Kurt Willems, The Rapture, and Dangerous Escatology
The latest of the Christian Horror Films, “Left Behind” is in post-production and scheduled to be released October 3 starring the desperate for money actor Nicholas Cage. Once again, this film will put the lunatic fringe of Christendom in the spotlight and the rest of us with a palm to our forehead. In times like these, I am always surprised that more people in the academic world don’t speak up about the very shaky biblical ground that the rapture is based on. The idea of “the rapture” is only about 100 years old and was a word that Jesus and his disciples never used.
But it’s not just a benign theory – it leads to what I have in this blog called, “Dangerous Escatology” – a dysfunctional belief system that sets us up for not just missing the main emphasis of Jesus’ teachings but for potential self-destruction.
Yesterday I was thrilled to see Kurt Willems hit this issue in his blog entitled, “Why The Rapture Isn’t Biblical…And Why it Matters”:
I grew up in church culture. Most of what I recall from those early childhood and teenage years bring memories of good things. People genuinely taught me that loving Jesus matters more than anything else in the world. The world, after all, is corrupt and the place we truly long for is far, far away – heaven. So we are to love Jesus and hate the world.
Now, this is not hatred toward the people on earth. I did not grow up in a church culture that taught that we ought to tell outsiders how much they suck, but that this “world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.”
World and physicality = bad.
Jesus and spiritual bliss in a distant heaven = goal of the game.
This distinction came with a subset of beliefs about the destiny of God’s world. Eventually this planet would be destroyed and we Christians would “fly away” to heaven at the rapture of the church. Certain Christians understood the timing of the rapture as it corresponds to the book of Revelation differently than others, but no one ever denied the imminent return of Jesus to evacuate the church out of earth.
What I’ve come to realize is that the church of my youth probably had the rapture all wrong. You see, the Bible flows from Creation (Gen 1-2) to Renewed Creation (Rev 21-22). This is the narrative of Scripture. Nothing in the text (if read in its proper context) alludes to the actual complete destruction of the planet. This world’s worth to the Creator runs deep and because of this, the world as a whole ought to be intrinsically valuable to us.
Physical/earthly realities such as social injustice, violence, hunger, preventable sickness, and the destruction of nature are invitations to the church of Jesus to get our hands dirty and proclaim that this world matters (even in its broken state)! Christ will complete creation upon his return, uniting heaven and earth for the life of the age to come!
The famous “rapture” passage is found in 1 Thessalonians 4.15-17 and reads:
According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
This passage, when placed in the larger context of the chapter, is answering questions that Christians in Thessalonica had concerning death. What has happened to our loved ones who have died before the return of Christ to earth? What is theirs and our ultimate destiny? Paul’s answer: bodily resurrection at the return of Christ to earth! Not an escape into the sky [see appendix below!].
In this passage, Paul borrows two specific images from the Old Testament that would have been familiar to Jewish converts and Gentiles who were familiarizing themselves with the Hebrew tradition. The first of these that Paul employs in the text has to do with Moses who comes down from Mount Sinai with the Law with the great blast of the trumpet.
The second image is taken from Daniel chapter 7 where the “one like the son of man” (or “human being” or “The Human One”) and the community he represents is vindicated over the enemies of the people of God. Clouds here symbolize the power and authoritative judgement of God about the rescue of his people. This idea now seems to be applied to Christians who are facing various forms of persecution.
Finally, there is a third image in the text that comes from outside of the canonical context. This is the image of an emperor who visits a city. The people of that region would have gone out to meet him to usher him into their home in a royal procession out in the open air. This, Paul seems to apply to the church who will usher in their King into the new creation.***
Rapture, as it is popularly understood, is nowhere to be found in this “rapture” passage. Christ will return to resurrect, to purge, to heal, and to establish the eternal kingdom of God on this earth. Heaven and earth will unite like a bride and husband – for all eternity. That’s it.
The Bible teaches that when Christ comes back, it will be Good News! “‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’” (Revelation 21.4). Surely we cannot erase judgment from the picture, but the hope is that those in Christ will be raised to eternal life and everything that is wrong with this world will be made right.
This world renewed is going to be our home for eternity, and we have the opportunity to reflect that future in our present. Rapture invites us to escape this world: the last thing that Jesus would have ever taught! “On earth as in heaven” is what he said, not “in heaven away from the earth!” Our world’s future is hopeful. Let’s tell that story and not the escapist narratives that many of us grew up with.