Populist Religion

Your spiritual health may be at risk


By Kevin Hilferty

IF you haven't yet heard millions of born-again Protestants believe in the rapture. They are quite convinced that when the rapture arrives, they will be swept into the air where they will meet Christ in the sky. Pilots will disappear from planes, bus, truck and car drivers from their vehicles, which makes for a scary scenario. The rest of years of tribulation (if we survive the traffic accidents).

It all arises from the teachings of two 19th century preachers who cobbled together unrelated passages from St Paul's Epistle to the Thessalonians and the Book of Revelation plus some dubious prophecy theology to create a totally new and unscriptural message about the rapture and the end of the world.

Mixed with this are highly-selective scriptural quotations from Revelation including 'the four horsemen of the Apocalypse,' 'the mark of the beast,' 'the false prophet,' the infamous number 666'and the 'whore of Babylon' who drinks the blood of Christians in the world's last days (and who the preachers identify as the Vatican). They scour the daily headlines for reports of wars and disasters that may point to the end time, with particular attention to Israel.

The first thing to note about people preaching that the end of the world is at hand and even predicting the date have been around for almost two thousand ears and the earth is still firm beneath our feet. But at no time in the past have they had access to the communications technology enjoyed by the current rapture promoters. Books by the scores of millions roll off the presses, TV and radio boom out their message, videos and DVDs supplement it. The mass market for the books is in the United States but they are big sellers in Australia and not just in Christian bookshops. All the big mainstream booksellers offer them because they are good for business and most council libraries have them on their shelves.

The message they convey is slick and cunningly crafted. The theme is that Christ is coming back not once but twice. On one of these visits will come the rapture; Christ will snatch up into heaven true born-again believers and innocent children, both living and dead. Left behind will be the unbelievers not just atheists but Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans,Methodists, Muslims, Hindus and everybody else.

Massive turmoil will follow and without genuine (i.e. born again) Christians to oppose him, the devil will take control of the world through his human puppet, the Antichrist. Then will follow seven years of wars and destruction until Christ returns and vanquishes the Antichrist at Armageddon and 1,000 years of peace will follow.

You and I may well regard this scenario as a load of nonsense but millions do not and flash their credit cards to buy the latest books and DVDs about the rapture and the end-times soon to be with us (they believe). While millions of Americans consider themselves secular humanists, another 50 per cent believe the events outlined in the Book of Revelation will take place.

There are 70 million evangelicals in the United States,about 25 per cent of the population, attending more than 200,000 evangelical churches staffed by fire-breathing conservative preachers. Historically, evangelicals have a long tradition of belief in the end-of-time and the Book of Revelation going back to the Pilgrim Fathers (who wanted to build a New Jerusalem in the American wilderness). They also harbour a deep-seated hostility to the Catholic Church. To them, belief in the rapture comes easily.

Pre, mid and post

'Are you Pre, Mid or Post? If you don't know how to answer that question, you're probably a Catholic. Most Fundamentalists and Evangelicals know that these words are shorthand for pre-tribulation, mid- tribulation and post-tribulation. The terms all refer to when the rapture is supposed to come.'

With these words an American website, Catholic Answers, begins an explanation of the rapture. Virtually all Christians hold that the Second Coming will be preceded by a time of great trouble and persecution of God's people (2 Thess. 2:1-4). This period is often called the tribulation. Until the nineteenth century, Christians agreed that the rapture though it was not called that at the time - would occur immediately before the Second Coming, at the close of the period of persecution. This position is today called the 'post-tribulational' view because it says the rapture will come after the tribulation.

But in the 1800s, some preachers began to claim that the rapture would occur before the period of persecution. This position, the 'pre-tribulational' view, was taken up by John Nelson Darby, a minister of the Church of Ireland (an affiliate of the Anglican Church). He became a leader of a fundamentalist movement known as Dispensationalism before founding the Plymouth Brethren.

Darby"s pre-tribulational view was then picked up by a Kansas City lawyer named C.I. Scofield who taught it in the extensive footnotes of the Scofield Reference Bible, published with the King James text in 1909 and widely distributed in Britain and America. Many Protestants who read the Scofield Reference Bible uncritically accepted what its footnotes said and adopted the pre-tribulational view, even though no Christian had heard of it in the previous 1800 years of Church history.

Eventually, a third position developed, known as the 'mid-tribulational' view, which claims the rapture will occur during the middle of the tribulation. Finally, a fourth view developed that claims that there will not be a single rapture where all believers are gathered to Christ, but that there will be a series of mini-raptures that occur at different times with respect to the tribulation. Confusing, isn't it?

Catholics certainly believe that the event of our gathering together to be with Christ will take place, though we do not use the word 'rapture' to refer to this; interestingly- the term 'rapture' is derived from the text of the old Catholic Latin Vulgate of l Thess. 4:17 - 'we will be caught up,' [Latin: rapiemur]).

