May 09, 2005
The Book of Revelations and the Rapture.
I am a huge fan of the English comic writer P. G. Wodehouse, especially of his Jeeves and Wooster books. These books are so funny that I have to literally wipe tears from my eyes. (Dave Barry has the same effect on me.) The plots are pretty much the same in all the Jeeves stories but the smoothness of Wodehouse's writing, his superb comic touch, and his precise choice of words make them a joy to read. Even though I have read all of the Jeeves books many times and know all the plots by heart, I still re-read them periodically. Both Wodehouse and George Orwell had a command of the language that I admire.
In a typical Jeeves story, the hapless Bertie Wooster is invariably at some point trapped in a fast moving series of events that swirl around him, pulling him in all directions, none of them promising good outcomes for him, before Jeeves ingeniously rescues him and provides happy endings all around. But often, when the chaos is at its height and Bertie feels completely overwhelmed, he would say that he "felt like he was living in the Book of Revelations."
If you read the Book of Revelations (the last book of the Biblical New Testament, also called "The Revelation of John") you will see what Bertie means. It is for the most part a bizarre series of visions involving strange animals, angels, stars crashing into the ground, the sun getting eaten up, fires, plagues, and mass killings that would be a challenge for any special effects person, if it were ever to be made into a film.
When I was studying to become a lay preacher in the Methodist church, we pretty much gave this weird book a miss, treating it as one might a dotty uncle who has to be invited to every family function, but whom you hope will not make a scene and wish no one would notice and ask about him. We studied mainly the Gospels that focused on the life and teaching of Jesus, the Acts of the Apostles, some of the letters by Paul, some of the Old Testament prophets, church and biblical history, and theology. We pretty much ignored the Book of Revelations. It was just too far out there.
So it is somewhat amazing to me that it is this book that is driving much of the new militant Christianity, while the Gospels and the actual teachings of Jesus have faded into the background. And the idea that seems to have gripped the imagination of many such Christians is that of the rapture, associated with the end of the world.
Much of the basic beliefs about the coming of the rapture come from the letters written by Paul to various communities, but the full apocalyptic vision of the rapture is found in Revelations. This book is the source of much cryptic language and symbolism that enables people to pore over its significance and look for clues as to when the rapture will occur, what are the signs of its imminence, and how to identify the good and bad people. Like the writings of Nostradamus, the "predictions" are vague enough to allow for endless speculations and to "explain" anything. It also has enough numbers to keep numerologists busy for millennia trying to interpret their meanings. The numbers six, seven, and twelve seem to have special significance.
(Incidentally, there is a huge internet industry dealing with the rapture and speculations about it are rampant. One such set of speculations deals with the identity of the "Antichrist" (who seizes power for a short time after the rapture before being vanquished), and nominees for that post include Prince Charles and Bill Clinton. See also the Rapture Index which calculates (along the lines of the Dow Jones Index) a number to give a measure of how close we are to the rapture. Currently the number stands at 149. This is below the 2002 peak of 179 but any number above 145 falls into the highest category, labeled as "fasten your seat belts," meaning that the signs are favorable to the rapture happening any time.)
As far as I can tell, popular belief about the rapture (as opposed to serious theology about it) is that it is associated with the second coming of Jesus and marks the moment when true believers in Christ (both dead and living), will be taken up to heaven to join him. It will be a sudden event, occurring without warning. People who are saved (and whose names have been "recorded" from the beginning of time) will be taken up instantaneously and disappear, leaving just their clothes behind. So if you are with a group of people and several of them suddenly vanish from your sight, leaving their clothes and shoes in a pile on the ground, that means the rapture has occurred and you, personally, have not made the cut.
Up to this point, since I have a live-and-let-live philosophy, I have no problems with the rapture. If true believers are taken away to lead blissful lives somewhere other than the Earth, leaving the rest of us behind, I have no problem with that. I wish them all happiness in their eternal life as the rest of us somehow muddle through on this Earth without them. Clearly there will be some temporary disruptions in life as new people will have to be found to do the jobs that those raptured away used to do, but these do not seem to insurmountable problems since some estimates put the number of people who will be raptured as low as 144,000 (another number that appears in Revelations).
