Rapture Me Up, Daddy: Trump, the End of the World, and Me

How the concept of the "Rapture" came to be, was popularized by Christian pop culture and how it helped Donald Trump.

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Nov 16 2016, 4:16pm

Illustration by Joe Frontel

The Rapture Index is currently at an all-time high rating of 189.

At least, that's the highest it's been since 1987, when RaptureReady.com's founder and "roving rapture reporter" Todd Strandberg started predicting the imminence of a "pre-tribulation rapture," the moment when all true believers will be slurped up into heaven, the Antichrist will rise to power and precisely seven years of unspeakable suffering will be unleashed on those left behind.

The index—calculated by adding up 45 metrics including Beast Government, Wild Weather, and False Christs—was recently bumped up from the previous assessment of 188 due to four US states voting to legalize recreational marijuana. Even that number was well beyond the 130-160 window of "heavy prophetic activity" and 160+ threshold of "fasten your seat belts." We're very much in the danger zone.

Of course, this probably sounds totally batshit, but the US did just vote for a President Trump, so who the fuck knows anymore.

But the Rapture—largely popularized by the intensely popular Left Behind book and film series, the latter of which suffered from a deeply dull Nicolas Cage-led reboot in 2014—remains a fundamental assumption of mainstream evangelical Christianity, the powerful religious bloc that just helped Donald Trump get elected as the next president.

The idea was originally popularized by an Irish evangelist named John Nelson Darby in the 1830s via a mishmash of Old Testament prophecies with the apocalyptic Book of Revelation.

Amy Frykholm, author of Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America, told VICE there's "very little Biblical undergirding" for it minus a handful of vague and unconnected verses such as "there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one will be left" and "there will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations."

But the Rapture still holds amazing sway over North American evangelical culture, providing a massive theological excuse not care about climate change, poverty, or really much at all given that everything could end at any moment.

In 2010, a Pew Research Center poll suggested that 41 percent of Americans believe that the Second Coming will take place by the year 2050, with that number rising to 58 percent among white evangelicals.

"Among lay people it's just a given that the Rapture's going to happen," says Matthew Avery Sutton, history professor at Washington State University and author of American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, in an interview with VICE. "Most evangelical churches would be shocked to find out that this is a 150-year-old concept and not a 2,000-year-old Biblical concept."

Frykholmagrees: "The default view of most US-based people is there will be a Rapture. If you push them on how they think the world will end they've got some sort of root belief about the Rapture."

I was once one of those people.

One of the most vivid memories of my childhood was being convinced the Rapture had come and that demonic locusts were literally about to descend because the sun happened to be an intense blood red on a Calgary summer afternoon. Of course, the sun was probably that particular shade because of a nearby wildfire or something perfectly explainable.

But that's what happens when you're a kid who literally burned Harry Potter books in a fireplace because they were "evil," choosing to instead plow through the sprawling 16-book Left Behind series on a summer vacation like a total fucking dweeb.

Many of us who grew up evangelical—a group which encompasses about 10 percent of Canadians and 25 percent of Americans—have such stories. One of the most common iterations is arriving home from school, parents not being around and quickly inducing that your family had been raptured.

Which of course would mean that you weren't a "true" Christian—having perhaps once said "the prayer' but not actually meant it—and was about to face the wrath of a full seven years of getting stretched on the rack by a mid-level demon or some totally heinous shit; kids under the "age of accountability" will supposedly get a free pass as they don't have the capability to knowingly "give their lives to Christ," but the specific age is up for debate (as with everything concerning the Rapture).

For evangelicals, the threat isn't simply the threat of Dante's Inferno on the horizon, something to ultimately be confronted in one's old age with a last-minute admission of guilt and repentance.

The existence of the Rapture means that Jesus might come back at any moment and trigger the literal end of the world. This looming reality certainly puts quite a damper on jacking off, or skipping class, or doing anything that isn't praying and being a narc.

It's thus no coincidence that the most renown and hilariously shitty Rapture film of all time was titled Thief in the Night, a callback to a verse from 1 Thessalonians about when the "day of the Lord" would come. (Nobody seems to know why exactly Young Thug deployed the iconic phrase as a name for one his best songs of 2015).

Every sin—or even every imagined sin, due to that clause in Matthew about how thinking about fucking someone equalling adultery—must be immediately and sincerely atoned for. This can cause significant levels of psychological trauma. For instance, I used to have a strict Rapture-insurance policy of an hour-or-so of worshipping and pleading forgiveness after looking at porn.

Sutton says the Rapture was actually a relatively minority view until after World War II, when Billy Graham started his insensitively named Crusades in 1947.

But it was the 1972 Thief in the Night, combined with Larry Norman's 1969 terrifying song "I Wish We'd All Been Ready" and Hal Lindsey's nearly incoherent 1970 book The Late Great Planet Earth, that shocked many hippy-era evangelicals into frantic "conversion experiences."

