Why Rapture-Believing Christians are Really Liberals

Jason Micheli —  May 16, 2014 — 17 Comments

image001We’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.

Unknown-1Kirk 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.

UnknownNot 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.

Jason Micheli


17 responses to Why Rapture-Believing Christians are Really Liberals

  1. I don’t disagree with your analysis of the rapture at all but would what you call liberalism really deism? Just a thought.

  2. “Credited to John Nelson Darby, the rapture dates only to the mid-19th century.”

    First , anyone who uses the vulgar language that you use is walking in the flesh, not with the Lord. Secondly, clearly you have not done your research thoroughly. I will repost this bit.

    An Ancient Concept
    Those who argue that the Pre-Tribulation Rapture view is just “too new” to be considered viable point to John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) as its originator, and they claim he took the idea from a 15 year old girl named Margaret MacDonald. But, is that assessment historically accurate? Indeed, it is not.

    The Early Church fathers’ such as Barnabas (ca.100-105), Papias (ca. 60-130), Justin Martyr (110-195), Irenaeus (120-202), Tertullian (145-220), Hippolytus (ca. 185-236), Cyprian (200-250), and Lactantius (260-330) wrote on the imminent return of Jesus Christ, the central argument for the Pre-Tribulation Rapture view.

    When Augustine (354-430) began spiritualizing the Bible, his view of a non-literal interpretation took hold of the Church until the Renaissance, obliterating the Premillennial and Pre-Tribulation Rapture views in favor of Amillennialism. But, some Medieval writers such as Ephraem of Nisibis (306-373), Abbot Ceolfrid (c. 642-716), and Brother Dolcino (d. 1307) wrote statements that distinguished the Rapture from the Second Coming.

    When the chains of allegorical interpretation began to fall off, beginning with the Reformation in the 1400′s and 1500′s, writers such as Joseph Mede (1586-1638), Increase Mather (1639-1723), Peter Jurieu (1637-1713), Philip Doddridge (1702- 1751), John Gill (1697-1771), James Macknight (1721-1800), Thomas Scott (1747-1821) and Morgan Edwards (1722-1795) all wrote concerning the Rapture occurring separate from the Second Coming. Even in the more modern church, those like William Witherby, who wrote about the Rapture in 1818, were precursors to John Darby in support of the Rapture.

    The Rapture is indeed then not only biblical, but supported throughout Church history. And, Mariano is absolutely right in one respect, for the Rapture sure is “something really great to look forward to.” It’s our “blessed hope” (Titus. 2:13).

    • The fact that the rapture is something you “look forward to” is testament to the hideousness and fundamental evil that is religion/Christianity/your “relationship with Jesus”/whatever you want to call it.

      The fact that you actually look forward to escaping while god wreaks 7 years of torture on the planet, to when he comes back wielding a sword against his enemies, to the end of the world, and to the final judgement, so that those who aren’t “saved”, primarily based on being born in the wrong country, can finally go to hell for all eternity, this I find truly repulsive.

      Surely if you believe you have friends or family destined for hell you’d be praying for more time, not “thy kingdom come”. No, instead you can barely contain your excitement about Armageddon, and of people being damned to eternal torture for finite “crimes”.

      The whole idea of hell, of eternal torture of a sentient soul, simply for choosing the wrong social club, is abhorrent. What a pointless waste of life. Here on earth we’d label such things “human rights abuses”. And yet, like so many other aspects of religion, you hold God to a far lower standard than you would any human.

      If Jesus did exist he would be bitterly ashamed of this wretched world view.

    • First, your self-righteousness isn’t Christlike. There was no point in your criticism of the “language” this author uses on his blog.

      Maybe some people played with the idea of a “rapture-like” event before Darby, but I hardly think any of your name dropping constitutes support for this idea as historically supported throughout Church history.

      You didn’t present any contrary evidence that it’s a biblically supported theory.

  3. Jason Micheli May 18, 2014 at 2:19 PM

    Or that the latter leads out from the former?

  4. Peter Harding May 19, 2014 at 2:17 PM

    I was brought up in the Brethren and the Rapture was hammered home weekly almost as a threat. Indeed, my initial conversion came out of fear that my parents would be “raptured” and I might be left behind; an awareness of God’s love came much later for me. John H, you can’t extrapolate a belief in the rapture from the early church belief in the possible imminent return of Jesus, as you seem to do. To suggest in some way that Augustine did Christianity a disservice by his so-called spiritualising of the Bible is also unfair: spiritualising elements of the Bible has been essential ever since the books of the Bible were written, otherwise you’d get into a terrible mess! Would you “literally” pluck your eye out if it offended you? Of course you wouldn’t, nor did Jesus expect you to do. The Rapture is no more literal than the dragon with 7 heads and 10 horns is literal in the Apocalypse.

