We’re continuing our Leaving Left Behind Behind series this Sunday by talking about the rapture.
One of the dangerous delusions suffered by biblical literalists is the fantasy that their reading of scripture is one shared by the historic Church.
In case you’ve been spared the straight-to-video, Kirk Cameron Left Behind films, the rapture is the belief that prior to the last judgment the saved will be taken up in to heaven by Christ, leaving all the other unlucky bastards behind to deal with the mess that the PO’d returning Messiah will dole out.
Kirk Cameron’s not the only reason the Left Behind movies are terrible. As far biblical doctrines go, the rapture is thin, ridiculous and contrary to the larger biblical narrative. The rapture might make for good pulp fiction but it’s antithetical to the greatest story ever told. After all, scripture begins with God declaring his creation ‘very good.’ It continues with God promising to Abraham to make it so again. Israel, Christ and Church are all links in the scriptural chain the ends, in Revelation, where it all began: in a Garden. New Creation.
Escape from creation doesn’t fit the story.
Worse, the rapture is a belief premised exclusively upon an almost willful misreading of a solitary text:
“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. 17Then 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
The allusion St Paul makes here is to the arrival of a victorious, conquering military leader. Those who wished to celebrate the victory would rush out beyond the city to greet the coming hero. Think: Palm Sunday.
This would not have been unsubtle allusion to the Thessalonians who in Paul’s lifetime had experienced such entrances (invasions) by Pompey and Augustus.
The rapture mistakenly supposes that the coming Jesus has some other destination in mind.
Another leg of the journey. A connecting flight.
But the ‘cloud’ imagery is a clear echo of Daniel’s vision in which the Son of Man comes on the clouds when God has given him dominion- not of heaven- but the Earth. Christ returns not to whisk souls away to heaven but to rule the New Creation.
On earth as it is in heaven.
As Brian Zahnd points out to read this text as a rapture of believers to heaven is like waiting at the airport terminal for a returning soldier- waiting with your own bags packed as though as soon the solider arrives home you will all be hopping on another plane for another destination.
Not only is the rapture of biblical literalists a willful misreading of the text, it’s an unhistoric reading of the text. Credited to John Nelson Darby, the rapture dates only to the mid-19th century.
It’s a modern belief.
Guess what else dates to the same approximate time period?
Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.
Contrary to popular belief, Christians did not initially have a problem with evolution. Few Christians in the historic tradition ever held to a literal reading of the creation story. That God would use evolutionary means for the process to which Genesis gives poetic expression wasn’t a hard pill to swallow.
Natural selection was a different animal. The notion that violence and suffering was woven into the very fabric of existence seemed to contradict the most basic conception of God as Love. No longer was it axiomatic for believers to see the world as a sacrament to God’s loving glory.
‘Creation’ thus became ‘nature.’
Nature that was, Darwin had pointed out, red in claw and tooth.
No longer charged with God’s grace, the world came to be seen in the 19th century as a closed-system of purely mechanical, material processes.
It was in this new zeitgeist that Darby’s rapture theology took off in American Protestantism. Around the same time God had been vacated from the earth, Protestants started looking for the day when they would be evacuated for heaven. The core biblical theme that God through Christ will redeem this world gets lost when you no longer see this world as ‘creation.’
So not only is the rapture unbiblical and unhistoric, it turns out that the rapture is also a ‘liberal’ belief.
Rapture theology accepts the basic assumption of liberal modernism:
God is fundamentally absent from the present world.
Of course, by ‘creation’ the ancient Christians never meant the processes behind the world’s beginnings. Rather Creator is our answer to the question ‘Why is there something instead of nothing?’ A question no species’ origin can ever answer.
The rapture may be bulls$% as theology, but it does point out one needful lesson: the bible’s primary plot of creation-redemption-new creation falls apart once you stop seeing the world around you- even the reddened claws and teeth- as charged with the glory of God.