Delivered at Atkinson Memorial Church (Unitarian Universalist) July 17, 2011
The 19th century former slave Sojourner Truth criticized the escapism and self-centeredness in the Rapture rhetoric among Christians of her day. In response to claims that Christians are taken up into some parlor in heaven to escape destruction, she underscored that God stays with us on earth and walks with us through every trial: [she said] You seem to be expecting to go to some parlor away up somewhere and when the wicked have been burnt, you are coming back to walk in triumph over their ashes—this is to be your New Jerusalem! Now I can’t see anything so very nice in that, coming back to such a muss as that will be, a world covered with the ashes of the wicked. Besides, if the Lord comes and burns—as you say he will—I am not going away. I am going to stay here and stand the fire, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego! And Jesus will walk with me through the fire and keep me from harm.
A reading by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed.
Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Warning: The story you are about to hear involves theology, hormones, and drugs. Do not try this at home.
Twenty-two years ago, I was pregnant with my third and final child when I came across an article in the Oregonian. A man named Edgar Whisenant, a bona fide Ph.D. NASA rocket scientist, had figured out that the world would end on September 1, 1989. He used math, and science, and he even used statistics, reasoning that there was a 96 percent chance of this event happening. In the event that he was wrong, the likelihood went up one percent in each subsequent year, making it a certainty that the Rapture would come in 1993.
At the time, my Episcopal Bible study was studying the Book of the Revelation, so I cut the article out and took it in for show and tell. I tucked it in my Bible afterwards, and forgot about it. It’s still there.
Fast forward a few weeks. I’ve forgotten all about the Rapture, I’m still pregnant, and I have a dentist appointment which is where the drugs enter into it. My dentist at the time was in Lake Oswego, my home was up near Battle Ground, Washington, so I had a long drive on I-205 ahead of me before I got home.
I’m cruising along, listening to the radio, when the traffic comes to a halt. Being still semi-rational—I had yet to give birth to the creature that removed any hope of sanity from my life—I glanced up at the big reader board over the freeway. Nothing. I tuned the radio to an AM station known for up-to-the-minute traffic news. Nothing. But I-205 was clearly not going anywhere.
That’s where the hormones and drugs, along with the memory of a bumper sticker—In Case of Rapture, This Car Will Be Unmanned—came together. I remembered Whisenant’s prediction, noted that the date was indeed September 1, and thought, “OMG, I’ve been left behind.”
Then the scales fell from my eyes, I looked around, and realized everybody had been left behind. I was not alone. We were all still here. Slowly, my mind shifted gears, all the while amazed that even I, a highly-educated Episcopalian raised without any hint of Rapture theology, a person who laughed in the face of such folderol, had fallen victim to the powerfully symbolic image of the end of the world and the Second Coming.
Since then, I’ve been fascinated by the Rapture and eschatological theology. That’s a big word for End Times. I even read Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth just to find out what all the buzz was about in certain evangelical circles.
So what is this Rapture deal anyway?
First, I want to point out that Christianity, and most religions, I’d hazard a guess, has a centuries-long tradition of prophetic literature. But prophetic does not mean fortune telling or predicting. The prophetic tradition relies on telling it the way you see it. The Biblical prophets carried warnings, not of the end of the world, but of the need for repentance, justice, peaceful behavior, caring for the poor and helpless. They told stories of sinful behavior that needed to be rectified, not to prevent God from destroying the world—that was addressed in the story of Noah where God sent the rainbow as a sign of a Covenant that God would never try that stunt again. No, the prophets warned that sin was getting out of control and people needed to pull it back to show that they loved God. The prophets were a constant reminder of our duty to the planet and everything on it.
Still, there are always those among us who want to know the future. Hell, most of us have probably used oujia boards, or those Magic 8 balls, or even had our palms read at some point in our lives. In college, a oujia board told me I was going to marry a man named Ormond. Unless Jenny’s planning something I don’t know about, like a complete overhaul, it ain’t gonna happen.
So, ever since the book of Daniel was written, some 23 or so centuries ago, there have been those who have looked for signs that would tell them exactly when the end of the world would come.
The Rapture, as we now know it, got its start with a man named Edward Irving, a Scottish Presbyterian of the early 19th century. Irving was one of the forerunners of the modern charismatic and Pentacostal movements. He also taught about a Secret Rapture.
One of his parishioners, a 15-year-old girl named Margaret Macdonald, was a dabbler in the occult and had a special interest in Irving’s claims to be able to heal and prophecy in tongues. I’ve read some accounts that claim she was also mentally challenged. She related some visions she had about the Secret Rapture, and they were picked up by a Church of Ireland minister named John Nelson Darby who ran with them.
