No, that headline wasn’t bait and switch.
I’m offering you, dear friend, the chance to read the entire first chapter of my upcoming book Unraptured absolutely free.
No strings attached.
No hoops to jump through
No newsletter to sign up for.
Not even a pre-order requirement.
Though, I mean, if you like it and want to pre-order Unraptured before its official release on March 19th that would be swell.
But seriously, there is no obligation whatsoever. You don’t even have to click on a special link to read it. Here it is in its entirety, chapter one of Unraptured: How End Times Theology Gets It Wrong….
My bedroom was dark, light just barely peeking through the curtains. My adolescent heart began to race, my stomach clinched in ever-tightening knots. Panic was strangling my senses as I rolled out of bed, calling out for my mom, my brother, sister, anybody. But no one answered. The only sound to be heard was the creaking of old wooden floorboards beneath my feet. Stepping cautiously out of my bedroom, I began making my way throughout the house room by room. Slowly at first, one step at a time down the hallway, peering into each room, hoping, praying that somebody—anybody—would be there. With each empty room I picked up my pace, worried that my worst nightmare had finally come true. I was desperate to find anyone at all, even a stranger who had broken into my house to murder me and steal everything I had.
But all I found was emptiness.
It had finally happened.
My worst nightmare had come true.
The rapture had occurred and I had been left behind.
Jesus had come to collect his saints, but I had been found wanting; a sinner unworthy to be taken in the twinkling of an eye to heaven with the real Christians. But why? What had I done? I had been so careful not to sin—at least not too much. I didn’t smoke. I didn’t drink. I didn’t do drugs. I wasn’t having premarital sex. I never missed church. I only listened to Christian music, and I had, like, every Christian T-shirt ever made. What else did Jesus want from me? What unknown sin had I committed that kept me on earth with the reprobate?
As I raced through my suddenly foggy memory searching for some reason for finding myself on the path to hell, I threw open the back door to get one last look at the sun before beginning my search for a bunker to call home for the next seven years as the tribulation poured out its wrath on left-behind sinners like me. But then I saw him.
The most glorious thing my eyes had ever beheld.
No, not Jesus.
It was my stepdad.
Cutting the grass.
I hadn’t been left behind after all! My family was still earthbound and accounted for. My stepdad had been outside, working in the yard. My mom was running errands, my sister was hanging out with friends, my brother was fishing. And I—well, I would have known all this if I hadn’t slept in till the crack of noon.
The end-times industrial complex
If that scenario sounds unimaginably bizarre to you, then clearly you didn’t grow up in conservative evangelicalism. Moments like this one are a regular occurrence for countless people who grew up convinced Jesus will return at any moment to whisk faithful Christians away to heaven, leaving behind non-Christians to suffer through a seven-year tribulation in which the Antichrist will rule the world through a one-world government while horrific plagues rain down on those left behind until Jesus returns to enact a thousand-year reign of peace.
Or maybe the thousand years will start and then he will return—it depends whom you ask. What is certain is that you don’t want to get left behind. And you don’t have to be! All you have to do is say the Sinner’s Prayer, accept Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior, and pay careful attention to the signs of the end times that unfold anytime Israel is in the news. Discerning those signs won’t necessarily get you past the pearly gates, but it will help you keep on your toes. If you have backslidden a bit, you’ll know when you need to get your act together so you won’t be left behind.
Thankfully, discerning the signs is easy. There are plenty of televangelists ready to break it all down for you with charts and diagrams and books and videos. Best of all, these guides to the apocalypse can all be yours for a small love offering of only $29.95. Or if you can’t wait that long for the mail to arrive, your local Christian bookstore is stocked full of end-times resources. I should know, because I bought most of them in high school.
But I wasn’t alone. The Left Behind series of novels has sold more than eighty million copies, but it is far from the only cash cow of the apocalypse.1 Long before Left Behind authors Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye showed up on the scene, another end-times expert named Hal Lindsey wrote The Late Great Planet Earth to nearly the same acclaim—and book sales. Not long after Lindsey set the world on fire with guarantees of an impending Armageddon, former NASA scientist Edgar Whisenant had his own bestseller: 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988. Spoiler alert: the rapture didn’t happen in 1988.
