Jesus is Coming Soon, It Could be Today!

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For those of us who came of age in Evangelical churches in the late 1960s and 1970s, we remember countless sermons about the rapture, the coming second of Jesus, and the Great Tribulation. The classic Evangelical horror flick, A Thief in the Night, was released in 1972. Wikipedia explains the plot of A Thief in the Night this way:

A young woman named Patty Myer awakens one morning to a radio broadcast announcing the disappearance of millions around the world showing that the rapture has occurred. She finds that her family has disappeared and that she has been left behind. The United Nations sets up an emergency government system called the United Nations Imperium of Total Emergency (UNITE) and declare that those who do not receive The Mark of the Beast identifying them with UNITE will be arrested.

Several flashbacks occur to times in Patty’s life before the rapture has happened. The flashbacks also show her two friends and their different approaches to Christianity, one who considers Jesus Christ her Only Lord and Only Savior and the other, Diane, who does not take it seriously. Patty considers herself a Christian because she occasionally reads her Bible and goes to church regularly, where the pastor is really an unbeliever. She refuses to believe the warnings of her friends and family that she will go through The Great Tribulation if she does not accept Jesus Christ as her Only Lord and Only Savior. One morning, she awakens to find that her family and millions of others have suddenly disappeared.

Patty seems a strange breed of person who both refuses to trust Jesus Christ as her Only Lord and Only Savior and also refuses to take The Mark. Patty desperately tries to avoid the law and The Mark but is captured by UNITE. Patty escapes but, after a chase, is cornered by UNITE on a bridge and falls from the bridge to her death.

Patty then awakens, and the entire film’s plot is revealed to have been a dream. She is tremendously relieved; however, her relief is short-lived when the radio announces that millions of people have in fact disappeared. Horrified, Patty frantically searches for her family only to find them missing too. Traumatized and distraught, Patty realizes that The Rapture has indeed occurred, and she has been left behind. In the ensuing plot the questions are whether or not she will be caught, as she was in her dream, and whether or not she will choose to take The Mark to escape execution.

A Thief in the Night had a profound effect on scores of Evangelical Christians. Here was a movie showing in graphic detail what would happen when Jesus comes to earth and raptures away Christians. This movie, along with Estus Pirkle’s 1974 horror flick, The Burning Hell, really unsettled me emotionally and spiritually. Was I ready for the rapture? What if I wasn’t saved? These issues and others certainly played a part in my conversion at Trinity Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio in the fall of 1973.  (Please see The Sounds of Fundamentalism: A Thief in the Night by Russell S. Doughten and  The Sounds of Fundamentalism: The Burning Hell by Estus Pirkle and Ron Ormond)

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The 1970s featured prophecy-themed sermons from the books of Revelation and Daniel. In 1976, the Walking Bible, Evangelist Jack Van Impe came to Findlay to hold a city-wide crusade. Van Impe’s sermons were filled will warnings about the imminent return of Jesus and the Great Tribulation. I attended a Bob Harrington crusade (Please see Evangelist Bob Harrington: It’s Fun Being Saved) that featured several sermons about the soon return of Jesus. The widely-read Sword of the Lord ran regular articles and sermons about the pretribulational rapture of the church and the horrors of the soon-coming Tribulation.

Much of the evangelistic frenzy in the 1970s was driven by the belief that Jesus was preparing to come back soon — maybe today! Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches, in particular, grew quickly, so much so that many of the largest churches in the United States were IFB congregations.

Of course, Jesus did not return in the 1970s. The 1980s saw Hal Lindsay’s book, The Late, Great Planet Earth, first published in 1970, which renewed Evangelical fervor with its prediction that the rapture would take place 40 years after the 1948 establishment of Israel as a nation. Lindsay’s book, The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon, continued to stoke the fires of Evangelical zeal. (By 1990, The Late, Great Planet Earth had sold 28 million copies.) In 1988, Edgar Whisenant released a publication titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will be in 1988. (88 Reasons sold 4.5 million copies, and 300,000 free copies were mailed to pastors.) Whisenant predicted that the rapture would take place between September 11 and 13, 1988. Jesus, of course, was a no show in 1988 and has yet to make an appearance to this day.

By the time the 1990s arrived, rapture-mania had pretty well died out. Oh, Evangelical pastors and evangelists still preached eschatological themed sermons, but the fervor that drove churches previously was gone. While preachers still preach about the imminent return of Jesus, such sermons no longer motivate congregants to busily win souls before Jesus comes again and it is too late.

Officially, most Evangelicals believe in the pretribulational rapture of the church. However, if you let their works testify to what they really believe, it is evident that Evangelicals no longer believe that Gabriel is fixing to blow his trumpet and Jesus is returning in the clouds to catch away his chosen ones. TV preachers such as con artist Jim Bakker continue to preach up the could-be-tomorrow rapture, but tomorrow never comes and their bank accounts continue to grow.

