The Rapture Racket

by Bill Berkowitz

Z magazine, February 2005


The rapture is a racket," writes Barbara R. Rossing in the first sentence of her recently published book The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Westview Press, 2004). Rossing, a New Testament scholar and an associate professor at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, maintains that the Rapture is a fraud of monumental proportions, as well as a disturbing way to instill fear in people.

"Whether prescribing a violent script for Israel or survivalism in the United States, this theology distorts God's vision for the world," Rossing writes. "In place of healing, the Rapture proclaims escape. In place of Jesus's blessing of peacemaking, the Rapture voyeuristically glorifies violence and war .... This theology is not biblical. We are not Raptured off the earth, nor is God.

What if the "Book of Revelations" doesn't spell doom and gloom? What if it doesn't mandate the death, destruction, and annihilation of all but true believers? What will Rapture-mongers do?

Reverend Tim LaHaye and his co-author Jerry Jenkins are as responsible as anyone for taking the Rapture mainstream. Their Left Behind series of apocalyptic novels has sold nearly 60 million copies and for several years has been a regular staple of fiction bestseller lists across the country. The final book in the 12-volume series, Glorious Appearing, was released last spring and quickly found its way onto the bestseller lists.

LaHaye-a longtime religious right political leader, who cofounded the Moral Majority in 1979-does the novels' imagining, while Jenkins, the author of more than 100 books, including Out of the Blue with former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser and Just As I Am, Rev. Billy Graham's memoir, does the writing.

The phrase left behind derives from "the Christian fundamentalist belief in the Rapture [also known as the End of Days] that is, at the sound of a trumpet, Jesus will soon appear in the clouds to take believers up to meet him, thus escaping the horrible calamities foretold in the Book of Revelations," writes Guy Manchester in Freedom Writer. Manchester, the author of Acts of the Apostles, a novel about theocracy in the U.S., maintains that Rapturists believe that those who aren't lifted up will be left behind to suffer the consequences of "the Great Tribulation," a seven-year period, the last three and a half years of which will contain great suffering and devastation. Jews, among others, will be left behind to suffer, but before it's over "144,000 of them will accept Jesus as their savior. The rest will perish."

For millions of true believers the Rapture is a glorious prospect. Some fundamentalist Christians see the war in Iraq and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as a foreshadowing of the coming of the Rapture and as a way to speed up the end of times. The Rapture scenario is what many believe drives evangelical Christians to demonstrate their unwavering support for Israel. Rossing writes, "... the new movement of 'Christian Zionism' is a militant all-or-nothing kind of Zionism that scripts Israel as a player in the dispensationalist Christian endtimes drama in a way that baffles even Israelis."

"They [the Left Behind books] are instilling this terrible fear in children that people are going to be left behind. It is not biblical. There is no Rapture in the Bible," Rossing told Rutherford Institute's John Whitehead.

"9/11 was a wake up call to America," LaHaye told Morley Safer in his "60 Minutes II" interview. "Suddenly, our false sense of security was shaken. Now we realize we're vulnerable. And that fear can lead many people to Christ."

"I see many signs of the Lord's return. This could be the generation that's going to hear Jesus shout from the heaven and we'll respond to be with him. And you don't want your loved ones to be left behind," he pointed out.

In her interview with Whitehead, Rossing turns the tables on the Rapture faithful who see death, annihilation, and years of terror: "I was on '60 Minutes' 1111] with Tim LaHaye. He said that liberals have created this loving, wimpy Jesus and that we need the judgmental, warrior Jesus. The big question now is what is the true image of Jesus? A loving Jesus is not wimpy. A loving Jesus is precisely who Jesus is and that is how he is portrayed in the Gospels."

Rather than scare the living daylights out of folks, the "Book of Revelation" actually aims "to comfort and inspire Christians to a vision of hope," Rossing stated. "In the early Roman Empire, when it looked like violence was getting out of hand-much like things today-it was a message to people that the empire would not last much longer and that the emperor was not the one in charge of the world. Jesus is in our midst, but He is not the avenging warrior Jesus. Jesus is the lamb who is leading us to a different way of life-one espousing love."

The Left Behind series has helped launch an extraordinarily profitable cottage industry where there's no shortage of new products and spin-offs: Left Behind II: Tribulation Force-the second Left Behind movie starring Kirk Cameron -is now available on DVD; the Left Behind Prophecy Club is a fee-based website and newsletter designed "to help people understand how current events may actually relate to end times prophecy";

"In a world where madmen rule, the voice of God will not be silenced," reads the promotional blurb for Jerry Jenkins's latest novel titled Silenced (book two in the SOON trilogy).

For those looking for Rapture scorecards, webmaster Todd Strandberg has created the Rapture Index, which he playfully calls a "Dow Jones Industrial Average of End Time activity." The Rapture Index tracks a number of indicators aimed at gauging how bad things are on earth. Included in the mixed bag of categories are:

* False Christs
* Satanism
* The Mark of the Beast
* The Anti-Christ
* Stats on unemployment, inflation, interest rates, and oil prices
* Drug use, liberalism, and civil rights

Two weeks after 9/11, "the index hit an all-time high of 182... as the bandwidth nearly melted under the weight of 8 million visitors," Time magazine reported. As of late December, the Index stood at 153, down four points from the year's high. The Index's record low number was 93 and was registered December 12, 1993, the end of Bill Clinton's first year as president.

Comparing the theme of the Left Behind series to ethnic cleansing, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote: "If a Muslim were to write an Islamic version of Glorious Appearing and publish it in Saudi Arabia, jubilantly describing a massacre of millions of non-Muslims by God, we would have a fit." Kristoff added, "It's disconcerting to find ethnic cleansing celebrated as the height of piety."


Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer coveting conservative movements.

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