When I was very small and slowly growing up in Northern Ireland, my parents told me repeatedly that according to their interpretation of the prophetic texts of the bible, terrible things would soon happen on our earth, certainly within my lifetime. I would see before my melting eyes the lurid events of Revelations -- the seven seals of divine wrath would be opened and pour forth unthinkable viciousness. As if humans weren't screwing things up enough on their own... That was the whole point, however -- because of human depravity, the Age of Grace would be wrapped up according to a timetable of prophetic events, which, once set in motion, would bring Armageddon to all the affairs of mankind."It's shaping up for the end times!"
preachers would bellow at me and the congregation in church. "These are the last of the last days,"
my father would say, either in the living room or from the pulpit. "And, without Christ, you will be left behind!"
I remember vividly in perhaps 1981, a preacher describing the whole End-Times prophetic chart and concluding with the flourish that the Second Coming, or Rapture, must happen, "though God has not revealed to us the dates,"
before the end of the 1980s. It was the Second Coming that was to trigger the restarting of God's prophetic timetable. After the Second Coming, Armageddon would occur in seven years. It would involve fantastic destruction, pain, mutilation and injury -- whole swathes of the earth would be wiped out in world wars that must have seemed unimaginable to literalist scholars of the prophetic texts, up until 1945.
1945... Today, still with considerable anger, I imagine the generation of preachers before the ones who shouted at me while I was growing up, greeting the news of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the dawning of the Atomic Age, with glee. Almost any of the fantastical, lurid prophetic texts, the ones describing in detail really evil shit, could now be attributed to some aspect of a nuclear holocaust. In St Mark's Gospel chapter 13, verse 24, Jesus says: "...in those days, after that tribulation, the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, And the stars of heaven shall fall..."
"It's a nuclear winter, isn't it, sinner?"
Sometimes they would shout their message so loudly, these preachers would fall hoarse, and for effect, resort to dramatically croaking out the last few pernicious words of their sermons, fifteen minutes into overtime. For born-again Christians who eschewed the world and the flesh, they knew an awful lot about demagoguery and showmanship. Another preacher I remember vividly describing how terrified animals in zoos would run amok and crush people to death in the End-Times panic. My father never ceased to say that people would be so crazed with evil that they would take to playing a kind of game where they'd use their cars to run pedestrians over.
All this and more, triggered by the Second Coming. What is the Second Coming? For all the terrors of the run-up to Armageddon, in my opinion the doctrine of the Second Coming as preached by the godly people by whom I was raised -- and I think I am being generous in calling it a doctrine -- is the most monstrous of the lot. Here's the most relevant passage from the bible:Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
It is, for all that I will say next, still a rather beautiful and lyrical passage. It is a revolutionary idea, one that my parents still cling to fervently. We shall not all sleep. As soon as we are born, it is said, we begin to die. Death is as certain as change is constant. But St Paul in this bible passage holds out the thought that through Christ, those Christians alive at the moment of the Second Coming, will go to heaven without having to suffer pain, sickness, weakness, death. What human would not want to turn to face the ultimate enemy and cry, O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
For this to happen, Christ has to come back to earth from heaven and, like a mighty cosmic vacuum cleaner, suck up all the saved ones in an instant, into heaven.
If, like me, you are not born again, you'll be left behind. I sat through thousands of Gospel Meetings where this point was labored. Every conceivable miserable splitting of the family unit was imagined by preachers who, though Christian in name, had not an ounce of humanity or love within them. "You'll come home from school one day, son, and they'll be GONE." "It could be at nighttime. When it happens, it will be nighttime somewhere on the earth. When you wake up and run to look for your mummy, wondering why she hasn't called you from your bedroom, that's when you'll find that we'll have been raptured!" "Be sure you know where the keys of the house and the car are kept. We won't need them any more."
And so on. At the age of seven or eight or nine or even a bit older, this stewed-up old nonsense is terrifying. It warps the normal family, it makes horrified, terrorized imbeciles out of little children.
Though the effect of this wretched nonsense on me has been profound, I have to say that I side with an American psychiatrist, Gordon Livingstone, who recently published a very readable book of common sense thoughts on life called "Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart,"
in which he wrote: "the statute of limitations has expired on most of our childhood traumas."