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Evangelicals have traded a soon-coming Lord for megachurches, fancy AV systems, praise bands, relational preaching and, most importantly, political power. Evangelicals seem far more concerned with expanding their kingdoms on earth than they do evangelizing the lost and building the kingdom to come. I don’t know of one Evangelical preacher, church leader, or congregant, for that matter, who lives as if Jesus could split the eastern sky today. I told Polly last night that Evangelicals sure do talk and sing a lot about Heaven, but none of them seem to be in much hurry to get there. The vast majority of Evangelicals not only are indifferent about their own souls, but they also couldn’t care less about the souls of their unsaved, heathen neighbors. Evangelicalism has become that which it stood against decades ago — institutionalized. It has become little more than cultural religion. The only reason any of us should give a thought about Evangelicalism is that it continues to have a dangerous anti-human hold on the Republican Party. Unbelievers now outnumber Evangelicals in the United States, but we have nowhere near the political and cultural power Evangelicals have.

Evangelicals can continue to preach up the soon return of Jesus, but it’s evident to anyone who is paying attention that they no longer believe what they are preaching. In fact, I suspect many Evangelicals hope Jesus isn’t in any hurry to destroy the world with fire. Deep down, most Evangelicals wonder if they really want to trade the good life of the here and now for an eternity of prostrating themselves before a narcissistic God.

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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23 Comments

  1. Ami

    I remember a Chick tract where the reaper just showed up and harvested some guy. One of my friends had to explain the picture, I’d never heard of the reaper.

    But she was scared that Jesus was going to come ‘any day’ and that if I wasn’t ‘right’ with God, well, I would be left behind.

    Her dad had purchased 100 copies of Hal Lindsey’s book and was giving them away to other people in the church. Our family had a copy, but I never read it.

    It’s interesting to me that most of the teenage people I had to go to church with when I was a teen are still super Jesus-y.

    Except for one of my brothers, pretty much every single one.

    And still no rapture.

    Reply
  2. Brunetto Latini

    “The Burning Hell”. The local seminary used to show that movie at housing projects and churches. I went with the practical mission group one night and watched it. Horrible movie. Laughably bad. But I heard that people got saved in large numbers whenever it was shown. As far as movie-making goes, it was several notches below “A Thief in the Night”.

    Reply
  3. Melissa A Montana

    I used to go to a church food bank. One cold winter day, they let us sit in the church. Unfortunately, they forced us to watch Left Behind. Besides being a terrible movie (crappy special effects, bad acting) it showed the rapture in all it’s terrible cruelty. Parents crying over empty cribs and strollers, people crying over their missing spouses, and the poor animals left behind with no one to care for them. Who the hell could enjoy being in heaven knowing your family and pets are suffering? What kind of sick mind rejoices at such cruelty? The church people sure do, prattling on about how wonderful the movie was, and don’t it make you want to be saved? They seemed genuinely puzzled about why people were either ignoring it or seemed unhappy. And what’s with the clothes left behind? Is heaven just one giant nudist colony?

    Reply
  4. Carol Dworkowski

    All of which only confirms the suspicion that “American Christianity” is more American than Christian.

    I am much more concerned with the apparent reality that a large segment of the American electorate regards our political life as entertainment rather than a civic responsibility than I am about the health an wealth gospel. The prosperity gospel will go the way of the Chick tracts and the scared straight Rapture drama when the economy collapses, as it surely will if we don’t begin electing statesmen again instead of celebrity politicians.

    Money may be power, but there is strength in numbers. America has had the lowest voter turnout of any of the Western democratic nations for decades and those that do turn out vote against their own economic interests more often than not as the farmers are beginning to learn the hard way.

    A politician from India defined a politician as someone who takes money from the rich and votes from the poor while promising to defend each against the other.

    “This is a confusing and uncertain period, when a thousand wise words can go completely unnoticed, and one thoughtless word can provoke an utterly nonsensical furor.” — Vaclav Havel, Czech dramatist and statesman

    Let us teach ourselves and others that politics should be an expression of a desire to contribute to the happiness of the community rather than of a need to cheat or rape the community. – Vaclav Havel

    “The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.” –Vaclav Havel, Czech Playwright and President of Czechoslovakia(1989-92)

    “You do not become a ‘dissident’ just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them. It begins as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society.” — Vaclav Havel, Czech dramatist and statesman

    You may ask what kind of republic I dream of. Let me reply: I dream of a republic independent, free, and democratic, of a republic economically prosperous and yet socially just; in short, of a humane republic that serves the individual and that therefore holds the hope that the individual will serve it in turn. Of a republic of well-rounded people, because without such people it is impossible to solve any of our problems — human, economic, ecological, social, or political. – Vaclav Havel

    Reply
  5. GeoffT

    Living in the largely secular UK I’d never even heard of the ‘rapture’ until a few years ago, when I was on a motorcycle forum and two guys were arguing about pre and post tribulation (I think that were the terms they used). Living next door to a church (CofE) I thought I’d ask some of the congregants, and none of them could really explain it. They dismissed it as ‘silly American superstition’.

