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July 18, 2005

The allure of rapture violence

I must say that since I recently started reading about the rapture (see here and here for previous posts on it), it has fascinated me. (Some readers of this blog who had never heard of the rapture before I started posting on it have told me they were startled to find people they know accepting the idea of it very matter-of-factly, as if it were nothing special.) Not that I take the basic idea of huge numbers of people being transported suddenly up into heaven seriously, of course. That strikes me as a wild flight of fancy that belongs in the same genre as Star Wars or Harry Potter films, i.e., enjoyable largely because it is so outrageously improbable.

No, what interests me is the sociology behind it, especially the question of what it is that attracts otherwise presumably regular people to believe in this dark tale of violence, revenge, cruelty, and blood.

The basic rapture story is that at some point (devotees think "very soon"), a select group of people will be raptured up to heaven by Jesus, and from that vantage point they will observe the Antichrist ruling the world, leading to seven years of violent struggle between the good and bad forces left behind on Earth. As the Left Behind novel series illustrates, the people propagating the rapture myths do not see the violence in the rapture story as something that is a necessary evil, to be passed over quickly before the final victory of God. No, they actually wallow in it, imagining it in the most lurid of details. In his highly entertaining review of the books, Gene Lyons recounts one passage:

Rayford watched through the binocs as men and women soldiers and horses seemed to explode where they stood. It was as if the very words of the Lord had superheated their blood, causing it to burst through their veins and skin. . . . Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ.

and says that "the slaughter runs on for close to eighty gleeful pages." (my emphasis)

I find it hard to fathom the attraction of something like this. I have never understood the appeal of violence, even fictionalized, so that I avoid films that have excessive amounts of it. This dislike started early for me. I remember even as a very young child hating circuses, mainly because they had people (like trapeze artists) who were risking death and injury just for the sake of entertaining others, and this just made no sense to me. I could have tolerated it if the trapeze artists and tightrope walkers performed with a safety net. I can understand that some people (like firefighters, police, and soldiers) have to take risks as part of their job, but they at least take as many safety precautions as they can. Taking huge and avoidable risks just for entertainment seems absurd to me.. The recent mauling of Roy Horn by the tiger in his act sickened me because the senselessness of it all.

I know that many people do not have the same reaction to violence as I do, but there is a difference (I feel) between being able to tolerate violence as a an unavoidable component of life and actually enjoying it, and it is the latter response that I find hard to understand. I know that there are people who flock to the scene of some disaster, hoping to see the injured or dead, and then relish repeating what they have seen over and over to whoever will listen. That kind of attitude is incomprehensible to me. But Barbara Rossing in her book The Rapture Exposed suggests that one can get addicted to violence. She quotes Chris Hedges who said that as a former New York Times war correspondent in El Salvador, Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq, and elsewhere, he became addicted to war. It was like a narcotic and he had to tear himself away from it.

It is clear that rapture enthusiasts have no such qualms about the violence associated with their story. Perhaps the reason that violence may be more enjoyable to them is that they are able to see themselves as purely in a spectator role, like those who, safely from a distance, watch Siegfried and Roy with their tiger. Rossing (p. 138-140) suggests that this might indeed be the case. She suggests that since rapture believers are confident that they will be among the chosen few who are taken up to heaven and escape the carnage, they see themselves as essentially like TV viewers up in heaven, safely watching the violence from that Lazy-Boy in the sky, as if it were some spectator sport. It was interesting that some rapture believers apparently got excited by the recent bombings in London, believing that it signaled the beginning of the rapture.

Rossing argues that all the violence associated with the rapture is a misreading of the Bible. It is quite possible to interpret the Biblical second coming of Jesus in a peaceful way but rapturists insist on interpreting everything in the most gruesome way, trying to put in the most blood and gore possible.

For those who do not believe in the rapture, it might be tempting to dismiss the rapture phenomenon as harmless fantasy, and treat devotees the way we treat those who indulge in (say) violent video games. After all, if I do not believe the rapture is going to happen, why would I care if others do?

But Rossing suggests that we should not be so complacent and that belief in the rapture has public policy consequences that affect all of us. More about this in the next posting.

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Comments

A huge part of the allure of rapture, I think, is that people fear death. Rapture allows people to believe that they won't have to endure an unpleasant voyage through illness or pain to get to their afterlife.

Of course, this doesn't actually explain why they seem to *want* to see other people tortured; I suspect that part of this comes from the same roots as people's love of horror films - fear of death, again? the feeling that if they're watching it from afar, they have control over it? Doubtless it's also about moralism and social dominance in part - a demonstration of superiority - and it's hard to like that.

Or maybe some influential sociopath interpreted the Rapture in a bloody way and now people assume it's true, and rejoice in the violence not because it's violent but because it's the price they believe the world has to pay for them to avoid death?

Posted by Erin on July 18, 2005 09:55 AM

Erin,

That is a very interesting idea "that they won't have to endure an unpleasant voyage through illness or pain to get to their afterlife."

Modern medicine has been very successful in prolonging life. But the price may be that more people now have prolonged deaths instead of sudden ones, and this is always painful to watch or contemplate.

The idea that the rapture has appeal because it bypasses this process is interesting.

In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (if I recall correctly), medical science has advanced to a point where everyone stays young and fit and healthy until they reach the age of seventy, at which point they simply die. I wonder how many people would accept such an arangement instead of the uncertainty of the one we have now?

Posted by Mano Singham on July 18, 2005 10:59 AM

Have you read the forums at raptureready.com? There people discuss things such as how they have made arrangments for their pets to be taken care of by their heathen relatives when they are raptured. They take for granted that God will leave behind to suffer otherwise nice people because they are Jewish, Hindu or Atheist.

