Can you hear the Fat Lady singing?
"Ideas have consequences... The hope of impending departure can lead believers to abandon interest in the world and its problems. The expectation of deteriorating conditions prior to the soon-approaching rapture is morally corrosive, encouraging pessimism, fatalism, and the forsaking of political responsibility. Disengagement from the problems of the world is ethically indefensible, but it is all too common among today's prophecy elite. Their books tell us that nuclear war is inevitable, that the pursuit of peace is pointless, that the planet's environmental woes are unstoppable, and so on."
Craig Hill, In God's Time
So, Harold Camping is predicting the end of the world.... AGAIN? What's new... but this time it seems to be in my face everywhere.
Since this has become common knowledge now, I thought I would spell out a few things from my studies for the people around me trying to get a grasp on the situation.
This will be a historical/ theological lesson, so I apologize in advance for people who aren't as nerdy as I am, but this is my love. Hopefully it can help you and I can make it interesting enough.
First and foremost, THERE IS NO RAPTURE. For those who don't know what the rapture is, it is the idea that Jesus comes and takes all true believers away to the special place known as heaven. This theory has sooooo many flaws, I don't even know where to begin (See below for more detail). So, I am sorry to all the politico conspiracy theorists and pessimists and "Left Behind" fans, but there just isn't evidence for a rapture in scripture.
Rapture was invented in the 1830's by a young girl who had a vision. Then a guy named John Nelson Darby took up the cause of spreading this girl's vision of rapture. There are many causes that led to its great popularity today, (Scofield Reference Bible, Moody and his media outlets, Dallas Theological Seminary which impacted leader after leader until we got such names as Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and the LeHayes). Unfortunately it has reigned too long and has caused untold damage. But I will say with utter confidence that not a single church or church leader before 1830 believed in a rapture. It is an entirely new theology and it is entirely awful.
Almost every Christian leader believes that Jesus is coming back to restore all things, to bring justice to every broken situation, to destroy death and to judge all wicked and righteous. Even Muslims believe something similar about Jesus. so my contention isn't with Jesus coming back, but coming back to steal Christians away to leave the world to rot.
This flies in the face of all we hold dear. Christ comes and inaugurates his Kingdom. A kingdom that spreads throughout creation, the same earth that the Father declares "good" upon creating. The Kingdom that is taking over every square inch of the planet so that peace and love can rule and injustice can be banished. So that brokenness can cease. A place where new life and the restoration of all things can begin. Jesus died for his life's work, redeeming creation to the Father, and then in rapture it seems to be all for not. That we, Christians, leave right in the thick of it. How does that make sense?
Jesus is in the middle of a mass restoration of all things to its original glory, to the way it was first created. He has created his Church, his body, to carry on this work through his direction, love and strength. And then he is going to take us all away? If anything, we are going to be in the midst of this whole thing as it goes down.
But more than rapture, the idea that someone is going to call it done, is telling us that the fat lady is singing is just mind boggling to me. First, Jesus is very clear he is coming back but more than hazy on details. He says that even he doesn't know when it will go down, "‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son,* but only the Father" (Matthew 24). Why would someone take it upon themselves to do such a thing? It isn't very Christ-like as Jesus even refused to do it.
Secondly, there is one set of characteristics that are repeated over and over in context of Jesus' return: it is going to be sudden and unexpected. Jesus, in Matthew 24, says that his coming will be like a thief coming in the night. No one expects a thief and no one will be able to expect Jesus. This exact phrase is repeated by a multitude of authors throughout the New Testament. "For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night" (1 Thessalonians 5:2). "But the day of the Lord will come like a thief..." (2 Peter 3:10). Jesus even reiterates this in the apocalyptic literature of Revelation, "Look, I come like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and remains clothed, so as not to go naked and be shamefully exposed" (16:15).
It is my contention that billboards and a million dollar ad-campaign is not "like a thief in the night." I mean, these people can't even say that they are some voice of the Lord preparing the way, Jesus doesn't want a prepared way, he is coming suddenly with great surprise. (sidenote: Honestly, I would be totally surprised if Jesus did come back on Saturday... maybe that is the perfect day to come back. We're all thinking about it so much, that we're not thinking about it... think about it! Genius....).
Mostly I see it as total arrogance to assume that we are the 'end all.' How self-centered does one have to be to think that our generation or country or (insert current delineation or sub-group) is the one in whom will be raptured or cause of God to end all things and come back? It takes a total lack of the knowledge of history to assume somehow that we have arrived, that we are the peak, or even that things are so bad that God has to step in fix it.
People have been doing this for a thousand years and probably even before that. I am embarrassed by this man's example of Christ to those around me but Christianity has suffered through much worst. I'll meet you on Sunday for hamburgers. We are having church in the park. You're more than invited as I am sure we will all still be here.
My professor Ben Witherington III from Asbury Theological Seminary wrote a book a year or so ago that is absolutely necessary reading for interested in these types of things. It is entitled "Revelation and the End Times." He is an amazing, world renown scholar of the New Testament. He has some fantastic quotes just for such an occaision as the someone predicting the End Times, the Rapture and what not:
- "Let me be as clear as I can: There is no encouragement in the New Testament itself to speculate about the timing of the return of Christ. What is said about the matter is that it will come at an unexpected time, and come suddenly. No one knows when Christ will return. Therefore, the church must always be ready, always be the church expectant" (p. 25).
