Shoes with smoke drifting upward are seen at the bottom of a picture frame, which depicts hands in the sky reach out to three people floating upward into clouds, while masses of people below observe.
The rapture promises that, if godly judgment comes before your death, you’ll be swept away and safe. Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo
Faith-based

Vanished From the Earth

As an evangelical kid, I was terrified of the rapture—and so was everyone I knew. Years after I left the faith, I wanted to understand the power it held over us all.

My grandfather had a painting, never prominently displayed, of a decrepit graveyard in the dead of night. Its tombstones were musty and unreadable. A crypt loomed in the background. From each burial plot, spirits erupted in shafts of light beaming skyward, while a line from First Corinthians was seen at the bottom: In a moment, in a twinkling of an eye. As a child, I would spot this painting—sometimes perched atop an old armoire, other times leaning against a musty old corner—and stare at it, pulled toward it as children are drawn to things that frighten them in ways they don’t fully understand. This was my introduction to the rapture: as a macabre supernatural dream eluding understanding or explanation, looming on the periphery of my everyday life. A painting that was easy for me to find, but too scary to ask about.

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Other evangelical kids I knew growing up would tell me about their own first rapture scares. They were always triggered by mundane things: Somebody came back from school one day and no one was home. Or someone’s parents didn’t answer a phone call the way they normally would have. In an instant, the cosmic outlook we’d been instilled with for our entire young lives would coalesce with shocking clarity: Was this it? Had the rapture happened? Were we going to face judgment alone?

It’s hard to overstate how large the rapture loomed while I was growing up in the evangelical world. As a child, I was taught that I might live to see the end of the world. I learned how to see it coming, too: How the nation of Israel was “God’s timepiece” hitting marks on a prophetic timeline, how the machinations of the Catholic Church and the United Nations would soon come to a head and form a one-world government, how God would be driven out of America’s public square as people looked to other things for salvation.

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This was OK, though, because it meant the end was near and that the faithful would have a reward better than eternal life after death. They’d skip death entirely, raptured before the Earth was allowed to rot in its filth for that era of tribulation before Christ’s return to rule all forever, with the faithful by his side. That part is important: The rapture isn’t just about terror. It’s seduction. Something to feel special about.

In this, the rapture has become a uniquely American fear, and a uniquely American hope. It’s both a widely known bit of Christian mythology—religious and secular pop culture alike have frequently depicted some manner of supernatural event that would cause many to suddenly disappear from the Earth—and a controversial, often-misunderstood topic of theology. It’s a fairy tale used to frighten children and a lullaby for grown adults, including my own parents. I’m no longer waiting for the rapture, and yet I see it everywhere.

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I was about 8 years old when I sat in a church that wanted its congregation to know, in clinical detail, what it was like to die on a cross. The sanctuary of the Florida megachurch—enormous in my memory, but perhaps I am merely recalling my smallness—dimmed its lights that day. Instead of a sermon, we were shown a documentary. Experts told us what the body went through when left to die in such a barbaric manner. It felt like a comic book; the way our faces were rubbed in the color and shape of it.

Behold! The cruelty of the iron spikes sinking into this man’s flesh! The nerves firing in the sustained agony borne by their bite! Imagine the labor of his lungs, which threaten to collapse as his body hangs, supported only by these instruments of unjust affliction! The state of shock the mind endures as a crown of thorns is rammed upon it! Hours upon hours of the death that is life!

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At 8 years old, you might wonder, as I did: What did Jesus think of me? Why did he have to endure all of this when he did nothing wrong? Was it really because of me? I’m so sorry.

For many rapture-believing evangelicals in America, life is bookended by twin traumas. First you are welcomed with what someone endured on your behalf: Christ on the cross, bearing your sins and mine. The wrongs you have committed and the mistakes you have yet to make, all piled on a back bloodied with lashes long before it was nailed to a tree. You are going to mess up, to live a life not worthy of heaven, and therefore Jesus had to die, to right the moral balance and give you the chance to be with him in eternity.

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Then you must confront the trauma that lies at the end of your own mortality. You get asked the question that can haunt you your whole life: Are you saved? If you are, great. Your walk toward heaven begins. If you aren’t, damnation is always there, waiting to swallow you up should you meet an untimely end or find yourself excluded from the church’s supernatural escape.

