As a child in Iran, Dina Nayeri belonged to a secret Christian church where the Rapture was welcomed as a rescue. Later, as a refugee in the US, she saw how apocalyptic prophecies masked a reactionary nihilism – which is why they are so tempting
When I was a girl in 1980s Isfahan, secret meetings of an underground Protestant church were part of my after-school routine. I would go from standing in a line of schoolgirls in hijabs, half-heartedly chanting the slogans of Iran’s Islamic Republic on the school blacktop, to singing hymns in a basement full of men and bareheaded women, all desperately believing in imminent rescue.
After the Iranian revolution in 1979, Christian converts like my mother and her friends persisted in a constant state of danger. At any moment they could be rounded up by the Shia revolutionary guard for apostasy, held for months without charge, perhaps taken to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison to be tortured – burned, beaten, cut, sexually exploited, starved of food and sleep – then executed by firing squad or suffocated in a town square, a crane lifting them slowly as they hung by the neck. One beloved preacher in Tehran was shot in the street.
Every few days, we would listen entranced as our happy, bearded pastor (a man who used to perform backyard baptisms in an inflatable tub decorated with cartoon fish) spoke of the new life we would soon have, of happy futures lived openly in communion and worship. But these promises weren’t about the end of the brutal theocratic regime of Ayatollah Khomeini, or of the ongoing war with Iraq. We weren’t getting smuggled out of our country, either. This was about the Rapture, the worldwide disappearance of believers that would trigger Christ’s second coming, as promised in the biblical Book of Revelation.
Though the word “rapture” never appears in the Bible, the concept has gripped Christians for centuries. It has spawned novels and movies, books interpreting modern events and thousands upon thousands of feverish pulpit speeches. Some have even tried to predict the date using complicated numerology, counting the days since the crucifixion and so on. In Isfahan, our interpretation of the Rapture, the one shared by most evangelicals across the world, was this: as the end of the world nears, floods, wars and famines will plague the Earth. The righteous will be persecuted as the rest of humanity descends into sin, making normal what was once shameful. Then, one day, as everyone else goes about their wicked business, all true Christians will be snatched up to heaven.
When Saddam Hussein bombed our city, or a political dissident disappeared into Evin, or rumour of more deaths and tortures reached us, our pastor told us to take heart – we were living through the last pangs of a glorious birth. Our congregation whispered about the signs of the end, how it all fit so well into end-times prophecy. We talked of rescue, and the heady notion that we might avoid death altogether, though it was always nearby. In that way, we made terrifying news tolerable – tortures and arrests weren’t so bad when compared with the fate of the un-raptured on Earth.
The first time I heard about the Rapture, it sounded near and exciting. In Iran, many young people (Christians included) watched smuggled foreign films. That was probably how I first saw a movie called A Thief in the Night, a 1970s cult classic about three women, college friends, each of whom represents one of the paths set out in Revelation. One is saved and raptured; another refuses to believe and takes the mark of the antichrist, dooming her soul; and the third believes too late and must suffer through the tribulation, which ends when she is guillotined with her eyes prised open, facing the sky and the blade.
It was the scariest movie I had ever seen, my worst fear – being left behind to suffer hell – realised on screen. Every scene was made to crawl deep into the deep places of your memory and set up shop there. I can still see the boy with a red balloon being escorted to the guillotine, camera lingering behind the prison window, then the balloon floating to the sky. The creepy theme song haunts my nightmares to this day.
And yet, we believers repeated the Rapture story again and again, taking from it a perverse hope that these gruesome images represented the world we were leaving behind. Even amid the troubled times in which we actually lived – the taped-up windows and bomb shelters, the brothers and cousins called to war then lost, small boys led into fields to set off mines, the Baha’is and Christians who were maimed, forced to recite recantations, then killed anyway – none of it was comparable to being guillotined face up. The anticipation of rapture, our secret otherworldly plan, comforted us every time the morality police burst in to question our pastor, every time the lights went out and bomb sirens screamed in the middle of our prayers.