    This made me think of faith, a word that’s been bandied about, and can mean different things to different people. My own take on this is that I reserve the word only for use in religious contexts; in other walks of life I use words like confidence, or trust. For me faith is bad, but can be harmless, probably the majority of the time. It gets heavily defended with all sorts of strategies, either denying that faith is nothing more than ‘belief without evidence’ or attacking secular ‘faith’, such as ‘don’t you have faith in your doctor or mechanic?’, the latter being why I try and avoid using the term. Faith can be used to defend anything because, not being based on reason (though that is a premise that gets attacked), it cannot be challenged by reason. Faith can be used to justify leprechauns, unicorns, near death experiences, creationism, mormonism, scientology, homeopathy, child abuse, FGM, capital punishment, guns, and flat earth….to name but a very few. So when people start claiming the rapture is on its way..I yawn and open another beer. At least beer is based in reality.

    Reply
  6. ObstacleChick

    I grew up in the 70s and 80s in Southern Baptist church and fundamentalist evangelical Christian school. I vaguely remember “A Thief in the Night”, but all of us kids learned the song from the movie (“I Wish We’d All Been Ready” which may or may not be the title). My grandma had Hal Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth” which I read as a young teen. I can’t remember whether we learned more about eschatology at church or at school, but I do remember a painting in a hallway of our school of an artist’s rendition of “The Rapture” which used to scare some of us kids. Also, I recall a discussion of eschatology in Training Union (aka Sunday night Sunday school) where I asked why God would create so many millions of people knowing they would never hear the gospel and would go to hell for eternity through no fault of their own, and I was told that’s why we all have to spread the gospel far and wide. I was pretty mad about that answer.

    Eschatology scared the living daylights out of me. My mom and grandma drove full into Bible prophecy when I was in college, and I stayed as far from those discussions as possible. I was already trying to exit evangelicalism for a more progressive and inclusive Christianity, one that didn’t include nightmarish tales of Rapture and Tribulation.

    Reply
    1. Carol Dworkowski

      One of my uncles converted to Mormonism.

      When the newly constructed Mormon Temple just outside of Washington, DC was opened to the public for a short time before being accessible to Mormons only , my uncle insisted on taking our non-religious nuclear family on a tour of it. Painted on one wall was a huge mural of the Second Coming of Jesus. The background was obviously Washington, DC.

      My agnostic father’s response was, “I’m glad to see that he will be arriving locally,” much to the amusement of the rest of us.

      Fortunately, my father and his brother-in-law had a strong enough personal bond for the relationship to survive. Not all devotees of either religion or politics can maintain a relationship with anyone who does not share their identity with their particular sect or Party.

      Reply
      1. Caroll

        Did you ever see “Surrender Dorothy” painted on the bridge crossing the beltway near the Temple? It’s probably is not there any longer, but it was there for a few years at least after the Temple was built. The Temple resembles the Emerald City except it’s not green.

        Reply
    2. Neil

      Yeah, it was ‘I Wish We’d All Been Ready’, by the late great Larry Norman. A good song in many ways (as were many of his songs) though poor old Larry was nutty as fruit cake.

      Reply
  7. Brunetto Latini

    I have the whole series on VHS:
    A Thief in the Night
    A Distant Thunder
    Image of the Beast
    Prodigal Planet

    They were filmed at substantial intervals, because you see fashion evolve from hippie to mid-80’s during the Tribulation. More movies were planned, but I don’t think they were made.

    “Image of the Beast” was a pretty good movie, for a Christian film. “Prodigal Planet” was pathetic. “A Distant Thunder” wasn’t bad. I can’t watch “A Thief in the Night” because of the ugly 60’s fashion.

