June 10, 2008 -- A new Web site is offering a first-of-its-kind service: sending e-mails to nonbelieving friends and family who are "left behind" after you are whisked away by God in the rapture.
The site Youvebeenleftbehind.com offers users the ability to store e-mails and documents that will be sent to up to 63 e-mail addresses six days after the rapture has occurred. Users get up to 250 megabytes of storage space, 150 megabytes of it encrypted for sensitive information such as bank account numbers or eTrade passwords that can be accessed by those who remain on earth.
In evangelical Christian theology, the rapture is marked by a sudden visit from God, in which Christians will be whisked away to heaven while remaining nonbelievers will live on earth for seven years under the rule of the anti-Christ, until God returns with his followers to rule heaven and earth.
Billed as the last chance to "snatch them from the flames," Youvebeenleftbehind.com is the month-old brainchild of Mark Heard, a 49-year-old supermarket shelf-stocker who lives in Cape Cod, Mass.
"You've Been Left Behind gives you one last opportunity to reach your lost family and friends For Christ," the site reads. "Imagine being in the presence of the Lord and hearing all of heaven rejoice over the salvation of your loved ones. It is our prayer that this site makes it happen."
Heard says it's also a way to pass on financial information to loved ones who remain on earth before God's return.
"The idea started for me in 1999 when I was… trading equities online and trying to think, 'How I can send my password to my wife if the Rapture happened at this moment?'" he said.
A Way to Proselytize?
Jeff Vaccaro, a 34-year-old computer programmer in San Diego who runs the Web site Godsurfer.com, which allows users to post and rank Christian-based Web content, signed up for the service when he saw it covered on another news site last week.
Although Vaccaro hasn't uploaded any messages just yet, he says that he plans to construct e-mails that give the non-believers in his life a nudge along with Bible passages.
"I like the idea behind it," said Vaccaro, "It would be one final, 'Hey guys, maybe you need to check this out further … I haven't figured out what I want to say yet."
Despite the promise of encryption, Vaccaro said he wasn't planning to save personal financial information on the site.
"I'm not going to put any of my financial documents up, but sending out an e-mail who to those who don't believe … when this does happen, I thought, 'Why not?'" he said.
Security experts generally recommend only using data storage services that are well-known with a proven track record and that detail the type of security used on their sites.
When the Rapture Comes
Perhaps the trickiest detail for Heard was devising a way for the digital service to determine the spiritual fates of its clients. How will the Web site know when the rapture has come?
Heard, who wouldn't reveal how many people have signed up for the service, has set up his e-mail server with what he calls a "fail-safe" clause: if three of his five employees fail to log on to their work accounts after six days, the service will be triggered and the e-mails be sent out.
"We don't want these things to go out early," he said.
The Business of Christianity
Not all of this is being done out of the kindness of Heard's faithful heart; he does charge $40 a year for membership, a fee he hopes to lower as more people join.
Christian-themed products make up a multibillion dollar industry that includes books, movies, music, theme parks, video games and even beauty pageants, according to Peter A. Maresco, a business professor at Sacred Heart University and author of the upcoming book "The Business of Christianity: The Growing Market For Everything Christian."
"This Web site is yet another extension of the use of the Internet to reach a specific demographic — in this instance, Christians saving lost souls before and even after the rapture," Maresco said.
The best example of Christian entertainment's crossover into the secular mainstream may be the best-selling juggernaut "Left Behind" book series, a fictional account of the rapture. Since its inception the series has sold 63 million books and spawned several movies and a video game.
Maresco said the Youvebeenleftbehind site may be poised to capitalize on the huge financial success of the rapture-themed books, but the blurring of the line between profits and proselytizing has some observers concerned.
"The section used to attract subscribers left me cold. However, it does reflect the potential of a market that may reach in excess of $10 billion in the next few years," Maresco said. "If there is an opportunity to market a product or, in this case, a service to the Christian demographic, then someone will find it, develop it and ultimately market it,"
Michael Budde, Depaul University political science professor and author of the book "Christianity Incorporated: How Big Business is Buying the Church," is similarly skeptical.
"It's hard to know whether this is the church of P.T. Barnum and a sucker is born every minute or whether this is a rather curious take on what the church needs in this particular type of place," he said. "I can't see this turning into a particularly big presence because, for the millions of people this fits with, to send e-mails to the left behind — I'm not sure this is going to be worth $40 to them."
Will the Web Even Work?
Despite its infiltration into pop culture, the idea of the rapture as depicted in the "Left Behind" series is a fairly new development in Christianity, according to Randy Maddox, a theology professor at Duke divinity school.
"The understanding of the rapture as a time when Christians are taken out and [others] left behind is not a universally accepted Christian belief," Maddox said. "Indeed, the model that this Web site [promotes] is something we don't find in the Christian church until the end of the 19th Century. It's a small subset of evangelicals who have adopted this."
Similarly, the catastrophic narrative that the rapture invokes doesn't jibe with the idea of a fully-functioning Internet.
"In one sense, they're arguing it will be a time of great disaster, but in another sense he's saying, 'I promise my Web site will be working,'" Maddox said. "There are logical incongruities with the model, and there's basic theological incongruities."
'This Is Someone Who Wants $40'
Several things rang alarm bells for Amy Frykholm, author of the book "Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America," a scholarly look at the "Left Behind" series and a writer for "Christian Century."
While Heard's site claims to be "for Christians by Christians," it never identifies who is running it, a point which Frykholm said made her instantly suspicious.
"I was shocked that there was no place on the site where you could find out more about the Rapture. … You don't know who these people are," Frykholm said. "My first thought: 'This is someone who wants $40.'"
According to Frykholm, people who believe in the rapture, also known as dispensationlists, are almost always evangelizing, something that doesn't happen on the site.
"That makes me very, very suspicious. I just expected something more, some attempt to reach me as the unsaved," she said. "You justify taking people's money by spreading the kingdom of God. There's nothing there to justify taking your money. … I'd be stunned if people are signing up for this."
Tim LaHaye, one of the authors of the "Left Behind" series, was less skeptical. He and co-writer Jerry B. Jenkins have been pitched several ideas over the years about communicating with those left behind after the rapture, from videos to bumper stickers, but have so far not endorsed any of them.
LaHaye called the Web site "likely very sincere."
"It is not a bad idea to leave behind some type of message for your loved ones or neighbors, giving them the plan of salvation and an explanation for your immediate disappearance," LaHaye said in an e-mailed statement. He added that Christians should talk to family and friends about their beliefs now.
In explaining his hopes for the site, Heard stressed his own strongly-held beliefs, reciting Bible verses in one breath and discussing server security in the next.
Though he won't reveal number of people who have signed up for the service, Heard says that there's been a fair amount of interest from other Christians — particularly those preparing for what they believe is inevitable.
"Nobody knows the day or the hour of the rapture," he said. "It's really an any-minute situation."