Over the years I’ve thought hard about what we must have felt then, what we needed to survive psychologically, socially and spiritually. We went about our routines in a daze, working and studying, collecting ration stamps, cooking, making music, always waiting for the next big shock. Though some late converts among us were haunted by having marched in the 1979 revolution, we protected our hope in humanity with the belief that the mess of Iran was not our mess. Those driven underground aren’t responsible for what happens above: we were exiles in our own country.
In the 30 years since, I’ve witnessed a different kind of rapturous thinking, in post-revolutionary Iran, in gulf war America, in the Netherlands of Geert Wilders, Brexit Britain and Donald Trump’s sinister new reality show, a place where Nazis preen and murder and are rewarded with winks and wrist-slaps from the president. In every country, there are those who retreat from a mess that they feel isn’t their own. Often they are outsiders or vulnerable groups on the fringes of society (Christians in Iran, immigrants in small-town England and Holland).
Rapturous longings start with the powerless and spread outward like a virus: despair leads to denial and fantasy, to an attitude of “I’ll just wait this out”. In response to a dark new reality, the weary go underground, retreating into homes, hiding behind screens, using stories as a salve and an opiate. They become watchful, delirious, stunned and effectively paralysed as they wait, refugees in their own land. They eat cake, go to sleep, and hope to wake up in a better reality.
In 1987, my mother, brother and I escaped Iran. Our departure was quick and unexpected and I didn’t have a chance to say many goodbyes. For two years, we lived in refugee hostels in the United Arab Emirates and Italy, with Iran out of reach and the future unimaginable, and we waited. Then, in 1989, we were offered asylum in Edmond, Oklahoma, a peaceful middle-class suburb of Oklahoma City. Soon, the first gulf war began, and though I didn’t live in the middle of the conflict this time, I was just as afraid as I had been in Iran. Images of Baghdad burning on CNN; journalists giving unfiltered accounts from hotel rooms while American networks waxed patriotic; the familiar enemy, Saddam Hussein – these things triggered wartime memories and reminded me that we still lived in the same violent world where children could lose an arm on their way to school and leafy streets could be flattened in an hour.
Like me, my Oklahoma neighbours fretted, obsessing over rolling tanks parting the desert, cruise missiles lighting up the sky, piles of rubble and poor, dirty babies. They behaved as if war was already at their doorstep. Some bought gas masks. I did not remember this kind of anxiety in Iran, a place where we worshipped underground, where falling mortar interrupted our meals and revolutionary guards slept a few doors away.
In my intimate hilltop church, discussions took on a frantic, impatient new tone. “We live in end times!” our congregation often said, instead of “the end is near”. Now the Rapture wasn’t just on the horizon; it was a daily possibility. Though I was young, I was surprised to hear the language of the refugee in their mouths: “We are exiles on Earth,” they said, as if to deny involvement. “We’re citizens of heaven.” This casual disavowal was like a pantomime of displacement, containing nothing of the reluctance of the true refugee, the sorrow of being forced to leave home. “We’re leaving soon!” they said happily.
Over time, something else needled at me: here, the Rapture talk wasn’t so much about finding escape from frightening politics, as it had been in Iran. Here, the talk was a way of engaging with politics. The most ardent in the church carried out a side-by-side exegesis of newspapers and scripture with a certain thrill, as if fitting a puzzle piece into place. This habit often led to a rejection of any programme or policy that would contradict the end-times narrative. There was no need to slow climate change, protect against scarcity or pursue global peace – because wars, famines and natural disasters are foretold and therefore unavoidable.
If statistics showed that violence had declined in the US, they would say: “Oh, but that’s only per capita! Overall it’s up, just as the Bible predicts.” If a politician seemed too skilled, too smooth, too sympathetic to liberals, he was always a candidate for antichrist – the anticipated ruler of a godless, post-Rapture earth. King Juan Carlos of Spain was a candidate, as JFK and even Reagan had been. In casual conversation, people counted the signs, growing breathless as the list grew: the gulf war, Hurricane Andrew, the Kobe earthquake, monsoons in Pakistan, torrential floods in China, tornadoes in Oklahoma, blizzards in Boston. They spoke of the decline of family values and the “natural” way of life: abortion, gay soldiers demanding to live openly, the young rejecting marriage in order to live in sin – all indicators of the tribulation to come.