The Secret Rapture was an event in which true believers would be lifted up out of the world to meet with Jesus before the coming of the Anti-Christ who was believed to usher in the tribulations and trials that would herald the end times. For the past two centuries, this idea has captured the minds of many who have sought, like Whisenant, and most recently Harold Camping, to calculate the exact day and time when this event will happen. So far, none of them have been right.
All of this theology is based on a misunderstanding of what biblical prophecy is all about, some random scriptures from the Old Testament, a few lines in the New Testament, and the Book of the Revelation.
As I said before, Biblical prophecy is not about predicting the future. Think of it more as a call to action, a reminder that things aren’t going well and that we are called to fix it. The truly prophetic voices are those calling us to stop the wars, clean up the environment, start taking care of the poor, and get our house in order so that we can all live a heavenly life right here on earth.
I’m not going into all the scriptures, since you probably don’t want to be here all day, but I do want to look at the Book of the Revelation.
First, I want to point out that the Revelation almost didn’t make the cut into the Christian canon. It was added in the 4th century, after much debate by the early church fathers, and some Christian traditions do not include it even to this day.
It was not considered important because, first off, it was a letter to a particular group of Christians, at a particular time (the late 1st century), written in symbolic code that they would understand, about the oppression of the church by the Romans. It was not considered a prophetic book; it was an apocalyptic book. And apocalypse doesn’t mean what many would have us believe either. Apocalypse does not mean end of the world or great disaster or war in the Middle East; it means, simply, revelation, the disclosure of things that are not seen. In this sense, John of Patmos, who was most likely not St. John the Evangelist based on textual criticism, was writing a letter to comfort the persecuted churches in what is now Western Turkey and encourage them to keep the faith. Now, the early church did believe that the Second Coming of Jesus was imminent, but they did not view this in the way modern pre-millenialists do.
The Book of the Revelation, at its deepest center, echoes Sojourner Truth. It is a letter telling beleaguered Christians that, in spite of Roman oppression, in spite of the wars and slavery and atrocities of the Roman Empire, the Lamb of God, Jesus, would someday establish a kingdom of peace and justice and love. There is nothing in the Book of the Revelation about the Rapture, or the tribulation, or any of the other events you might have read about in the Left Behind series. Even the Anti-Christ, purported by pre-millenials to be Obama or Oprah, and by liberals to be George W. Bush, is actually a reference to the Roman Emperor Nero according to such distinguished Biblical historians as John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.
Think about it. You’re writing a letter to people you trust, but you know that the letter could fall into the wrong hands and cause them untold grief. Wouldn’t you write in code?
All those so-called signs are not scriptural, and they are only supported by the long tradition of proof-texting, or finding Scripture to support your personal agenda, rather than engaging Scripture in an open and honest way.
So, if it’s not Scriptural, what is it all about?
Years ago, when my oldest started school and my second child was still too young, my daycare provider decided to go back to college. I found a new provider, just down the road, and was thrilled. But, being cautious, I took Caitlin just for an hour while I went grocery shopping. On my return, the daycare provider pointed to the cross around my neck and said, “You’re a believer.” Well, yes. I was. But what she said next floored me. Conspiratorially, and in a low voice so the kids wouldn’t hear her, she said, “I can’t wait until the Rapture so I can watch the sinners roast in hell.” Clearly, she thought Heaven was a grandstand seat to a human barbecue lasting for all eternity, and that I was looking forward to it with as much gusto as she was. I scooped up my child and never went back. But ever since, I’ve thought about that comment. And I have a few ideas.
For this woman, I suspect the motive behind her comment was a feeling of powerlessness and a fear of death. If you can’t tolerate ambiguity, and if you are afraid of living in a complex and complicated world where very little is under your control, the idea that God has it all figured out and is going to not only save you from it, but reward you mightily, a doctrine like the Rapture might appeal. Especially if you’re convinced that you’re one of the ones who will be saved. And even better if someone can tell you exactly when it’s going to happen. It makes life on this odd little planet of ours much easier if you have that level of certainty.
Look at it from the evangelical and right-wing perspective: We live in a world where Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States, Hispanic people will outnumber Europeans soon, Spanish is increasingly becoming a necessary language in many fields, the middle class is disappearing, unemployment is at an all-time high, an African American is now the leader of the most powerful nation in the world, homosexuals are getting married and raising kids, the US is in so many wars I’m starting to lose count, and the economy and the environment are in shambles. It’s a far cry from those bucolic days we falsely remember as the 50s. For those who can’t handle all this confusion, ambiguity, change, and dare I say, diversity, they look for certainty where they can find it. Some hole up in Idaho with guns and ten years worth of food. Others find solace in the promises of false prophecy.