Saint John the Evangelist on Patmos
Titian, Saint John the Evangelist on Patmos, Italy, circa 1553/1555. Peter Humfrey/Italian Paintings of the Sixteenth Century, NGA Online Editions
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The idea of the rapture emerged from the biblical Book of Revelation, in which St. John has an elaborate apocalyptic vision that eventually ends with Christ’s victory over evil. Thus the rapture warns of a terrible period for humanity in the lead-up to the end of all things, full of suffering, war, and natural disaster like we’ve never seen before. At its core, the rapture is a promise that you will not be here to witness all of that chaos and darkness. Christ will come back to collect the true believers still alive on Earth—hence the familiar cultural imagery of slumped piles of clothes and cars abandoned in the street as believers are snatched away in an instant—to unite them in heaven with the other believers who have already reached the end of their natural life. Everyone else gets to find out how bad things can really get here on Earth, as our species marches to oblivion.

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According to a 2018–19 survey by the Pew Research Center, 25 percent of U.S. adults identify as evangelical. Though data is scarce on exactly what percentage of these Christians believe in the rapture, it’s a core evangelical conviction preached in countless churches across America. (One Pew report from 2011 asserts that 6 in 10 evangelical leaders say they believe in the rapture.) In some ways, accepting the rapture feels like the logical conclusion of the evangelical philosophy: Evangelicalism centers on the born-again conversion experience, the idea that faith in Jesus is the sole path to salvation when judgment comes. And the rapture promises that, if this judgment comes before your death, you’ll be swept away and safe.

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Since no one really knows when it’s supposed to happen, the impending possibility of the rapture is a great way to keep kids in line. The only option you have is to get ready now and live a Christian life. If you just did that, you’d have nothing to fear.

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My father is 51 years old, but he still recalls his earliest impression of church as a child. How loud the preaching was, the “fire and brimstone” of it all. “I got really scared,” he tells me. He was born in Brooklyn, the son of Puerto Ricans who settled in Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem in the ’50s and spent much of their life bouncing around the city as career civil servants.

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He was 8 years old himself when his family converted from a barely practiced Catholicism to a strict form of nondenominational fundamentalist Christianity, a genre of faith that adheres to biblical literalism (this is the “fundamentalist” part) and does not align itself with any of the dominant Christian sects (or “denominations”) like the Presbyterians, Methodists, or Baptists.

Outside of this formal structure, his father, my grandfather, was radicalized by a charismatic preacher in Queens who believed himself to be one of the last bastions of truth in a fallen world. Under his ministry, my grandfather shunned “worldly things”—popular music, television, movies, strong drink, and strong language. He would stock up on nonperishables in preparation for the bad times that would come just before the rapture, when believers would be persecuted by the secular world, and he gathered almost exclusively with other believers.

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One gathering was recorded on cassette tape in the spring of 1979, as my grandparents’ brothers and sisters in Christ sang songs around a piano for hours. You can hear my father, 9 years old, running to the tape recorder to whisper his friend’s name into it. You can hear his friend doing the same and whispering my father’s name back, as their parents fiddled with guitars and tambourines and sang in Spanish with booming voices and gentle harmonies. You can hear my grandmother, her voice thinned by time and shoddy equipment in what must have been a crowded basement. Still, she sounds beautiful. Still, she sounds happy there, among the believers, waiting for the end.

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“The rapture, at that age? It was painted very vivid. It was real, and it is real,” my father tells me now, recalling the church in Queens my grandfather had brought his family to.

The Florida megachurch where I learned about the biological shock of crucifixion at age 8 had been run by white ministers propping up the ideals of middle-class whiteness, but when I was a teenager, my parents started attending a small New York City fundamentalist church with other Hispanic believers. It’s no small thing, hearing the gospel in the language you were raised with.

That Hispanic storefront church in New York is where my ideas about faith were formed and fostered. This is where I tried—really tried, harder than for most things I’ve attempted—to make it work, to be a Christian, to be good. This is where I was told that “trying” really doesn’t have anything to do with goodness; faith does. And so I never stopped asking myself if I had any, and then I left home to go to college in upstate New York and I learned that I did not.

William Miller wasn’t the first American to fix his eyes to the end, but he was the first to give it a date: sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. His followers, now known as Millerites, numbered somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000, all of them convinced to sell their worldly possessions and attend camp meetings, convinced that Christ would finally return for them to whisk the faithful away to heaven and fulfill his final words in the Gospels.