It’s easier to focus on what we can see than to try to imagine an unknown future. Though we yearned for otherworldly love and beauty, and to be removed from an ugly world, we were soon lost in a voyeuristic fascination with its fate. I began to notice that all the anticipation was focused on what would happen to the Earth, to the unbelieving hordes left behind, and not on what awaited the righteous in heaven. Perhaps, too, it was a contempt for the unbelieving, who lived as if they had every option. Our rapturous longings had morphed from rescue to reckoning, our image of the future from a better Earth to a scorched one.
Now and then I saw the Rapture depicted on television, in books, and in conversation: piles of loose clothing dotting streets, cars crashing into each other, empty prams, wandering animals dragging unmanned leashes, unbelievers (including atheists, people of every other religion, and Christians “in name only”) left behind to gnash their teeth, regretting their pleasures, their ambition and their false gods. Every pastor quoted from Matthew 24: “Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.”
As I grew older, I began to fear that I would be left behind. Privately I loved all the worldly things we were supposed to reject. I couldn’t get my head around creationism and prophecy and ancient norms dictating modern life. I wanted to go to Harvard. I wanted to stomp grapes in a vineyard and swim with exotic fish and have sex with more than one person. I wanted the world to continue existing so I could conquer it.
But I was afraid of losing my mother to the Rapture in the same way that I had almost lost her in Iran when she was arrested again and again. Every time I came home to an empty house, I took out the church directory and sat by the phone, ready to start dialling. If my mother failed to arrive after 30 minutes, I would turn on the television and search for news. I would look outside for wayward cats and dogs, the empty prams, the discarded clothes. Then I would begin dialling – starting not with the pastor, whom I found sinister, but with one of the grandmothers, someone kind and pious I believed would be raptured. I always hoped to hear a baby in the background – the cry of a baby (an innocent who would be raptured) always halted a tumble into my nightmares of divine judgment, all that inexplicable famine and disease and drought. Calculus and physics books helped, too, as did the rose bushes and milkweed in our yard. Perhaps these things reminded me of the resilience of the Earth, its age and complicated logic, and all that anchors us to physical, verifiable truths.
Or maybe, secretly, I longed to remain. I had already been snatched away from one home. I kept thinking: “I hope it doesn’t happen till after college, till after I’ve had children and fallen in love and become someone great.” I liked the idea of this world, the notion of studying and having a skill and a livelihood, building a family and a house. I didn’t want release; I wanted to take root.
In my mid-20s, after years of grappling with my identity as a refugee and my place in the world, I stopped believing in the Rapture. By then I had embraced all the secular, corporeal things I had secretly desired: a rigorous education, travel, great food, the admission that I do believe in science and that the Bible is at most a metaphor to me. I watched that old movie, A Thief in the Night, on my laptop and was fumed at the heavy-handed messages that had colonised my adolescent brain. The Christian characters benefit from the goodwill and love of their secular friends, then dismiss human love as insufficient. Ever blase, their lives never progress; they only wait. This was the detail in the movie that struck me most as an adult: the two primary Christian characters don’t have jobs or romances. They live in the next life.
This fetishisation of waiting was the final straw. Because here is something that only refugees (and people newly in love) can tell you: there is no painful business quite like waiting. Roland Barthes calls it subjection. For me, waiting for the Rapture and for political asylum felt much the same: the constant anticipation of a new start, of vanishing, of having already smelled the tiny yellow roses that draped our garden walls or tasted my grandmother’s celery stew for the final time. Being a refugee is dismantling home, setting out into the desert and becoming stateless in pursuit of a better life. Refugees are seekers of a sort of Rapture, and, in leaving their known world for something unimaginably good beyond, they enact a small apocalypse.
When I said this to my mother recently, she balked. Though she believes in the Rapture – it is her “living hope” – and has suffered long bouts as a refugee, she doesn’t like the comparison. “I didn’t choose to leave my home,” she said. “Being a refugee is being homeless, not having hope. In those years I lived in constant numbness, because while you’re waiting, there is nothing. No way back and no way forward. With the Rapture, going back isn’t an option, but what’s ahead is beautiful.”
The Rapture story offers a known future that you don’t have to build yourself. It happens in an instant: before you’re done with one life, you’re whisked into another. And that is everything – skipping that in-between space, the country of purgatory where the refugee lingers. “If you’ve ever been a refugee,” my mother says, “you know how much that matters.”
