Will There Be a Rapture?

No.

Not tomorrow, but, you know, eventually?

No.

Never?

Never.

Wait, why not?

Allow me to explain.

raptureThe Rapture, from the Latin raptus “seizing”, refers to the belief by some Christians that at the End of Days, Jesus will return and take up the faithful into heaven with him.  These righteous evacuees will be spared the turmoil and tumult of a period of Tribulation during which (among other things) the Antichrist will rule the earth, earthquakes, plagues, wars, and devastations will ravage the earth, and ultimately, the world itself will be destroyed.

It’s a nice idea, but it does not have a long pedigree.  It came out of early Nineteenth Century dispensationalist theology and the work, in particular, of an Irish clergyman named John Nelson Darby. [1]  The idea of the Rapture has a foundation in some poor Biblical interpretation and even poorer Christian theology.

Scripture

One of the Biblical passages that is often quoted in support of the idea of the Rapture is the following passage from Matthew (with parallel passages in Luke):

For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. (Matthew 24:37–41 NRSV)

This seems to be very much the situation contemplated by most espousers of a rapture and the idea that lies behind the plot of the Left Behind series. Two are standing on a street; the righteous one is taken up to heaven and the unrighteous is left behind in the world that is lost to destruction and devastation.

But there are two possibilities for the interpretation of the word “taken” and neither of them supports the idea of a rapture of the Church.

First, “taken” might have a negative interpretation.  Given the experience of the Jews in the Babylonian Exile, the term “taken” might have the sinister implications of being taken into captivity, exile, or death. In the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament), the same verb is used in Jeremiah to refer to being “dispossessed” of the land.

Second, “taken” might have a positive interpretation, but not in the sense of being raptured.  Since these verses follow after a statement about Noah and the flood, “taken” might refer to being rescued from destruction, but not in the sense of being whisked away to heaven.  Indeed, Noah was taken into the ark but he still experienced the flood—he was just saved from its consequences.  As one commentator notes:

Matthew has no rapture in his eschatological understanding.  Those who are “taken” refers to being gathered into the saved community at the eschaton, just as some were taken into the ark. To be a believer is to endure faithfully the tribulation, which is part of the church’s mission, not to escape from it. [2]

But perhaps the more famous (and more relied upon) passage of scripture is this passage from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians:

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. (1 Thessalonians 4:16–18 NRSV)

As with all Biblical interpretation, context is everything.  Here, the context is obscured by the English translation.  The word translated as “to meet” is the Greek word απαντησις apantesis, which means “meeting”. However, it usually connoted an entourage of citizens going out to meet a dignitary. [3] That is, in the ancient world, when a king came to visit a city, a delegation would leave the city, meet the king outside the city walls, and then escort the king back into the city. They did not leave with the king.  And so here, Paul is comforting his parishioners with a hopeful vision.  Those who have died will not miss the resurrection of the dead.  They will be the first ones raised.  As for the rest of us, we’ll go and meet Jesus as he comes to earth (literally from the sky), by going out and meeting him in the air.  But if the rest of the metaphor holds, we return with Christ to earth.  Jesus doesn’t come to meet us in the sky and then take us back with him.

Furthermore, while there are numerous verses about the end of days (it was precisely because there were so many and so varied that John Darby sought to harmonize them all in one account), there are no verses of scripture that speak of Jesus returning twice.  That may seem obvious, but the proponents of the rapture believe that Jesus will return to rapture the church, then leave the world to be destroyed, then come back to reign in the Kingdom of God.  In an attempt to reconcile the diverse and different passages of scripture concerning the end times, Darby and those who came after him have produced a narrative that is nowhere found in the Bible.  Far from being Biblical literalists, those who espouse this view often do great violence to the plain meaning of scripture, let alone to the diversity of voices within the canon.

Theology

But far beyond any Biblical interpretative problems, there are serious theological consequences to a belief in the rapture, ones that stand in stark contrast to the overwhelming bulk of the tradition, and five doctrines essential to Christian faith.

