by John R. Coats
My maternal grandparents lived in a small northeast-Texas town with a communal zeitgeist more aboriginal than modern. Everyone believed. "Is there really a God?" would have been as silly a question as "Is there really air?" While separation of church and state was non-negotiable -- no one would tell them what to believe -- that was not to say that individual or community life should, or even could, be divided between secular and religious spheres. The Psalmist had said it, "Wherever I go, You are there," and even the town's worst sinners knew that God (both a Protestant and a dead ringer for Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel rendition) was watching, listening, judging their every thought and action, that Judgment Day was coming, and that redemption, so long as they could draw a breath, was never more than a prayer away.
Sunday mornings brought Sunday school followed by a church service, about three hours in all. After a quiet afternoon came Training Union followed by another service. Wednesday nights were for Prayer Meeting, a service that, like the first two, came complete with Bible readings and a sermon. Summer revivals meant one or more services per day, these delivered with the revivalist's particular, sometimes peculiar, nuance of evangelical showmanship. More than half of every summer of my childhood was immersed in that river of old-time religion with its certainty that Jesus would come again at the end of time. Yet from all the prayers, all the Bible readings and lessons, all those sermons, and all the hammering about sin, final judgment, and the fires of Hell, I have no memory of anyone mentioning anything called "the Rapture."
In fact, before 1830, no one had heard that "[i]n one cataclysmic moment, millions around the globe disappear," or that "those left behind, terror stricken, are desperate to determine what happened," which is what you'll find on the back cover of Tribulation, volume two of the Left Behind series. Authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, along with the likes of Hal Lindsay, the late Jerry Falwell and others, are proponents of the work of English clergyman John Nelson Darby. It was around 1830 that Darby, having selected scripture passages from Daniel, Revelation, 1 and 2 Thessalonians and elsewhere, pasted them together, called them a whole, and invented the Rapture, a word not found in the Bible.
While Darby's ideas found little traction in Great Britain, they received a predictably strong reception when he toured the States between 1859 and 1877. But it was Cyrus Scofield who kept Darby and his ideas from falling through the cracks of history. A follower of Darby and, apparently, an avid note-taker, Scofield made his study notes into Biblical annotations for what became The Scofield Reference Bible, a bestseller in early-twentieth-century America that is still in publication.
The narrative is pretty straightforward: We live in the End Times. Soon, on a day when the world situation has become so critical that it could blow at any moment, Jesus appears in the sky, visible only to right-believing Christians who, in an instant, are bodily beamed up to be with him. Driverless cars, vans, pickups, semis, buses and other vehicles suddenly careen out of control (hence the bumper sticker that reads, "In case of the Rapture, this car will be unmanned"), and pilotless airplanes crash. What follows is seven years of Tribulation, with its earthquakes, plagues, famines, wars and the rise of a charismatic, power-happy, and murderous Antichrist (all of which might leave even the most casual observer of the first decade of our new millennium to wonder how we'd tell the difference). Finally, Christ returns a second time, defeats the Antichrist and reigns over the earth for 1,000 years.
Out of favor during the middle decades of the twentieth century, Rapture advocates, also known as Dispensationalists and Premillennialists, now are center-stage in American life and government. In his book God and Empire, Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan writes, "The full Rapture program cannot be readily dismissed ... [because] ... there are very specific connotations to American foreign policy in the volatile Middle East." Why the Middle East? Because Rapturephiles believe that their moment will not come until just before the final conflagration between the Jews and the Arabs. So Middle East hatreds and violence must be allowed, even encouraged, to escalate to the point of no return. Moreover, since the Rapture is God's plan, any attempt at peacemaking, such as the current Middle East peace talks, which Secretary of State Clinton frames in terms of a "last chance" for peace, are against God's will. But not the invasion of Iraq, nor any future action intended to drive the Middle East -- and the world -- to the brink, and over.
To the observer, the ironies can be overwhelming. However, having myself stood at the door of true-believerism, I know how its self-absorption can mask the ironies obvious to others. Take, for instance, my copy of The Scofield Reference Bible. It's a red-letter edition (the words of Jesus are printed in red), the irony hiding behind the realities of Rapture theology, which has little to do with the teachings and actions of Jesus. Where he voiced a radical vision of a humanity founded on the dual principles of agape (love) and koinonia (communion), Left Behind theology seems to be more of a Save Your Behind theology, one in which Jesus is more of a shill, a name appropriated in hopes of gaining legitimacy.
So, what's real about the Rapture? Its roots are in the nineteenth-century rebellion against Modernity with its scientific rationalism. Beneath the glare of uber-left-brain logic, the stories and myths that had carried the larger truths about being human in an overwhelming, frightening, awe-filled universe were declared to be nonsense -- which is nonsense, and begged an equal and opposite reaction, which came in the declaration that the Bible was literally true -- every word. The idea of the Rapture, then, is Modernity's shadow, the unexpected, unscientific, and nonrational child of the rationalism that made it inevitable. Its adherents don't care that its Biblical evidence comes from pasted-together passages written by different authors at different times in history. To them, inside their belief system, it is a coherent narrative that is to be followed to the letter.
And therein lies the problem. We are all living witnesses to what religious true-believers are willing to do to the rest of us. Terry Jones and his Dove World Outreach Center stood ready to burn the Quran regardless of the consequences, which promised to be bloody. Thankfully, they didn't go through with it, but others did, and still others will. Should the more sophisticated but equally zealous advocates of a Middle-East-cum-worldwide holocaust gain sufficient voice in the making of American foreign policy, we may discover that questions about the flux of history that delivered us to this point, or whether the Rapture can be defended Biblically, or the ongoing banter about who's crazy and who's not, have become irrelevant. We could say, then, that the realest thing about the Rapture is that it's an idea with the potential for making the earth into a graveyard.
Originally published here.
John R. Coats is the author of “Original Sinners: Why Genesis Still Matters.” He holds master's degrees from Virginia Theological Seminary and Bennington College Writing Seminars. A former Episcopal priest, he was a principal speaker and seminar leader for the More To Life training program in the United States, Great Britain, and South Africa, and an independent management consultant. He’s married and live in Houston.
His heritage is Southern Baptist, but it was in a Roman Catholic church that, in the fall of 1958, a few months after his twelfth birthday, he had what was either an “ecstatic” experience or “probably an allergic reaction to the incense.” It was a split second in his six and a half decades, yet the man he’s become, and all that he’s done in his professional life--parish priest, speaker and trainer for an international foundation, management consultant, writer--can be traced back to that moment. These fifty-plus years later, he still don't understand what happened, but what followed from it has been quite a ride so far.
For more information please visit www.JohnRCoats.com
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