Note from a Reluctant Christian: Believing in the Rapture Isn't So Crazy

Having been raised by a pastor, I understand why people believe in the impending rapture—even if I don't buy it myself.

In case you haven't heard, today is Judgment Day, at least according to the mathematical calculations of Harold Camping and his Oakland, California-based Christian organization, Family Radio. While I'm not currently a Bible-reading churchgoer, I grew up in the church with a pastor for a father, attended a Christian liberal arts college, and if forced to check a box under "religion,” would probably still identify as a “Christian." So even though I’m repulsed by people using Christianity to support regressive politics and can mostly join in the chuckling at people like Camping, I still find it hard to dismiss them completely.

Despite the fact that Jesus is on record saying no one will be able to predict his return (Matthew 24), Christians have been doing it pretty regularly for the last 2,000 years. Worse still, Camping pulled this rapture stunt almost two decades ago. The belief in an impending rapture isn't that far out of the Christian mainstream. The Pew Research Center found last year that 41 percent of Americans expect Jesus to make a return sometime before the year 2050. The number jumps to 52 percent if you focus just on the Southern United States, and leaps to 58 percent if you narrow the field to white Evangelical Christians only. 

One might think that there's no way more than half of people in the South expect Jesus to return in the next 40 years. Surely these people wouldn't go on living their lives the way they do if they truly believed the world was going to end in their lifetime. If people really believe this, why aren't we seeing them default on loans, quit their jobs, and indulge in all the hedonistic pleasures this mortal coil has to offer before it all goes up in flames? Wouldn't these people at least stop having children? The snarky response says this is another case of Christian hypocrisy and that so-called believers are actually just hedging their bets.

The problem is, in this instance you can’t apply a nihilist rationale to the actions of theists. For starters, if one believes in a rapture or a judgment day, they're usually doing all they can to be on the right team. That means living the pious life in order to get beamed up when the time comes. If you're invested in the idea of a rapture, it's totally counter-productive to do anything but go on living the normal, pious life. Honestly believing that you will be around when Jesus comes back at some point in the next four decades is a little different from finding out that a meteor is hurtling toward Earth or that a worldwide water shortage is imminent.

But holding such a belief—while about as rational as holding the belief that our president wasn't born where he says he was born—isn't altogether crazy. It’s surprisingly easy to end up at this conclusion if Christianity shapes your worldview. The frame through which many 21st -century Christians look at history and the present goes something like: First there was 3,000 years of Biblical history, then came 2,000 years of church history, and here were are living in the now. And when you start asking people about the second coming—something most Christians, not just literalists, believe in—its easy for someone functioning within that paradigm to say, "It has to come at some point. Why not in my lifetime?" It's totally human to believe that such an important part of that narrative may somehow involve them.

I'm a casual baseball fan, and my team is the Chicago Cubs. Despite having a massive fan base, the Cubs famously haven't won a World Series title in 104 years. But if you asked me (and most other Cubs fans) if there was a chance they'd win it all before 2050, I'd bet at least 52 percent would say sure, of course. Ask me what I think the organization can do to realistically assemble a championship team and I wouldn't be able to tell you—my optimism is based on emotion, not rationale. But since I'm a Cubs fan, that's the narrative through which I look at the game.

The world didn't end today, and it probably won't at any point in the next 40 years (fingers crossed for no India/Pakistan nuclear war). And just because 41 percent of us think it will doesn't mean we'll see billboards and bus ads every year. Its not something at the forefront of people's minds, driving their financial and family decisions. Like so many other beliefs systems in our society, the faith in an impending rapture is based more on emotion than rationale. It’s identity politics more than conspiracy theory.


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