CNN recently published an online article by AJ Willingham titled, “For some Christians, ‘rapture anxiety’ can take a lifetime to heal.” Willingham begins her article with a story that thirty-four year old April Ajoy told CNN. When she was thirteen years old, April noticed that it was awfully quiet in the house. As she walked from room to room, there was no sign of her parents or brothers. They were gone. When April saw a pile of her mother’s clothes on the bed, she was convinced that the rapture had occurred and she was left behind. April feared what would happen to her should she refuse the mark of the beast. All she could think about was the graphic guillotine scene she had seen in the 1972 rapture film, “A Thief in the Night.” This was a traumatic religious experience for April that continues to haunt her to this day. April now considers herself to be an “exvangelical”, someone who has removed herself from the damaging beliefs of evangelical and fundamental churches.
Willingham asserts that, though there are different schools of thought on the rapture, the basic idea is the same: “Righteous Christians ascend into heaven, while the rest are left behind to suffer.” Therefore, a Christian needs to prepare for the rapture every moment of his or her life. One does that by avoiding sin. The belief is that if you are a Christian engaging in unconfessed sin, and Jesus returns, you will be left here on earth.
“Rapture anxiety” is defined in the article as a type of religious trauma that is characterized by a latent fear of an impending, inevitable end. According to Willingham, some faith experts and mental health professionals see rapture anxiety as a chronic problem which can lead to an increase of anxiety, depression, paranoia, and OCD-like behaviors.
How should we take this article? Let me begin by saying that Willingham is intentionally trying to paint religion, and especially evangelical Christianity, in a bad light. Instead of presenting a balanced perspective, the whole tone of the article is negative toward evangelical Christians and our beliefs. Willingham attributes people’s traumatic religious experiences to the damaging teachings of the church. She cites former church members who recall being “tricked” by church leaders into watching violent rapture-themed films, and she implies that if a Christian challenges the church’s beliefs about the rapture, they are likely to lose everything they hold dear. To be honest, I am no longer shocked by these type of opinion articles. The liberal media is anti-God and anti-Christian, and progressives are intent on tearing down the religious structures within our society. Still, Christians need to learn how to respond to these attacks. We do that by pointing out areas of faulty thinking.
Willingham is incorrect when stating the basic idea behind the rapture. The idea she presents is known as the Partial Rapture position, which is a minority view within evangelical churches. Personally, I do not know anyone who holds this view. The majority viewpoint is the Pre-Tribulation Rapture position, which holds that, when Jesus returns, at some point prior to the seven-year Tribulation period, He will “snatch up” into the sky all Christians who are living on the earth at that time to be with Him forever (cf. 1 Thess. 4:13-17). I do not want to minimize April’s experience. If she was raised in a church that taught the Partial Rapture position, I can see why she experienced great fear when she thought the rapture had occurred and she was left behind. While the rapture is not a core doctrine of the church, it is a secondary doctrine, April’s experience does remind us that what we believe about End Time events matters because it impacts the way we live today.
The Pre-Tribulation Rapture position, which I believe the Scriptures teach, is intended to bring comfort to the believer, not fear. That’s why Paul instructs the church in Thessalonica to “encourage one another with these words” after sharing this doctrinal truth with them (1 Thess. 4:18). God’s plan is to remove all Christians from the earth prior to the start of the Great Tribulation, a time when God will begin to pour out His wrath upon those who refuse to place their faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. This will be a time of judgment, but not for Christians. Paul says in Romans 8:1, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Christians never need to fear God’s judgment. Our sin was already judged when Jesus went to the cross and died in our place. Jesus’ death brings the Christian new life, not judgment. The ones who need to fear God’s judgment are those who continue to mock God, the gospel, and the teachings of His Word.