Miller, by some accounts, was a quiet and sincere man who believed his prophecy and faded into obscurity and humiliation when it did not come to pass a second time—after he admitted initial error only to claim the real deadline for Christ’s return would be six months later, on Oct. 22. For six more months, people believed, ready to be snatched away just before judgment’s arrival.

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Millerites didn’t believe in the rapture, per se—Christ’s return and the rapture were not always interchangeable ideas for most of Christian history, although they are now—but their apocalypse yearning has come to signify a particularly American response to times of social upheaval and great change. Over the next hundred or so years, what we know today as fundamentalist Christianity would begin to take shape: the hopes and fears of the Millerites reflected and reborn in various Christian sects across the United States.

Ask most people today about the rapture and you’ll largely be discussing premillennialism, a religious doctrine devised in part by English theologian John Nelson Darby in the 1820s and ’30s and popularized by American religious leaders like Dwight L. Moody, founder of the Moody Bible Institute.

Darby’s most lasting idea, and the root of the modern rapture, is known as dispensationalism—think of it as a sort of geologic timetable, but for God’s dealings with mankind. Darby believed human history could be broken into several eras, or dispensations, during each of which there is a fundamental shift in the relationship between humanity and its maker. The first lasted from Adam until the Great Flood, then another from Noah to Abraham, then Abraham to Moses, and so on, each tied to a scriptural turning point.

What’s important about Darby’s work is that it is largely a way for gentiles to insert themselves into a story mostly by and about Jewish people, to reorient all scriptures as pertaining to white Protestants (non-Catholic Christians) beyond following the teachings of Christ and the literary richness of the Old Testament.

This is where the modern idea of the rapture is born. Having ascribed a scriptural epoch to the Protestant Christians—dubbed the “Church Age”—Darby also had to give his age an ending. The result was a dramatic reinterpretation of a passage in 1 Thessalonians, wherein the true believers are vanished from the Earth just before it descends into chaos and God rekindles his relationship with the Jews willing to accept Christ. A final battle is waged between good and evil, and finally, there is peace.

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The premillennialist view of the scriptures gave Christian leaders an indelible response to a dazzling secular world that was rapidly industrializing: a warning, a secret, a war. Jesus is coming, are you ready? The convenience of it all was fiendishly simple: You cannot believe in the rapture and all of its accompanying theology without also embracing some of fundamentalism’s core tenets—namely, that the Bible should be taken literally. It’s a version of the faith without compromise or accommodation, one that rewards an in-group and shuns all others.

It makes perfect sense that a doctrine of exceptionalism would take root in the land of Manifest Destiny. Just as white Americans saw themselves as the rightful claimants to the fruits of democracy and the free market, American fundamentalism arranged itself around the belief that the church was exceptional, a body of believers with a line to God so secure that he would one day allow them to cheat death.

When I got to college, it didn’t take long for me to feel myself drifting away from religion. I met friends in my dorm who invited me to weekly church services and to groups like the Campus Crusade for Christ (now called Cru). I went a few times. But as I met other Christian kids from different backgrounds, it struck me that many of them were religious out of joy, that they were doing it of their own volition. Meanwhile, I began to feel increasingly like I’d been raised with a religion of anxiety and shame. Out of all the kids my age in our church community, I was the only one who went away to school.

Then a few months after graduation, I went to a Christian youth camp. The sermons in camps like these—usually somewhere remote, sometimes somewhere cold—are generally a special kind of fiery. When the congregants are all young and not particularly concerned with the end of their life, the prospect of the rapture is useful for holding them to strict standards of conduct. I was a bit checked out already; I remember thinking maybe I’d meet a girl there. But this time, camp was different. The minster didn’t speak about the rapture, but about the present and the ways faith could be used by well-meaning people in power to hurt others. He said religion could bring hope but it could also bring trauma, and it was OK to speak of that trauma. This was something I’d been wanting to hear my whole life, something honest, from a minister who wasn’t asking me to dull my senses and pray harder. But that kind of thinking wasn’t welcome there—the minister was reprimanded and not invited back. Years later, I found out that was the last sermon he ever preached before walking away from Christianity entirely.

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Through this lens, I eventually came to believe that Christianity has taken on troubling new shapes in America. That the history taught from pulpits, Christian schools, and politicians has been slowly replaced with hagiography about the religious roots of the American colonies and our destiny as a “Christian nation.” That the language of faith has been used to sway the public into supporting the priorities of corporate America.

