The end is here.
In the last year, on screens big and small, we've seen driverless cars careening into crowds, airplanes falling from the sky, the Hollywood Hills aflame, true believers being sucked into the heavens and a well-endowed Satan prowling the Earth and getting it on with Jonah Hill.
The Rapture is upon us, more so than ever, through movies both faith-based (this month's "Left Behind" reboot and the recent "The Remaining") and secular (the raunchy, apocalyptic comedy "This Is the End") and somewhere in between. (Confession: Even after 10 episodes, I still have no idea what, if anything, is going on in HBO's "The Leftovers," a series centered on the disappearance — called the "Sudden Departure" — of 2% of the Earth's population.)
I get it. People crave certainty in anxious times. And we're living in days when there's a little something for Nervous Nellies of all stripes. Recession. Depression. Ebola. Obama. Drought. The Cloud. Kim, Kourtney, Khloe, Kylie and Kendall. (Which is what ... five? Looks like we'll need another horse for the apocalypse.)
And for those who think that God will call believers to meet Him in the air before unleashing seven years of darkness, fire and brimstone and, as Bill Murray so eloquently put it in "Ghostbusters," "human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria," the idea of the Rapture offers chicken soup for the soul. You'll be safe in heaven watching while those left behind are forced to choose whether to get the mark of the Beast tattooed on their forehead or on their hand.
"The Rapture genre trades on fear, and fear can be an effective tool in the short-term," Pepperdine University communications professor Craig Detweiler says.
True enough. And I speak from experience. I attended a Christian elementary school, and one day in fourth grade my teacher wheeled out the film projector. We had been studying forests, so I was hoping for a nice little nature movie with bears, deer and waterfalls. Instead, the lights dimmed to the sound of a clock ticking. My teacher decided to show us the granddaddy of Christian apocalypse movies, "A Thief in the Night."
If you grew up in a conservative evangelical church in the 1970s, you probably saw "Thief." It was that pervasive. Musician Marilyn Manson caught it, writing in his autobiography, "The Long Road Out of Hell," that it made him "thoroughly terrified by the idea of the end of the world and the Antichrist," not to mention having your head cut off because you didn't have a 666 tattoo.
The 1972 movie followed a young woman who didn't pay attention to the (unspecified) signs of the end times, found herself left on Earth after the Rapture and running from the pod people minions of a world government hellbent on branding humanity with a barcode that would signify each bearer as a "true citizen of the world." "Thief" traded on psychological anxieties of the era — communism, the United Nations, sideburns — but manipulated its audience with a primal dread far greater: the fear of being separated from your family.
In one key scene, a pigtailed girl (basically Half Pint from "Little House on the Prairie" before Melissa Gilbert sprang into our collective consciousness) returns home from school and, finding the house empty and a pot of beans left unattended on the stove, flies into a panic, screaming for her mother. Fortunately, the Rapture had not occurred (yet) and the little one still had time to accept Jesus and ascend into heaven.
Those two minutes (those boiling beans!) seared themselves into the consciousness of anyone watching "Thief." "I've had students mention that scene often over the years," says Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago professor Barbara Rossing. "And it twists what is supposed to be a message of comfort into an image of terror."
The new "Left Behind" movie, based, like the 2000 straight-to-video effort, on the popular book series by Jerry B. Jenkins and California minister Tim LaHaye, also frequently uses images of abandonment, though here it's the children ditching their parents. Hospital nurseries empty, strollers are forsaken, and all that's left is onesies, pacifiers and balloons floating to the sky. If you're still young enough to order off the kids menu, apparently you're safe from the Lord's judgment.
"God is not a baby snatcher!" says Rossing, author of "The Rapture Exposed," a book that, as you might infer from the title, takes the view held by many Christian churches and biblical scholars that rapture theology distorts the Bible. Rossing notes that the early church didn't hold to a belief in the Rapture, with the idea not coming into vogue until the 1830s through the teachings of British evangelical preacher John Darby.
"Those New Testament passages were meant to offer hope to people living under Roman oppression," Rossing says. "It was about empowerment, not escapism. But that's been twisted into an apocalyptic theology that's just flat-out wrong. I guess it speaks to our fascination with disasters. It's hard to compete with all those vanishing people."
Paul Lalonde, the producer of the original "Left Behind" movies and the recent reboot, disagrees with the "flat-out wrong" part but would cop to the power inherent in images of people separated from their loved ones. He adds that the timeline on biblical interpretation isn't as important as its truth.
"The idea for the Rapture is relatively new in a historical sense, but so is the fact that the Earth isn't flat, and a lot of people have come to accept that," Lalonde says.
When I pointed out that there was a fair amount of scientific evidence to support the Earth's shape, whereas the Rapture remains pure conjecture, Lalonde responded, "There will be scientific evidence when we're all gone."
You can't argue with that. For good and bad, we can't say we haven't been warned.