This Saturday marks the beginning of the Rapture, when God sweeps the world of his true followers and leaves the rest of us to suffer plagues and disasters until He ends our suffering with complete (and by then, welcome) annihilation. It all begins at 6 p.m. local time. Local where? Local everywhere.
All of this is according to Harold Camping, an 89-year-old religious broadcaster who first marked tomorrow as the end of days in 1994. Presumably, believers like Camping have been preparing since then. More recently, the Rapture-ready are making the final goodbyes to all earthly affairs, and nonbelievers are speculating about the world's impending doom.
Of course, Camping isn't the only Christian in the world, and his account of the Rapture isn't the only one. Indeed, it isn't even popular. For the uninitiated, there's a huge mythology surrounding this event, and preparing for Saturday's doom can get confusing very quickly. What, if anything, does this have to do with the four horsemen of the apocalypse? The seven-headed beast? Kirk Cameron's flagging film career? For those answers and more, read on.
What is the Rapture?
Derived from the Latin verb "rapio," it means "to catch up" or "caught away," and refers to a specific event in several eschatological timelines, when God removes Christians from Earth in preparation for the final days. It's chief scriptural support comes from 1 Thessalonians 4:17: "Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever."
Who believes this?
In terms of the entire Christian tradition, not very many people. The Rapture falls under a set of eschatological beliefs called "millenialism," a reference to a 1,000-year period of paradise that some Christians believe will precede the final judgment. Millenialism is rejected by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as by a large number of Protestant denominations. It's mostly fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals who embrace it.
Basically, there are three flavors of millennialism: premillenialism, postmillenialism, and amillenialism.
Premillenialists believe that the Second Coming of Christ occurs before the 1,000 years of paradise, postmillenialists believe that it comes after, and amillenialists aren't really convinced that there's an earthly paradise to begin with. By and large, modern premillennialists take their cues from the Revelation of St. John (popularly known as the Book of Revelations) as interpreted through John Nelson Darby (a Calvinist theologian of the early 19th century) and Cyrus I. Scofield, a fundamentalist American minister of the late 19th century. The idea of the Rapture was pioneered by Edward Irving, a Scottish contemporary of Darby.
So, what happens after the Rapture?
If you're Harold Camping, it's pretty straightforward: On Saturday, God takes away the Christians (all 200 million of them, according to his "calculations") and five months later, destroys the universe. But, don't worry, his God is a merciful one; nonbelievers aren't condemned to eternal torment; instead, they are simply obliterated into nonexistence.
For the tens of million more American Christians who aren't followers of Camping but believe in the Rapture, it's a bit more complicated. First, they make no claims on when it will happen, simply that it will. That said, Rapture-watching wouldn't be fun if there weren't plenty of disturbing signs to decipher, and they have plenty of them: Among other things, Rapture-believers look to the emergence of global governments, advanced computer technology, wars in the Middle East, sexual "immorality" (read: gay people), religious nonbelief, and the popularity of charismatic, peace-promising leaders (hence their suspicion of Barack Obama).
Second, they have a detailed timeline of events, drawn from the second half of the Revelation of St. John and popularly illustrated in the Left Behind series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.
How does this timeline go down? Or, when should I look forward to my annihilation?
Well, it begins with the Rapture, which is billed as a cataclysmic event, hence these bumper stickers. Millions will die in the initial crisis, and out of the ashes, a charismatic leader will emerge (i.e., the Antichrist) to unify the planet under a single government. In the midst of this, he will negotiate a peace treaty with Israel, ending the conflicts in the Middle East.
Hey, that doesn't sound so bad.
But it is! The signing of the treaty marks the beginning of the Tribulation, or God's judgments on humanity. If you've seen Ghostbusters, you've heard of them before: the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, the dead rising from the Earth, cats and dogs living together, etc. What's more, the Antichrist will further consolidate his rule into a global totalitarian state and force humanity to worship him as a God. Those who refuse will be killed by the Antichrist, and those that do will be condemned to eternal punishment by God. During this seven-year period, God will wipe out 75 percent of all life on Earth.
And after that?
Well, after that, Christ returns. He punishes Satan, the Antichrist, and his minions -- casting them into a lake of eternal fire -- judges the remnants of humanity (casting a fair amount into the aforementioned lake), and inaugurates the millennium for the Raptured and his remaining followers. At the end of this period, Satan escapes from the lake of fire and makes one last assault on God. To no one's surprise, however, he is defeated, at which point, the final judgment occurs.
Well, that sounds exciting. Also, horrible.
This is a minority view among Christians. Not only is it rejected by the vast bulk of global Christendom, but it has many dissenters from within the conservative evangelical community, to say nothing of moderate and liberal evangelicals. Indeed, you'd be hard-pressed to find any real support for these beliefs in the Bible; the work of Darby and Scofield (and their many imitators) is riddled with mistranslations, convoluted interpretive frameworks, out-of-context quotes, and a complete disregard for most Christian tradition, Protestant or otherwise.
"Rapture-ism" is basically the Christian equivalent of belief in crazy conspiracy theories, like the Illuminati, or ancient race of lizard people who rule humanity with impunity.
What should I do on Saturday?
You should throw a party! Months of torture will go down easier after a few beers.