I’m a bit behind the times, but last night I saw (in repeat) the Simpsons’ episode called “Left Below,” which spoofs the very popular American fundamentalist “Left Behind” phenomenon (Tim LaHaye’s massive money-maker). Homer gets caught up in the expectation of the “rapture” while watching a movie and eventually gets a good following among other Springfieldites. He accurately predicts that “stars” will fall from the sky, which is fulfilled when a blimp carrying hollywood stars crashes and dumps its load of stars. He, like many other modern apocalyptic thinkers or “prophecy students”, calculates the time of the end based on his own unique formula. As in other cases, the calculated time of the end comes and goes — followed by the “great disappointment” of Springfield — only to be recalculated after recognizing the faulty number in the calculation, which again comes and goes. Nelson chimes in at the appropriate point with his “Ha, ha, life goes on”.
For those of you who happen not to be familiar with the origins of such modern American apocalyptic notions, things are very complicated but I’ll oversimplify them here in short form. In the 1800s, a Protestant Irish guy named John Nelson Darby developed the doctrine of the rapture in reference to the belief that just before the end-times and the terrible things listed in John’s Apocalypse, all believing Christians would be taken away from the earth by Jesus. Basically, the doctrine combines a variety of passages in the New Testament (including some from John’s Apocalypse / Revelation), but it is especially related to the reference to Jesus coming in the clouds in Paul’s first letter to the Christians at Thessalonica (written c. 50 CE):
According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.
(1 Thessalonians 4:15-18 [NIV]).
This doctrine was taken on by a number of American pastors, particularly those associated with the rise of fundamentalism in the twentieth century (beginning about 1919, but especially with the growth of fundamentalism post World War II). But it was not to become extremely popular until Hal Lindsey wrote his best-seller, The Late, Great Planet Earth in the 1970s. There Lindsey, as a “prophecy student”, interprets various current political and cultural events as the fulfillment of prophecies in the Bible (especially Daniel and John’s Apocalypse / Revelation). The book had a quite explicit proselytizing function, as it concludes with a call to accept Jesus and be saved from the coming wrath of God, to be among those that are Raptured and not “left behind” for the torturous tribulations to come. Many Lindsey like prophecy books that interpreted current events followed, including those that plugged the Hussein/Iraq situation into the end-time equation in the 1980s and 90s. As you are aware, there has been somewhat of a renaissance of the rapture notion in its American fundamentalist form with the extremely popular novels by Tim LaHaye (especially leading up to and since the turn of the millenium). There you go: the history of modern American fundamentalist apocalypticism in three paragraphs (not).
If you want to read more about apocalypticism generally, go to that PBS Apocalypse! site I mentioned before in connection with Aliens, Fallen Angels, and Heaven’s Gate. For more detail on the origins of the American form of apocalypticism, read Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1992).
UPDATE: A friend of mine who has cable (I have those old-fashioned rabbit ears you may have heard of in history books–very fuzzy) recorded the Simpson’s episode for me, and I watched it again. Quite humorous is Homer’s preaching, which captures the tensions in apocalyptic discourse: “God loves you . . . HE’S GOING TO KILL YOU!!!!”
The official title of the episode is “Thank God It’s Doomsday” (originally aired May 8, 2005).