Creation. The first chapter of Genesis describes the creation of the world from the priestly tradition of Israel. Strong on liturgical refrain and a theology that stood in opposition to the violent origin stories of the ancient world, the account in Genesis presents the picture of a gracious and benevolent God who creates the world out of love and generosity. The world that is thus created is described as “good”. It is somewhat depressing to see how those who are the most vocal proponents of taking this story literally (and thus rejecting scientific truths like evolution) are the ones who miss the point of the story so greatly. The overwhelming affirmation of Genesis is the goodness of the creation. In the second chapter of the book, a story coming from a folkloric tradition, humanity is fashioned out of the dust of the earth in order to keep and till the garden of God’s earth. We become living beings in that story, not because we are imparted with a soul, but because God breathes the breath of life into us. From the very beginning of our story we see that the creation is good and that we are an intimately connected part of that creation.

Incarnation. In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, in words that echo the creation in Genesis, we read that the “word became flesh and dwelled among us.” This is a passage that speaks to the Incarnation of the Son of God in human form as Jesus of Nazareth. Note what it does not say. It does not say that the word ‘took on’ flesh or ‘appeared in’ the flesh. It says the word “became” flesh. That is, Jesus was not just the Second Person of the Trinity pretending to be a human being. The miracle of the Incarnation is that the Son of God was a human being. Fully. Truly. In every meaningful way. Our physical being is not apart from God; God chose to become one of us. That is an affirmation of our createdness, and the goodness of our existence.

Sacrament. In Christianity, depending on who you ask, there are two or seven sacraments. All Christians agree on the sacraments of baptism and communion as ordained by Christ for his followers. A sacrament, to put it in traditional language, is a “visible sign of an invisible grace”. That is, we know something about God’s grace, love, self-sacrifice and purposes from having ordinary water poured over us and consuming ordinary bread and wine. In these ordinary elements something divine, something profound is conveyed into us. Were these material things not worthy, they could not possibly convey something of the grace of God. And yet they do.

Resurrection. The entire Christian message begins with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Resurrection is an idea that had existed in Judaism that on the last day the dead would be resurrected, raised to new life and would live forever in the Kingdom of God. When Jesus’ disciples found the tomb empty and when they later encountered him risen, they knew that their hopes for life, peace, and justice were vindicated. They knew, as Paul proclaims, that Jesus was just the “firstfruits” of those who have died, that his resurrection heralded the general resurrection of the dead that would one day come. It bears noting that the gospel accounts confirm that Jesus was neither specter nor ghost, but flesh and blood (albeit of a different order). But physical nonetheless. What is important to understand first and foremost about resurrection is that it is not an abandonment of our physical selves, it is an affirmation and glorification of those selves. The central message of Christianity has always been one that affirmed the goodness of the body, so much so that it would not be abandoned (as the Greeks believed) by our soul flying off to some other plane of existence, but that we would return to live as embodied creatures in a new and restored creation. Which takes us to our final point.

New Creation. The vision presented in the Book of Revelation is of a renewed heaven and a renewed earth. Of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. It is in this city, on this earth, that God will dwell with God’s people, wiping every tear from their eyes. It is not a book of abandonment, but of restoration and renewal. Not of destruction at the hands of a vengeful God, but of resurrection, new life, and the rivers of life flowing freely. It is a vision in which God says “Behold, I am making all things new.

Against this theological core, an idea like the rapture seems significantly out of place. A theology that encourages a belief in escapism takes away its focus from the world of the here and now, which scriptures demonstrates time and time again is God’s focus. And where we are called to be. Abandonment theology encourages complacency and an indifference to the world we live in, for it is not our home, not where we are meant to be. It promotes a decline in social justice, serving the poor, and in stewardship of the creation: precisely those things we are called to do throughout scripture. We cannot write off injustice simply by claiming that this world is not God’s and our fate is to escape this world in any event.

Dr. Craig C. Hill sums it up best in the conclusion to his wonderful book In God’s Time:

More than a century and a half ago, John Nelson Darby wrote, “I believe from Scripture that the ruin is without remedy.” Believers should expect only “a progress of evil.” All of us are the beneficiaries of those Christian reformers who ignored Darby and got on with the business of fighting slavery, opposing child labor, and campaigning for the enfranchisement of women—the business, that is, of making this world a little more like the dominion of God. For the time being, there remains more than enough such work for all of us. “Blessed are those servants whom the master will find at work when he arrives.” (Matt. 24:46) [4]

This is God’s world. God created it. God created us out of it. God came to dwell as one of us in it. God gave us ordinary elements of life and said they would convey something divine to us. God raised Jesus from the dead to new embodied life in this world. And at the end of all things, God will renew, redeem and restore this creation, making all things new. Given that, this world deserves better from us than to hope to abandon it. It deserves the same love, the same hope, and the same tireless work to live out God’s love and grace that God, through God’s own actions, has shown us it is worth.


