What will you do when the rapture comes? If you aren’t a fundamentalist Christian, one who reads the Bible literally, you’re probably not preparing to be seized by Christ and taken up into heaven before closing tribulations fall upon the world. Of course, if the novelist Tom Perotta is onto something, and you are such a Christian, you might have an even greater worry. What if the rapture comes, and you’re left behind? Even worse, what if all sorts of other people disappear, people who don’t seem to qualify for entrance to heaven?
That’s what happens to the Reverend Jamison, in a novel Stephen King calls, “the best Twilight Zone episode you never saw,” Tom Perotta’s The Leftovers:
Distracted by these thought, Kevin didn’t realize he was heading straight for the Reverend Matt Jamison, formerly of the Zion Bible Church, until it was too late to make an evasive maneuver. All he could do was raise both hands in a futile attempt to fend off the gossip rag the Reverend was thrusting in his face.
“Take it,” the Reverend said, “There’s stuff in here that’ll knock your socks off.”
Seeing no graceful way out, Kevin reluctantly took possession of a newsletter that went by the emphatic but unwieldy title “OCTOBER 14TH WAS NOT THE RAPTURE!!!” The front page featured a photograph of Dr. Hillary Edgars, a beloved pediatrician who’d disappeared three years earlier, along with eighty-seven other local residents and untold millions of people throughout the world. DOCTOR’S BISEXUAL COLLEGE YEARS EXPOSED! the headline proclaimed. A boxed quote in the article below read, “We totally thought she was gay, “ former roommate reveals.”
Kevin had known and admired Dr. Edgers, whose twin sons were the same age as his daughter. She’d volunteered two evenings a week at a free clinic for poor kids in the city, and gave lectures to the PTA on subjects like, “The Long-Term Effects of Concussions in Young Athletes” and “How to Recognize an Eating Disorder.” People buttonholed her all the time at the soccer field and the supermarket, fishing for free medical advice, but she never seemed resentful about it, or even mildly impatient.
“Jesus, Matt. Is this necessary?”
Reverend Jamison seemed mystified by the question. He was a trim, sandy-haired man of about forty, but his face had gone slack and pouchy in the past couple of years, as if he were aging on an accelerated schedule.
“These people weren’t heroes. We have to stop treating them like they were. I mean, this whole parade —“
”The woman had kids. They don’t need to be reading about who she slept with in college.”
“But it’s the truth. We can’t hide from the truth.”
Kevin knew it was useless to argue. By all account, Matt Jamison used to be a decent guy, but he’d lost his bearings. Like a lot of devout Christians, he’d been deeply traumatized by the Sudden Departure, tormented by the fear that Judgment Day had come and gone, and he’d been found lacking. While some people in his position had responded with redoubled piety, the Reverend had moved in the opposite direction, taking up the cause of Rapture Denial with a vengeance, dedicating his life to proving that the people who’d slipped their earthly chains on October 14th were neither good Christians nor even especially virtuous individuals. In the process, he’d become a dogged investigative journalist and a complete pain in the ass.
As noted, if you’re not expecting to be seize by God in a future rapture, you wouldn’t feel the Reverend Jamison’s troubling sense of disorientation when God disappoints. But, as Jesus’ parable of the workers hired late in the day illustrates, a basic temptation of the Christian life is to be disappointed by God, even to believe that we’re owed something by God, and that can lead to a question frequently voiced by those who are beginning to question their faith, “Does God really exist?”
Of course the universal wisdom of religions, in every time and place, is one of acceptance. We’re to put ourselves at the disposal of God. We’re to surrender to a higher power. We are to “let it be,” to quote the Beatles, who aren’t exactly a world religion, but close.
Then why are Christians tempted to believe that God owes them blessings? And why are we tempted to question the very existence of God when that doesn’t happen? Like most theological errors, there’s something correct hidden in the mistake. In Jesus Christ, the gospels reveal a God who radically loves humanity, a God who is love, standing at the very heart of the universe. So, are we wrong to expect blessings from such a God?
Not at all, but in the cross, the gospels also reveal a world touched and tormented by sin, by an evil that cannot be removed from the world without destroying human freedom itself.
The gospels also teach that this world is prelude to one yet to come. How can we adequately judge God’s intention in allowing anything to happen in this world, until we see what God makes of it—makes of us—in the next? The deep truth of the gospels is that, for those who open themselves to the radical transformation that we call the resurrection, God is able to transform evil into good.
Simply put, without seeing the end of the story, who can argue with any given chapter the novelist pens? If our troubles and sorrows fit us for heaven, if they whittle us into the person we’re meant to be when we stand before God, then, in the light of eternity will we argue with the master artist of history itself? If our trials advance the Kingdom of God, even though in manner impossible for us to know as we endure them, when the field has been won — not only for us but for all of humanity — will we dispute with the commander who ordered them? Ultimately, the gospels tell us that our lives, including our disappointments, have meaning. They are spun with care and concern. They are not woven in callousness or chaos.
It is possible to feel aggrieved by God, but the gospels make it clear that when we do so, like Reverend Jamison, we have confused something partial, something passing, for the eternal truth of the Father, and, even when seized by the rapture we call death, Jesus refused to do that.
Terrance W. Klein