The rapture publishing phenomenon

Numerous authors write about the rapture - there is even a Christian Western writer who has turned out 80 cowboy books. These writers call themselves 'faith-based' and are producing books to meet an expanding demand across numerous themes: detective stories, science fiction and romance novels (known in the trade as chick lit).

But far and away the most successful is 80 year-old Tim LaHaye, evangelical co-author of the 12 big-selling Left Behind books. He has a populist touch and a real gift for communicating his message to a mass audience.

After World War II service as an air gunner, LaHaye graduated from the virulently anti-Catholic Bob Jones University in South Carolina. He became pastor of a Baptist church in San Diego, California where he built the congregation from 350 to 3,000. Disturbed by the liberal and secularist decisions of the US Supreme Court on such matters as racial segregation, abortion, school prayer and the rights of women he resigned his pastorship in 1981 and joined the Reverend Jerry Falwell to form the Moral Majority. This organisation is credited with helping Ronald Reagan win two presidential terms. Later LaHaye became co-chairman of Republican Jack Kemp's 1988 presidential campaign but resigned when some of his anti-Catholic writings came to light.

His wife Beverly heads an organisation called Concerned Women for America, which has 600,000 members and campaigns against abortion, pornography and sex education in schools.

In the mid-9Os LaHaye, already a widely published author, turned his hand to the Left Behind books. He made a deal to share authorship with a writer from the Moody Bible Institute, Jerry B Jenkins, who actually wrote the books while LaHaye provided the ideas and inspiration. Published by Tyndale House Press of Wheaton, Illinois, they are similar in concept to a 1970s best seller, The Late, Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay, which predicted the world would come to an end in 1988 but with its sequels sold 35 million copies.

The LaHaye series capitalises on the success of the popular books by Tom Clancy and John Grisham, with muscular all-American heroes overcoming the forces of evil. The first Left Behind, appeared in 1995 and introduced the hero, airline pilot Captain Rayford Steele. Landing in Chicago, Steele and his crew learn of the mysterious disappearance of thousands of born-again Christians all over the world together with all small innocent children. The rapture has arrived!

The theme is consistent through the 12 books of the series. There is the unmasking of the Antichrist who turns to be the Secretary-General of the UN (of which the American right is deeply suspicious)and who arranges for an evil American cardinal to be elected to the Papacy then to become, as Peter II, Pontifex Maximus of the Antichrist's new church, One World Faith.

World War III breaks out accompanied by famine and disease, and so it goes, with Steele as the Indiana Jones-style hero. In Book II, Armageddon, the final battle with evil begins and in Book 12, Glorious Appearing, the prophecy in Left Behind is fulfilled. Christ appears at the head of an army, which destroys the forces of the Antichrist in a welter of blood and death, watched by Captain Steele from the roof of his Hummer.

Those who are still alive will see Christ return in glory to begin his thousand-year reign in Jerusalem. Because of their shrewd blend of popular fiction with suggestions of biblical authenticity, the Left Behind books are an attractive way of promoting rapture teachings.

Other authors have adopted the rapture theology and end time theme. Ted Dekker's recent Obsessed has as its theme an apocalyptic confrontation between good and evil in which the grace of Cod protects the innocent and enables them to triumph. But Tyndale really knows how to market the LaHaye books and has produced some 60 million copies. Along with the books (in 33 languages) come the spin-offs: book readings on cassette tapes, t-shirts with rapture logos, videos of movie versions of the books, chat rooms, games, music CDs, comic books and an on-line prophecy club.

There is also the Left Behind youth series targeted at readers aged from ten to 14. The central characters are four teenagers left behind to battle the forces of the Antichrist when their families disappear in the rapture. With four books corresponding to each of the 12 Left Behind adult books, the 48 books encourage teenagers to develop a long-term involvement with the fictional characters and with rapture teaching.

Tyndale has made many millions from the books and LaHaye is reported to have made $Us50 million, although he says he keeps only enough to live on and donates the rest to charity. He has signed a deal for a new series of novels inspired by Revelation and called Babylon Rising; I saw a copy recently in my local council library. Yet another venture for LaHaye and Jenkins is a prequel to the Left Behind books, with the familiar characters; so far two of these books have appeared, The Rising and The Regime.

All these books were written to proselytise, to spread the rapture message and with it fundamental evangelicalism. One recent commentator even describes the series as a revenge fantasy in which right wing Christians win out over the rational, scientific and secularist modern world.

In the US, rapture believers target young Catholics. They warn them that unless they renounce some essential beliefs of the Catholic Church they will not be considered true Christians and will be left behind when the rapture occurs.