Franklin Graham preaching
Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, addresses the crowd at the Festival of Hope, an evangelistic rally held at the national stadium in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 9, 2011. Reuters/Allison Shelley

Then there was my growing sense that contemporary American evangelicalism—that is, as an institution, a relatively unified force in culture and politics—largely exists to prop up white power structures. The most high-profile and vocal evangelicals, with few exceptions, are white men. Pastors from Franklin Graham to Cary Gordon have worked to make the evangelical faith synonymous with their domestic agenda: the preservation of white supremacy and minority rule, the continued privatization of the public sector, the continued marginalization of the LGBTQ community, and victory in the never-ending culture wars.

The media is fixated on those white evangelicals too. Compared with the 25 percent of self-identified evangelicals in America, 16 percent of Americans reportedly identify as white evangelicals: a large chunk, but by no means all. Still, it’s this 16 percent of evangelical Christians who are the implicit subject of countless op-eds and essays that purport to comment on evangelicalism writ large—on evangelicals’ support of the Capitol riot, their resistance to the COVID-19 vaccine, and their role in the rise of Donald Trump. In the mainstream media, Evangelical Christianity has become a shorthand for whiteness gone wrong, a neat scapegoat for a troubling moment in American history that’s hard to understand. All of this flattens the wide spread of what Christianity in America actually is. And the whiteness of evangelism gets laundered through ideas like good old-fashioned values, patriotism, and bootstraps capitalism.

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Evangelicalism is defined in the public imagination by a horde of loud, crusading white men looking to extend their own political and cultural clout. But it’s also something else. For some, in fact, the less power you have, the more you believe, and the more faith you cling to; the more poverty you face, the less room you have in your heart, your mind, to trace the structures of power.

My father still goes to the same church I haven’t been to in five years. He still believes many of the same things. He works for a telecommunications company, making sure the servers and circuitry that bring the internet to you don’t shut down. He knows his overtime hours will never accrue into meaningful wealth; he knows that despite his best efforts he is one bad day from losing his home, his car, his life. He sits in a congregation of Hispanic people who are also aware of this, the filthy cheapness of life.

So they make a bargain, the only one that makes sense, the one that countless others have made in countless pews: They will stake their claim on the imagined apocalypse of the rapture because, at the very least, that is the doom that will save them in the end. If they’re wrong, they get what’s coming to them anyway: an unremarkable death in a world that was hostile to them, their hopes firmly planted on what comes next. And if they’re right?

“There’s an underlining of joy,” my father tells me, “because you know he’s preparing a place where all these elements that affect us and are attacking us here, in this flesh now—he has promised us that we won’t have any of that when he comes to get us. Because he’s preparing a perfect place.” Over time, he says, his feelings about the rapture have evolved: “It’s not something to be feared. It’s a reward.”

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He recites this like it’s a passage he’s committed to memory, because it largely is. I know those words, that language; I’ve heard it countless times from countless pulpits. I also know how my father sounds when he’s not reciting things, when he’s interested, passionate, amused, curious. It’s not like this. Then I ask him about a TV show, just so I can hear what his real voice sounds like again before I hang up the phone.

In evangelical culture, the story of how you come to Christ is called your testimony. It’s a vital part of the equation, a reminder to yourself of where you came from and what you might sink back to, the beginning of a glorious redemption that ends with heaven as your reward, either in death or in rapture.

My mother thinks that my birth is when she first realized she wanted to find something more. At that point, she and her father hadn’t spoken in at least six years—her parents divorced when she was 7—and she didn’t know where he was. But he was a grandfather now, and she wanted to tell him. She started by trying to find him, researching now and then when she could over the course of a couple years. Eventually she found him in Philadelphia, dying from AIDS. I have no memory of this, but that’s where I met him, now with a little sister in tow. My mother tells me she got to talk to him some, but not much. He was very sick.

She didn’t get to have most of the conversations she wanted to have. Instead she got to have the one she felt obligated to have with a dying man who broke her heart: to tell him that he needed to make things right with God. His condition would quickly deteriorate, and her efforts to find her father were rewarded with the responsibility of deciding when he would be taken off life support. “I started to feel like there was a bigger picture here,” she tells me over the phone. “I knew there was something more beyond what we would consider to be the end of his life.”