Sutton explains: "The Rapture offers hope to people and says: One, they know what's going on and why it's happening; and two, they're going to escape, they're not going to go through the Tribulation, they're going to be the ones who are ultimately going to have the last laugh and be safe with Christ while the rest of us implode and end up in this nuclear apocalyptic chaos."

By the early 1970s, many theologians and religious leaders had started downplaying the Rapture because they'd realized that World War II hadn't concluded in armageddon as anticipated—evangelicals have quite the propensity for subpar forecasting—which Sutton says "opened the door for people to step in and create these much more popularized, much less theologically sophisticated arguments for the Rapture."


That trend reached its climax with Left Behind, arriving via the totally unhinged minds of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins between 1995 and 2007. In addition to the regular series, the dynamic duo authored 40 young adult books with very chill, kid-friendly names like Horsemen of Terror and The Rise of False Messiahs.

There was also a corresponding PC real-time strategy game, Left Behind: Eternal Forces, which was so controversial due to the need to either convert or kill non-believers that it was pulled from US Department of Defence care bundles that were being sent to soldiers who were actually killing people in Iraq (the developer also threatened to sue websites for giving the game shitty reviews).

You can still download the game for free here, thank god. Over to you, Waypoint.

Then there was the three-part film series released between 2000 and 2005, featuring former Growing Pains child star Kirk Cameron and Gordon Currie (who was a college roommate with Brad Pitt) as UN Secretary-General-turned-Antichrist Nicolae Carpathia.

I once screened the original straight-to-DVD film for my incredibly nice uncle and watched him become visibly incensed as he quickly realized what was actually going on with the plot of the movie. For the first half-hour or so, it appears to just be a shitty but innocuous thriller about the attempted invasion of Israel and a bunch of people randomly disappearing, but is actually a brutally reductive gospel tract that positioned a ragtag crew of post-Rapture believers who dubbed themselves the "Tribulation Force" against the literal Antichrist who, of course, was the former head of the UN.

In effect, Left Behind was the series that introduced an entire generation of younger believers to the Rapture. We ate that shit up, treating it like the Talmud to our Torah.

Frykholm says in an interview with VICE that many readers she's interviewed over the years described a highly "absorbed reading" of Left Behind that resulted in a very blurred line between fact and fiction, with people effectively expecting the events being recounted in the novel to soon appear on television.

That's a pretty terrifying thing given the highly didactic nature of the franchise.

For while the Rapture has always served an important role in Christianity whenever believers feel they're a threatened outside group—increased reproductive rights, more immigrants, Satanists threatening to erect a statue of Baphomet the Sabbatic Goat next to the Ten Commandments on Oklahoma State Capitol grounds—Left Behind represented a uniquely militant interpretation.

"What happened in the Left Behind series is you suddenly have this group of alternative militia rising to fight the Antichrist," Frykholm says. "That was really telling about the view that white evangelical Christians about their place in the culture: that it was worth fighting for."

That had real-world impacts. When I was 17, I watched a doc on CNN featuring a group of anti-abortion protesters from the now-defunct Texas-based Honor Academy.

This kind of culture war greatly appealed to my sensibilities that, until then, had only found an outlet by posting homophobic and drug addict-shaming memes on my Nexopia page, which happened to be named after a song by my favourite Christian rock band (the lead singer of which serves in the US Reserves).

Within days, I'd filled out an application and was on the phone with a recruiter at Teen Mania Ministries, the actual name of the organization that ran the program. We ended each phone session with a lengthy prayer. There were rumours of military-style endurance runs, literal marriage ceremonies with Jesus and even more protests against reproductive rights. I wanted it all. The end was coming, Christ was to return and I wanted to be seen fighting the good fight.

I didn't end signing up, only realizing after a bit of cursory research that the institution was probably a cult. Thank fuck.

But that didn't stop me from spending the next half-decade of my life immersed in ghoulish evangelism of some sort or another. The visceral fear of the Rapture faded over that span.

But the certainty that Jesus would return did not, spurring me to keep "recommitting my life," seeking atonement for sins and working in very gross ways to convert friends. The entire quest was founded upon and hinged on my past relationship with Left Behind, just as previous generations had been shaped by Thief in the Night and The Late Great Planet Earth and generations before that had been defined by Billy Graham's Crusades. My fear of the Rapture only really died when I decided the all of Christianity was probably horseshit.

Both Sutton and Frykholm suggest the Rapture's climax may have already come, with the latter sensing a "real decline in the power of that narrative" and Sutton adding the last great resurgence was post-9/11.

But that was before the election of Trump as president.

American evangelism grew largely in response to feelings of chaos and helplessness generated by eras such as the Great Depression, fascism under Hitler and Mussolini, and potential nuclear annihilation courtesy Khrushchev and Castro. As Hal Lindsey—the moustached Zionist who's currently 86 years old and runs a weekly program with the phone number 1-888-RAPTURE—put it back in 1970: "It's ironic that man never seems to learn from past mistakes, especially when they relate to major catastrophes."

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