So, fast-forward about twenty years.
I ended up in the Episcopal Church, and while there still remain for me questions and uncertainties on issues relating to sex and sexuality, I've at least progressed as far as discarding the silly notion that church isn't for sinners. After all, to paraphrase Jesus, healthy people don't need a doctor.
Lent, the traditional six-week liturgical season of repentance and introspection, begins with Ash Wednesday, at which time many Christians choose to observe a fast. But last year, as I listened to the homily, the priest encouraged us to try something different. "Instead of giving something up," he said, "try taking something on." One thing he suggested was going to the Bible or the creeds and spending the season wrestling with a concept, passage or idea that had always given us trouble.
I decided it was time to confront Revelation.
Part of what made that possible was the felicitous discovery of my favorite blog, Slacktivist. I don't remember how I stumbled across it, but I became addicted immediately. Written by a progressive evangelical Baptist who grew up indoctrinated in the literalist Rapture-believing wing of American Christendom, among many other delights the blog contains a weekly Friday column wherein he painstakingly -- and hilariously -- dismantles both the artless hackery and the theological inanity of the best-selling Left Behind novels, page by page.
Thus it dawned on me that the reason neither the Lutheran nor the Episcopal Church had bothered to explain "the Rapture" to me was that they don't believe in it. This was shocking to me; I had always assumed that we avoided it because it was scary and unpleasant, and so we'd rather concentrate on the Social Gospel. But no, we avoided it because it's not there.
Slacktivist whet my appetite to dig deeper, and I was pleased to come across the book The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, by the Lutheran pastor Barbara Rossing.
Talk about a "revelation."
The "literal" reading of Revelation that "predicts" an imminent tribulation period of death, disease, destruction, natural disaster and ultimately nuclear holocaust isn't literal at all. Moreover, it's not the orthodox, historical understanding of the Christian faith. If you want to take Scripture literally, you can't believe in "the Antichrist" because John's epistles speak of "Antichrists" and categorically state that they are "already in the world." Not "already" as of 1985 or 2008, but "already" as of the first century. And as for "the Rapture"? We are not going up, up and away to meet Jesus; rather, Jesus is coming down to us, bringing Heaven with him. We stay where we are. (Revelation 21:1-5.)
But of course, The Revelation of Jesus Christ According to John wasn't meant to be taken literally; not even at the dawn of the second century. It is full of symbols and metaphors. Some dismiss metaphorical readings of Scripture as a cowardly, modern, "liberal" way of tap-dancing around what's actually written. On the contrary: reading these words and recognizing them for the style of literature they were intended to be yields what's really there.
John's Revelation isn't a one-off; indeed, there is an entire genre of apocalyptic literature, most of it Jewish, dating from the same period, the awful days of Roman occupation, especially after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Modern "tribulation" theology has led many people to conceive of "apocalypse" as a synonym for "cataclysm," and to assume "the apocalypse" is the final disaster. But no; it's from the Greek word that means, simply, "unveiling" or "revealing," i.e., "Revelation." Not disaster. Like any literary genre, these different works utilize a common language, especially a repertoire of common symbols.
This is kind of a lame example, but if I say to you, "The Big Apple," you know I'm not referring to an unusually large fruit, but rather the City of New York. But imagine, if you will, some future civilization coming across a reference to "The Big Apple" without knowing its widely understood meaning. They might draw some odd conclusions about what this "Big Apple" is. In the same way, the recurring images in first-century apocalyptic literature all point to another city: Rome. [I may have borrowed this example from another writer but I couldn't find it again to give credit. Or, I could just be brilliant.]
The Book of Revelation isn't some secret code detailing the countdown to the end of Time. It seems inscrutable now because we aren't familiar with what at the time was very common imagery. But to early Christians, it wasn't such a mystery. Essentially it was a fantastic vision of divine retribution against Rome.
When you stop to consider that within just a couple of centuries the pacifist cult of Jesus became the official religion of the empire that executed him, you begin to see the amazing prescience of Revelation and the true power of the Lamb over the Beast.