Most people are familiar with the wacky ideas about the Rapture, where the chosen are whisked away into heaven leaving those behind to face years of carnage in the battle between good and evil. Into this mix are thrown ideas about the AntiChrist leading the forces of evil against the forces of good that culminates in the end of the world. In his new book The Book of Revelation: A Biography, Timothy Beal, professor of religious studies at Case Western Reserve University, explains that although many people think that these ideas about the Rapture emerge from the Book of Revelation, that is not the case.
He says that popular ideas about the Rapture have been brought together from many sources (p. 177-78), and then stitched together with the violent imagery found in Revelation to create a new multimedia entity. He says that many of the key ideas, such as the Antichrist, that believers will be taken up into heaven, and that the book predicts the end of the world are not found in the book itself. In fact Revelation, over half of which borrows heavily from the prophets Ezekiel, Daniel, and Isaiah (p. 45), never even mentions the Antichrist. Instead one of letters of John (the other John, not the author of Revelation) vaguely refers to those who deny that Jesus is the Messiah as ‘antichrists’. This got merged with the mythical ‘Satanic beast’ in Revelation to become the singularly evil, powerful, and capitalized Antichrist.
He likens this cultural distortion phenomenon to what happened with Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein where the original story has been transformed almost unrecognizably by popular culture. For example, many people think that Frankenstein is the name of the monster and not of its creator. Many think he was brought to life by lightning, that he “was hugely tall, with green skin and bolts sticking out if its neck” when there is no such description in the book, and that he was dull and mute when in fact he “is exceptionally eloquent and deeply reflective about his existential predicament”. (p. 10) Beal’s comments about Frankenstein resonated with me. I read Frankenstein only about a decade ago and was struck by how different it was from the ideas that I had absorbed by osmosis from popular culture.
Beal says that what the book of Revelation does best is serve as an ‘othering machine’. The general vagueness of Revelation about who the key individuals represent combined with its powerful and vivid depictions of battles between good versus evil and all manner of torments enable people to place the label of the Antichrist on pretty much anyone they dislike and to find the ‘Mark of the Beast’ (with its associated number 666) almost anywhere. Various people have been identified as the Antichrist (Barack Obama being one of the most recent), as has been the case with ‘The Whore of Babylon’ (Hillary Clinton of course). The othering has even been extended to the point of dehumanizing immigrants, foreigners, and the marginalized and even branding yoga and Buddhist meditation and Chinese medicine as slippery slopes that end up with people worshiping Satan. (p. 154)
Beal says that he grew up as an evangelical conservative in Alaska before transitioning to the progressive liberal Christian tradition he now belongs to. He says that the Rapture stories were told to young people like him via films like The Rapture (1941) and A Thief in the Night (1972) and songs such as “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” (1969) which were all meant to literally scare the hell out of young people. He said that these ideas were promoted in the late 1960s and 1970s by evangelical youth movements such as Youth for Christ, Campus Crusade for Christ, and Young Life, who brought rock music and pop culture sensibilities to religious ideas as a way of making them more palatable to young people. Rapture ideas took off again with the publication of the Left Behind books in the 1990s and films based on them that cemented the idea of a singular powerful Antichrist who does battle with the forces of Jesus.
In Sri Lanka we did have Youth for Christ and Campus Crusade for Christ evangelizing among young people at that time. In contrast to them, I belonged to the Student Christian Movement, which was a politically progressive organization. But the Christian community in Sri Lanka is small and there was much overlap in membership. Many of my friends belonged to the evangelical groups and I attended some of those meetings. (Christian religious groups provided some of the very few opportunities in Sri Lanka when adolescent girls and boys could mix freely without their parents hovering and so they had considerable appeal. My non-Christian friends were somewhat envious that they did not have similar venues to meet girls.) I recall that there were the usual ‘alter calls’ at the end of many programs, where people were invited to stand up, confess that they were sinners, and accept Jesus as their savior. I never did, thinking the whole idea rather silly, and despite the pleas of some of my evangelical friends concerned about the fate of my immortal soul. But I do not recall anything about the Rapture being explicitly mentioned, though we were told of course than not being saved by being born again was a bad thing.
I only learned about the Rapture much later when I came to the US. I am not sure why Rapture ideas were not spread to Sri Lanka. One reason may be that the Cold War and the prospect of nuclear annihilation was much stronger in the US and thus conducive to apocalyptic visions. We had no fallout shelters and ‘duck and cover’ drills in Sri Lanka. Maybe we thought that nuclear war would only be between the US and the USSR and that we would be bystanders. Whatever the reason, Rapture ideas never entered the many conversations we had about religion.