But that is not apparently how it works. Those left behind are not left alone, unfortunately. We are not to be kept busy merely distributing all the clothes left behind to various Goodwill stores. Instead we are to be victims of a massive and gruesome slaughter, with huge rivers of blood flowing everywhere, before everything comes to an end. The book of Revelations speaks of the flowing blood rising to the height of a horse's bridle for a radius of 200 miles. (Since I enjoy mathematical estimation problems, I briefly toyed with the idea of estimating how many corpses it would take to create this much blood, but simply could not muster the enthusiasm for this straightforward but macabre task. But it would make for a nifty homework problem in those religious schools that teach about the rapture seriously.)
It is hard to estimate how many people take this idea of the rapture seriously but given the numbers claimed by the Dominionist movement (around 30 million) it could be quite large. The twelve sequential novels of the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins (which weave a fictional tale around the rapture) claim a combined readership of 42 million. Of course, many in that number will be repeat buyers of the series and not all may be believers in the underlying message, but the numbers are still impressive. (Note that LaHaye is a co-founder with Jerry Falwell of the Moral Majority and works at Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia.)
I haven't actually read the Left Behind books myself or seen the film based on them (with all the books that I would really like to read, I just can't see myself reading a million words of rapture-based fiction), but Gene Lyons has a highly entertaining review of all the books and their message in the November 2004 issue of Harper's Magazine. He says that the "books portray Midwestern suburbanites and born-again Israeli converts as Warrior Jesus' allies in an apocalyptic struggle against a U.N.-anointed "World Potentate," who looks "not unlike a younger Robert Redford" and speaks the language of science and liberal internationalism."
The sins for which people are fingered to be slaughtered at the end of the world are sexual sins (fornication, homosexuality) or those of apostasy and blasphemy. Once again, it seems as if the only sins worth the name are those involving sex and violations of religious orthodoxy. Swindling retirees out of their life savings, depriving people of health care, making people work in sweatshops, stealing from old and poor people whatever they have, cheating on your taxes, beating your spouse and children, being abusive to ones employees, seemingly are not things which automatically disqualify you from being taken up at the rapture, but take one wrong step on sexual and doctrinal issues and you are toast.
Interestingly though, Barbara R. Rossing in her book The Rapture Exposed says that the particular form of the apocalyptic vision that seems so appealing to many American Christians these days was originated by a nineteenth century Scottish evangelist named John Darby and owes its origins to turmoil over Darwinism. "Rossing argues persuasively that certain people are attracted to Darby's "dispensationalist system with its Rapture theology because it is so comprehensive and rational - almost science-like â€“ a feature that made it especially appealing during battles over evolution during the 1920s and 1930s." (Lyons)
So now we are back again with Darwin and evolution in the cross hairs of the evangelical movement. It is interesting to me how these two strands of human thought (science and religion) keep butting up against each other. Rossing's thesis sheds some more light on why evolutionary theory seems to be such a burr under the saddle for evangelical Christians, driving them to furious opposition, in ways that other scientific beliefs do not.
In a future posting, I will look more closely at the historical roots of the religious opposition to evolution, but first there is one curious feature of the rapture movement that needs to be commented on, and that is the strange role that Jews and Israel play in it, and this will be examined next.
POST SCRIPT 1
While typing this entry up on Sunday night, I took a break to watch my favorite TV show The Simpsons. They had a special double feature (this being sweeps week) and, to my amazement, the second episode was entirely about the rapture! If that coincidence is not a sign of the imminent apocalypse, I don't know what is.
In the show, Homer is convinced after seeing a rapture-based film called Left Below (!) that the world is coming to an end. He makes numerical calculations based on the clues in Revelations and arrives at the conclusion that the rapture will occur at 3:15pm on Wednesday, May 18th.
It is a really funny episode on many levels and if you missed it, you should try and catch it on summer re-runs. It captures pretty accurately the essence of what the rapture is about.
POST SCRIPT 2
At 5:00pm today (Monday, May 9th) in the Spartan Room of Thwing Hall, Professor Jeff Halper, an emeritus professor of anthropology at Ben Gurion University in Israel and a human rights activist who has been campaigning against the Israeli government policy of home demolitions of Palestinians, will be leading a discussion on current events in Israel. The session is sponsored (in part) by Case for Peace and is free and open to the public.
POST SCRIPT 3
I will be traveling the next two days and so will not be able to post. The next posting will be on May 12, 2005.
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