The scare over a missing church group shows be­lief in the apoc­a­lypse en­dures.

Los Angeles Times - - Latextra - Robert Fa­turechi robert.fa­turechi

Pre­dic­tions of the end times draw at­ten­tion in hard times.

Re­li­gious lead­ers proph­esy­ing a date for the apoc­a­lypse have al­ways faced a unique chal­lenge to their cred­i­bil­ity: Ev­ery­one who’s tried that be­fore has turned out to be wrong.

But the pre­dic­tions con­tinue. A week ago, con­cerns flared in Palm­dale when a small Chris­tian group was re­ported missing af­ter tak­ing off into the night on a mys­te­ri­ous re­li­gious trip. Au­thor­i­ties said the group, led by a Sal­vado­ran im­mi­grant, left farewell letters to loved ones that in­di­cated their be­lief that the end of the world was near.

The 22-hour search that fol­lowed com­manded at­ten­tion from me­dia out­lets world­wide, but schol­ars say the idea of end times fol­lowed by a mes­sianic ar­rival is an an­cient one that spans re­li­gions. In Chris­tian­ity, the con­cept of­ten in­cludes an event re­ferred to as the “rap­ture,” when Christ will re­turn in spec­tac­u­lar fashion and sep­a­rate the “sheep” (his fol­low­ers) from the “goats” (non­be­liev­ers).

The idea can be a com­fort to the dis­en­fran­chised, a guar­an­tee that jus­tice will be served and scores set­tled, said the­ol­ogy scholar Ce­cil Robeck Jr. In a time of job­less­ness and eco­nomic frus­tra­tion, Robeck said, that pledge can be par­tic­u­larly ap­peal­ing.

“Peo­ple are des­per­ate. When some­one says, ‘You’re in a ter­ri­ble sit­u­a­tion now, but if you’ll fol­low me, I’ll make it OK,’ peo­ple are hun­gry, they need hope, they’ll fol­low,” said Robeck, a Pen­te­costal min­is­ter and pro­fes­sor of church his­tory at Fuller The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary in Pasadena.

That ap­peal is part of the rea­son that the con­cept of the rap­ture, when true be­liev­ers are ex­pected to be lifted into heaven, is most com­mon in churches with poorer, less ed­u­cated con­gre­ga­tions, Robeck said.

The Palm­dale group was said to be pre­dom­i­nantly com­posed of re­cent Sal­vado­ran im­mi­grants. For­mer neigh­bors said its leader, Reyna Marisol Chi­cas, 32, had left school af­ter fifth grade and strug­gled to find steady work.

The group was dis­cov­ered Sun­day com­fort­ably gath­ered in a Palm­dale-area park, end­ing a 22-hour search. No ar­rests were made and no crim­i­nal charges have been filed, ac­cord­ing to the Los An­ge­les County Sher­iff’s Depart­ment. But Chi­cas was placed into an in­vol­un­tary mental health eval­u­a­tion af­ter she ap­peared dis­con­nected from re­al­ity and failed to rec­og­nize her chil­dren, au­thor­i­ties said.

Group mem­bers called Chi­cas an in­spi­ra­tion. She was said to have been a con­gre­gant at a nearby church be­fore break­ing away not long ago. The Palm­dale area is sprin­kled with pre­dom­i­nantly Latino churches, where it’s not un­usual for con­gre­gants to form groups that meet sep­a­rately and in­cor­po­rate non­con­ven­tional be­liefs, area res­i­dents said.

Richard Flory, a USC so­ci­ol­o­gist who stud­ies re­li­gion in Amer­ica, said the idea of the rap­ture can be a per­sua­sive tool for con­ver­sion.

“It brings a sub­lim­i­nal fear,” he said. “It says you bet­ter be ready be­cause this thing can hap­pen at any time.”

Those who ex­pect the end of the world also of­ten be­lieve that there will be signs that it’s com­ing, the schol­ars said. Nat­u­ral dis­as­ters, such as ma­jor earth­quakes and fires, of­ten bring spikes of apoc­a­lyp­tic fore­casts.

An evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian web­site, Rap­ture Ready .com, fea­tures a reg­u­larly up­dated “rap­ture in­dex” that gauges the im­mi­nent ap­proach of the world’s end. It’s cal­cu­lated by adding quan­ti­ta­tive mea­sure­ments for a num­ber of sup­posed apoc­a­lyp­tic signs.

But even many ar­dent be­liev­ers dis­miss the idea that the rap­ture can be pre­dicted.

Tim LaHaye, an evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian min­is­ter, be­came fa­mous with “Left Be­hind,” his hugely pop­u­lar se­ries of nov­els about the end days.

LaHaye’s work, mod­ern­day sto­ries based on the Book of Rev­e­la­tion, has been crit­i­cized for go­ing too far in its ex­treme and vi­o­lent de­pic­tion of the end of the world and its af­ter­math.

But even LaHaye said that while spread­ing word of the con­cept is a bless­ing, fore­cast­ing its date is mis­guided.

“They’re dis­obey­ing the Scrip­ture, which says no man knows the day or the hour. Any­time any­one sets a date, they’re wrong be­cause no one knows that date,” LaHaye said. “It’s just un­guided en­thu­si­asm. Ev­ery day you read the news­pa­per, and ask, ‘Is there any hope for the world?’ It’s just get­ting worse and worse, and peo­ple think there’s got to be some­thing bet­ter.”

As for why fore­cast­ers of end times and the rap­ture still gain fol­low­ings de­spite their poor track record, Robeck ex­plains it in sec­u­lar terms.

“Peo­ple still go to Las Ve­gas be­cause they hope they will win,” he said. “I used to live in Las Ve­gas. They never will.”

Anne Cu­sack

FOUND: Deputies ques­tion Reyna Marisol Chi­cas. A search en­sued when she and her fol­low­ers van­ished af­ter leav­ing omi­nous-sound­ing letters for loved ones.

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