She’s right: I do know that. I understand now that eschatological promises provide closure, the end of mankind’s story on Earth, at once terrible and necessary. They are designed to assuage a universal fear: the fate of the refugee. To set off as an asylum seeker is to endure a carousel of embassy visits and interviews and application papers without any idea of what comes next. It’s life without a heaven or hell, just recurring cycles that lead nowhere. Refugees live out the ancient themes of purgatory and banishment literally, and that – not the guillotine’s blade or the antichrist or oblivion – is the ultimate nightmare: life without closure, forever in limbo.
But I also know that being rescued from the nightmare of waiting is not only the refugee’s greatest desire, but also her greatest dread, because then home is no longer home and she’s no longer who she once was; she is transformed. Maybe that’s why I was so much more afraid in Oklahoma than in Isfahan – by then, I had tasted that transformation. I knew what it was like to be taken away, never to smell the yellow roses or taste the celery stew again.
For believers, “the end” has always been imminent. In the Christian world, every century seems to bring a new wave of calculations. On 1 January 1000, Pope Sylvester II predicted a millennial apocalypse. Two centuries later, Pope Innocent III predicted that the end would arrive 666 years after the birth of Islam. The Black Death brought rapture fever, as did every comet. Cotton Mather, the influential American preacher, had three guesses between 1697 and 1736. As for this century, a 2010 Pew Research Center study found that nearly half of American Christians – not just evangelicals – believe Christ will return in their lifetime.
A few weeks ago I found the Facebook page of a popular preacher in Montana, who asked his 17,000 followers to consider, “Is the Antichrist here?” The tone and language of the responses gave me chills. Many were excited, frothing, ready with all that they knew about the Beast of Revelation: he would be Jewish, he would be a charismatic politician on the rise, someone capable and hopeful, bringing peace to the Middle East. He would be represented by the number 666.
Though spotting the antichrist is common among believers, the new candidate surprised me: Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law. Blogs and forums advancing this theory count the evidence: he purchased 666 Fifth Avenue for more than anyone had ever paid for an office building. He is Jewish. He is handsome, and under all that eerie silence could be charisma. He has money and the ear of the president and dead eyes. He has done business with George Soros (atheist, liberal) and is friends with Netanyahu. Trump proclaimed that Kushner could bring peace to the Middle East. Was this not enough proof?
Behind the many websites and social media posts claiming that Kushner is the antichrist, I see a common bafflement: many conservative Christians realise now that Trump has lied to them, that his loyalty is to the wealthy, and that he has no understanding of macroeconomics, foreign policy, diplomacy or the Bible. But wasn’t the Republican party supposed to be on their side – the side of the ordinary middle-class Christian? Didn’t pastors lay hands on Trump, blessing him and his administration? How can the faithful have been manipulated, if not for a mighty evil at work? Such trickery doesn’t come from cheap conmen.
This is, of course, cause for excitement. The arrival of the antichrist means that the faithful are closer to their deliverance. And he won’t be their devil. He will only harm the unbelieving.
After I gave up my own apocalyptic obsessions, I began to notice evidence of rapturous thinking elsewhere – and not only among evangelical Christians. Sometimes I saw the signs in those wishing for a return to the past: the elderly, social conservatives. The more the rest of society seemed to reject their identity, the more they craved a reckoning, something decisive and game-changing to stop the creep into the unfamiliar.
I suspect that no eschatological thinker of any faith has ever said: “We have another hundred years to go.” Every war is the most terrible. Every natural disaster the most epic. Every generation thinks the world is ending.
And for the oldest among us, it is true – their world is ending. Social, economic and technological change has engulfed them so slowly that they didn’t even notice it happening. Suddenly home looks like a foreign place. It’s messy and threatening, and, as the underground Christians in Iran believed, it’s not their mess.
At one time or another we all stop recognising the landscape around us. It feels like a long con: to build a way of life, a legacy, only to have the next generation reject it. It seems apocalyptic: the end of goodness, of comfort, of peace. And what is to be done when it seems that history has no direction but the grave? All you can hope for is a sudden removal from the narrative, a sharp left turn, a deus ex machina. What you desire most is a violent disruption.