  5. Understanding the prophecies concerning the last days includes an understanding of what the rapture means. Here is a short video which opened my eyes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIoRk3mMudQ

  6. Helen K. Krummenacker May 20, 2014 at 3:06 AM

    Research the historic roots of liberalism. If this really is an appropriate label, explain why, do not just assert it. “Liberalism first became a distinct political movement during the Age of Enlightenment, when it became popular among philosophers and economists in the Western world. Liberalism rejected the notions, common at the time, of hereditary privilege, state religion, absolute monarchy, and the Divine Right of Kings. The 17th century philosopher John Locke is often credited with founding liberalism as a distinct philosophical tradition. Locke argued that each man has a natural right to life, liberty and property and according to the social contract, governments must not violate these rights.” (Wikipedia) Are you claiming those who believe in Rapture want to avoid a state religion? The Christian Dominionists don’t believe in the Rapture?

    What about you? Are you a supporter of monarchy?

    Or did you just think that liberal was a cool insult to use? Your writing cannot be taken seriously at this point.

    Alfred, Lord Tennyson, not Charles Darwin, gave us the phrase “nature, red in tooth and claw”. Again, do research, don’t just make assumptions.

    As a liberal, I feel highly insulted by your comparison of Rapture-believers to those who seek equal rights for all people.

    • Jason Micheli May 20, 2014 at 10:44 PM

      In calling Rapture Believers ‘Liberal’ I’m merely echoing the philosopher Charles Taylor who ably shows how the Reformation/Enlightenment project of de-sacralizing creation and rendering the universe a ‘closed system’ were the necessary preceding steps to establishing the ‘common good’ (instead of our telos in the transcendent) as our foundational value. I too would want to avoid comparisons to those who espouse the rapture but ‘liberal’ is a signifier that goes well beyond equal rights or even purely political usages.

  7. What has vulgar language to to with walking with the Lord and what has walking with the Lord to do with anyone’s ability or otherwise to comment on church history.

  8. Kathleen Schwab May 20, 2014 at 7:19 PM

    I am very curious about the response of the church to Darwins theory of evolution, and how that response has changed over time. Any suggestions for resources, books or websites?

    • Jason Micheli May 20, 2014 at 10:28 PM

      It’s not history per se but David Bentley Hart’s new book, Experience of God, narrates some of the history in the first third. Noll’s ‘Evangelical Mind’ book and Marsden’s Church in America history text (can’t recall exact title) are all good.

  9. Thank you for a very thoughtful article. Neither is the rapture is never mentioned in the Scriptures; nor is it our “blessed hope” – only Jesus is.

    Martin Luther once said: If Jesus were to return tomorrow; then I would plant a tree today. I think that is a much healthier view of reality; plant and try to restore a tiny glimpse of an original wonderful “garden”.

    Many christians that simply “check out” and wait for the rapture are quite environmentally retarded! I wish that we would work hard to restore the creation by thepower of the spirit.

    Again, thanks for an awesome article! I look forward to reading more of you in the future.

    • Jason Micheli May 20, 2014 at 10:26 PM

      Louis CK has a great bit about God coming back. It says what you say and is theologically very sophisticated. I’ll get in too much trouble if I post it here so look it up.

  10. Jenell Brinson May 21, 2014 at 10:56 AM

    Belief in such doctrines as the Rapture, prosperity gospel, that Jesus promised God would always provide for the needs of the faithful, have facilitated entirely selfish, non-compassionate, short sighted, and irresponsible attitudes among many Christian. Whether in matters of concern for the poor, the oppressed, the victims of destructive economic, social, or environmental policies and activities, this brand of Christianity dismisses any responsibility through applying such thinking as that if any that suffers need would just get right with God, get saved and be faithful, they would be saved by Gods promise to care for them, if we humans actually destroy our environment, so what? God will still meet “our” needs ( believers) even as others suffer, and ultimately when it all really too bad, Jesus is going to swoop in and we will fly off into the clouds of heaven with him, leaving those “others” to suffer, which is just fine because its what they deserve, anyway. When you follow out the consequences and underlying implications of such beliefs, what reveals is horrible and evil in its psychological effects upon those that embrace them, and in the consequences for everyone else, and the entire world. That there is such expressed delight and self satisfaction in the idea that so many other people will suffer beyond any imagining, while they enjoy paradise whether here on earth or in heaven later, is actually symptomatic of psychopathy.

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