The Rapture: This is only a test

June 4, 2008

I don’t believe in the Rapture, though the concept intrigues me spiritually and intellectually. Perhaps that’s why a man’s suit caught my eye yesterday, abandoned on the steps of a downtown Portland church. A fine-looking suit with a subtle glen-plaid pattern. I considered inquiring at the Portland Korean Church, SE 10th and Clay. But if I knocked, what would I ask when the door opened? Is the suit only a test, like those we hear on the radio about the emergency warning system? If this had been a real Rapture. . .

I looked around, wondering whether the suit owner had zipped off on a practice spin for the June 14th World Naked Bike Ride. No luck. Was there really a Superman, and Clark Kent couldn’t find a phone booth? Had I missed an alien abduction? Or missed the Rapture itself, and this lone empty suit signaled bad news for Portland — the select few here are very few indeed?

Joking about a religious belief of fervent importance to many people exceeds irreverence and could be interpreted as disrespect. My purpose, however, isn’t to denigrate their beliefs. (I do fervently disagree with denominations that claim only their members will be chosen, a narrow and selfish view of God.) I recognize the comfort that faith in the Rapture gives believers, while also encouraging complacency about the world’s ills. If you want the world to end and get whisked away to heaven, you’re not going to help save the planet.

Rapture proponents disagree about the details, including the Tribulations, the period of calamities leading up to the event. Some contend we’re in the midst of this chaotic period, and evidence abounds: intensifying world hunger, energy crisis, advance of human-caused climate change, increase in natural disasters, and incessant wars. The litany makes me want to shed my clothes and disappear.

A likely addition to the list: a region-wide Middle East war that will trigger dire, cascading repercussions. A speculative analysis about the U.S. backing an Israeli attack on Iran is plausible. Israel plays surrogate instigator, Iran retaliates with attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, and Bush has his opening. And then there’s the paranoid part of me whispering with more urgency that the Bush-Cheney administration will never relinquish power it’s illegally seized. Or, alternatively, it will do whatever it takes to ensure Barack Obama and the Democrats don’t win the White House. Either scenario will incite domestic turmoil, even violence. Call it more tribulation in the making.

The rational part of me hasn’t felt this unsettled since I was a boy at Maitland Junior High in Central Florida during the Cuban Missile Crisis. At recess we watched waves of military planes flying to U.S. bases in South Florida. We practiced jumping under our desks in case of air raids. We had to bring big cans of Hawaiian punch to school labeled with our names. I knew these were futile acts and only made our parents and teachers feel better. Versus nuclear holocaust we didn’t stand a chance.

My chosen reading list at the time, all classics in an emerging doomsday genre — Fail Safe, On the Beach, and Alas, Babylon — led me to believe in predestination but only regarding one thing, the world’s future: we were all screwed. The latter book, set in Central Florida, made it easy to picture mushroom clouds incinerating the lakes and orange groves and their inhabitants, including me.

Sobering stuff for a kid, but I saw the light. Life could end in an instant at the hand of the creator’s supposedly noblest creations, we his flawed children who couldn’t be trusted with God-like power: The Bomb.

None of it added up. And sermons at our Episcopalian Church of the Good Shepherd and kissing a bishop’s ring at my confirmation gave me no confidence that ethereal bliss awaited anyone, whether the missiles delivered Armageddon or not. Puberty was messing with my body and mind enough as it was. Then I added to the hormonal maelstrom the conclusion that we were sheep leading ourselves to slaughter, sheep who would be judged culpable for destroying God’s greatest gift to us: Earth.

No Earth would be left for the meek to inherit. No heavenly paradise would await anyone. No empty clothes would be left behind.

Not a hell of a lot has changed.