FIVE years ago, rumours spread around the globe that — according to an ancient Mayan calendar — the world would come to an end in December 2012.
Over the past 2000 years, there have been hundreds of confident predictions of the same kind, all of which have, to date, come to nothing. One of the most famous was in 1844, when the Millerites (followers of the American prophet William Miller) prepared confidently for Judgement Day.
In 2011, a radio evangelist, Harold Camping, used the supposed date of Noah’s flood to predict that Judgement Day would be 21 May. Like Miller, he convinced an army of followers worldwide to prepare for the end, sell all they had, and travel the world to warn others. When judgement day passed uneventfully, his followers — like the Millerites before them — were left disillusioned and disappointed (News, 25 May 2011).
In the church calendar, Advent is the time to prepare to celebrate Jesus’s First Coming, and an opportunity to think about his promised Second Coming. In some Christian traditions, however, eschatology — the study of the final days — is the dominant theological focus almost all the year round. The biblical texts found in the books of Daniel, Revelation, and Jeremiah, and in St Paul’s epistles, are studied in greater detail than any other, and related to Christ’s words from Matthew 24.
AT THE start of the Christian era, most of the new followers of Jesus Christ expected an imminent revelation of the glory of God. Christ would return in majesty, and there would be the great and ultimate reckoning. “In truth I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming with his Kingdom,” Jesus promised in Matthew 16.
St Paul also encouraged the first Christians to expect the end times sooner rather than later: “We who remain alive be taken up in the clouds . . . to meet the Lord in the air,” he tells the Thessalonians (1. Thessalonians 4).
This is the passage much quoted by believers in an event known as “the rapture”. It is thought of by many as a “Beam me up” moment for Christians. They will suddenly vanish — dematerialise — from this earth, and be taken to another place. There is even debate about whether the chosen will rise in their clothes, or leave behind little piles of clothing where they last stood.
To reinforce this particular understanding of scripture, there is now a genre of Christian fiction which takes the rapture as its theme. The Left Behind series of bestselling novels describes the rapture from the perspective of an airline pilot and his crew. They are flying at more than 30,000 feet above the Atlantic on their way to London, when the cabin crew notice that some passengers are missing, and find seats that are empty apart from piles of clothes. Given the scope in the story for special effects and graphics, the book has, not surprisingly, also been turned into a film and a computer game.
This “Left Behind” understanding of “rapture” is relatively modern, however, and it is not an agreed or mainstream Christian teaching. Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians received no special attention for 1700 years, until verses 15 to 18 were plucked from their relative obscurity and popularised — largely through the teaching of John Nelson Darby — in the early 19th century. Since then, the rapture has found a home within almost all Protestant movements that have focused their teaching on the idea that the Second Coming, or Judgement Day, is very close.
The idea is central to the doctrine of several large Christian groups, such as the Assemblies of God, the United Pentecostal Church, and the Southern Baptist Church, who accept it as an indisputable biblical teaching.
There remains, however, much discussion about the timetable. In particular, will the rapture occur before the period of suffering (“the tribulation”), or some time during it? The pre-tribulationists believe that all Christians, including those who have already died, will be raptured and go to heaven at the start.
Pre-Wrath Tribulationists say that the rapture happens only once the end times are under way. Seventh Trumpet Tribulationists believe that the rapture will occur at the sound of the Seventh Trumpet. The Mid-Tribulationists say that the believers will have to endure at least half of the tribulation before being allowed to escape; and the Post-Tribulationists believe that Christians will have to wait until it is all over before receiving their eternal reward.
An online Rapture Index brings together all the likely pre-end-time factors — wars, earthquakes, false prophets, and the like — and melds them together into a numerical index, which the compilers describe as “a Dow Jones Index of end-time activity”. It currently stands at 184: 24 points above the level when we are warned by the website to “fasten our seatbelts”.
WHILE Advent is indeed a time to think about such matters, Christianity is such a multi-faceted faith that to become obsessed with eschatology is to take a very unbalanced view of the gospel message. To believe that any individual preacher has special insights into God’s timetable is especially unwise, as many disappointed believers have found in the past. No one, Jesus said, knows the day or the hour, “only the Father”.
To live every day as if it might be your last is always good advice, and the probability is that we will all face our own death before any collective day of reckoning occurs. What will happen on Doomsday, and whether we will be raptured clothed or naked, is speculation best left to the fiction writers.