If books aren’t your thing, folks like San Antonio–based preacher John Hagee are prepared with oversized charts and weekly television programs, in which his church services are transformed into apocalyptic lectures. Or for the younger generation, there’s the Third Eagle of the Apocalypse on YouTube, who is more than eager to explain to you the demonic imagery at the Denver International Airport or reveal the secret prophetic symbols in the latest iPhone commercial—that is, if he’s not too busy composing an original song on the end times.
And then there’s my personal favorite prophet of the end times: Jack Van Impe, who along with his wife, Rexella, produces a weekly faux news show in which he quotes an awe-inspiring number of Bible verses while breaking down news stories, usually connected to Israel, to reveal how they are clear fulfillments of biblical prophecy.
But that’s just the tip of the apocalyptic iceberg. There are rapture-themed movies designed to scare you into not being left behind; bumper stickers to warn your fellow drivers that should the rapture occur, your vehicle will be driverless; and rapture pet insurance, which guarantees that a left-behind heathen sinner will take care of your pet when you get zapped to heaven.2 To be fair, that last one was revealed to be a hoax, but that only means the market is ripe for a new rapture insurance company should you be looking for an investment opportunity.
The point is, the rapture can take over your life if you let it. Plenty of folks are eager for that to happen, because they’ve got lots of stuff to sell you. Rapture-related businesses may seem like obvious scams, but that’s because you’re not terrified of being left behind, or worse—and this is the real fear behind it all—going to hell.
And so are countless other Christians who have been conditioned to believe that if they don’t believe all the right things and do all the wrong things and don’t say the right prayer, God will torture them with unimaginable horrors for all eternity. That fear drove my faith for years. It sent me running into the warm embrace of end-times theology, which promised to ease my fears with clarity about the ominous future it predicted and a guarantee that I would be rescued from torment to come.
That was how I understood Christianity for much of my life. Even today, long after I lost my faith in the rapture, the fear of being left behind still haunts me. If I find my wife’s pajamas on the bed when I didn’t know she had to work early that morning, I panic. I know better. I really do. But the rapture is hard to give up.
Because when your faith is focused on the end of days, they can very easily become a paranoid obsession that takes over your life. Everything I thought about, talked about, and did or didn’t do revolved around making sure I wasn’t going to be left behind. So when that cornerstone was removed, I was left wondering, what was the point of having faith at all? Why bother being a Christian?
When my faith became unraptured—when I stopped believing that one day other believers and I would disappear in the twinkling of an eye and leave the heathens behind on earth—I had an existential crisis. All I knew was the Christian life, and all I thought the Christian life was about was not being left
behind. So without the rapture, who was I? Why did I need to be saved if the point of salvation wasn’t all about escaping earth and getting to heaven?
Those questions drive this book, and they are why this book isn’t really about the rapture at all. Sure, the word rapture is right there in the title, and we will certainly spend a lot of time talking about it. But this book is about what Christianity looks like without the rapture (which doesn’t even appear in the Bible—but that’s for a later chapter). It’s about what Christianity looks like when we stop focusing on trying to escape earth for heaven and start trying to bring heaven to earth.
This book isn’t about the end of the world.
It’s about the here and now.
It’s about what Christianity looks like when salvation isn’t something that happens to us in the future but rather something that God does through us in the present.
Branded with hope
When I first got saved, the fear of being left behind and going to hell had yet to take over my life, but not because it didn’t have the chance. I was in church before I had my first diaper changed. Okay, maybe it wasn’t quite that quick, but that’s how the story goes. My preacher grandfather had to show me off in church the first chance he got. And he did. I was born on a Tuesday. By that following Sunday, I was in church. I was back in church again for midweek services on Wednesday, then back again Sunday morning, and back yet again Sunday night, wash and repeat every week. Growing up, I was in church almost as often as I was at home.