Posted by on July 18, 2005 11:06 AM

Mano,

Good insight, about the rapture meaning people can reach the end of their lives on earth without having to go through the process of dying. In the Catholic religion, of course, only Mary was granted that exception, to be taken (assumed - hence "The Assumption") into heaven without dying.

The people who got excited about the London bombings are confusing to me. What about these events suggested the Rapture to them, since the people all died, presumably, horribly? I understood from some coverage that the destruction of the bodies was so complete that identification couldn't be made even several days after the attacks. And what does one have to do exactly to qualify to be "raptured"?

Also, I agree with you that watching people work without the net is very disturbing, and I won't watch it either. I also won't watch circuses at all anymore because of the terrible exploitation of animals, who have no choice at all.

Posted by catherine on July 18, 2005 11:48 AM

I've wondered whether the fascination with violence is some sort of vicarious thrill. I think it's undeniable that there's a draw to violence that seems to be a common human experience - though of course varied in its strength. People who experience that draw mostly find acceptable ways to work it out, whether that's through video games or football or movies with explosions. If those outlets are unacceptable to you (as I think violent video games and movies are to many conservative Christians) you need to find another outlet, and what better than one that's actually in the Bible? Then it's not a prurient interest, but a religious one.

Posted by Amanda on July 18, 2005 02:09 PM

I suffered for a long time by wondering what it was in me that likes certain films that are very violent - the Terminators, for example. I finally realized that it doesn't mean I really like violence, certainly not against innocent people and never against animals, but I do like seeing films in which someone - don't really care who - can take care of the bad and evil people or forces, which I of course cannot and could not ever were I in a dangerous situation myself. And if it's a woman who is the strong one(the second Terminator, the Alien franchise), so much the better. However, having said this, I wonder if that's part of what motivates the Rapturists - they see everyone who isn't of their brand of religion as evil and the enemy, so they enjoy seeing these folks get pummeled (which I have to assume is what happens in the "Left Behind" books).

Posted by catherine on July 18, 2005 02:54 PM

Mano -

Very interesting insight into the rapture. I agree with Erin that part of the joyful anticipation of the rapture is the desire to avoid the pain of death. It's much easier to think about being suddenly assumed into heaven than it is to consider even the brief pain of dying instantly in a car accident or the extended pain of dying of cancer.

There is one correction I wanted to make to Catherine's comment about Mary being the only one in the Catholic religion to be assumed into heaven. There was at least one other person in Catholic tradition (technically, Jewish tradition, but that is the root of Catholic tradition) that I can think of - the prophet Elijah.

I personally have been taught that the Rapture will happen eventually, but we have no way of knowing for certain (people have claimed "These are the end times!" since Christ first died) that this will happen - or that it hasn't happened already. Since Revelation makes up a tiny part of the Bible, I personally believe it is a much better idea for Christians to focus on what Jesus commanded us to do in this world (speak and work for the poor being the most-often-talked-about command), rather than spend all of our time worrying about the next.

~ Liz

Posted by Liz V on July 18, 2005 03:48 PM

I agree that violence can sometime be cathartic, especially when it is a part of retribution for evil. This is especially so in movies (particularly westerns), when the bad people get killed or beaten up at the end.

It is the over-the-top, explicit, gratuitous, and blood-spurting-everywhere violence in some movies that bothers me (Yes, Quentin Tarantino, I am talking to you.) It is this latter kind of violence that the rapture literature reminds me of.

Posted by Mano Singham on July 18, 2005 04:30 PM

There is some measure of the underdog and the downtrodden in this.

A lot of Rapturists, I think, feel slighted and laughed at by the rest of the world (even other christians). They recall that "the meek shall inherit the earth," and the Rapture is when it happens. In some sense, they think that they have stood by their beliefs, while other people fall prey to crass materialism.

It's rather like having dreams of beating up the bully, I'd imagine: it's gratifying, and cathartic.

Posted by V on July 18, 2005 04:50 PM

According to Genesis, Enoch also was taken up into heaven without experiencing death.

The rapture is a huge part of fundamentalist/evangelical church teaching. I was given a postcard at church when I was probably about 7 years old which showed Jesus in the clouds. Spirits were shown rising out of opening graves and airplanes were crashing into large buildings in the fictional city depicted. I don't know if this nonsense postcard still circulates, I lost mine years ago, but i couldn't help but wonder how I would have felt if I had been seven years old on 9/11/01, terrified I am certain.

I was told that the rapture would likely occur in the fall of 1988. The reason for this was that the rapture is generally assumed to occur in the harvest season (fall in the northern hemisphere) and because Jesus made reference to his return within a generation of the time that a fig tree, generally assumed to be Israel, buds leaves (gaining independence). Since my church defined a generation as forty years, it was felt that the rapture would be forty years from 1948 when Israel was established. I believe that the date was set at 21 September. Needless to say there were quite a few spins and reinterpretations when the day, month, and year passed without incident.

I have read that some Christian groups have used credit cards to amass large quantities of debt buying goods they never planned on paying for on the assumption that the rapture would happen before the monthly statement arrived. I have it on good authority that the most reliable date is somewhere around 2048, so we have some time.

Most of the predictions and rapture talk originates from interpretation of Revelation (the last book in the Bible) which is largely cryptic, bizarre, gruesome, and contradictory with much of the rest of the Bible, to say nothing of its utter improbability.

Posted by Dave on July 18, 2005 08:04 PM

According to Jewish writings (which I believe are Talmudic, though I cannot cite a source), there are seven persons who ascended to Heaven without dying; Eliyahu (Elijah) and Chanoch (Enoch) are two of them, but I cannot remember the identities of the others...

Posted by William Sherwin on July 22, 2005 05:50 PM