Today was the Rapture, when faithful Christians were assumed directly into heaven, their bodies and souls intact, leaving shirts, undies, contact lenses, and surgical pins clattering to the floor. Millions of people probably looked like Obi-Wan Kenobi’s tunic after Darth Vader struck him down with his light-saber. Those planes that all fell out of the sky this morning? It wasn’t because the end of net neutrality affected their avionics; it was because devout pilots disappeared from the cockpit.
Of course, none of that happened, and it’s not because the band The Rapture broke up. Christian numerologist David Meade had predicted that a rogue planet of sorts called Nibiru would appear today, April 23, 2018, arising out of an alignment of planets in the constellation Virgo, and we’re all going to be in big trouble. It’s an update to an earlier prediction that called for the destruction of the Earth last September.
But wait, you might be saying, because surely you’re up to speed on the intricacies of end-times prophecy, aren’t the Rapture and the Apocalypse two different things entirely? Yes, they are, and in spite of much breathless reporting — in a well-deserved mocking tone — Meade’s point isn’t that the Earth will be obliterated but that the arrival of Nibiru will portend a thousand-year period of tribulations leading up to the End of Days. Get it straight, British tabloids!
Meade is obviously a crackpot, but his particular strain of bananas-osity has deep roots — even in the Bay Area. A few years ago, evangelist Harold Camping and his followers spent $100 million on billboards and other warnings that the world was coming to an end on May 21, 2011. (This was a cicada-lifespan after Camping’s earlier premonitions about 1994 being the end failed to happen, and he’d been predicting Judgment Day as far back as 1978.) Camping, a radio preacher from Oakland,suffered a stroke in June 2011 and died two years later, so we have no idea what he might make of current world affairs.
Now you can dismiss evangelical eschatology or claim it doesn’t represent the church’s real doctrines easily enough. But from Left Behind to The Leftovers, the idea of a random event causing a small fraction of the population to vanish is but one type of the dystopian terrors that have seized the public imagination for the last 30 years.
And today’s current absurdity couldn’t come at a worse moment for American Christianity.
White evangelical Christians are the one demographic that has kept President Trump’s poll numbers from cratering altogether. Once rather suspicious of a philandering liar who couldn’t even say “2 Corinthians” properly, they’ve flocked to his white-nationalist rhetoric and rampant demonizations of various marginalized groups. Doubtless, Mike Pence’s quiet presence on a scandal-plagued executive team gives many people assurance that America’s current leadership holds divine sanction. It comes from the top of the earthly hierarchy, too. As Politico reported today, Christian TV is even more staunchly pro-Trump than Fox News is. It might also be that many supposed Christians never cared about the teachings of Jesus, and just yearned for an authoritarian figure who would transform “Merry Christmas” from a mildly sectarian gesture of good will into a spittle-flecked retort against a world they no longer understood.
Meanwhile, in the decade-and-a-half since the 2004 presidential election, when evangelical support gave George W. Bush the margins needed to put him over the top, their influence has begun to wane. Young people are leaving megachurches indroves, and atheism, agnosticism, and simple “none-of-the-above” religious identifications are growing faster than veganism.
When prominent evangelicals like Tony Perkins give the president a “mulligan” on things like the Stormy Daniels affair — do they even care that the last occupant of the White House was a devoted father and husband who attended services? Of course not — the “family-values” rhetoric has been reduced to cinders.
Hypocrisy has always been political Christianity’s Achilles heel, the one pressure point on which the most secular cosmopolitans can land a blow. But they wasn’t always so hollow and transparent; unquestionably, millions of Americans find spiritual succor in their faith, and many churches in the South and Midwest had made great strides toward racial integration.That’s coming apart, though. Last month, The New York Times had a saddening expose that showed how many Christians of color were deserting predominantly white congregations that had failed to repudiate racism.
Along with the spectacular flame-out of the first iteration of the alt-right, the decline of evangelicalism feels like a germinating seed of the better America to come. (At least, that’s how I talk myself out of late-night despair.) But it’s been part of America for centuries: The Millerites, a premillennial sect, endured widespread mockery after “The Great Disappointment,”their prediction that the world would end on Oct. 22, 1844. Nibiru, or whatever you want to call it, is as cyclical as Halley’s Comet.
We can make fun of the credulousness and naivete of people who believe in the Rapture no matter how many times it failed to appear on schedule or otherwise. But even assuming the Blue Wave arrives this November and cleans the Republic of malevolent actors who wish it ill, we still have to share the country with them when it’s all over. Their terrifying will-to-Apocalypse and belief that the world is irredeemably fallen don’t suggest a willingness to cooperate once they feel like they’ve been frozen out of power by demographic change. The scary thing, then, is not what happens to us if the Rapture arrives but what happens when adherents to the withered heart of political evangelicalism realizes they’ll never get deliverance.