During the 1970s, prominent Christian evangelist and radio host Harold Camping found himself divinely called into a new era of missional work, an uncharted territory of ministry in which to devote himself. Being an end times harbinger was a thankless job, and when his prediction that the world would end May 21, 1988, proved fruitless, even his failure couldn’t stop him from later writing a 500-page treatise with the revised proclamation that the end would instead happen in 1994. When he was wrong yet again, Camping reconvened with Scripture, chalking up his previous miscalculations to human error.
After a half-decade of further study, Camping was finally ready to make his boldest and most airtight declaration yet. Using a formula derived from the biblical flood account, he was able to determine the world’s true last day would occur May 21, 2011. The day would be marked first by a rapture of Christian believers and culminate with the fiery destruction of the world along with the annihilation of those outside the faith. As the date drew nearer, many of Camping’s most ardent followers sold their homes and possessions in preparation for the end, often donating the money to Camping’s own radio program.Both The Leftovers and Left Behind may be mere entertainment, but they nonetheless expertly play into the fears of what a less-populated world would entail.
When May 21 had come and gone with no rapture to speak of, Camping again shifted his stance to fit the events (or lack thereof). Insistent that a rapture had indeed happened, the reason nobody noticed, he said, was because it was a “spiritual” rapture, an invisible departure of souls. Instead, the absolute final day, the day of a bodily rapture, would come a few months later on October 21, followed swiftly by the end of the world. (Anyone now reading this perhaps knows quite well the outcome.) Camping died two years later on December 17, 2013, at the age of 92, his legacy forever mired in false promises and unfulfilled predictions.
While most brushed aside Camping’s brand of proselytizing as nothing more than simply that, it would be difficult to call his predictions totally harmless. Tales abound of individuals committing suicide in the days leading up to May 21, 2011. One woman from Palmdale, California, slashed her two daughters with a box cutter before cutting her own throat, choosing to face death on personal terms rather than witness the imminent collapse of the universe. (All three women survived.)
For those willing to die rather than face the end of the world—and for the hundreds more who readily gave up their possessions in order to enter into the apocalypse unencumbered—what was it exactly their faith was predicated upon? How could an aging radio host so thoroughly convince so many people he alone knew the circumstances surrounding the end of the world?
Growing up, Left Behind
If, like me, you grew up within a sect of evangelicalism during the 90s that espoused the merits of DC Talk’s Jesus Freak and the concept of the youth group lock-in, you’re also likely familiar with the Left Behind book series co-authored by Jerry B. Jenkins and the late Tim LaHaye. (LaHaye’s recent passing on July 25 of this year at the age of 90 came as a blow to the evangelical community, with memories of his accomplishments as a writer and political activist generally outshining his association with conservative fundamentalism.)
With a narrative conceit centered around a pre-millennial tribulation, the 16 books which compose the Left Behind series—or the 40 if you read the more subdued, tween-friendly equivalent, as I did—tell a hypothetical version of the rapture and its subsequent fallout, all while following a group of cynics-turned-believers after their devout loved ones mysteriously vanish.
Although the first book in the series is now more than two decades old and essentially serves a snapshot into a very specific brand of pre–9/11 political and spiritual fears, there’s an enduring quality to these books that speaks to our current state of affairs (believe me—this year’s tumultuous election campaign has a lot of us hoping God decides to come back sooner rather than later). This determinism turns out to be especially true for those who still cling to the Left Behind methodology as a way of explaining the end times. But while LaHaye and Jenkins may hold title to the rapture’s current purveyors, at least in the way it’s most widely understood, the concept of the rapture as a whole has existed long before Kirk Cameron had the chance to ham it up onscreen as the Left Behind film adaptation’s globetrotting reporter, Buck Williams.
A Rapturous History
Unlike the strikingly similar flood and apocalypse narratives of diverse cultures and societies the world over, the idea of a bodily rapture has held domain primarily in Christian circles. The origins of the sort of rapture most widely believed today date back to the 1700s, to the height of American Puritanism.
Espoused by the likes of colonial-era apologists such as Cotton Mather and William Sherwin, the still-in-development concept of a physical rapture was formed in order to help explain somewhat confounding passages like those found in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, which in the original Greek insinuates the instance of a being “caught up” with or of a grand “taking away” from. Eventually, in 1827, English Brethren theologian John Nelson Darby further honed and popularized the rapture into something similar to what many fundamentalist denominations believe today; he is perhaps the most influential figure on the pre-millennialism tribulation movement.