The first time I got saved I was four years old. Or maybe I was five. Truth be told, I don’t remember—not because it wasn’t a profound moment in my life, but because when you grow up in conservative evangelicalism, you get saved so many times they all start to run together. The details get blurry.I’m grateful to say that my first time getting saved wasn’t because somebody literally scared the hell out of me. It was because somebody showed me what it means to be loved, what it means to belong, and what it means to be valued and cared for. It was because someone showed me that all that love and belonging and caring came from Jesus.
Her name was Grandma Ruthie, but she wasn’t my grandma. She was everybody’s grandma, and she had been teaching Sunday school at my church long before I arrived on the scene. She was everything you would expect a Grandma Ruthie to be: kind, loving, welcoming, generous, and diminutive in stature, but no pushover. She was a grandmother straight out of central casting. Outside of my family, she was the first person who really showed me what the love of Jesus looked like and why that Jesus was worth loving back. There wasn’t anything dramatic she did for me to show me that love. She didn’t donate a kidney or pay for me to go to college. But she was relentlessly kind and welcoming. You knew the moment she smiled at you that you belonged, that she loved and accepted you just as you were. There was no need to try to impress her. Simply existing was enough for Grandma Ruthie to show the kind of unwavering love, kindness, and generosity that only comes from, well, a grandmother.
Her life was an example I’m only now really beginning to appreciate. Don’t get me wrong. Like everyone else who ever crossed her path, I’ve always been thankful for having Grandma Ruthie in my life. But it wasn’t until my faith began to mature and I saw how much my fear of hell and the fear of being left behind had shaped my faith that I became truly grateful for a foundation that wasn’t built on those things—a foundation that was built on their complete opposite.
That’s not to say Grandma Ruthie didn’t believe in hell. I’m sure she did. But I can’t recall her ever really bringing it up with us. I’m sure she probably mentioned it once or twice, but the good news she preached to us was driven by love, not fear. Her life was animated by a deep, abiding passion for bringing others into the warm embrace of the God she loved. She knew beyond any doubt that God loved her and was literally dying—or had died—for us to love him too.
If my journey of faith had started out differently from that—if I didn’t have a memory of something better than the fear of being left behind—I don’t know where I would be today. If my first encounter with God was one of abject terror of eternal torment, and if that was the only God I ever met, I probably would have lost my faith long ago, never to find it again. I likely would have decided that this Jesus fellow really wasn’t someone worth following. But that foundation of love permanently branded me with hope—hope that, despite the terrifying images of God that I would later encounter and even come to believe in, this was not, in fact, who God really was.
Revelation is a favorite book among the end-times crowd. What the multimillion-dollar end-times industrial complex doesn’t point out, though, is that Revelation is about foundations as much as it is about the future. Revelation is as much about beginnings as it is about endings. It’s about the beginning of a new heaven and a new earth but only because the old order of things has been transformed, not destroyed.
The foundation laid in Genesis doesn’t crumble at the end of Revelation. It’s restored as the promise of paradise is made real once more. The foundational relationship between creation and Creator that Jesus built upon with his life, death, and resurrection is made complete, as the world God created is turned into the Eden it was always meant to be. We are the ones who took things into our own hands and transformed the paradise of Eden into the hell on earth so many of us experience today. But Revelation tells us to fear not. Where Genesis plants the tree of life, Revelation sees it blossom. Soon and very soon, Revelation promises, we will be invited back to eat from its branches for all eternity.
But Revelation does more than that. It also proclaims that tomorrow is already beginning to dawn today, because the resurrection of Jesus wasn’t just a onetime, one-person event. The moment Jesus walked out of the tomb on Easter morning was the dawn of a new era. His resurrection was the firstfruits, or start, of a transformation that extends to all of creation and continues to this day.
That’s not just the message of Revelation; it’s the good news of the gospel, the very foundation of Christianity. Christianity isn’t just about getting saved and going off to heaven. Christianity is about “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10 KJV). That’s what makes the gospel “good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). It’s the promise that God isn’t sitting around, waiting for some distant unknowable day in the future to act. God is at work in the world today, making the lives of the least of these better now.
