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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Are You Ready for The Rapture?

From 13th-century Europe comes the legend of the Wandering Jew: a hapless figure who, according to the story, mocked Jesus as he was being led to the place of crucifixion. For this ultimate lack of compassion this individual was cursed to walk the earth until the Second Coming. Later embellishments of this story give the man’s name as Ahasuerus – although why Ahasuerus was singled out from the [1]mocking multitudes who lined the way to Golgotha is something which the legend leaves unclear.

At the limits of his strength, Ahasuerus is himself mocked by the very Death which is denied to him.
What the story contains, and what concerns us here, is the unspecified time for Jesus’ triumphal return. Assuming the legend to be true, and with no Second Coming yet in sight, we must also assume that Ahasuerus is wandering still. How unimaginably strange and alienating the experience of witnessing the past two millennia must have been for him. He would have witnessed the growth of a religion which, for all its strength of numbers, has become deeply factionalized into thousands of different denominations, all with their own doctrines which differ from each other - sometimes radically so.

Twisted city: tornadoes demolish San Francisco.
But when will the Second Coming happen? At the time, it was fervently believed that this momentous event would take place within a [2]generation of the events of the crucifixion, in which case Ahasuerus would have lived a reasonably normal if rather lengthy life-span. There were many texts then in circulation about the coming end times, many revelations, all with appropriate signs to watch for that would signal the imminence of the event. As it turned out, only [3]one of these doom-laden texts finally made it into the canon. We know it as the Book of the Revelation of St. John the Divine.

Los Angeles slides into the Pacific Ocean.
That John’s text originally was only one of many such [4]eschatological texts then in circulation says as much about our preoccupation with such scenarios as it does about any specifically religious context. How else to explain our hunger for the sort of graphic scenes that we eagerly watch in any number of blockbuster disaster movies? We look on spellbound (but nevertheless safely nestled in our armchairs) as whole cities are engulfed by mega-tsunamis, by planet-rupturing earthquakes, by collision-course asteroids, by super-volcanoes, or even by out-of-control unreasoning monsters, all of it presented in the convincing fidelity of detail which state-of-the-art [5]CGI technology can now conjure forth.

That something in our nature actually seems to relish these images is evidenced by the box office takings of such films. And human nature being what it is, it’s a hop-skip-and-jump away from placing these things in a religious context – as in a pre-disaster movie age John of Patmos and others of his time actually did. We still have these hankerings for a spiritual disaster scenario. In our own time such a scenario is known as The Rapture.

Yellowstone Park heads skywards as the supervolcano erupts from beneath it.
The Rapture, the bodily ascent of believers into heaven which heralds the Second Coming, is an evangelical Christian concept, the details of which, inevitably, are contested between different evangelical groups. Is The Rapture concurrent with the Second Coming, or will the loyal faithful be raptured up into the realms celestial to greet the returning Christ? There can be no certainties for an event which, by its very definition, is supernatural. Not that certainties are not claimed, of course. Any number of signs for the end times are proposed, and any number of predictions of the precise time and date have been made in the last century and a half. As you are reading this, you can comfortably conclude that all such predictions have proven to be inaccurate.

A contemporary version of John's beast from the sea: the Cloverfield monster attacks New York. 
I will make a modest prediction of my own: The Rapture is like the future. It is and always will be something that is about to happen. I have, you see, a basic objection to the concept itself, and that objection crystalizes in the word ‘selectivity’. Any idea which smacks of spiritual elitism is an idea that needs to be questioningly scrutinized. If only believers who have [6]prepared themselves (specifically: Christian evangelical believers) are going to get raptured up, where does that leave the rest of us? Are all the non-evangelical Christians, Jews, Hindus, Bahais, neo-Pagans, Jains, Taoists, atheists, Buddhists, Sikhs, animists, you name it, going to be cut loose to roam a post-apocalyptic [7]dystopia, guarding precious fuel dumps like they were Fort Knox and praying that Mad Max is out there somewhere?

