Joshua Rivera: Growing up and awaiting the rapture

From Saturday Morning, 11:10 am on 15 May 2021


It's said by many evangelical Christians that true believers will be transported to heaven before the second coming of Christ, known as the rapture.

Journalist Joshua Rivera talked to Kim Hill about the insidious influence the belief has had on US politics and culture.

Joshua Rivera

Journalist and writer Joshua Rivera Photo: supplied

Rivera grew up in an immigrant evangelical family in Florida, later New York, and was raised with the fear of the rapture hanging over his head. He recently penned a piece for Slate magazine about the power it held — and still holds — over him and his family, and how it continues to influence American society and politics.

Rivera said he grew up with world view shaded by his family's belief they were awaiting the rapture.

"There was a painting my grandfather had, a graveyard, it was very dark and decrepit and really quite frightening, but it had these shafts of light erupting from the graves ... it was meant to depict this idea of the rapture.

"The idea that those who died as Christians would also rise, and that very much planted the seed in my brain as to what this was. So it started off as a very frightening thing, and as I found out what it meant to me - my family, as they converted ... it started to become frightening in an entirely different way."

Rivera's mother had been Catholic, and his father was raised in a protestant home, and as young parents the community offered by religion provided security.  

"They sought stability, and religion gave them that order and continues to give them that order."

He says the origins of beliefs about the rapture are complex, and various American Christian leaders from William Miller onwards have gained strong followings preaching it.

"There is something that looks like the rapture in American church history... this persistent idea that Jesus is going to come back, like he promised in the book of Revelations and the book of Acts - one of his last exhortations to his apostles, to preach the gospel, tell everyone that he's coming - or at least that's how it's taken.

"So, it's this idea that Christians are enlightened and those who aren't - they have the opportunity to become Christians, but by definition many won't, and that's what judgement's for, and that's what's depicted in a lot of Revelations.

"And, people read this very symbolic text as having a degree of literalism, that catastrophe is what awaits the end of humanity, and the only way out of it is through faith. You become a Christian, and you're Christ-like and you're saved and you go to heaven when you die. But there's also a chance that you'll live to see the last days, the end times, and it's this idea that should that be you you'll be whisked away and you won't die, you'll just go straight to heaven, you'll skip that step."

Beliefs about what happens next are varied, but generally the idea is that non-believers will be left in tribulation on earth.

However, this has led to a darkly fatalistic and at times insular approach to the wider world, Rivera says.

"It leaves the troubling idea that the world's troubles are "supposed to happen - all of this crisis is supposed to happen and inevitable and not something that we have anything to do with, other than to reaffirm faith and get ready to not see it, not pay.

"It sort of extends from this idea of original sin, that mankind is fallen, that we are only good because of Christ within us. That without God mankind is doomed to fail. It's this very narrow view of humanity and goodness that just denies the agency of people.

Many of these communities develop a distrust for secular authorities, he says.

"The heart of evangelical culture is the idea of a born-again experience, you recognise and confess that you're a sinner, you apologise to Jesus, and you're said to be born again, you're baptised and you are - in the biblical language that they use, a new creature in the eyes of God, forgiven for everything that you were. And you go forth as a Christian, living in faith that you will one day go to heaven, but also will be absolved for your shortcomings as long as you confess them.

"So for me that meant a lot of feeling bad about who I was as a teenager, and trying very hard to want to be spiritual, be involved in the church, and be someone who wasn't ashamed to be identified as a Christian, who lived that life - to denial of myself, my individuality.

"I started meeting other people who practised less extreme forms of Christianity - not to say I didn't think those other forms also had problems - but I did notice that other people my age were being Christian out of a choice, out of some sense of fulfilment. And at the same time I started to notice that when you are in that community that a church can give you, it also becomes a way to not talk about problems specifically, real human problems."

An artist's impression of the rapture

An artist's impression of the rapture Photo:

He says problems were deemed "not something to talk about - which was starting to frustrate me, because... not everything can be suppressed in this way. I started to see people and friends who were hurt, and I was hurt, and there was no recourse.

But, "if you follow the letter of the church's moral order, if you appear to not drink, not swear, if you go to church regularly and dress right and speak right and marry right, then you are deemed more or less OK in the eyes of your church community.

"What you're told, say - if you have an abusive parent or an abusive spouse, you're told to pray, to bring your problems to God. And if things start to threaten your life then maybe people will help you, but otherwise, short of that there was no mechanism for accountability, and that caused people a lot of pain for things that were severe, and less so."

Rivera says those attitudes are enmeshed in the so-called American doctrine of exceptionalism; that there are chosen people and those who are not chosen - and it has shaped social, political slants, and the geopolitical view the US has of itself.

"One of the interesting things about being an American right now is how much of our political apparatus is dependent on something that we very much know to be a fiction, that this country is the most powerful, the wealthiest, the most effective - the best.

"But it's almost impossible to ignore now that it's become a regular occurrence for people to crowdfund for healthcare, we have problems with the unhoused, we have people dying of gun violence all the time.

"This belief is espoused largely by the conservative party here in America, but also by liberals in power who still have to pay lipservice to it, or else suffer backlash from their opponents. A big part of it is just this feeling of latent Christianity in the culture, that's always going to be there it feels like, and that dissonance: how can we be a nation with so many Christian people in power who have God on their side ... and how could we be failing? And that requires you to lie to yourself about a lot of things."

'This was always an undercurrent in Christian culture'

Rivera says the language of faith has been coopted in the US by corporate interests and white power structures.

"One of the interesting things is seeing how Christianity started to entrench itself in our political discourse and how we discuss social issues in this country: evangelical Christianity is about a personal relationship with you and Christ and God, it's a direct one to one thing, that's tied to this puritan idea of the protestant work ethic, that working is a gift from God, and good and holy people will want to work.

"These are ideas that are embedded in American culture because of the Christian framework that some of our founders had, and that was also stressed by people later in our country's history.

"Famously, you have the moral majority in the 70s and 80s, with the Reverend Jerry Falwell, that effectively turned abortion into this single issue for people of faith. With segregation ... a lot of Christian private schools in America began to arise as a response to [racial] integration, when social programmes post-WWII began gaining steam and undercutting private enterprise then ... you see these companies intentionally work with Christian leaders to re-brand their image and make it seem fundamentally American to embrace industry and eschew the public good."

Rivera says the rise of an on-trend 'exvangelical' social movement has some pros and some cons. It has seen many stories publicly surface about the negative experiences of people brought up in evangelical communities of belief.  But he's concerned it also creates an 'us' and 'them', that could easily be used to disown some of America's social problems.  

"This interest has seemed to come up post-Donald Trump's election. There was sort of a cognitive break that a lot of our writers and thinkers tried to parse. Like, how could people of faith embrace such a man, and embrace such a politics of open grievance and racial resentment? But that had always been in conservative politics, and that was always an undercurrent in Christian culture.

"So, the rise of a lot of these stories, to me reads as an attempt to sort of absolve whiteness in America from some of its uglier history.

One of the most difficult things about waking up to a systemic issue is acknowledging your own complicity. Personally, it's difficult. It's difficult to think about the things I use to believe or tried to believe... I look in horror at the person I could have become..."

Growing up with the belief the rapture could happen at any moment has led to anxiety and panic attacks Rivera says he's still unpacking and fighting.

Now, he would not describe himself as a Christian.

"I've seen too much harm, I've felt too much personally... for me the whole system is broken."