Radio, TV and Internet

When I first lived in the United States as a young journalist for an Australian media group, I enjoyed taking a rental car along the roads of the mid-west, west and south-west, listening to country and western music on the radio and occasionally tuning in to the local preachers. I found their fiery and colourful language entertaining and I did not take their fundamentalism seriously - even their dire warnings against the Catholic Church. If they spoke on social issues it was to warn against the machinations of Wall Street and the banks.

But now their reach has been magnified with the growth of the fundamentalist churches and their ability to tap into funds from donors and big publishing houses. Their message can be heard over 2,000 Christian radio stations and scores of TV stations (TV preachers are called televangelists). On my most recent visit to the US their messages came blasting out of the car radio: the end is nigh, the signs are there to be seen if you lift the scales from your eyes, Christ is coming, be ready for the rapture.

On social issues they are deeply conservative and echo the right-wing radio shock jocks who frequently support Israel, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, endorse capital punishment, are critical of the EU and the UN and oppose gun laws.

But by far the oddest manifestation of the rapture can be found on the Internet at www.raptureready.com. This regularly updates its rapture index from signs true believers detect in the daily headlines. As the end draws ever nearer, it recommends those believers convinced they will be taken up into the sky to leave messages on the fridge door for those doomed to stay behind.

One segment questions whether Jesus would vote Republican, presuming he must be an American. Examining the policies of the Democratic Party, it comes down very strongly against this option. The Republicans are far from perfect, it concludes, but they would get Jesus' vote. It closes with the message: Vote Republican and Vote Often. In the US, this bizarre site is the second most popular on the Internet.

Political clout

A substantial group of voters with an apocalyptic view of the future and influenced by their fiery pastors attracted the attention of the conservative right wing of the Republican Party. They sensed an opportunity among rural and working-class people repelled by the excesses of the 60s and uneasy about where America was going and they were right.

The Republicans successfully targeted disaffected Democrat voters in the two Reagan elections but with George W. Bush the Christian right found a presidential candidate after its own heart. Bush had converted to evangelical Christianity in Texas in 1984, at the age of 40.

Bush opened his successful campaign for the presidency in 1999 with a speech at Bob Jones University where he got a rapturous reception from the students. The intellectual calibre of the university can be seen in a description in 2000 by its president, Bob Jones III, of Mormonism and Catholicism as 'cults which call themselves Christian' while other campus leaders have described Pope John XXIII as the 'anti-Christ' and the Catholic Church as 'satanic' and 'the Mother of Harlots.'

Bush also authorised a vicious campaign against his Catholic rival for the Republican nomination John W. McCain which knocked him out of the race. Once in the White House President Bush responded to his political supporters by banning US Government aid to international family planning groups that provide abortion or counselling and signed further anti- abortion legislation. Breaking with US tradition which draws a constitutional line between church and state, the President authorised the grant of $Ua1.1 billion to faith-based groups that provided social services. None of these funds went to Jewish or Muslim organisations and the grant was seen as largely benefiting Christians.

The born again American right has also forged an alliance with right wingers in Israel, which they firmly believe must be preserved and supported by Divine Right as the Land of the Bible. Despite the perils from suicide bombings, hundreds of thousands of American evangelicals visit Israel each year, bringing with them billions of dollars in tourist revenue.

They also provide the Israeli right with a powerful US lobby. In 1998 Reverend Jerry Falwell organised an effective campaign to discourage President Clinton from pressuring Israel to withdraw from the West Bank of the Jordan. The slogan for this was 'Not Another Inch.' When President Bush asked the then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to take his tanks out of Jenin in 2002 he received 100,000 angry e-mails from fundamentalists and never mentioned the issue again.

It is an alarming thought that these people who believe Israel should expand into the biblical lands (most of the Middle East)may be influencing the American agenda in this troubled region.

Other Christians and the rapture

It is worth noting that the rapture is not a matter of Catholic-Protestant disagreement; not one of the major leaders of the Protestant Reformation - Luther, Calvin, Zwingli - ever taught such a doctrine. They would have found it as unbiblical as does the Catholic Church.

Today all but the fundamentalist Christian churches ignore the concept of the rapture. Most bible commentaries, dictionaries and encyclopedias do not even list 'rapture' in their indexes. But the rapture believers continue to press their case, backing it with carefully selected biblical quotations. The same bible, when read by Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and mainline Protestants, tells no such story.

A trenchant critic of rapture promoters is Barbara R. Rossing, a New Testament scholar and an associate professor at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. She maintains that the rapture is a fraud of monumental proportions, as well as a disturbing way to instill fear in people.

'The rapture is a racket,' she wrote in the first sentence of her recent book The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in thee Book of Revelation. 'Whether prescribing a violent script for Israel or survivalism in the United States, this theology distorts God's vision for the world.

