For us, the “fundamentals” of the Christian faith — especially the sole authority of Scripture and the saving work of Jesus Christ — were, befitting the descriptive, foundational to how we thought and lived. Part and parcel of that rather distinctive form of American Christianity was a deep, even obsessive, interest in the end times and the Rapture — an event, we believed, which would involve the secret snatching away to heaven of “true believers” prior to seven years of horrific global tribulation. Following two years of Bible college, I began to question key aspects of my fundamentalist beliefs — theological, historical, cultural and emotional — and to consider the teachings of the Catholic Church. Emotional? Yes, because while some beliefs were, for me, adequately addressed through study and logic, certain others were emotionally charged. I found Catholic beliefs about Mary to be both intellectually and emotionally challenging. But most difficult, overall, was my belief in the Rapture and the elaborate theological system — “premillennial dispensationalism” is the fancy term — constructed upon and around it. As hyperbolic as it may sound, it seemed (or felt) like a matter of life or death.
In fact, death first gave me pause about the Rapture and the “left behind” theology. Near the end of my senior year in high school, the pastor at our Bible chapel died of a heart attack. He was a kind and learned man, and his death was a blow to the entire congregation. In the months that followed, I reflected often on how that good man had given many sermons about the Rapture, sharing his belief it would occur during his lifetime. Rapture believers tend to play a passive-aggressive game of eschatological cat-and-mouse, insisting they are part of the Rapture “generation” while dancing around specific dates.
News this summer of the death of Tim LaHaye, creator of the mega-selling “Left Behind” books, gave me occasion to pause and ponder again the attraction of the Rapture. LaHaye was not shy about implying he was part of the to-be-Raptured generation. In his 1998 nonfiction book “Rapture (Under Attack),” he wrote, “My prophetic studies have convinced me that we Christians living today have more evidence to believe we are the generation of His coming than any generation before us.” He described in detail the coming horrors to be experienced by those “left behind” to face famine, war and plague.
As I argued in detail in “Will Catholics Be ‘Left Behind’?” (Ignatius, 2003), the worldview presented by LaHaye and similar end-times prognosticators is marked by three deeply emotional beliefs or attitudes. First, there is fear: of impending doom, of social collapse, of suffering. The latter is especially revealing, for it highlights how fundamentalism struggles to grasp that. While suffering is not part of God’s original desire for humanity, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has transformed suffering and death into a means of real growth and eternal beatitude.
Second, Rapture-believing Christians often have a Gnostic-like belief that they alone have figured out the deepest mysteries of Scripture and salvation history. They have cracked the Bible code — and therefore have earned a nonrefundable ticket of escape from this world. This directly feeds the third attitude, which is a prideful triumphalism toward those who are not “saved.” Catholics, of course, believe that everyone will make a choice for or against God’s gracious gift of salvation, but this is cause for humility and gratitude, aware of our responsibility to work out our own “salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12).
These emotional problems are, I’m convinced, directly tied to both human nature and to the deeply flawed theological premises and assumptions found in premillennial dispensationalism. Trying to separate the two is very difficult, for together they form a deeply insular culture which views any arguments against the Rapture as antagonistic to Scripture and God himself. Thus the Catholic apologist must be aware of the pervasive worldview, recognizing how the intellectual aspect is only one aspect of that worldview — and perhaps not even the most important one.