1 Craig C. Hill, In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2002, p. 200 ff.  This entire work is a wonderful introduction in accessible language to eschatology and end times theology.
2 The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, Nashville: Abingdon, 1994, p. 446. (Emphasis added). Similarly, in Matthew 24:30-31 the language of the Son of Man “gathering his elect” from the four winds speaks more to the identification of authentic Christian community on the last day than any plan to whisk the righteous out of the world.
3 The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI., Nashville: Abingdon, 1994, p. 725.
4 Hill, p. 208-9.

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O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

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Image courtesy wordle.net

Finals are over, but it’s never too late to learn something.  We are in the season of Advent and there is no greater Advent hymn than “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”.  The words to the hymn date from a Latin hymn in the 9th Century and the melody to a 15th Century French carol.  For some time, each the carol has come with seven antiphons, one to be read before each verse is sung.  The carol itself is an expectation of the coming savior, but doing so by invoking names from the salvation history of God.  And so, we’ll explore this carol, looking at each antiphon and verse and the names that they draw on in recounting salvation and waiting with hopeful expectation. Continue reading

Jonah

[Chapter 1]

[1] The word of Yhwh came to Jonah, son of Amittai, saying: [2] “Get up!
Go to Nineveh the Great City and cry to her that their evil has come up before
my face.” [3] So Jonah got up to flee to Tarshish, away from the face
of Yhwh and he went down to Yafo and found a ship going to Tarshish and gave
payment and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish, away from the
face of Yhwh.

[4] And Yhwh hurled a Great Wind upon the sea, and there was a Great Storm
upon the sea, and the ship thought about breaking up. [5] And the sailors were
afraid and they cried out–each man to his god. And they hurled things that
were on the ship into the sea, to lighten it up for them. And Jonah went down
to the sides of the ship, lay down, and descended into sleep. [6] And the chief
pilot came near to him and said, “What are you doing, descending into
sleep? Get up! Cry to your god, perhaps the god will think of us and we won’t
perish.”

[7] And they said—each one to his neighbor—“Let’s go and
cast lots, and we’ll know who this evil upon us belongs to.” And they
cast lots and the lot fell to Jonah. [8] And they said to him, “Tell us,
to whom does this evil upon us belong? What is your work? Where have you come
from? What land? What people are you from?” [9] And he said to them, “I
am a Hebrew, and I fear Yhwh, the God of the Heavens, who made the sea and
the dry land.” [10] And the men were afraid with a Great Fear and they
said to him, “What is this you have done?” For the men knew that
he had fled from the face of Yhwh—because he’d told them. [11] And they
said to him, “What should we do with you so that the sea might quiet down
for us?”—for the sea was rocking and storming. [12] And he said
to them, “Lift me up and hurl me into the sea and the sea will quiet down
for you. For I know that it’s because of me that this Great Storm is upon you.” [13]
But they dug in [with the oars] to return to dry land but they weren’t able,
for the sea was rocking and storming upon them. [14] And they cried to Yhwh
and said, “Please, Yhwh, please don’t let us perish because of this man’s
life, and don’t bring innocent blood upon us! For you, Yhwh, as it pleases
you—you do it.” [15] And they lifted Jonah up and hurled him into
the sea and the sea stopped raging. [16] And the men feared Yhwh with a Great
Fear and sacrificed a sacrifice to Yhwh and vowed vows.

