When I was but a young lad, I was with my Dad (then a Southern Baptist minister, now a Baptist professor), and a few other adults in someone’s back yard in rural Louisiana. Someone pointed out two stars (probably a planet and a star, I now realize) that had aligned to form a pair of coldly bright eyes staring down. This strange phenomenon began a conversation about the end of the world, and even speculation if this was the big moment itself. Or, as it’s largely known among the most conservatively religious, the Rapture.

I was raised with the expectation that at any moment, something like those eyes staring down would herald the second coming of Jesus, floating earthward on a cloud. (It was always a fluffy cloud in my thinking.) Those eyes in the sky seemed fairly malevolent at that moment, I’ll admit. Because while the devout (that would be me, my family, most of the people I knew) would be transformed into their eternal heavenly bodies, the apocalypse would be a time of tremendous trouble and death. I was somehow supposed to look forward to this, but be afraid of this. And it could happen, saith the scribes and even my Dad, at any time. I might be getting a drink of water at the elementary school and suddenly the seven-headed beast (more on him later) would wreak havoc on Mrs. Simmons’ class. I might be eating a Little Debbie snack cake, and angelic trumpets would sound. I wouldn’t be eating a second.

In one Sunday School class (or it might have been its Sunday night equivalent “Church Training” or “Training Union”), my young friends and I got the full treatment: a movie about the Rapture. It scarred me. I recall fiery car crashes (the Rapture extracted even drivers who were Believers, hence that bumper sticker about “In Case of Rapture” you sometimes see); I remember people checking out at the grocery store courtesy of their marks of the Beast. I remember that my notion of the Beast was kind of like G.G. Allin crossed with a 900-foot Ronald Reagan who could transform into a really evil multi-headed serpent-thing whenever he wanted. Certain details are hazy, and probably my own 8-year-old imaginings, but it’s hard to be sure. For certain he was, according to the leading lights of Southern Baptist apocalyptic theology, going to be in charge of the U.N. or the European Union. In the movie, loads of people died in massive disasters, and the non-believers left behind (hence the name of that odious series of Christian semi-novels by Tim LaHaye) had to endure all kinds of things imposed upon them, usually, by the forces of secular humanist big government.

This is, however, but one of the many versions of eschatology that haunt the Sunday School rooms of the fundamentalist Christian universe. All of the versions are based on the Book of Revelation, the last book of the canonical New Testament. This is a troublesome document, to say the least. There were arguments about its canonical status, and it was one of many apocalypses of its day. Despite the fluid nature of the biblical canon as it was being formed, the fundamentalists accept as given that the councils that decided what would be considered “Holy Scripture” were led unerringly by the hand of God. They also accept that every canonical author was unerringly guided by God. If you say perhaps human error or poor judgment let some things into that canon that might not be the best choice, you will quickly be told either that you are “limiting God” by not believing he could orchestrate such an effort, or that you are taking your first perilous step on the slippery slope. It should come as no surprise that what awaits at the bottom of that slope is eternal damnation.

Nonetheless, scholars have risked the flames and offered competing interpretations of Revelation. The usual view is that it was written by the apostle John on the isle of Patmos, and that he was given a vision of what would actually go down in the last days. The most compelling interpretation I’ve heard is that this apocalypse was an encoded document passed among the early churches and dressed up to pass muster if it was intercepted by the Roman government, who didn’t then take too kindly to Christians; it would appear to be just another load of gobbledy-gook from one of the many “mystery religions” that flourished in those days, and thus not lead to the holders of the document being fed to lions. The references, for instance, to a seven-headed beast were interpreted by such scholars as references to seven emperors of Rome. Not only does this interpretation make a lot of sense, it leads to the loss of eternal terror fostered by the literalist camp who spend their lives quaking in fear of the Rapture’s arrival.

The most important thing to know, perhaps, is that the fundamentalists who’ve seen a rise to political power through the Bush brand of Republicanism are solidly united in the view that Revelation depicts the end of the world, and that it is highly likely that the end is nigh. The main camps of fundamentalist interpretation involve “pretribulationist,” “premillenial,” “postmillenial,” and “post-tribulationist” thought. The central belief is that Jesus will arrive, and a period of tribulation and turmoil will grip the Earth before or after, killing off loads of people. This will be followed by Jesus’ triumph over the Antichrist and a thousand-year reign of peace. Pretribulationists believe they will be raptured up to heaven before the troubles; post-tribulationists believe Christians will endure the troubles, and only those who are around afterward will get raptured. (It’s complicated, to say the least–this is a bit of simplification, because the exact relationship of tribulation and millenial reign has spawned many variations in thought. A quick search of the terms will lead to several years’ worth of reading if you’re so inclined.)

The scariest faction is the group of folks who expect to be involved in an armed struggle against all who align themselves with the Antichrist. If you do not believe in the Bible as a work of literal truth and subscribe to precisely the same view of Christian faith as a fundamentalist, that means you. And, as we’ve seen with the video game Left Behind: Eternal Forces, some of these folks are living in the expectation that we who are not like them will eventually be forced to choose between joining them or fighting them (in which case we’ll pretty much have to be killed, apparently).

All of the Rapture-fueled folks have been deeply manipulated by the Republican right. The scared, unstable mindset that gripped most Americans in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11 was par for the course for them. They, like me, grew up in the expectation that everything was about to erupt into a life-or-death struggle with the forces of evil. All that changed for some of them that terrible day was that the abstract notion of the tribulation became very real. And the lines were and are being drawn before their eyes, first and foremost politically. The secular humanist enemy is everywhere, with science instead of the Bible driving Democratic environmental policy, with the permissiveness of non-heterosexual unions proving that the nation has fallen away from its God-favored status. If you aren’t a Bush supporter, chances are you’re on their list of those who will have to declare themselves friend or foe forthwith. They’re waiting for the next sign of the rapture. (You can check it for yourself at The Rapture Index.*) When they decide the Rapture has arrived, you’d better believe like they do.

* Here are two elements of the Rapture Index as explained on the site. An increase of activity in each is taken as an indicator of Rapturous activity:

29. Liberalism
It’s not just a part of the Democrat Party. liberalism is what could be called the "true conspiracy." Liberal media are 100 percent controlled by the forces that bow to humanistic ideology.

30. Peace Process
(Dan. 9:27) This refers directly to Bible prophecy, where the state of Israel signs a peace treaty with the Antichrist.

Happy New Year!

–James Heflin, Writer, The Valley Advocate