The church where I spent my formative years¹ has a ‘Rapture capsule’ built into a nook in the corridor leading from the rear entrance to the main sanctuary. No, seriously. A plaque on the outside invites anyone ‘left behind’ to crack open the panel and study the contents. What’s inside? Maybe some informative brochures, a crate of SpaghettiOs, a pair of warm mittens…Who knows? Whatever the case, it illustrates just how integral ideas like ‘The End Times’ and ‘The Rapture’ have become to much American theology.
I get the appeal of being snatched away from some menial work task into the sky for a trip to heaven. Hey, we’re all looking for cheaper deals on flights and accomodation. But visions of the future should be grounded on something less convoluted than dispensationalism.
In Part 1, I mentioned the key proof texts that dispensationalists use to validate their views and argued that they overlook the basic theology and eschatology of the New Testament. Here, we’ll look at those proof texts more closely.
I Thessalonians 4:13-18
Many North American Christians regularly insert ‘Rapture’ where scripture is speaking of parousia (παρουσία) – the ‘royal appearing’ of Jesus, his return to rule and reign.
That’s what’s happening in Paul’s letter to the Christians at Thessaloniki. These believers were anticipating Jesus’s imminent return, but he seemed to be procrastinating. Some of their friends and relatives had already died. Had they missed out on enjoying and participating in Jesus’s coming Kingdom? Paul writes to comfort these churches. Those who have died, he states, will be the first to welcome the returning Jesus. They’ll rise from the dead, as Jesus himself has done!
He uses a well-known image in the ancient world to explain this event. When the king journeyed away from home on ‘king business’, the citizens would watch for his return. At the first sign of his approach, the heralds would cry out and the trumpet would sound. His loyal subjects would emerge from the city to greet him while he was still a distance away.
Then, they all left straight away on a Disney Cruise…Wait, that’s not it. No, they escorted their ruler back into the city to continue his reign ‘in the flesh’.
This is the metaphor behind Paul’s language about ‘the archangel’s call’, ‘the sound of the trumpet’ and ‘meeting the Lord in the air’. He doesn’t have to mention that this is a welcoming party, after which Jesus will return to earth; that would be assumed by an audience familiar with this image.
Mark 13/Matthew 24
In these parallel passages, Jesus makes an ominous prediction over the Jerusalem temple: ‘not one stone would be left standing on another’. His hearers should watch for a sacrilegious act at the temple’s heart as an indication that they should run for their lives. He follows with this omen:
The sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
To Left Behind series authors Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins, that was the sound of angels printing money. They imagined Jesus speaking here about a coming Anti-Christ, who would desolate the holy place, persecute God’s people in a seven-year ‘Great Tribulation’ and invite God’s wrath in the form of an extinguished sun and plummeting meteors.
Unfortunately, these authors compounded their crimes against fiction with a crime against history, because these words of Jesus already came to fruition in 70 A.D. The Roman army besieged Jerusalem and entered the temple, planning to rededicate it to the imperial cult. In the course of the fighting, they ended up burning it to the ground. Many who stayed and tried to be heroes ended up dead.
In speaking of the sun being darkened, the moon not giving light, Jesus borrows stock-standard language from Jewish literature, with heavenly movements mirroring earthshaking events. No, he’s not talking about the literal end of the world – but in a sense, it was the end of the Jewish world. The temple was the centre of their society and their faith; losing it effectively meant the end of their civilisation as they knew it. It did indeed feel like the sky had fallen.
What about all the business of ‘two people in the field’ and ‘two women grinding together’, with ‘one taken and one left’? The key to interpreting these verses lies in the preceding reference to ‘the days of Noah’. In the time of Noah, who were the ones that were ‘taken away’? This is certainly not a ‘Rapture’ of the saints, but a judgement. As my friend Ben Chenoweth remarked in a similar post, we’d all rather be the ones ‘left behind’².
The Book of Revelation
Decrypting the Book of Revelation is a dispensationalist’s favourite pastime. They exert copious amounts of energy on identifying the ‘beast out of the sea’ and the ‘beast out of the earth’ and theorising about what the various bowl judgements might entail. It’s better than a movie. Unless that movie is about the ‘End Times’. And there’s popcorn.
But this is an apocalypse (which means a ‘revealing’), a time-honoured Jewish literary genre. Apocalyptic writers didn’t set out to predict future events; they aimed to draw back the curtain, so to speak, on heaven’s interactions with present events. Given this established artistic form, it stands to reason that Revelation has more to do with the situation facing its first readers, namely, persecution under the Roman imperial cult.
John of Patmos writes to give hope to his audience: Jesus has prevailed and will prevail and they too would overcome by his blood and the word of their testimony. The only future of any concern was that Jesus would return and vindicate his people, putting everything right and establishing his eternal Kingdom. After all, this book is self-titled, ‘The Revelation of Jesus the Messiah’, not ‘The Revelation of All the Crazy $*&!# That’s About to Go Down’.
The Real New Testament Hope
The escapism of a ‘Rapture’, so perfect for an individualist culture, would have befuddled the New Testament theologians, because they had no desire to leave this world behind. This was thanks in no small way to their Jewish roots. The great hope of the Jewish prophets and the majority of 1st-century Jews was that God would declare His people to be ‘in the right’, liberating them and resurrecting the righteous dead. All the peoples of this world would submit to YHWH’s just and kind rule, leading to everlasting peace. On top of that, God would heal creation and evil, sickness and death would be things of the past.
The earliest Christians made no modifications to this fundamental eschatology – other than to reinterpret it around Jesus and his parousia (a theme we should notice running through all of the above passages).
We should make their hope our hope – not a hope to retreat from the world, to vanish into thin air, to shift into some ethereal mansion in the sky, or even to take a short refreshment break (catered with hot drinks, cookies and finger sandwiches)³, but the hope of Jesus’s ultimate return to set things right, to rescue creation from its chains. We’re asked to join in that restorative work here and now, to build for the Kingdom as we wait for its ultimate fulfilment. Escape isn’t an option.
Let’s leave the world more than cans of Spam and caches of survival gear. Let’s aim to see God’s will be done here on earth as it is in heaven, to help build a world that’s worth surviving in.
¹ Although I’m having a bit of fun at the expense of my childhood church, I don’t intend to be disrespectful. Their belief is sincere and their efforts well meaning.
² There’s even a chance that these ‘taken’ statements continue the story of the Roman conquest. As their army moved through the land, many Jewish freedom fighters and even innocent bystanders were ‘swept away’, so to speak.
³ Many dispensationalists hold that ‘The Rapture’ takes Christians out of the world – only to return them seven years later for the inauguration of Jesus’s ‘Millennial Kingdom’ (Side note: not a kingdom where people stare at their phones all day long). But that’s just trying to have your cake and eat it too. It’s a very American way of evading potential suffering.
- Feature Image: Super cool Rapture comic (from ‘The Life and Time of Bruce Gerencser, https://brucegerencser.net/2015/10/the-rapture-a-doctrine-no-one-really-believes/). What I love about this is that it just makes up promises of Jesus.
- Model of Jerusalem Temple (photographed by Juan R. Cuadra, Public Domain. https:commons.wikimedia.org/file:Jesus-n4.jpg)
- Front cover of a copy of Revelation (Sao Paulo, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=260054)