It’s so important to rediscover and reclaim the book of Revelation because, ironically, as much as rapture theology has caused us to lose the true message of the gospel, rightly understanding the apocalypse can be the very thing that starts to repair the damage done by the rapture. For as we rediscover what it truly means to live in the last days, Revelation reminds us of the true foundation of the Christian faith and the good news that God is already at work in the world making all things new in and through us.
That’s not just the story of Revelation; it’s the story of the entire Bible. The story of the Bible isn’t the story of a God who whisks people away to safety when trials and tribulations are on the horizon. It’s the story of a God who became flesh and who walks beside us even through the valley of the shadow of death. God doesn’t promise that the walk will be free of pain. But God does promise we will never walk alone. It’s a testimony both to God’s faithfulness during times of trouble and to the role of God’s people as agents of grace in and for the world.
That was the promise I saw embodied in Grandma Ruthie— the love of God incarnated in my life in the present. It was a foundation of love that left the door cracked open just enough for me to one day walk back through and rediscover my first love or, more accurately, the One who first loved me.
Of course, this book wouldn’t exist if my faith had stayed that way. My faith would not have needed “unrapturing” had I stayed on the path of love instead of abandoning it out of fear and self-preservation.
So what happened?
Ironically, I forsook my love for Jesus in the same place that taught me that love drives away all fear: church. I don’t mean my local church or even my denomination is to blame for this. At least not exclusively. I mean the church universal—from the local church and denomination to parachurch organizations, citywide revivals, Christian media, youth events, church camp, regular old church people, and everything and everyone else in between—became a catalyst for fear and intolerance and legalism in my life.
I know how confusing that might sound to someone outside the church. It would make for a nicer, cleaner narrative if I had one antagonist in my story—if the “bad guy” wasn’t also the “good guy.” But that’s not how my story unfolded. The church that wrapped its arms around me and showed me the love of Jesus? That’s the same church that instilled the legalism and fear of hell that drove my faith for so much of my life.
Unrapturing the church
That’s what this book is about: complexity, messiness, and how the same source can be molded for good or for bad. I’m not looking to trash the church or Christianity or the tradition that shaped my faith. Yes, there will be critique aplenty in the pages to come. But that’s not why this book exists. The bad is there with the good because that’s the reality of my faith journey, and maybe of yours too. Breaking away from the traditions we grew up with is hard. There’s a lot about them that we love. More importantly, there are a lot of people in those traditions whom we love, even if we no longer see eye to eye with them.
So while I have plenty of not so warm and fuzzy things to say about the faith of my past and the overall state of the church today, Unraptured is not part of a master plan of attack to bring Christianity crashing to the ground (as if I had such power to begin with). It’s just the complex reality of life if you grew up in and around a certain type of church. Good people can go astray, or be led astray, even in the most noble of pursuits.
Most Christians we clash with aren’t altogether bad people. Their lives are fairly normal, and frequently kind and compassionate. We would probably think of them as good, decent people were our encounters with them not defined by objectively bad actions and behaviors—racism, bigotry, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, you name it. Our sisters and brothers in Christ likely don’t see how or why what they’re doing is wrong or un-Christlike. They may even see their actions as an important part of taking a stand for their faith. What we might describe as hateful they see as loving, because they believe their words or actions will keep people out of hell. Meet them at church, work, or the store and they’re nice to be around. They’re otherwise good people, but that blind spot is so dark it makes the light in their lives difficult for others to see.
I was once one of them.
I was one of those Christians you so often hear caricatured on the news: known for who they hate, who they’re trying to deny service to, who they’re trying to keep out of the country, and what horrible politician they’re supporting. They are just as confused and angry with us as we are at them because they think of themselves as good people who are simply being true to their sincerely held religious beliefs.
I was once one of those otherwise good people, and honestly, I wouldn’t want to be friends with that version of me either.
So how did I go from Grandma Ruthie to apocalyptic fearmonger?
How did I go from falling in love with Jesus to being terrified he would send me to hell?
And how did a Christian faith founded on the good news of God coming down to earth become an escape plan?
As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Like what you’ve read so far?
Excerpted from Zack Hunt’s forthcoming new book, Unraptured: How End Times Theology Gets It Wrong. (Herald Press, 2019) All rights reserved. Used with permission.