Eight in 10 white, born-again Christians voted for Trump. In Britain, 60% of voters over 65 opted for Brexit. Should this have come as a surprise? Despite Trump’s many affectations toward Christian faith, it didn’t matter if he was God’s man. Because here was the chance to do something to reject the present – to usher in something rapturous and revolutionary.
But revolution without a stake in the future is apocalyptic, and revolution for the sake of the past is anathema to life – because progress is the business of the young. In Iran, that same attempt to stop time, as much as the executions and the bombs, filled our days under the Islamic Republic with an aura of death.
But I suspect that, consciously or not, end-times believers crave apocalypse. They want a leader who will return them to the past, or barring that, hurry it along to its end. Someone who will fulfil a narrative in which they play a role. To my ears, their impatient groans are a prayer for the fall of civilisation.
The universe must be explainable, and God must be in control of its fate. Otherwise, all is chaos; then every good deed becomes inconsequential, history is just a series of events leading nowhere, leaders can only do so much – and this latest, too, is just another rich man who has come for their dreams.
A few weeks ago, a youth pastor from my Oklahoma days told me a story about a discussion he led with a group of teenagers. He asked his students: “If it was conclusive that cellphones were killing honeybees, would you stop using them?” Most said no. “I think the scientists will figure it out,” said one student, “but really, who cares if there are honeybees? This world is coming to an end anyway. We’ll all be raptured.”
The late Christopher Hitchens called this attitude “a contempt for all things of this world” – an acceptable form of nihilism. “All religion has to hope for the end of days,” he said. When you’re tied to other people, you’re tied to needs and frailties and messy long-term puzzles, like the fate of honeybees. But the Rapture is about unfastening, being “citizens of heaven” and breaking with all that’s difficult and risky about life among humans. Is there a more attractive notion than to be spirited away and freed of responsibility? The fate of the Earth may be unknowable, or catastrophic – you don’t have to care.
But I want to care. Like everyone else, I still crave knowing what’s next. But I no longer comb through scripture. I read climate change reports. I read tweets threatening nuclear war. It’s tempting to dig for signs of worse to come. But I’m not aching for removal.
Being un-raptured is simply the condition of being alive on this planet. It means being responsible for a piece of it, being a citizen. For a while, I believed in a utopia, a heaven that would replace this imperfect universe. Then, as the years passed, so did my fears – and I saw that I had already lived out this story, waiting with my bags for the call of the rescuer. What lay beyond was not a sudden and permanent release. It was years of aimlessness and more waiting. Then, after that, there was rebuilding, responsibility, ownership, creating the home I wanted.
My limbo is over now – I won’t imagine myself into another. I want to be responsible for a place, and to care about its outcome. For years, the cry of babies soothed my apocalyptic fears and brought me back to a worldview that I was still decades from articulating: that I live now. That the Earth is old; that I, and my children, belong to it; and that it must continue beyond me.
Children tie us to a world that won’t soon end. It’s alarming to think that this flawed Earth is all we can give them, and how much we’ve already wrecked their home because we thought someone would whisk us away. I can’t throw my hands up. I have a daughter who will outlive me. Yes, we live in ugly times. Often I’m tempted by superlatives. It’s never been this bad. This is the most corrupt, the most absurd. Sometimes waiting for something better is agony. What can be done? Cities and customs transform, becoming unrecognisable and strange. The rich eat our dreams. Honeybees fall dead. Again and again, we long for a new age of rapturous joy, of peace.
When I speak to believers about the future, they always talk about how unreliable the physical world seems, how overwhelming its problems. They talk of how everything of value can be taken in a second. Don’t put your hope in the things of this Earth, they say.
But the yearning to escape is selfish and callous. It is removing yourself from the long story that gave you your life – taking a match to the book just because your chapter will one day end. I believe in this world, and in our ability to withstand these dark days. I’m not getting raptured. I’m not going anywhere until I’ve wrung out my mind, until I’ve solved whatever small mysteries I’m here to solve and it’s time to go into the ground.
Main illustration by Lee Martin/Guardian Design
Dina Nayeri’s second novel, Refuge, was published in July