Sunday, August 26, 2012

Why You Should Leave Behind Left Behind

If you're going to believe you could be Raptured at any
given moment, it's probably a good idea to keep that
denim skirt at least ankle-length.
When I was a kid, I was crazy about the Left Behind series. By the time I was around 15, I had almost all of the books. We watched the film version of the first book, starring Kirk Cameron, in my youth Sunday school class. It wasn’t until years after being introduced to the books that I began to see the deeply flawed nature of their theology.

Let me be blunt from the beginning of this post: there is no such thing as the Rapture. Nowhere in the New Testament text does it explicitly state that Christians will ever disappear, or suddenly be propelled into "Heaven," leaving the rest of humanity and the earth to go to Hell in a hand-basket. 

The text most commonly utilized as an apologetic for the dubious doctrine of the Rapture is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve, as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 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 forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

A 19th-century clergyman named John Nelson Darby is largely responsible for the twisting of this passage to suggest that on the Last Day, Christians will be “caught up” in the air (Latin: rapiemur, the root of the English word “rapture”) and sent to Heaven, leaving this mortal coil behind. His ideas were further interpreted and integrated into the Scofield Bible (1909). The idea of a rapture is only a little more than a century old.

In reality, Paul is referring to the Royal Return of Jesus, or the Parousia (Greek: parousiva). According to scripture, this event immediately precedes the final resurrection of the dead. But a little more insight is necessary to understand why this text-segment has nothing to do with the subject of the Left Behind series. The primary question that any Bible interpreter (pastor, scholar, or layperson) should ask of any given scripture is this: What is the context of this passage?

“We don’t want you to be uninformed concerning those who have died, brothers and sisters,” Paul says. Paul is here addressing concerns from within the Thessalonian community about the return of Christ. By the time Paul was writing to the Church in Thessalonica, the death and resurrection of Jesus was nearly a quarter of a century in the past. People were beginning to die, and communities were beginning to question whether or not their loved ones would be raised from the dead in time to participate in the Royal Return of Christ, which many believed would happen within their own lifetime. In an attempt to calm their fears, Paul is arguing that the dead will indeed be raised at the time of Christ’s return, and that both the living and the dead will be caught up in the air to greet him.

The Greek term parousia (parousiva) literally means “return,” or “visitation.” In the first century, it was often used to describe the royal visits of Caesar. When the emperor would ride into a town, the wealthy and political elites would ride outside the gates of the city to greet him. They would then return in a royal procession into the town square, where the emperor would be presented with lavish gifts worthy of his lordship. The Apostle Paul applies the term to the Return of Christ, and it is this idea that he is getting at when trying to describe the circumstances of what many refer to as the Second Coming. Sure, the living and the dead will be caught up in the air to greet Christ. But the implication (assuming Paul was consistent in his description of the Resurrection on the Last Day) is that when Christ returns, as N.T. Wright says, to “put things to rights,” we will all return to earth to inhabit the New Creation that God has prepared for us.

“Going to Heaven” is not at all a Christian idea. Heaven, in fact, comes to us (as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer). 

Now, one could ponder all day about how exactly this whole business of “getting caught up in the air” is going to happen. However, to give too much authority to a literal interpretation of this text—as George B. Caird says of over-literalized readings of Revelation—is to “unweave the rainbow.”[1] The main point Paul is trying to communicate is quite simply hope. The dead will not be forgotten or abandoned when Christ returns to make all things new, as the Thessalonians feared. In fact, the living and the dead will both share a role in welcoming the Parousia and establishing God’s Reign on Earth for eternity, a reign that leaves no room for death, decay, hatred, or greed.
I should make note of the fact that this theological discussion is not a minor one, and the debunking of Rapture theology is extremely important. The most concerning problem of the doctrine is this: dispensationalism and millennialism aren't merely harmful little belief systems that just happen to contradict scripture and the better part of two thousand years of Church doctrine. It is—as my "Resurrection in the New Testament" professor calls it—a "sub-Christian" ideology. And the way these ideas are spoon-fed to our youth is quite dangerous. These beliefs breed assumptions about the inherently evil nature of Creation (which we know from Genesis is untrue; after all, God “saw that it was good”). If we are simply “going to Heaven” and leaving this crazy place behind, there is no need for us to be good stewards of Creation, or even care much for our fellow brothers and sisters who may not share the Judeo-Christian worldview, since it’s all going to burn away, anyway. It becomes a way of avoiding the problems of our time, rather than addressing them, and it takes a dim and shallow view of God’s power to fully redeem the world. It is the ultimate escapist revenge fantasy.  

What do you think? Were you raised to believe in the Rapture? Have you changed your mind since you were younger? Feel free to leave your comments below.

[1] George B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (London: Black, 1966), pg. 25. Quoted in Anthony C. Thiselton, Life After Death: A New Approach to the Last Things (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), pg. 109.

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