Along with Gregory Widen’s The Prophecy, the 1991 film The Rapture is one of my all-time favorite movies. Theologically speaking, you can see some of its influence very clearly in my first novel, The Blessed Man and the Witch. Any film that deals so specifically with religion will typically have faith as one of its main themes, and this movie is no exception. What sets it apart is that writer-director Michael Tolkin also asks the audience to have faith. Sharon, the protagonist, is an unreliable character even at the best of times, and as such, we’re never sure whether to credit what we’re seeing from her perspective until the end. It takes a leap of faith, our faith, to believe in Sharon.
Sharon’s introduction to the film begins in a gray, lifeless purgatory: the tedium of her job as a telephone information operator (a task made obsolete today, which dates the movie somewhat). From there, we see her cruising the streets of Los Angeles with her swinger friend Vic in a decidedly predatory fashion, looking for couples to swap partners with. Even when they’re successful (with David Duchovny as Randy and Stéphanie Menuez), we gets hints that she finds this unsatisfying.
Later, after overhearing her co-workers discussing the Note (the Archangel Gabriel’s Trumpet) and the Boy (a prophet), she tells hew new boyfriend Randy that “Everything seems so empty.” Subsequently, she encounters some missionaries who tell her that the end of the world is coming, and she won’t go to Heaven if she doesn’t accept Jesus Christ. This echoes the Bible in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast.” This becomes central throughout the film: it’s not enough to be a good person. You have to believe. You have to have faith in God if you want to get into Heaven. (Remember the vampire Jerry Dandrige in Fright Night when confronted with a crucifix held by a terrified Peter Vincent: “You have to have faith for it to work.”)
Sharon’s conversion seems abrupt when she throws Randy out of her bed so she can change the sheets and scrub the sin off of her in the shower, but it’s been coming for some time. “I want my salvation,” she says to him (note the possessive pronoun). “I’m tired of feeling empty all the time.” Randy’s arguments against her search for God are facile, juvenile, and unconvincing. Writer-director Tolkin then asks us, the viewers, to have faith in Sharon for the first time: after an abortive suicide attempt, Sharon drinks herself into a stupor and sees a vision of the Pearl, a sight only the truly devout would be granted. But is this a hallucination or a true vision? Are we supposed to believe that Sharon is granted this vision so soon after accepting Jesus Christ? Yes. Because the ending makes all this true.
Years later, after she’s married Randy, had a daughter, and loses Randy to murder, she sees another vision: Randy telling her to go to the desert. Once again, we’re supposed to have faith that this grief-stricken woman’s visions are true and not a result of her questionable mental state. When she questions the nature and purpose of the vision, the Boy prophet tells her, “Don’t ask God to meet you halfway,” and this is where we get to the crux of the film: not only must you have faith, but it must be perfect faith. You have to go all the way. It’s God’s way or the highway.
Her pilgrimage to the desert with her daughter is fraught with petty humiliations, the kind that holy people aren’t supposed to suffer. We cringe for her, even though her daughter Mary has the perfect faith that God demands. Convinced beyond any shadow of doubt that the Rapture is near, Mary doesn’t want to wait for the world to end to go to Heaven. She wants to go to Heaven “the quick way.” She wants to die. Sharon’s faith admits some cracks when she says to her daughter, “Let’s give God one more chance.” This foreshadows the terrible choice she makes at the end of the film. In the throes of a heavenly vision (possibly brought on by hunger), Mary says to Sharon, “Don’t ask God to meet you halfway,” just like the Boy had.
The scene in which Sharon kills Mary is very hard to watch. Imagine killing your own child, even if that child begs for death. Sharon’s original intent is to kill Mary and then herself, but after shooting Mary, she points the gun upward and, screaming in terrible grief, empties the revolver into the sky. While she later explains that she didn’t kill herself because suicide is a mortal sin, it’s clear that in shooting the sky, she is in essence trying to shoot God for allowing her to kill her own daughter. She’s lost faith and says of God, “I don’t love Him…He let me kill my little girl and I’m still supposed to love Him.”
And then the world ends. Gabriel’s Trumpet sounds, literally shattering the walls of her prison cell. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride out, terrible and frightening. We are told that everyone has until the seventh blast of Gabriel’s Trumpet to accept God into their hearts if they want to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. They have to love God, and the clock is ticking.
Sharon refuses. Even when reunited with her pleading, angelic daughter in a Purgatorial space between Heaven and Hell, she will not love God. She has rejected Him. When she tells her daughter, “I love you,” Mary replies, miserably, “That isn’t enough.” This is the terrible choice Sharon makes: to spend eternity in Purgatory rather than love a God that let her kill her daughter.
If we, the audience, kept faith the way Sharon did not, the apocalypse at the end of the film would not be surprising. All of the signs were there. You just have to believe what you’re seeing.