- "God has revealed enough about the future to give us hope, but not so much that we do not have to live by faith every day for the rest of our lives" (p. 28).
- "Nothing that is happening now in human history can force this return of Christ to transpire any sooner or later than God decides. None of the events transpiring now lead up to the return of Christ in such a fashion that we could read the signs of the times and tell when it will happen. On the contrary, Christ will come like a thief in the night" (p. 56).
- "... there is no theology of rapture to be found in the New Testament anywhere, never mind the term itself" (p. 91).
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Super Nerdy Dissection of Rapture~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Wesleyans have a thing called the "Wesleyan Quadrilateral" to help us interpret and understand things. The four parts of the Quad are: Scripture, Reason, Tradition and Experience. These are super useful tools to help guide us. Scripture is supreme and the rest kind of support the scripture aspect with tradition and reason fighting for second spot and experience being pertinent but a wild card. Experience is super important and is one of the markers of John Wesley's legacy. More on that later, but trust me, you would love it...
So, as to the Rapture, it fails almost all criteria:
Scripture is silent on this issue. There are some scripture Rapture people ('Dispensationalist') use, but it is ambiguous or just plain badly interpreted. There are two main scriptures used for Rapture; Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4.
The part in Matthew 24 that Rapture folks use would be a great support passage except the context gets in the way. As a great man once said, "A text without a context is a sure sign you're getting conned." So here is the text from Matthew 24:
"Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other... ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming." (Matthew 24: 30-31 & 36-42).So overall a strange passage. Some scary elements, some beautiful ones.
There very clearly is an idea here that people are being taken and that Jesus is doing it. I will give you all that, but Jesus sets the context quite clearly, "For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man." Ok, so what happened with Noah again? Did God take the true believers away to somewhere special and all the people being judged get 'left behind'? No, we all know the story, Noah and his family built an ark and God took the bad people. So, when there are two in the field or grinding meal, the one taken is the one being judged. The ones left are the righteous.
More than all of that, Dispensationalists do something funny (peculiar not haha) with prophecy that blinds them from most of it being fulfilled. Most scholars believe that tons of prophecy were already fulfilled, and most of Matthew 24 is no exception. Ben Witherington, a NT scholar, professor of NT at Asbury and hero of mine, said this, "Only a minority of what is said in Matthew 24-25 or Mark 13 has any bearing on current or future events as we view them in the beginning of the twenty-first century, precisely because they already happened in the debacles leading up to and including the Jewish war with Rome in a A.D. 70 when the temple and all Jerusalem were utterly destroyed" (Revelation and the End Times, p. 8).
1 Thessalonians 4 is a bit more ambiguous. The doctrine of the Rapture is that Christ will come and secretly takes us away to heaven. 1 Thess. 4 has some elements of this, but where is speaks to rapture, it is also weirdly silent:
"For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever" (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).This passage is just plain weird and I don't even pretend to understand it. Certainly it says that we, Christians, will meet Jesus during his return in the air and clouds. And even that we will be with him forever after this event. It is an odd/awesome passage. The problem is that it doesn't say anything about leaving earth and going to heaven. Witherington believes this passage is like a royal band-wagon where a returning king would be greeted by his subjects and ushered back into his kingdom. He says it this ways:
"...those Christians alive at the time will rise to meet Christ in the air with the departed saints. This is the traditional greeting a committee going out to welcome the king back into his realm or dominion. Everyone listening to there words would know what comes next - the King with the greeting party descends back to the earthly realm, where they be together evermore and Christ will reign on earth forever. Paul ends by saying that the Thessalonians, currently persecuted and facing difficult times, should encourage each one another with this promise of the return of the King. During the last almost two hundred years of church history, a very different interpretation of this text has arisen in some conservative Protestant circles called dispensationalism. These people say that this text is the 'rapture' of the church out of the world before or during the final period of great tribulation upon the earth. So far as I can tell, this interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4 did not exist before 1820..." (p. 22).Witherington may be right or he may be wrong, I certainly like his work on the passage, but either way, the passage is ambiguous and is not something that either side should be basing there theology on, especially the crux of their theology as do dispensationalists."
As you can see, we have discussed scripture passages, used reason to deduce the rapture goes against the narrative of Christ's Kingdom plan and talked about tradition in that this idea is not anywhere present in almost 2000 years of church history save a century and a half.
There will be a day when all is made right and death is flung into the depths of destruction. There will be a day when Christ comes to reign forever, when we receive our resurrected bodies and are made new to dwell in God's new heaven and new earth. When all brokenness will be restored and when all injustices will be trampled under. Let us look forward to that day when we experience everlasting peace and our hope is fulfilled, but let us not be so arrogant and foolish to assume we can know when or follow after men blindly who lead us nowhere.
Here is a blog post from Witherington written yesterday about this very thing.