Looking Past the Rapture That Wasn’t

Two excellent articles that should prove thought-provoking in light of Harold Camping’s failed Rapture prediction.

It’s been well over a week since Harold Camping’s prediction that the Rapture would occur on May 21, 2011 was proven false by the fact that, well, the Rapture didn’t occur on May 21, 2011. Not surprisingly, Camping has since backpedaled, saying that judgment did occur on May 21, but that it was a “spiritual” judgment and that his other prediction — that the world will end on October 21, 2011 — will still be fulfilled.

Personally, I’m glad to let Camping drown in his own eschatological B.S., though I’m not looking forward to the eventual media brouhaha come October. And of course, there’s still the spiritual and psychological fall-out for all of those who got suckered in by Camping’s predictions. (At least one group, Seattle Atheists, is calling for the government to begin fraud investigations into Camping’s Family Radio organization to see if it benefited at all from the donations sent to fund its May 21 campaign.)

All that being said, I do see at least one good thing coming out of this whole mess: I think an event like this can be a teachable moment for Christians to give some serious thought about their own eschatological views. In other words, what we believe about the end times matters in the here and now. With that thought in mind, I’d like to mention two articles that I’ve found to be very relevant in recent days.

The first is Jake Meador’s brilliantly titled (via Eddie Izzard) “Sometimes being a Christian is like being an executive transvestite — Some Thoughts on Rapture Day.” Meador spends the first part of his post talking about Camping’s heretical views (e.g., Modalism) before delving into a discussion of Dispensationalism and the Rapture, and their history in both Christianity and America.

The idea of a “rapture” is largely out of step with historic Christian orthodoxy… In traditional orthodoxy, we believe that Jesus was crucified for our sins, raised as a sign that death has been defeated and as a first-fruits of a redemption that would one day come to all creation. (A key point in relationship to dispensational/rapture thought.) He then ascended to the Father in order to send the Holy Spirit to help his Church continue his holistic redemptive work, and will one day return when the dead are resurrected to judge the living and the dead and usher in his Kingdom. This is classical Christian orthodoxy, as taught and affirmed by Christians from six continents over two thousand years. It encourages Christians to pour themselves into their communities and pursue the welfare of their communities, for, as Jeremiah 29 puts it, “if it prospers, you too will prosper.” That’s why Christians have often been at the forefront in medicine, the arts, science, and social justice. We’re here, we like being here, and we plan to stay. Further, we think that in working to improve these communities, we’re agreeing with God’s intent for them by helping to pursue the peace of the community, though we do accept that peace and wholeness won’t be completely and permanently present until the return of Christ (in other words, we accept that there are limitations on what we can do to create change).

The proponents of the Rapture view are presenting a different story… According to the proponents of the Rapture, God has divided history up into different epics and he works in different ways in each epic. For a long time, his attention was focused on the Jewish ethnic group. When the Jews rejected Jesus, his concern with that group was put on hold and on the Day of Pentecost, described in Acts 2, he began his focus on a new group: the church. The age we currently live in is called “the church age” and it will end when Jesus raptures the church out of the world, resumes his work with ethnic Israel for seven years, then returns, judges those who opposed Israel during those seven years, has a thousand year kingdom on the planet earth, then Satan rebels again. At that point, God presides over a final judgment and finally destroys all of creation before making a new heavens and new earth, that his followers then enjoy into all eternity.

If you think that the Rapture is the only Christian view of the end times, or is the default view, you might be in for a bit of surprise. As Meador puts it, the Rapture view as described above is “an historical anomaly that only first popped up 150 years ago and hasn’t taken hold in any other center of world Christianity aside from the United States or a place shaped by American Christianity.” Which brings me to the second article, Matthew Dickerson’s “Who Gets Left Behind?,” which was recently posted at Christianity Today (one of the leading evangelical Christian publications).

Dickerson’s article takes a look at some of the key Biblical passages regarding the end times (e.g., Matthew 24 – 25, Luke 17:26 – 36, 1 Thessalonians 4:13 – 18) and challenges some of their popular interpretations.

If my reading is accurate, then many Christians have been interpreting the end times backwards for decades. Hasn’t our common picture of the Rapture imagined the followers of God — those who are saved — getting taken away while the wicked are “left behind”? I would suggest that the popular interpretation owes more to Platonism or Gnosticism, which devalue the body and physical creation, than to Christianity. Plato’s Socrates, when sentenced to death for allegedly corrupting the Athenian youth, delighted to die; he gladly drank the hemlock because it meant freedom from his body and a chance to escape the earth. In Plato’s vision, Socrates, the righteous and wise philosopher, would be taken away, while his enemies would be left behind. Similarly, when Christians look forward to escaping the earth — when we imagine being “left behind” as punishment — we may be embracing Gnosticism and Platonism rather than Christianity.

At several points in the article, Dickerson confirms the importance of the Christian belief in the bodily resurrection (i.e., that when Jesus comes back, it won’t be to usher in some sort of ethereal existence but rather, a corporeal existence on this planet), and how it ought to influence our views of the end times.

Nonetheless, if our thinking about who gets left behind is backwards, we are likely to adopt wrongheaded attitudes toward the arena of creation. To wit: [Larry] Norman’s same album includes a song, “Reader’s Digest,” which ends with these lines: “I’m only visiting this planet / This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.” How many identically themed T-shirts and bumper stickers made their way through church circles in the 1970s? The world, according to this mindset, is a hotel, not a home. When we succumb to this way of thinking, we miss out on the importance of the bodily resurrection. Indeed, the centrality of the bodily resurrection to Christian teaching is one reason I am led to an understanding of Matthew 24 – 25 that contests our profound horror at the prospect of being left behind. If we view as a punishment being left in this world, what does that say about our view of creation? If we yearn ultimately to escape corporeal existence rather than awaiting our bodily resurrection and the coming of heaven to earth, what sort of care for God’s creation will result? The answers, thus far, have only been discouraging.

Needless to say, any discussion regarding the end times requires humility because the Bible speaks of such things in “parables and metaphors” (as Dickerson puts it). Become too dogmatic on any of this stuff, and you risk veering towards the Camping end of the spectrum. But as I said before, what we believe about the end times matters in the present day — which is why it’s so important to figure out what, exactly, we believe and its ramifications.

If we’re honest with ourselves, our beliefs about the end times ought to affect how we relate, not only to the world itself, but to those who share it with us. It ought to affect how we respond to the surrounding culture, how we live with and witness to non-Christians, and how we respond to the fallenness and brokenness that pervades all of Creation (including ourselves). Hopefully, this is something that Christians have spent some time contemplating in light of “Rapturegate 2011.”

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