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When she was my age, she began having anxiety attacks. So she turned to faith as a salve, hopping from church to church until she landed in the small fundamentalist congregation she remains in to this day with my father—a funny little irony, since they met as irreligious teenagers. She tells me what it was like to hear preachers tell her how everything would end: “It was almost like stepping into another world.”

I found little use for apocalyptic thinking after I left the church. I’m not terribly worried about the world ending, even as the rich square away in their shelters and water enters the futures market and environmental doom and financial ruin creep ever closer to most of our lives. My world, my politics, my love—it’s all shifted to the present.

And yet, in the final weeks of 2020, I stopped sleeping at night. Like my mother did when she was my age, I felt a severe panic attack wrack my body without warning; every inch of me quaked as I clung to my fiancée in bed next to me and begged her to help. When one sleepless night turned into many, I started to get angry. I thought I was done being scared. But maybe the problem was that I hadn’t started looking at what scared me closely enough.

The specter of the rapture is unavoidable in America now. I see it in pastors’ fire-and-brimstone sermons admonishing Muslims and the LGBTQ community and urging people to get right with God. I see it in the curricula of Christian schools that still maintain the United States has a part to play in the fundamentalist idea of the End Times, that state that the country must once again assert itself as a Christian nation, a light to a doomed world. I saw it in the callous inaction on and lack of concern from evangelical leaders about the COVID-19 pandemic and our now-regular cycles of gun violence and hate crimes. There’s a reason why the cliché is thoughts and prayers.

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Fictions maintained by working-class faith get deployed by upper-class evangelicals to justify their own sense of entitlement. One verse I heard a lot growing up, often used as words of encouragement for those experiencing hardship, was Romans 8:28, which says that all things work for the good of those who believe. But Rafael Cruz was animated by a similar belief when he claimed his son Ted’s Senate campaign would fulfill the Bible’s prophecy that “God would anoint Christian ‘kings’ ” and that Ted would personally oversee an “ ‘end-time transfer of wealth’ from the wicked to the righteous.”

Thus a symbiotic relationship is formed between wealthy and poor: The former cloaks its self-interested vision for the future in the language of inclusivity and uplift, and the latter receives that vision as its own kind of hope. Politicians lie and trade away their constituents’ futures for their own present wealth, and the contours of our world continue to be shaped by those with designs to abandon it materially, if not spiritually. This isn’t a secret, yet it continues to work. It works because people like my father are also waiting, praying for a rapture, not out of a desire for power, but for absolution.

This is not the only answer, but it’s the one I’ve found in churches full of immigrants documented and not, in other churches, far from any cities and highways, full of white folks who gather around what they consider to be an old-fashioned gospel, one that will save your soul. These churches are where people go to sing and shout and sob about the precariousness they feel all around them, the fear of knowing that the next check will never be enough, that their health is forfeit because the bills will not spare them and the corporations will not protect them, because the people who have given them things to be angry about are also carving them up as they grow fat and preach hate. Doom is never far from their mind.

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This is how an imagined end becomes more real than the actual ends awaiting us. It’s how well-meaning people with nothing to gain can dismiss a plague that has killed more than half a million of us; it’s how they can shut out the nearly irreversible climate crisis looming, how the nearer threat of economic collapse can simply hold no sway. Things were already bad, and never have we had a wider selection of apocalypses on offer. Again, they have chosen rapture.

I never had a big confrontation with my parents about my decision to leave evangelicalism behind. I know they know—I lived with them for a stretch after college, and they didn’t see me going to church—but I also realize they prefer denial. My dad in particular would rather not talk about my faith at all. I can imagine exactly what my mom would say about my panic attacks: that the fear I feel is just evidence that I need to come to Jesus as she did. Every week, she still texts me the livestream link for church; I never respond. My mom and dad love me hugely, but they don’t have the language for vulnerability, for uncertainty, for meeting people where they are.

Once upon a time, my parents wanted answers. Now, they know where to find those answers: with their savior, who may one day come to whisk them away. Neither of my parents are worried about how it will all work out. “There’s no way our finite mind can wrap itself around what’s infinite,” my mother says. She leaves it unsaid, but in her voice I hear her deepest wish: not just that she will someday find herself vindicated for all her beliefs, but that her loved ones—me, my siblings, her father—will all join her one day, lost in what’s infinite.