The Last Judgment by Hans Memling (c1467). (Photograph: Alamy)

The Last Judgment by Hans Memling (c1467). (Photograph: Alamy)

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 policeburst 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.

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SOURCE: The Guardian