For the past several years, we’ve gone without cable TV, both to help the kids focus on their schoolwork and because there’s only a few good channels, like the Learning Channel and the History Channel. But this year we decided to turn it back on again–the kids are older and more responsible, and the local cable access channel has some school activities we wanted to see. And while we’re at it, there were some good shows on the History Channel.
Ugh. Underline the past tense in that last sentence. Last night we were flipping through the channels, and there was a show on the History Channel all about the Rapture. It sounded like a very interesting show. There’s a lot of history behind the idea of the Rapture, starting with the original post-Tribulational Rapture mentioned in Matthew and Thessalonians, on through the early 1800’s and the “visions” of a Pentecostal girl named Margaret McDonald, which then got picked up and popularized by J. N. Darby and the Scofield Reference Bible. And this, in turn, led to a revival of British and American millennialism which played no small role in the establishment of Israel as a Western-backed state in Palestine. Some really cool material that could use some good, solid historical research and presentation.
Boy was I in for a let-down.
I got a bad feeling when I saw they were using Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye (of Left Behind fame) as their “expert” witnesses. But hey, ok, it’s not too unreasonable to let believers explain their own beliefs, even if it does result in “he-said/she-said” journalism. Hopefully they’ll have other scholars on to at least offer the “she-said” criticisms of what Jenkins and LaHaye were offering as “future history” for our planet.
No such luck. Almost the entire program was effectively a fundamentalist Christian believe-or-suffer-divine-wrath sermon, disguised as a documentary. They had a few clips of people miraculously disappearing in the midst of their daily activities, then they cut to commentary by Jenkins or LaHaye or some other fundamentalist preacher/theologian, then back to scenes of the Left-Behinders suffering the consequences of the Rapture. Then they cut to a shot of the words of Scripture, set against a dramatic background of storm clouds at sunset, as the Voice of God read the prophecies aloud. And so on.
By the time the narrator started suggesting that the predictions of the Bible were correlating with current events, it started to get downright funny. Did you know that earthquakes, for example, were becoming increasingly frequent, and that over the last few years they have become some twenty times more common than they were a century ago? Don’t believe me? Here, see for yourself:
That’s a graph of the earthquakes that occurred from 1900 to 2000, as reported by the U. S. Geological Survey’s Centennial Earthquake Catalog. See how steeply the rate climbs as we get closer to the end of the reporting period? Yeah, me neither. Earthquakes are a fluctuating national phenomenon. Look at 1920 compared to 1950. In fact, look at the remarkable cluster of spikes between 1940 and the mid-1950’s. Jesus is bound to be back by 1960, wouldn’t you say?
The longer the show went on, the more obvious it became that the writers and producers were flagrantly out of touch with reality. With one exception: I do have to admire the subtlety and finesse with which they managed to make their Antichrist suggest Barack Obama without overtly mimicking him. That was kinda classy, in a how-low-are-you-willing-to-stoop sort of way.
At the very end of the show, one skeptic was allowed to express (in 25 words or less) the mere fact that he did not agree with the producer’s interpretation of the Bible. At the end of an hour-long show dramatizing the Rapture and the Tribulation, where the fundamentalists were giving full rein to their imaginations and speculations, with sparkly special effects and dramatic music, the skeptic is given about 37 seconds of dead, drab talk, during which he is given no opportunity to explain why he disagrees, and with no re-enactments or special effects to make his points more attractive. After all, he’s just the token skeptic!
In the end, I think the show ultimately became a pretty good refutation of pre-Tribulational Rapture theology, just by how absurd their stories became when the preachers were allowed uncritical self-expression. They even had a guy from an emergency management team talking about how triage works and saying, “Oh, it’s a really bad situation when you have a disaster and there aren’t enough emergency staff available to cope with it.” Then his “testimony” would be followed by stock footage of riots and police brutality and national guard checkpoints, for some reason, the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. But never a word on why people would want to respond to global disaster by immediately forming armed gangs and roaming the streets murdering each other, instead of behaving the way people usually behave in a disaster.
Even their Antichrist was surreal: with a bit more character development he might someday expand into being a 2-dimensional Disney villain who does evil things because, um, well, he’s evil. Really? Even Hitler had more complex motives than just wanting to be evil for the sake of being evil. Then again, Hitler was real, and not just an apocalyptic fantasy born out of recklessly exuberant religious fanaticism.
So yeah, for the thinking viewer, the show does the Rapture more harm than help. Sadly, as the Harold Camping episode shows, there’s no shortage of people whose thirst for the sensational outweighs their hunger for the reasonable. No matter how many times these yahoos fail in their predictions, people will still keep flocking to them. It’s like fighting a disease, knowing that despite our best efforts, some people will still get sick. All we can do is keep defending the truth, exposing the error (and absurdity), and hope for the best.