The world will descend into greater sin and rebellion and fall under the power of a despotic one-world government. God will exact judgement on the earth, unleashing plagues and disasters. Eventually, God will detonate this world and replace it with a shiny new one. It’s a core belief of many North American Christians.
But they don’t plan to be here. They expect to check out early via ‘The Rapture’. You see, the game’s already in the bag; time for Coach Jesus to rest his starters and give the second string some playing time. These Christians believe that, at some point in the near future, Jesus will initiate a near-earth fly-by manoeuvre and whisk the chosen few away into the sky. Those who didn’t accept him will remain here to watch the world circle the drain.
The Last Age?
If you’ve ever had the misfortune to read a Left Behind book, or even had your hands soiled by its dust jacket, you might think this is traditional and scriptural Christian eschatology, passed down the generations for 2000 years. Well, you’d be wrong. Most of these notions were absent from Christian teaching until the last 400 years at the earliest and didn’t coalesce into an interpretive system called dispensationalism until the 19th century.
Dispensationalism postulates that history is neatly divided into ‘ages’ or ‘dispensations’, in which God pursues a particular agenda with a chosen group, each with its own set of ‘special rules’. One age ends and a new one begins, ushering in a new troop of key players. Dispensationalists call the current era the ‘Age of Grace’ or the ‘Church Age’. And when it soon comes to end, God will naturally airlift the church out of danger (always efficient, He’s not one to waste resources!) before getting down to the ugly business of pestilence and fiery judgment and devastation. Nothing left for us to do but pull up a stool in the celestial paradise in the sky, pat each other on the back and say, ‘Hey, nice work’.
Going With the Flow
Thanks to the magic of confirmation bias, dispensationalists have read this complex scheme back onto biblical texts like Mark 13/Matthew 24, I Thessalonians 4:13-18 and of course, the Book of Revelation.
But in doing so, they’ve ignored the scope and sweep of the New Testament. The earliest Christian writers viewed all of history as a great, flowing narrative, not a collection of loosely jointed epochs. What’s more, they strongly asserted that this story, the human story, Israel’s story, culminated with Jesus.
The narrative went like this: God designed humans to oversee His good creation and direct its worship to the Creator. Yet something had gone wrong, corrupting God’s good world with sin and death, and humans had become part of the problem. God set out to rescue and restore creation through a family and a people – Israel – that would represent and intercede for humanity. However, Israel itself surrendered this vocation with its idolatry, went into exile, and needed rescuing in its own right. So Jesus the Messiah, Israel’s representative, exhausted the power of sin and death on the cross and ended Israel’s exile.
The Beginning, Not the End
The importance of the resurrection in this narrative can’t be overstated; without it, there would be no New Testament! You see, the first Christians weren’t interested in the end of the world, but in the birth of a new one. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, they believed that a new creation had dawned and that it would unite heaven and earth, restoring this world to its intended state and humanity to its intended vocation.
It’s why, for instance, the Gospel of John introduces the life of Jesus with a prologue deliberately modelled on the opening of Genesis. It’s why the writer includes Mary Magdalene mistaking the resurrected Jesus for ‘the gardener’ (20:15) – a reference to the original human vocation of tending the garden of God. It’s why that gospel draws toward its conclusion with a resurrected Jesus giving the Spirit to his disciples by breathing on them (20:22), just as God breathed life into the first man in the second of Genesis’s creation stories (Genesis 2:7).
It’s why Paul, in his sweeping explanation of the resurrection to the Corinthian church, compares Jesus to Adam, even calling him ‘the last Adam’ (I Corinthians 15). It’s why he insists that this ‘last Adam’ is even now accomplishing humanity’s task of bringing all of creation into order under God, reconciling and restoring the world to the Creator. It’s why, in another letter, he writes this:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
Romans 8:19-21, NRSV
And here’s the amazing thing: as Jesus’s followers, we find ourselves in the stream of this narrative. We’re not the cast of a separate dispensational saga with a different agenda. We continue the story of Jesus and of his Kingdom, the story of Israel, the story of humanity. As Peter wrote, we’re ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’, proclaiming the redemptive work of the Creator (I Peter 2:9).
We’ve inherited the role always intended for God’s people, to act as intercessors and ambassadors, preparing the world not for destruction, but for renewal and restoration. After all, we’re a ‘new creation’ ourselves (2 Corinthians 5:16-17)!
So don’t be in such a hurry to leave. There’s plenty of work to do here.
- Destruction of Alderaan in Star Wars: A New Hope (from theforce.net)
- The Rapture (from ‘The Life and Time of Bruce Gerencser, https://brucegerencser.net/2015/10/the-rapture-a-doctrine-no-one-really-believes/)