Friday, May 20, 2011

NIGHTMARES OF THE RAPTURE

My childhood was marked by fears generated by--of all things--speculative religious eschatology.

HOPE AND FEARING. This latest round of end-times hype brought back memories of childhood nightmares--nightmares and fears of being left behind in "the rapture" or not being ready for the much-anticipated and immediately-expected second coming of Jesus.  Maybe it's worth a bit of explanation of the basis of these fears and how I overcame them.

END TIMES HYSTERIA.  Evangelical hype about the Second Coming was triggered by two events: (1) the formation of national Israel in 1948, and (2) the Six Days War in 1967.  These, along with a speculative interpretation of the word "generation" (as in, "this generation will not pass away" until all is fulfilled).  End times hysteria gained momentum through the 1970's, featuring films like "A Thief in the Night" and "Years of the Beast," and books like Hal Lindsey's bestseller "The Late Great Planet Earth" and, later, Tim LaHaye's "Left Behind" series.  Sermons were filled with scenarios of judgment, Armageddon, nuclear holocaust, left-behind loved ones, and ominous timelines updated with every troubling turn of events.

HEAVY-HANDED SPECULATION.  None of the adults I looked up to ever inferred that any of this was the least bit speculative.  End-times conjecture came across with Gospel-truth finality--complete with guilt, shame, and fear meted by authority figures that were most significant to me.  The message was one of fear, warning people of dire consequences of not being right with God in these perilous end times.  Those who were right with God were stridently pressed to witness to the unsaved (and made to feel that the weight of their loved ones, friends and neighbors eternal destiny rested on their own witness--or failure to do so).  Whatever its real or imagined significance, second coming teaching seemed to have little to do with hope or looking forward.

WAKING UP SCARED.  All this had a powerful impact on a little boy who would wake up in a cold sweat and crying from end-times nightmares.  Though I was an earnest child, my head would be filled with visions of being left behind in "the Rapture" or of the world ending in chaos.  Every small slip-up--every bad attitude--was magnified as a possible factor for being "left behind."  I now realize that the real and ever-present specter of nuclear holocaust combined with this incessant end-times preaching had a profound impact on my childhood and life.

WRONG AND DAMAGING. In retrospect, I am convinced that most of this dimension of preaching and teaching was--and is--neither Biblically defensible nor emotionally sound. It was profoundly wrong for responsible people to present and use it in the manner it was.  The damage it is has caused at both personal and social levels is profound.  I will address both these in a subsequent blog post.

REJECTING SPECULATION.  For the sake of Biblical integrity, I reject speculative prophecies.  I turn away from those who use shallow conjecture, proof-texting, fantastic theories and numerology in relationship to this much-maligned touchstone of Biblical faith.  I cannot single-handedly rescue and redeem the doctrine of the second coming.  I commend all who seek to correct and clarify it so that it may draw people of faith forward in confidence and faithfulness to the present generation (Rob Bell's recent book Love Wins is such a corrective; and I can recommend others).

DAILY ADVENT, DAILY GRACE.  After those childhood days, I now choose to not focus as much on what might happen at the end of history, whenever that may be--near or far (and I think a good case can be made from the Bible that is as likely far as near).  Instead, I focus mostly on the grace that is present--in history and in our own histories--here and now.  Grace is a daily advent.  God's presence comes near in surprising, inspiring, comforting, challenging, insight-giving, barrier-breaking, bridge-building, neighbor-loving, transforming ways.  Grace is a confirmation of God's presence, of divine possibilities, and an anticipation of a certain transcendent future.  Grace is breaking into history afresh today.  Perhaps, it will break through in some small ways via the likes of us.


2 comments:

  1. Jennifer Veldman10:52 AM

    Interesting, John. I always felt like I was somewhat tortured by this end-times stuff growing up, too, but I think you had it much worse. My parents had some healthy skepticism even though they were fairly new Christians then, and that softened things somewhat.

    I've always wondered why the very conservative like to heap guilt on people by saying if they don't witness to someone, they might be responsible for that person going to Hell. That is not scripturally defensible, and no just God is going to send someone to Hell because of something another person did. I wish those with passion to make a lot of motivating noise would carefully think out the implications of their appeals and arguments - those that have no real basis in sound theology can be terribly damaging ... as we see right now when one false prophet can make a lot of Christians look foolish in the public eye. Thankfully, it seems like most Christians I've heard from don't buy it for a second, so I'm very glad. See you next week :)

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  2. Anonymous1:51 PM

    Good for you for getting over your fears. I have always had/have it in the back of my head. Especially with all the crazy, horrible things happening in the world. I fear the end and selfishly hope it isnt nearing because as a young woman in my 20's, I want to enjoy getting married and experience having a child. Would God take those things away from his children? I always feel guilty when I think 'selfish' thoughts of living my life to the fullest. Those movies "Left behind" not only scared me as a child, but as an adult. Last year when Harold Camping said May 21 then again Oct 21, both days I was on edge....waiting for 6pm (I figured out that where I live the time changes would be 6pm. After 6pm came and went I wondered why God would want us all to feel this pain and fear? I love him and accepted him into my heart a long time ago and continue doing it when I pray....but like you said, what about my loved ones? My family and friends who may not believe that this will happen? Will they die a torturous death such as getting their heads cut off? OR will they fear dying and accept the devil?

    Sorry to rant, but I thought I would share my thoughts. again, good for you for getting over your fears!

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