A number of Christians confidently predicted that the Rapture would occur by September 23, 2023.
Spoiler: No Rapture occurred. But this failure won't deter potential prophets any more than it ever has. It works too well.
Last week, a bunch of right-wing Christians were hoping they’d finally get to see the Rapture they think their god promised his followers. It didn’t happen. But don’t worry! They are guaranteed not to learn a thing from this latest in a long, long, long, longlonglong line of disappointments. For those who really want to see it happen, Rapture beliefs just hit the sweet spot of conspiracy theories, dysfunctional authoritarian behavior, and unwarranted self-importance.
How you know someone’s done time in fundagelicalism
Not long ago and out of the blue, I asked my husband if he knew when Israel became a state. He had no idea. “When, then?” he asked.
“In 1948,” I replied without any hesitation.
I’m not an expert in geopolitics or anything like that. If you asked me when any other country’s statehood began, I would likely not know. I just used to be Pentecostal back in the 1980s and 1990s. And the one year that every single Pentecostal knew back then was that one.
We knew because the year 1948 represented the beginning of a very important countdown. Forget the Doomsday Clock. The folks who invented it had no idea what was really important. We knew that our very god had sent numerous prophecies to his followers to tell them that once Israel became a state, the Endtimes would begin within that generation—and that, in turn, meant that the Rapture would happen before the end of that generation.
(Fundamentalists back then—and evangelicals now—tend to reckon a generation as being 40 years long. In the Bible it varies a bit, but 40 years is the norm in that group. That’s why prophets back then marked 1988 early on as the latest possible year for the Rapture.)
Most serious Pentecostals loved Endtimes prophecies. Many of them collected books, newspaper and magazine clippings, and endless diagrams spiraling out in every direction—like this one:
With these pre-internet tools, they sought to fix a specific date on the Rapture. Fundamentalists deal in certainties; they don’t like vagueness. Even if the certainty isn’t quite that certain, they will latch onto it with all their might and declare it so.
Thus, a Rapture that will happen at some point in the future doesn’t push their thrill buttons. A Rapture that will definitely for-certain absolutely positively happen on September 23, 2023, though? Oh, that’ll do it. If they get hyped up enough about it, they might even sell their homes and hit the road evangelizing for that prediction.
A basic Rapture primer
In Christianese, the Rapture is a big part of right-wing Christians’ end-of-the-world (or Endtimes) beliefs. For the most part, we refer here to evangelicalism. In years past, Rapture beliefs belonged to fundamentalists alone. When evangelicals merged with them around the 1990s, they absorbed that belief as well.
Rapture believers think that at some near-future moment, Jesus will whisk them up into the sky to join him in Heaven. Seriously, that’s it. They think he’ll magically fly them to Heaven. But not all Christians. Only the best, most fervent, most obedient Christians get to be Raptured.
However, evangelicals remain divided on exactly where along the Endtimes timeline the Rapture will occur. They all agree that it’ll occur alongside a horrific seven-year-long persecution they call the Tribulation. That part’s a for-sure completely-settled question.
But some of them are pre-Trib, meaning they think the Rapture will occur before the Tribulation. Others are mid-Trib (halfway through the seven years) or even post-Trib (all the way after it). I can tell you that post-Trib Rapture believers tend to think the others are all weaklings who couldn’t possibly hack seven years of Tribulation.
The Rapture has captured wackadoodle Christians’ imaginations since the 1830s. That’s when preacher John Nelson Darby invented the idea.
(Hilariously, Rapture believers often try very, very hard to make their belief sound like it was always part of Christianity. It absolutely wasn’t. Remember, the Catholic Church didn’t teach it, and they were Christianity for most of the religion’s life.)
For pre- or mid-Trib Rapture believers, the worst fate in the world is being left behind. That means the Rapture came and went without them. All the very best Christians got whisked up to Heaven, but they didn’t make the cut. Now they get to deal with whatever amount of Tribulation is left.
The latest Rapture scare just came and went. Do you know where your fundagelicals are?
On August 6th, YouTuber FollowGod4 uploaded a four-hour-long video to predict a September 17, 2023 Rapture date.
For the most part, the uploaded fixates on Revelation 12.
“NOBODY IS TALKING ABOUT THIS,” another YouTuber gushed inaccurately on August 21, 2023. He wondered if he’d discovered “the great sign of Revelation 12” to predict a September 2023 Rapture.
Ten days later, another YouTuber talked about “the Revelation 12 sign reborn: Don’t look up!”
Other social media were buzzing about this date as well. A whole lot of people on Quora were asking about it, with one saying they felt “terrified” about it. It looks like they, too, fixated on Revelation 12. TikTok was filled with posts talking about it, with at least a few talking about that same book of the Bible.
Of course, some Christians chose to hedge their bets. One guy on Medium wrote a post about the Rapture, but ended by making plans for future posts just in case the Rapture didn’t happen.