The bleak highway which Mad Max rides. The future, it seems, is a road to nowhere.
There is another side to this. With me, there always is. In the hypothetical situation of me being offered a ticket to ride (I said it was hypothetical), I assure you that I would turn it down. Somewhere inside me there lives a [8]bodhisattva. I would elect to stay behind and do what I could on earth. And if you are one of those who is getting ready for The Rapture, knowing that in so doing you are preparing yourself to be among the chosen elite who will leave so many of your fellows behind to suffer, then I would suggest that you might discover that heaven could well apply rather different criteria for selection than mere denominational doctrine and Rapture-ready preparedness. Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew who must wait for the Second Coming, could be continuing his wanderings for quite a while yet.

[1] Using the same rationale we must also wonder why Pontius Pilate, the soldiery who scourged Christ, and the entire cynically derisive crowd who chose to free the thief Barabbas were not also visited by the same curse which condemned Ahasuerus. Curses in legend, apparently, are irrationally selective. Another example of such a selective curse is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner (left), whose worldly sufferings seem out of all proportion to his original act of shooting the albatross and thus precipitating the curse against him. Such curses in stories and legends can be devices for both driving a narrative forward and underscoring a moral point.

[2] In Matthew 24:34 Jesus says: "Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled".

[3] At the Council of Nicaea, presided over by Emperor Constantine, The Book of Revelation only just scraped through the selection process to become canonical. With its intense visions both wondrous and bizarre, it has been inspiring artists (myself included), writers and End-of-Days conspiracy theorists ever since.

[4] Eschatology is the study of end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it scenarios from all cultures.

[5] CGI: computer generated image.

[6] A Rapture-Ready Check List: What being Rapture-ready actually entails can involve a whole check list of do's and don't's requirements, with the don't's including: don't sleep around with your girlfriend or boyfriend, don't work on Sunday, don't put the needs of your wife or husband and family before your faith, don't fail to truly repent of your sins, don't commit idolatry (which, as the website Divine Revelations makes clear, includes praying to saints, just to cut out all those idolatrous Catholics) and, rather mysteriously, you apparently can forget about being raptured up if you are merely ‘Worldly or Lukewarm’ (whatever that might mean).

All the stringent requirements (and the Divine Revelations website lists many more than the six I have mentioned here) when taken together would ensure that a negligible minority (if any) of evangelicals would pass muster. And human fallibility being what it is, this in turn prompts the curious scenario of The Rapture happening – and no one actually being raptured up. All in all, this laundry list of requirements catalogued by the Divine Revelations website, which would seem impossible to fulfill by all but the most neurotically stringent and religiously obsessed individuals (who presumably would be considered too unstable to be suitable Rapture candidates anyway), is merely another example of that perennially favourite ploy: a reward-and-punishment system of faith through fear, the ‘fear’ part in this case being the dire consequences of being one of the multitudes who will be left behind in a world which will descend into the stuff of nightmares.

[7] Dystopia: a future dysfunctional society in which the social order has broken down, which is the opposite of the ideal society as originally envisaged in the 16th-century book Utopia by Sir Thomas More.

[8] The Buddhist term bodhisattva has evolved in Western interpretations to mean a soul who declines to enter the bliss of Nirvana, electing instead to remain behind and help other sentient beings.

Elaine Pagels: Revelations: Visions, Prophesy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation. Viking, 2012. Professor Pagels’ book puts John’s text in the context of the times in which he was writing: in the despairing aftermath of the crushed Jewish Revolt, and pointing out that each succeeding generation has seen its own sufferings and trials reflected in John’s visionary writings. The book also makes clear what I have mentioned here: that John’s text was only one of many of its kind then in circulation.

The top image is a detail of the painting Ahasuerus at the End of the World, by the Hungarian artist Adolf Hiremy-Hirschl, 1888. Left behind by the angel of Hope, mocked by an indifferent Death, Ahasuerus struggles on through an icy and forbidding wilderness as scavenging crows scatter around a comotose woman - the desperate epitome of all of fallen humanity. Other images are taken from the feature films: The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, Cloverfield, and the Mad Max online game.

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