'In place of healing, the rapture proclaims escape. In place of Jesus' blessing of peace making, the rapture voyeuristically glorifies violence and war. This theology is not biblical. We are not raptured off the earth, nor is God. No, God has come to live in the world through Jesus. God created the world, God loves the world, and God will never leave the world behind!

Catholics and the End Time

In Glorious Appearing, the last of the End Time series" the climax is the battle between the armies of Christ and those of the Antichrist at Armageddon or Megiddo - south of the Lake of Galilee in the Plain of Jezreel. Christ appears out of the heavens at the head of his army, mounted on a white horse. He wears a brilliant white robe with written on the thigh the words KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. Following him into battle are the armies of heaven, clad in white linen and riding white horses.

As Christ speaks, his enemies (the soldiers of the Unity Army and presumably God's creatures) fall down dying in agony, blood erupting from their bodies and forming lakes, rivers and swamps across the land. More words and a chasm opens beneath the feet of the leaders of the army, then as they fall shrieking into the pit, the earth closes above them.

Can a Catholic recognise Christ, the Prince of Peace, in this? I suggest not.

Warning of the dangers arising from the End Time books,the Catholic Bishops of Illinois say the series 'reinforces an unhealthy and immature belief in a harshly judgmental God.' They call on those responsible for faith formation 'to provide planned, coherent and informed catechesis to all age groups about church teachings on the end of the world, based on Scripture and tradition.

The American Bishops' document on the series makes these points:

  • Any fundamentalist reading of apocalyptic Scripture is not Catholic teaching. Many of the End Time books contain a quotation from Revelation as an epilogue. The familiarity of these ingredients can lead people to assume that the series reflects biblical truth. Not so!
  • A 'second chance' at salvation is not biblical. There is simply no basis for a time during which people judged unfit for heaven can make good. Judgement, we are told, will be swift and final. We will all, at the same time, receive the final judgement (Matt. 13: 17-43).
  • The Left Behind books' harsh and judgmental image of God reinforces a common stereotype of God as a judge on a throne watching each person's every move. In the books, God's judgement seems harsh and focused on small sins, as if perfect behaviour is required of us.
  • The theology of suffering is not Catholic. The escape of 'good' people and innocent children in the rapture, excusing them from years of tribulation, suggests that the virtuous should be excused from suffering. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting Scripture, says the entire Church will suffer tribulation before the return of Christ.
  • The Left Behind books deny the efficaciousness of Baptism. In the series people are saved at a specific moment by saying a verbal formula. In contrast with this born again version, the Catholic Church teaches that salvation is a process effected in the sacraments of initiation and continuing throughout Christian life.
  • The Left Behind series is both subtly and overtly anti-Catholic. It has had a large impact on the culture of 21st century America. By misleading people to fear the return of Christ rather than to wait in joyful hope, Left Behind theology can be a danger to the Church and especially to impressionable youth. Pastors and religious educators should be prepared to counteract the confusion these books may cause in the minds of Catholics.
  • The prominent American Catholic scholar Dr Paul Thigpen warns that Catholics need a more careful catechesis to help them avoid the problems of the rapture trap. In this way, he says, they can embrace a more Catholic vision of the end time that focuses on renewal, reconciliation and hope instead of believing, as the rapture doctrine does, in destruction, separation and vengeance.
  • Older male readers of Annals Australia may recall Victorian adventure books for boys by Charles Kingsley and C.A. Henty; often these were the only books available in poorly stocked libraries. Kingsley (1819-1875) was an Anglican clergyman then Professor of History at Cambridge. He had immense success with his novel Westward Ho!, first published in 1855, about the Elizabethan sea captain Sir Francis Drake and his crew of sturdy young Devon men fighting and humiliating the wicked and cruel Spanish in Latin America, The book is packed with historical inaccuracies and anti- Catholic prejudice.

    Henty (1832-1903) was a soldier and an adventurer before he took up writing, often turning our three or four books for boys each year. Typical Under Drakes Flag, which fo1lows the course set br Kingsley, with Drake and his brave lads in an orgy of destruction and looting in Spain's American colonies plus a strong anti-Catholic theme. Long forgotten in Britain and Australia, these books have recently enjoyed a new lease of life in the United States where Henty is a big seller among the Christian Right. The market for them is the one million-plus 'home schoolers' whose parents have taken them out of the state educational systems from religious considerations, distrust of educational fads or fear of shootings. Despite their anti-Semitism, overt racism and glorification of violence, Henty's books sell because buyers believe they represent 'true' history rather than history re-written according to the criteria of political correctness. If we consider this bizarre, ask yourself how many people you know believe every word of The Da Vinci Code to be true?

— Kevin Hilferty is a Sydney journalist with an interest in English Catholic history and is a regular contributor to Annals Australia.

From "Annals Australasia"June 2006

Portal to all Annals Australasia and Dr Leslie Rumble files


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