The dates offered ranged from September 17-23, 2023. So by now, we are well past any predictions. They have all failed. Everyone making a prediction has been proven definitively wrong. As excited as they all got, as certain as they sounded as they offered their totes-for-realzies explanations of the utterly forgotten-by-time Book of Revelation which nobody had ever read or thought about before now, they were all wrong.
And this is far from the first time Rapture predictions have been wrong. Heck, this isn’t even the first Rapture prediction that hinged upon the Jewish Feast of Trumpets.
Rapture, Rapture everywhere, and not a single empty pile of clothes to be found
I wish I could tell all those titillated and frightened believers that there’ve been tons of Christian predictions of the end of the world. Just in the 19th century and early 20th century, we’ve had these failures:
1843-1844: The Great Disappointment. This one was such a huge disappointment that it spawned an entire flavor of Christianity called the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
1844-1862, 1865, 1867, 1873, 1881: Various prophecies that also failed.
1914-1925: Another series of failed predictions that were so disappointing that they spawned another entire flavor of Christianity called the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
After WWII, a number of evangelical leaders emerged to offer Endtimes predictions. From Herbert W. Armstrong to Pat Robertson, from Hal Lindsey to Jack Chick, from Edgar Whisenant to Elizabeth Clare Prophet, from even Harold Camping to John Hagee, they all use the same basic strategy:
- Shoehorn modern headlines into verses from the Book of Revelation.
- Make a grand prediction that somehow ties into Judaism. Extra points if you can get it all into diagram form.
- Leave town with the money before the marks realize they’ve been had.
- If anybody dares to bring up the failed prophecy (unlikely, but hey, it might happen), choose one or more strategy from this list: Insist you really were 100% accurate; blame Jesus for wanting to give humanity more time to repent; quote that Bible verse about nobody really knowing the day or the hour; deflect by focusing on the questioner’s eternal fate.
- Start over with new headlines. Count on the marks to have completely forgotten the previous false prediction. (Here’s one guy who’s been making and updating predictions since 2014. I found him by accident a while ago and have kept tabs on him since.)
Edgar Whisenant’s predictions whipped young Pentecostals into a thick froth in the 1980s. That’s when I joined up, and why. Legions of teenagers and college students joined around the same time I did, for that same reason. We were terrified that the world was ending.
Older Pentecostals apparently welcomed the end of the world. They only felt more and more entitled every year to their promised big whooshing sky zoomfest. But we younger folks hadn’t done much of anything with our lives yet. Somehow, we were just as scared shitless of missing out on adulthood as we were of being left behind.
To be evangelical is to have terrible long-term memory about certain things
Nobody, not even the elderly pastor of that church, bothered to tell us younger folks that there’d already been lots of failed predictions about the Endtimes. We also didn’t really have a consumer internet yet to tell us anything useful. No print media discussed those previous failures, either.
Today’s Christians have it a lot easier. Sure, lots of hucksters on the internet today want to trick them out of their attention and money. But there, Christians can also easily learn about previous false predictions.
If only they’d do that.
This September 2023 prediction hinged on an obscure bit of astronomy. False prophets tied that bit of astronomy into Revelation 12’s dazzling tale of a dragon, a star-woman and her child, and an angelic war in Heaven. (As near as I can suss out, that chapter discusses events that had already happened: Mary’s birthing of Jesus, Michael’s war against Satan, etc.)
John Hagee’s equally failed 2015 “Blood Moon” prophecy hinged upon obscure astronomy as well. That time, he drew upon the timing of “blood moons,” or lunar eclipses, to predict “something dramatic . . . in the Middle East.”
Man, it’s hard to be a Rapture prophet nowadays, isn’t it? Once 1988 came and went, that whole “within 40 years of Israel becoming a state” thing fell apart. These newer predictions make me burst out laughing because their creators are so obviously grasping at straws.
But the target audiences for this kind of dreck love it. They always completely forget about old, false predictions as they race ahead to the newest one. It’s like watching log-drivers dance, hopping from log to log as they all go down the river:
The Rapture scares Christians rather than giving them hope
Over on Reddit, someone at r/Christianity confessed to feeling “so anxious and just worried” about this September prediction. Though overall the OP received basically (and surprisingly) excellent advice, a number of Christians cautioned them about predictions with specific dates attached:
There will be a rapture you can count on that but only for those who believe that Jesus is The Christ The Son of God. As far predicting when the rapture will happen not even Jesus knows only God The Father knows. I do know this, what’s coming for those left behind is nothing anyone has ever suffered through before. [Smilesalot49]
Do not focus on the when, focus on the what. Yes have the wrath of the Lord inside of you, but let it be the spirit that is guiding you and not the fear. Pray for discernment of what Gods purpose is for you. There is a difference in being “prepared” and fearful. [Micagh]
[Long, babbling, incoherent post regurgitating all sorts of Rapture blahblah, including a bonus anachronistic mention of Israel and 1948!] [Southern_Fox6807, and wow she got quite testy about pushback on that 1948 thing]
A similar thread ran along very similar lines. The frightened OP asks for reassurance, and tons of Christians tell them not to pay attention to any prediction with a date on it. Like that’s going to ease the OPs’ minds!
