One of the more popular doctrines to have permeated the evangelical and fundamentalist communities is a concept known among theologians as dispensationalist premillennialism. For the rest of us, we call it the “rapture,” or the “pretribulational rapture.” This particular little bit of Christian culture owes much to the more fundamentalist side of the Christian coin, and is easily one of the first major cracks I noticed in my own fundamentalist world.

The first time I heard of the “rapture” was as a child, as presented by my then-teenage elder brother. He told me that he had learned that one day all of the Christians of the world would disappear into the sky and taken away by Jesus before the great antichrist comes to take over the world. Then, a few years later, God would pour out his anger into the world and those left behind would endure seven years of hell on earth.

As I recall, my eyes glazed over at the notion. At first, it was a completely silly idea. It sounded to my ten- or eleven-year-old mind as if he was describing a massive emergency “beam-out” by the Starship Salvation. Or something.

That was then.

Years later, as I fully embraced my fundamentalist world, I concluded — for a time — that the rapture would have to be a part of my pantheon of understanding. Like the good Christian that I was, I would commit to memory the passages that told of the great “catching away” that was to be interpreted as the “rapture:”

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18, NIV)

And:

That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. (Matthew 24:39b-41, NIV)

Naturally, these passages are taken a bit out of context. The Matthew 24 text, when put back into its literary context, suggests that those who are “taken” are taken to be killed:

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.  (Matthew 24:36-39a, NIV)

The flood took them all away and killed them. So it will be at the day of the Lord… but hey, who’s counting? We don’t need context, do we?

Then there’s the 1 Thessalonians passage, which is undeniably about the resurrection, which Scripture says will happen at the end of time. Not a “rapture.”

I could debate all of these passages until I’m blue in the face, but there would really be no point. To the fundamentalist, the doctrines are as important as the Scripture (although they’d deny it). The rapture is one of the 16 points of core “truths” of the Assemblies of God. To the Baptists, it’s just fact. To most nondenominational churches, it’s a sure thing.

The history of the doctrine of the rapture is surprisingly recent. It began with a young woman in 1830 by the name of Margaret McDonald, who dreamed one night that she saw the Lord in the air and countless Christians flying up to meet him as he took them away. Her spiritual mentor, John Darby, took this to heart, and began to teach it.

Even still, it didn’t really take root until it was printed as part of the Scofield Study Bible in the early 20th century. When Hal Lindsey came along in the 1970s, he popularized the idea even further with his book of the end, The Late Great Planet Earth, that was filled with predictions that never came to pass.

Just when the world of rational theology was hopeful that the rapture would finally start a decline, the Left Behind books hit the shelves. Later, a film came along with former child star Kirk Cameron as its star. The popularity of this ‘rap’ was going nowhere but up. Fast.

There’s one major element that bothered me about the rapture. It wasn’t the science-fiction attempt at theology. Nor was it the “earth is doomed, so let’s see who might be the antichrist” nonsense. It certainly wasn’t the hysteria that we saw with Harold Camping’s latest prediction of the rapture that passed without incident — It’s 1988. No, it’s 1991. Now it’s 1999. Wait, no. I meant 2011. May 21st, to be exact. Or was it the 24th? No, really. It was October 21st. Okay, fine. It’s tomorrow morning before breakfast. Gosh, maybe the Mayans were right after all.

If we believe that the Lord will return in glory, then another question arises. Jesus is coming here. If Jesus is going to take us away, where exactly are we going?

What bothered me most was the fact that the teaching of the Rapture is so diametrically opposed to the teachings of Christ and the the Bible, that it should have been rejected out of hand the moment John Darby first heard of it.

It is, at its very core, a doctrine that is completely and totally self-centered. “Jesus will save ME from anything bad happening to me!” “I’m a Christian, so I’ll be raptured out before things start getting bad!”

What complete tripe. I heard of a pastor from China that once visited a church in Nashville once. On the topic of the rapture, he had a few choice words to say about it. He described the rapture as being completely counter to the Spirit of Jesus.

“Who wants to GO?” He said. “Who wants to leave? We have too much work to do HERE.” He was as passionate as we was terse in his message.

If we American Christians were to attempt to describe the doctrine of the rapture to a believer anywhere that’s not dominated by Christendom, their response to it would generally be either incredulity or outright laughter.

“You think Jesus is going to take you away to keep you from being persecuted?” they might ask. “I’ll be sure to tell that to my sister, whose husband was hanged last week for teaching the Bible.”

The rapture is yet another example of the clean-cut fundamentalism that has lulled the Church into a self-induced slumber. It’s easy to believe in the rapture because it absolves the believer of any responsibility of protecting the environment, or even building relationships with those with whom they disagree on religion or doctrine. After all, what’s the point? They’re not going to be around much longer.

Christianity, on the other hand, is messy. It’s filled with a call to duty; a call to act as a good steward of the environment, our neighbors, and even learn to love those those we don’t like. Jesus said to follow Him, not to look into the sky and wait for an emergency beam-out. Jesus said he would carry us through tribulation, not allow us to escape it.

Jesus didn’t escape tribulation. Neither did Paul. Neither did Peter. In fact, most Christians all over the world endure more in a week than we Americans do in a lifetime.

Our silly American version of fundamentalist Christianity is filtered through such a rose-colored blend of theological excrement and outright fantasy, that we have no clue what real persecution is. Major political movements are pushing to end the government’s “war on Christianity,” when all they’re asked to do is offer birth control in their health care insurance plans. Seriously.

This is what we think of as the beginning of persecution? Adding requirements to HMO options? God help us.

Are we so quick to escape the torture of our own mind to strike fear into the heart of anyone who listens, solely to push a doctrine that belongs in a bad science fiction short story?

Who wants to go? Why should we want to leave, when we have too many people to share the love of Christ with? Why should I want to escape, when so many people around me couldn’t escape their own personal hell?

Why should I get to escape the comfort of my home when people live in boxes across town? Would Jesus really want to “rescue” me from my world of air conditioning when so many around me can barely afford a meal?

The rapture? That’s not Christianity. That’s just the vain wish and hope of a fat, lazy generation that won’t bother to feed the poor.

Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like Sodom:

Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. (Ezekiel 16:49, NIV)

Note: This is part 3 of a series. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

Next time, I’ll talk about how fundamentalism interacts — and doesn’t interact — with the world around them.