And pre-millenialism promises that they will win. Even if all us sinners are in charge here on earth, the true believers will have the ringside seats in heaven, watching us roast for eternity. And, they won’t have to die to do it.
If you followed the recent Rapture non-event, you’re aware that the belief is that true believers will be taken up into heaven right from daily life. No death, no pain, no fuss, no muss. And they are so certain of this that the only real debate becomes whether they will be taken up clothed or naked, whether their pets will go with them, and whether Jesus’ feet will touch down on earth before the Rapture or after.
But the problem is that Rapture theology, and it’s own misunderstanding of eschatology, is the very thing that can bring about the end of the world. Not through an act of God, but through our own acts. And instead of serving as a prophetic warning that we need to get our act together and start practicing peace and justice, clean up the planet, and start living as if Jesus is actually coming, Rapture theology has become the anti-Christ of prophecy.
Rapture theology believes that the only way Jesus can come again is to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem—in a spot currently occupied by the Mosque of the Dome; restore Israel to its first millennia boundaries—thereby pushing the Palestinians, many of whom are fellow Christians, out of their homeland; and usher in a great war with blood rising to the bridles of the horses. Although only a minority of Christians believe any of this, those who do have taken over segments of our political system. I’m not saying that those segments are all pre-millenialists; I am saying that there are opportunists willing to take advantage of this mistaken theology to accomplish their own agendas.
The scary thing, of course, is that if you believe the world has to end in violence for your salvation, you might do all in your power to hasten that end. And if the world is going to end soon—latest date according to Camping is sometime in October—then the current state of the environment, the economy, and the poor is irrelevant. The good guys will get their just reward, the rest of us can burn in hell. How do you fight that?
The Rapture is a theology rooted in the heresy of Manicheism, the idea that the world is evil and our goal is to escape from it. But the early church believed that the world was, as Hopkins so elegantly said, “charged with the grandeur of God.”
The Rapture is also a theology of hopelessness, a theology that says it’s too late, and it doesn’t matter anyway. But the Book of the Revelation is, above all, a message of hope in the love of God and in the goodness of all creation.
Rebecca Ann Parker believes that we are already living in a post-apocalyptic world, and I would have to agree. She writes, “We are living in a post-slavery, post-Holocaust, post-Viet Nam, post-Hiroshima world. We are living in the aftermath of collective violence that has been severe, massive, and traumatic. The scars from slavery, genocide, and meaningless war mark our bodies. We are living in the midst of rain-forest burning, the rapid death of species, the growing pollution of our air and water, and new mutations of racism and violence.”
Our world has already gone through Hell. Now we’re ready to head into that thousand years of peace the pre-millenilists promise us.
The prophetic voices among us know that we have to do something soon, and it’s going to have to be something drastic. And a lot of that burden is going to fall on Americans, who, incidentally, are the primary believers in the Rapture. Coincidence? I would say not. We’ve led the world on a path that is not life-giving, and we’ve got a lot of work to do to fix that. It would be so much easier to just be raptured away and not worry about what we’ve left behind.
For decades we’ve lived the good life—rampant consumerism, out-of-control spending, bigger and faster cars, a desire for cheaper and cheaper goods, houses big enough for ten families. We’ve frittered away most of the world’s resources and started unnecessary wars to prolong our inflated standard of living.
Yes, some of us have made changes, and some of us are trying to move forward in sustainable ways. But even if all Americans did this, right now, it might not be enough.
Why? Because the rest of the world is catching up. For many generations, they’ve looked on American consumerism and our standard of living with envy. Now, countries like China and India and others not only have American jobs, they have the means to want what we have. So even if we try to change our ways, they want their turn. Our challenge is no longer just to curb our own behavior; we now have to convince the rest of the world that it’s not in the best interest of the world for them to want what we already have.
So what went wrong? We lost sight of the real meaning of life, of the prophetic words of people like Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, and many others. Instead of working for peace and justice, as we were called to do in the Bible and other Holy Scriptures, we’ve worked for domination and to have the newest HD TV. We’ve left our planet in ruins, and now we have to do something about it, if it’s not too late.
Or do we? We could just believe in the Rapture and hope that Jesus comes before it gets too bad here. Of course, we’d also have to believe that we are among the saved. And, if you’ve read the Book of the Revelation literally, you know that only 144,000 out of almost 7 billion of us get those ringside seats. Now that’s cognitive dissonance.
Better that we live in a post-apocalyptic world, working to make it livable again for all of us. Better that we recognize that despite the generations that, to paraphrase Hopkins, have trod, have trod, have trod, searing all with trade and toil, there still lives the dearest freshness deep down things. And that is worth living for.
Blessed be and amen.
Martin Luther King once said, “If I knew that the world were going to end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.” Let us live in the hope of a better world for all of us.