While the history of the rapture may date back centuries, it’s still a relatively recent idea when taking into account the entire 2,000-year history of Christendom. It’s as if the early Christians and church fathers weren’t focused on the logistics of the events described in Revelation, but were rather content to bask in the mere assurance of Christ’s eventual return, whatever form that would take. If there’s a downside to Darby’s (and, subsequently, Left Behind’s) vast influence on this aspect of evangelical subculture, it’s that there’s not much room for outside suppositions. Since the pre-millennial tribulation theory relies so heavily on hard numbers, dates, and figures, those who deviate from the prescribed timeline or offer their own timeline altogether are often seen as heretics and false prophets. Ironically enough, it’s this same sort of insistence in a single, correct version of end time events that can get oneself labeled a false prophet too.
When it was revealed in 2011 that the Left Behind film series would be rebooted by a non-faith-based studio, some wondered if this meant the rapture had more universal narrative appeal than we originally gave it credit for. (Come to find out, the studio needed to do more than simply swap Kirk Cameron for Nicolas Cage. When it was released in 2014, the Left Behind reboot was universally panned by critics and audiences alike.) Still, maybe we can see why the opportunistic studio execs found promise in the idea of a do-over. While a not-so-subtle story device, the rapture is nonetheless an intriguing narrative premise with an untold number of philosophical implications.
As it happens, what a story about the end of the world really needed was a more nuanced pair of hands. Primarily known for co-creating the oft-celebrated and infamously divisive ABC series LOST, Damon Lindelof was certainly no stranger to cerebral, philosophically murky storytelling. (And although receptions were mixed, his writing contributions to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus had at least the existential gravity to make up for the film’s lack of plot coherence.) That said, Lindelof seemed a perfectly capable choice to helm the adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers as a series for HBO.
With a title at once a clever nod to Left Behind’s legacy while simultaneously denoting something to be either reheated or thrown away, The Leftovers is a modern-day fantasy series aimed at audiences both secular and believing alike. In Perrotta’s book, as well as in the first season of the show, approximately two percent of the world’s population suddenly vanishes, leaving those remaining to claw desperately for answers. Did God really rapture His people? Maybe those who disappeared were ushered off to some sort of spiritually ambiguous nirvana? Or were they victims of a scientific anomaly, dissolved into thin air due to a change in barometric pressure or a rip in the fabric of spacetime?
These are the questions that drive the narrative arc of the series. If there’s one thing in particular The Leftovers is about though, it’s how individuals cope in times of crisis, and who (or what) they become in their time of need and confusion. The rapture event itself (known colloquially and ominously as “The Departure”), though a catalyst to the show’s later, more personal turmoils, at times feels like nothing more than one small piece of a very elaborate puzzle. The brilliance and success of The Leftovers may be attributed not to the way it handles the big picture but to the subtle attempts to portray the forming of factions and ideologies in the midst of a crumpled society. Cults and false religions thrive, it turns out, in the aftermath of the apocalypse, and The Leftovers unwittingly confirms what Harold Camping seemed to know from the start: that folks are at their most impressionable when they’ve come to believe the end is nigh.
The End Is Not the End
What’s there ultimately to learn from false prophets and religious cults, both fictional and flesh-and-blood, the ones who have driven people to insanity, who have made people become something other than themselves? Pop culture—whether Left Behind or The Leftovers—is vital for giving us a hypothetical look at what could actually happen if society is turned on its head for a day. If the Puritans got their way and millions suddenly vanished, how quickly would the breakdown of society begin? If Camping or one of his theological protégés is one day proven correct in one of these apocalyptic predictions, how do those left behind cope with their predicament?
If the end of the world is to truly manifest itself as some version of our religious and cultural machinations—if God were to appear in a cloud of smoke and lightning as a gesture of His glorious return—this would surely be cause for awe and rejoicing among those who already believe. But for the millions—billions—outside that circle of belief, they would be left feeling a different sort of awestruck on the day they wake up to find themselves alone and confused to this new, empty nature of the world.
Both The Leftovers and Left Behind may be mere entertainment, but they nonetheless expertly play into the fears of what a less-populated world would entail. And though each may approach the topic from a different end of the ideological spectrum, there’s a remarkably similar truth which seeks to align both narratives: there’s still hope to be found in the midst of apocalypse. This assurance is especially profound given we live in an era that so often feels as if the end of the world is at our doorstep, that we’re already living in a raptured world, abandoned to face our tribulations alone. What else could explain the misplaced sense of fear constantly being conjured up during this season of political uncertainty? Or the near-daily acts of senseless violence, the weekly outbursts of nationalized racial tension?
These questions illustrate the immense difficulty already present in anticipating the daily bread we’re given, the unpredictable intricacies that make life a constant surprise. How much more effectively can we know the end of the world? Predictions, after all, come and go. Whether or not we believe in a literal rapture or choose to put stock in the mad rantings of self-proclaimed prophets are wholly beside the point. What’s far more likely is we’ll wake up tomorrow to greet a still-spinning world, unraptured and fully intact. It’s then we will choose how to live out the day.