    Reply
  8. Brian Vanderlip

    The Rapture is used by Bully-Jesus believers to scare the child in you, to frighten you into submission. (It is also a carrot on a stick held in front of the beast of hurden in you.) It is the same strategy assault used on me as a young child hearing exactly what would happen to me as I was lowered into the pit of eternal fire. No matter how you dress it up, Jesus was a blood sacrifice, a son who was tortured to death by his father.
    I try to claim back the language stolen by religion and use it without the twisted religious aspects but I suspect GeoffT is more realistic in his choice to let certain words sort of stay in the Pope’s pocket because they are so abused. I might try to give that a go myself. But shite! There are three versions of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah that make me turn up the volume and when I hear them the very last thing on my mind is a god. Must I surrender Hallelelujah because Christians want to sing it in their churches and like to babble about the original definition? Naw, can’t do it cuz my Hallelujah begins and never ends in more than the magic of the creative human mind, the heart of song. The original meaning of the word Hallelujah is part of my path to secularism, to humanism. Religion ruined so much of me that humanism is a healing way to approach myself now, to be able to simply be. What a weight was lifted when I was saved from God, when I finally knew i did not believe. There is a hymn I know. You can’t sing it because it is vision only and only vision. The hymn’s title is Sunrise, and of course there are no lyrics at all. Sometimes it is utterly silent hallelujah as it crests the hills east of me. And sometimes it’s just the sun coming up, yawn.

    Reply
    1. Carolk

      Well, I think the late Leonard Cohen who wrote Hallelujah would be more than fine with you not considering it a “Christian” song as he was Jewish but embraced Buddhism in the zen tradition later in life. He was a JewBu.

      Reply
      1. Carol Dworkowski

        Buddhism goes well with the Judeo-Christian Tradition, teaches many of the same spiritual truths in a much gentler way.

        Wabi-Sabi, the spirituality of imperfection, is much better than Augustine’s theology of Original Sin. As Cohen sang, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

        Reply
  9. Goyo

    One of the things that led me to becoming a xtian, was reading “the late great planet earth” in the 80’s.
    Finally, a book that explained revelation!
    Of course, gog and Magog was Russia!
    It all made sense in some weird way.

    Reply
  10. Mary

    I grew up right here in the US in Florida and never heard of any of this nonsense back in the 60s/80s, until many years later, as an adult I heard bits and pieces. Although being an atheist, I was never around churchy people. When I retired to NC, I got a taste with some nut cases in my neighborhood, but more so in the last few years, and I’m back in Florida. It’s like a cancer that is spreading.

    Christianity has become nothing more than a political party in search or power and control.

    Reply
  11. Brunetto Latini

    I never saw the rapture as a scare tactic. It was something that made life exciting, when I believed in it. It’s difficult to maintain that excitement for long stretches of time, but I was convinced the entire 5 years I was in college in the mid-80’s that the end-time was imminent and I would be in heaven rather than the workplace.

    I experienced the same excitement again around the turn of the millennium.

    Reply
    1. Carol Dworkowski

      And now, with workers being seen as “human resources” to be used in the corporate pursuit of short term profits at the expense of long term sustainability, the workplace has become a Hobbsian hell for many.

      I wonder if people were considered to be “human capital” rather than “human resources”, the workplace would become more humane.

      Reply
  12. Rational Human

    I have to disagree with you on one point Bruce. Jim Bakker makes his living talking up the tribulation, not the rapture. He shills 5 gallon buckets of freeze dried survival sludge food to the tubes in his audience.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Good point.

      Reply
  13. maryg

    wow. had this discussion recently w/mom and she regrets falling for this in the 1970s.many people including my family stopped caring about jobs, education,finances etc due to this movement. mom’s biggest regret is letting go of education for herself and a good job for dad in order to pursue ministry. she regrets not caring about education for her kids beyond high school. she also regrets leaving her parents behind in order to live all over the country due to the false belief. still Christian but now realizes that this doctrine is a recent development in the Christian world. early Christians would not have recognized this rapture as taught in the 1970s and these movies. especially the movies and teachings of the 70s forward. I also lived in fear and shame until I realized that the teaching was false. refused to heap this on my own kids.

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  14. Van

    I don’t remember the name of the movie we were shown but I remember it ended with all the Christians who refused to take the mark lining up at a gallows, and climbing up and laying down to be Guillotined. It ended with a closeup of the blade falling, then a loud thwack and black screen. And I remember thinking, yeah I would that. I guess the producers were mid- or post-trib believers.

    Lack of the rapture was instrumental in my deconversion. One of the authors I read had trained to be a Bible translator. He wrote a detailed explanation of how all the NT references to the second coming happening ‘soon’ could in no way be interpreted to accommodate a 2,000+ year delay. So if it didn’t happen by now, it’s not going to happen. (Or if it does, then the NT was wrong, which poses other problems.)

    Reply
  15. Brunetto Latini

    That movie was “A Distant Thunder”. It was the sequel to ” Thief in the Night”.

    Reply
    1. Van

      Ow wow, I just found that on YouTube and watched it. I remembered 0 of that storyline except the ending, which I didn’t remember exactly, but close enough that you recognized it. I shouldn’t have watched that right before bedtime.

      Reply

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