Saturday, 21 May 2011

Apocalypse Not Now: Nothing to be Rapturous About

It is all too appealing to have a laugh at the expense of the followers of Harold Camping, head of the Family Stations Christian radio network, who has predicted that the "Rapture", the first stage of the biblical Apocalypse set out in the Book of Revelations, will take place today. Revelations, traditionally written by St John, but more likely by a number of different authors, is a confusing, dream like book packed with allusions and illusions, mostly relevant to early Christians who were themeselves expecting the world to end imminently over nineteen centuries ago.

According to the Gospels, Jesus spoke of a Day of Judgment , predicting it would happen in the lifetimes of his followers, and couching it in suitably fiery language subsequently used to justify all sorts of atrocities:
"The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matthew 13, 40-43)  and "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!" (Luke 12, 49)

By the Rapture theory, created by a Church of Scotland Minister Edward Irving around 1830, all true believers will be taken up to Heaven just before all this nastiness begins. The rest of us who are "left behind" will then be subjected to great tribulations and violence as the so-called End Times gather pace up to Judgement Day, when Jesus Christ will return and judge those who can go to Heaven (after first living with Jesus on a restored Earth - the New Jerusalem) and those due to suffer the eternal torments of Hell.

It is tempting to dismiss these as wacky ideas on the fringe of religion, easily rebutted by a range of sarcastic activities such as the Post-Rapture party organised on Facebook, or music concerts across the States peppered with "subject to change" notices for events on Sunday. Likewise, some people are ready to make a point - such as non-believers advertising "Gone with the Rapture on Saturday? Can I have your stuff please?" while, more exploitatively, some are making a tidy sum out of offering to look after cats and dogs that are "Left Behind" when their owners ascend.

But this sort of phenomenon can not be set aside so easily. Not only is it tragic that some clearly vulnerable people are taken in by this - the pregnant woman grieving that her unborn child may not be saved; the man who cashed in his life savings to warn others of the impending apocalypse; the terrified mother who slit her children's throats and wrists - it is also the case that, according to one Newsweek poll, as many as 55% of Americans believe in the Rapture at some point soon. Most of these believers also firmly think we are now in the End Times and the consequences, given the well-organised machinery of the wealthy and profoundly conservative American evangelical movement, are deeply political and deeply damaging to the struggle against the very real threats to our species and planet.

As the world faces genuine resource depletion and environmental degradation, many evangelical Christians warmly embrace the destruction, seeing it all as proof of their prophecies and the culmination of their hopes. And these beliefs are transmitted into policy through many in the US Government - as far back as the 1980s, Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, testified to the U.S. Congress that protecting natural resources was unimportant as, given that Judgement Day was imminent, they would not be required anyway. To the incredulity of listening Congressmen, he declared that, 'After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.' 

This is a far from isolated example, with evangelicals deriding many attempts to conserve the environment or seek international peace and disarmament. Ever since the Moral Majority of the late 1970s promoted Ronald Reagan as a "born again" Christian candidate, it has been almost impossible for a non-evangelical to get anywhere in Presidential politics. Some, like Clinton, have exaggerated their beliefs, but Bush Jr held close to evangelism throughout his Presidency, by his own account believing that he received the instruction to attack Iraq directly from God. Barak Obama's more relaxed approach to his faith was infamously used by his evangelical opponents to make a range of assertions from his being a secret Muslim to being the anti-Christ. And these have had an impact - with 18% of Americans believing he is a Muslim according to one poll last August, a figure that rose to one in every three Republican voters. 

And as for the Anti-Christ rumour? It may seem bizarre, but it has been covered and analysed by national news networks, used by the Republicans to whip up Christian votes and, of course, been plastered all over the internet.  Take a look at the video at the end of this blog - Americans live in truly superstitious times. Exchange even the briefest messages with US Evangelicals, as I have done through this blog, and you will soon be told Obama's policies on healthcare, tax and the environment are the work of Satan and yet more signs of the truth of apocalyptic prophecy.

Not all dogs go to heaven after all....Evil puppy!
Especially in the Middle East, the evangelicals are at work, desperately undermining any attempts at a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Believing the Al-Aqsa Mosque should be demolished and the ancient Jewish temple of Jerusalem rebuilt on its site as part of the Apocalypse prophecy, the Christian Zionist movement within American evangelism has advocated and even contributed to funding the appalling wall that has been constructed around the Palestinians on the West Bank.
Many additionally believe a range of supposed prophecies which identify the restoration of Israel to its Biblical age borders and a great conflagration with its neighbours as important steps on the path to Rapture and Judgement, things to be helped along rather than guarded against. Consequently, they lobby hard and generally successfully for American political and military aid to Tel Aviv.

So this extreme mode of religion closely informs the politics of the most powerful and destructive nation on the Earth. With one in twenty of the world population but gobbling up almost a third of the Earth's resources, the USA is absolutely critical to the survival of our planet as a place habitable by humans and other species of life. It needs to take the lead in environmental action, on cutting pollution, recycling, reducing consumption and distributing fairly.

What those who oppose them struggle to get our heads round is that, in the Evangelicals' Universe, environmental collapse, wars, terrorism and disease are not to be eschewed or regretted. Rather, they are to be embraced, full-on as we race towards what they see as the glorious destiny of all true Christians. Nearly 40% of Americans in a recent survey believe the Japanese earthquake and tsunami were visited on Kobe because Japan, to them, is a godless nation. With nearly 50% of Americans believing they are a special people in God's eyes, Evangelical America is a real threat to all of us, particularly as the USA's inevitable economic and military decline in the coming decades will clearly challenge this deeply held belief.

So, as those of us who deride the nonsense of Mr Camping smugly sip a glass of wine or two this evening, we would nevertheless do well to keep a relatively sober view of the power of the belief in the Apocalypse, and both the ardent desire and all too real ability of many Americans to make one happen, whether God is ready or not.


  1. I feel I should point out that you're misrepresenting Evangelicals here. As a British Evangelical who is an active member of the Green Party, I find that the vast majority of those I know who share my faith agree that we have a duty to protect the environment. This is a concern shared by a growing number of American Evangelicals - particularly in the younger generation.

    Yes, my American counterparts still have a tendency towards Republicanism (mostly because of the issue of abortion - if you believe the foetus to be a human being, and the issue of abortion has been politicised, of course you're inclined to the pro-life party), but they shouldn't be written off as right-wing reactionaries just because the ones who get the most media coverage are.

    Incidentally, it's worth pointing that a lot of Evangelicals know that the Rapture, as commonly described isn't in the Bible, but that there is a verse that specifically says that nobody will know the day or hour of the second coming.

  2. I would be the last to seek to stereotype entire communities of people and I quite accept not all evangelicals think the same things. It is a fairly broad term encompassing a range of organisations.

    However, it is I feel correct to say that all the surveys of opinion in the USA as well as the evidence of the views advocated by many preachers in the American evangelical community do in fact square very much with what I've put down: check the links on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami and you will see that evangelicals were very substantially more of the opinion that these were ordained by God as an act of punishment. And likewise, Evangelical churches have been at the forefront not only of pro-life campaigns, but anti-gun control and anti-environmentalist ones too. The Christian Zionist movement is firmly rooted in the evangelical tradition and there are many aspects of evangelical belief, such as personal revelation and faith being more important than the trational rules of Christianity, which reinforce the beliefs of the people I have written about.

    But of course I certainly accept that not every last Evangelical thinks that way - as you yourself are proof of. Though in consequence, you might find some of these people questioning whether or not they would accept you as part of their Communion.