunistic
jackasses preachers in the religion nowadays, John Hagee, is on record as claiming a new date: April 2015, as a result of “blood moons” (donotlink.com link provided) that he thinks are harbingers of the end. That said, I’m betting he sure isn’t putting every penny he has on that horse any more than Harold Camping did on his predictions, though his confused followers might just do exactly that.
April will come and go without a Rapture, I say with all confidence, and just like in all the other failed predictions, a few more Christians will wonder why this promise did not materialize and remember the Bible verse about false prophets. Maybe they’ll even wonder why so few predictions and assertions this religion’s adherents make actually get proven to be true, yet making these false claims on a constant basis is such an irresistible idea to so many Christians.
I wonder what John Hagee would say about Edgar Whisenant’s failed predictions. And I wonder what future Christians will think about his own. If Christian leaders wonder why their religion is losing so many people and so much credibility, I hope their frantic gazes alight eventually on the irresponsible leaders in their faith who keep making these false claims. Rapture scares can be really funny to outsiders, but each one represents thousands if not millions of frightened, vulnerable people like I was once. Each scare that comes and goes represents who-knows-how-many lives disrupted, bank accounts emptied, and friends lost. There’s a very real human cost involved in these frivolous, opportunistic scams, and I wouldn’t wish that devastation on anybody, not even on fundagelical Christians. I hope not many get taken in by this next one.
(Edited to correct John Hagee’s name. Thanks for the help, to the person who corrected me!)