Are Americans more enraptured with the Rapture than ever? Seth Rogen's 2013 apocalypse comedy, This Is the End, poked fun at the concept, while the cinematic "reboot" of Left Behind, starring Nicolas Cage, takes it seriously. The bleak HBO drama The Leftovers, developed by Damon Lindelof (co-creator of Lost), explores what life would be like for those left behind after a Rapture-esque event.
The Rapture is a relatively recent idea in church history, as well as a minor theme in Scripture: Many Bible scholars argue that it's not there at all, while descendants of 19th-century dispensationalists see it in passages like 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17; 1 Corinthians 15:51–55; and John 14:2–3. But it has become a fixture in U.S. pop culture, showing up unexpectedly like a thief in the night.
Pop apocalyptic—the larger genre of disaster movies and end-of-the-world scenarios—has been a big business for a long time. It flourished after World War II and during the cold war. Just as Amish romances have provided an evangelical-friendly niche within the larger genre of romance novels, Rapture media allowed Christians to carve out a space within the larger (and quite profitable) genre of apocalyptic. Whereas Amish romance provides a "safer alternative" to bodice-rippers, however, Christian Rapture fare often seems more intent on upping the terror factor than providing toned-down, family-friendly fun.
Take the 1941 evangelistic film The Rapture, produced by Charles Octavia Baptista. In 11 minutes, the film chillingly depicts the chaos to be wrought on earth when the Rapture occurs. The narrator predicts that "speeding trains will plunge unsuspecting passengers into a black eternity as Christian engineers are snatched from the throttle. Operations will be halted midway when believing surgeons are caught up to be forever with the Lord."
Rapture terror hit a new high in 1973 with Thief in the Night. The film combined the tropes of low-budget horror (George Romero's Night of the Living Dead had come out a few years earlier) with dispensationalist anxiety fueled in part by books like Hal Lindsey's The Late, Great Planet Earth. Produced by Russell S. Doughton (The Blob), the 69-minute film terrified audiences and spun off three sequels: A Distant Thunder, Image of the Beast, and The Prodigal Planet.
The Rapture renaissance we enjoy today is probably most indebted to Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins's 16-book Left Behind series (1995–2007), which has sold more than 63 million copies and launched three films as well as video games, parodies, and a 40-installment children's series. The Nicolas Cage treatment of Left Behind is just the latest in a crowded pack of 21st-century Rapture movies. They include Cloud Ten Pictures' Apocalypse franchise, Pure Flix Entertainment's Revelation Road: The Beginning of the End, and the Carman-starring Final: The Rapture, which director Tim Chey said he made to "scare the living daylights out of adult nonbelievers."
While most Christian-made Rapture movies seek to scare nonbelievers into reconsidering Christ, many secular films in the genre aim merely to entertain. Recent comedies such as Rapture-Palooza, The World's End, and the aforementioned This Is the End have mined the apocalypse for laughs.
The ease with which the Rapture has crossed over into secular culture may reflect a broader societal anxiety. The destabilizing effects of two world wars and the cold war, coupled with nuclear fears and worries about technology, infused the 20th century with an existential urgency and expectancy of calamity. When fears of apocalypse—whether by contagion, nuke, robot, zombie, mutated spider, or giant lizard—were everywhere in pop culture, the worldwide disappearance of millions didn't seem farfetched.
It could be, indeed, that the original resonance of the dispensational Rapture among Christians had more to do with the anxious effects of modernity than with its theological merit. "Signs of the times" is a common trope in Rapture narratives, but in a profound sense, the Rapture's popularity is itself a "sign of the times," a byproduct and manifestation of larger societal unease.
Time Is Ticking Away
In dc Talk's early-1990s song "Time Is," the trio sing, "Time is definitely on the go." It's a ubiquitous sentiment in popular culture, and not just among Christians: time is running out. Who would have predicted that in the most secular age in human history—an age in which events are thought to have no ultimate or eternal meaning—a constant sense of apocalyptic dread would loom large?
In A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor talks about the gradual emergence in modernity of a sense of "secular" time as opposed to sacred or "higher" time. In ordinary, secular time, one thing happens after another on a single plane of progression. But before the modern era, "higher times" offered an "organizing field" that gathered, grouped, and imbued ordinary time with meaning. When we lose a sense of the "higher times," writes Taylor, we are cut off from our past and out of touch with our future: "We get lost in our little parcel of time."
The dangers of getting "lost in our little parcel of time" are also noted by media critic Douglas Rushkoff in his book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. Rushkoff argues that 21st-century society is oriented around the present moment. "Narrativity and goals are surrendered to a skewed notion of the real and the immediate; the tweet; the status update," writes Rushkoff. "What we are doing at any given moment becomes all-important."
And yet a byproduct of the focus on the present moment is the rise of what Rushkoff calls "Apocalypto"—a fascination with disaster, doomsday, and zombies. "A seemingly infinite present makes us long for endings, by almost any means necessary."
Our age's "lack of regard for beginnings and endings drives us to impose order on chaos," he writes. "We invent origins and endpoints as a way of bounding our experience and limiting the sense of limbo."
Both Taylor's loss of "higher times" and Rushkoff's burden of the "infinite present" help us understand why we're so compelled by things like the Rapture—or anything apocalyptic. Living in a flattened timescape, we long for moments to take us out of the profane and everyday. In the absence of "higher times," global disasters and narratives of apocalypse stand in as sacred moments that rupture the monotony of secular time. "Where were you when . . . ?" is a question of almost spiritual gravitas for anyone alive on 9/11 or the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Especially since the advent of mass broadcasts of breaking news, we mark time by shared moments of global calamity and terror, existential pauses that give us transcendent perspective.
These are real if perverted expressions of our longing for the "higher" time we've lost, for pivot points in history, for an escape from the present. In a world where there's "nothing new under the sun," where generations come and go "but the earth remains forever" (Ecc. 1:4), we long to be part of an unexpected story, to witness something significant. But must that "something significant" be the earth's fiery end?
Christians of all people need not buy into the prevailing culture's preoccupation with doomsday. Let the world have its apocalyptic versions of the Rapture—Christians have something better. Surely there are movies to be made about not destruction, but resurrection.
Brett McCracken is a film critic for CT and author of Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker Books).
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