The Rapture Craze

 

The astounding success of Tim LaHaye 's "Left Behind" series of religious novels, which feature people being snatched up or "raptured" into heaven much to the consternation and bewilderment of those left behind has produced another type of consternation and bewilderment, especially among those whose Christian beliefs are a bit more traditional or "mainstream".

Actually, what we are seeing here, in a novel form, is quite an old story in Christian history. In his classic work on "Enthusiasm" Ronald Knox traced the ups and downs of repeated outbursts of millennial expectations along with Pentecostal revivalism, starting with the Montanists in the middle of the third century and on down through medieval times, even to the "Great Awakenings" in America, especially in the 1840s when people climbed up on house tops and barn roofs to be better poised for take‑off into heaven.

Often such beliefs have been mixed with predictions of an "Armageddon" or final battle between the forces of good and evil ‑ much as has been more recently seen in the "Watchtower" type of publications or the tragedy that took place in Waco not many years ago.

Most of this kind of belief and speculation has taken its inspiration from the final book of the New Testament, generally known as "The Book of Revelation". This book, which has often, but probably wrongly, been attributed to the Apostle John, speaks of itself as a "prophecy." But it actually belongs to a special class of writings known as apocalyptic a word referring to what is "hidden" or what is yet to be revealed. It is not "prophecy" in the classical sense of the word like the writings of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. Instead these apocalyptic writings are a type of underground literature that was written in a kind of code consisting of symbolic representations of what were back then current events, mostly to console people who had no longer any control over what was happening to them. Good examples of this kind of writing are parts of the Old Testament Book of Daniel (which is not listed among the prophetic books in the Hebrew Bible but among the "Other Writings") and many of the other books rejected by more traditional Jewish scholars but were found in abundance among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Nor did this kind of highly imaginative literature find easy acceptance into the New Testament. Many of the early Christian bishops and scholars argued against considering the Book of Revelation as part of the Bible, and even today, the Greek Orthodox Church relegates it, at best, to being a kind of "appendix".

While it contains some truly stunning images and inspiring lines, it also contains a hodgepodge of vindictive and damning passages which hardly exude the spirit of Christian love and which, as Carl Jung and other psychologists have pointed out, seem to have a special appeal to those who feel marginalized, helpless, or "ripped off " by society at large. But still, The Book of Revelation, and even LaHaye's novels, like the various millennial cults that have preceded them, perhaps does serve a useful purpose. They remind us that although the Gospels tell us that the Kingdom of God is already "within" us or "among" us, it is still not yet complete.

However, what these writings so often fail to tell us and it is in this that they most differ from the classical Prophets and the Gospels is that in the meantime it is our responsibility to help make this a better, more just, and more loving world. Can we really expect that God will treat us mercifully if we sit back waiting for God to destroy the world or to "rapture" us out of disaster's way, after we have failed to do our part?

 

R W Kropf July 7, 2001 Rapture.doc 01-07-07