A false belief doesn’t become less false or scary if you just avoid putting a specific date on it
I doubt any good advice can help to put OP’s mind at rest. A Rapture with no concrete date attached to it is just as wackadoodle as one with. It’s still a baffling bag of WTAF spilled all over a Christian’s lap.
The Rapture’s worst problem isn’t that sometimes, some liar-for-Jesus attaches a specific date to it. It’s that it’s utterly preposterous nonsense even by the Bible’s own standards.
Here’s just one example of what I mean: Rapture believers never wonder why Jesus holds a Rapture, but then he holds the official universe-wide Judgment Day much later. What, he pre-certifies his favorites with the Rapture? Is it like they’re getting on an airplane? If they make that Rapture cut, can they stop worrying about the big Judgment Day looming for everyone else?
For that matter, Christians once thought that all of their dead would “sleep” until Judgment Day. Not anymore, though.
(For a few very spicy years, though, early Christians seem to have thought martyrs got a special Speed Pass into Heaven. After martyrdom, went this belief, they wouldn’t sleep in death but be instantly teleported to Heaven. Eventually, Roman authorities got tetchy about Christians’ constant demands to be martyred, and Christian leaders frantically curbed that belief.)
Here’s another: Jesus never mentions the Rapture in the Gospels. At times, a book or chapter hints at Christianity’s early apocalyptic focus, like in Mark 13. However, these glimpses portray only Jesus himself floating in the clouds (in Mark 13:26). To be sure, Jesus forgot to mention a whole lot of very important things, like slavery being bad and Germ Theory and all that. But you’d think a wild-eyed, single-minded, apocalyptic Messiah like Jesus might perhaps consider the Rapture important enough to merit some few words, hmm?
Even Christians themselves talk about how ridiculous the Rapture is as a doctrine. On CNN’s site, Jay Parini specifically criticizes Rapture believers for misinterpreting the Book of Revelation as a mystical guide to the future, rather than accepting it for what it actually is: “a fiery dream of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70.”
None of their fellow Christians’ criticisms matter to Rapture believers, though. Early on, Christians learn to ignore competing interpretations of their holy book. And this doctrine in particular affects its believers in a very profound—and perhaps even unique—way.
Why the Rapture just hits evangelicals’ sweet spot
A lot of the worst-of-the-worst beliefs in evangelicalism are that way because they work. And by work, I mean they get evangelical leaders what they want.
Hell looks exactly as it does because it works to keep butts in pews (BIPs, a very important indication of an evangelical leader’s real power). Those butts freeze in place long past the time when their owners would normally have been long gone. Even some long-ago deconverted Christians still feel terrified of Hell sometimes. Even knowing it’s false, even knowing it’s purely made up by Christian leaders craving power, it’s just so over-the-top and despicably evil that some people can’t get away from it.
All the lies and emotional manipulation of the anti-abortion culture war work. They ensure that tons of people vote Republican who might not otherwise do so. Various big-name evangelical leaders worked very hard to create this culture war specifically to deliver votes to Republicans. Before that, they pushed segregation—as in, evangelical support of it—but that sold poorly outside of the Deep South. By now, their anti-abortion efforts have paid off so grandly that even some atheists get taken in by the cause’s talking points.
Complementarianism and purity culture evolved into their current forms because they work. They maintain women’s subjugation to men. It’s supposed to fail almost everybody. And it does. But those failed by it will never question its legitimacy. Instead, they always blame themselves—and keep these beliefs safely compartmentalized away from reality.
The Rapture functions in similar manner.
How to mix up a Rapture scare
Part conspiracy theory, part smug condescension over outsiders to the tribe, part unwarranted self-importance, part anxiety-inducer, part FOMO on steroids, the Rapture nestles down in that sweet spot of evangelical needs. It frightens the kinder, more compassionate sheep into line as much as it functions as a bludgeon for the less-so types.
That’s why it isn’t going anywhere.
All that’s different lately is the conjobs offering the false prophecies. For the past couple of Rapture scares, very few big-name leaders participated. Rather, these new false prophets were just hopeful, aspiring hucksters on youth-oriented social media sites. There, they hope to find victims who won’t realize they’re being snookered with yet another false prophecy—and who can be counted upon to lack the Bible literacy needed to discount such fearmongering.
No matter who’s pushing them, Rapture beliefs work for leaders far more than followers—like every other toxic evangelical belief. Such beliefs mostly terrify followers rather than giving them “blessed hope.” Sometimes, the flocks enjoy a little titillating frisson of fear, sure. But the Rapture goes way past that line.
And thus, I expect it’ll long remain part of evangelical leaders’ repertoire of fearmongering tricks—even for 40 years past 40 years, and then another 40 for good measure.