[Chapter 2]

[1] And Yhwh appointed a Great Fish to swallow Jonah, and he was in the fish’s
belly three days and three nights. [2] And Jonah prayed to Yhwh his God from
the belly of the fish. [3] And he said,

I cried out in my distress to Yhwh and he answered me
From the belly of Sheol I cried for help, and you heard my voice.
[4] You cast me to the depths in the heart of the sea and the flood surrounded
me,
all the waves and billows covered me.
[5] And I said ‘I am driven out from before your eyes,
How will I ever again look upon your holy temple?’
[6] The waters close over my life, the deep surrounds me,
The reed is bound to my head, [7] toward the base of the mountains.
I went down to the soil, whose bars were against me forever;
But you caused my life to go up from the pit, Yhwh my God.
[8]When my life was fainting upon me, I remembered Yhwh, and my prayer came
to you, to your holy temple.
[9] The ones who keep vain idols, have forgotten their covenant-fidelity,
[10] but I, with a voice of thanksgiving, will make sacrifice to you, which
I have vowed to pay.
Salvation is Yhwh’s!

[11] And Yhwh commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto the dry ground.

[Chapter 3]

[1] And the word of Yhwh came to Jonah a second time, saying, [2] “Get
up! Go to Nineveh, the Great City, and proclaim to her the proclamation that
I spoke to you.” [3] So Jonah got up and went to Nineveh, following the
word of Yhwh. Now, Nineveh was a God-sized Great City—a walk across:
three days. [4] And Jonah began to go into the city, a walk of one day. And
he proclaimed and said, “Another forty days, and Nineveh will be thrown
over.” [5] And the people of Nineveh trusted in God, and they proclaimed
a fast and wore sackcloth, from the greatest to the smallest. [6] And the word
reached the King of Nineveh and he got up from his throne and took off his
mantle, and covered himself in sackcloth and sat in ashes. [7] And he cried
out and said in Nineveh: “By decree of the King and his Great-Ones: ‘Human
and beast, cattle and sheep, will not taste anything, nor feed, nor drink water.
[8] Human and beast will cover themselves in sackcloth and they will call out
to God with might. Every person shall turn from their evil way and from violence
which is on their hands. [9] Who knows? God may turn and relent, turn from
his fiery anger and we will not perish.” [10] And God saw their deeds,
for they turned from their wicked ways and God relented from the evil he had
planned to do to them. And he didn’t do it.

[Chapter 4]

[1] But this eviled a Great Evil to Jonah and he became angry. [2] And he prayed
to Yhwh and said, “Please, Yhwh, is not this what I spoke while I was
in my own country? Why I planned to flee to Tarshish? Because, I knew you
are a God of mercy and compassion, slow to anger and great in covenant-fidelity,
and relenting in bringing evil. [3] So, now, Yhwh, please take my life from
me, for my death is better than my life.” [4] And Yhwh said, “Is
it good for you to be angry?” [5] And Jonah went out from the city and
sat to the west of the city, and built himself there a booth and sat under
it in the shade, until he could see what would happen to the city. [6] And
Yhwh God appointed a bush and it went up over Jonah to be shade over his
head, and to deliver him from his evil mood. And Jonah rejoiced over the
bush with a Great Joy. [7] Then God appointed a worm at the coming of dawn
the next day and it struck the bush and it withered. [8] And when the sun
rose, God appointed a sultry east wind and the sun struck Jonah’s head and
he felt faint. And he asked for his life to die, and he said, “My death
is better than my life.” [9] And God said to Jonah, “Is it good
for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “It is good to
be angry enough to die.” [10] And Yhwh said, “You have taken pity
on a bush which you did not labor for, and which you did not cause to grow,
that lived a night and perished in a night. [11] And I shouldn’t pity Nineveh,
the Great City, in which there are greater than 120,000 people who don’t
know their right from their left, and also many animals?”

translation by M. Schaefer

Back to the sermon on Jonah

Where is Their God? (Psalm 79)

1A Psalm of Asaph.
O God, gentiles have come into your inheritance:
they have defiled your temple,
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
2They have given your servants’ bodies as food for vultures,
the flesh of your faithful to beasts.
3They have poured out their blood like water all around Jerusalem
—and there is no one to bury them.
4We have become a reproach to our neighbors,
an object of mocking and derision to the nations around us.
5How long, Yhwh, will you be angry?
Will your jealousy burn like a fire forever?
6Pour our your wrath on the nations that do not know you,
and upon the kingdoms that do not call upon your name.
7For they have devoured Jacob
and have devastated his dwelling.
8Do not remember our ancestors’ iniquities against us
—hasten your mercies to meet us:
for we have been brought very low.
9Help us, God of our Salvation,
according to the glory of your name, deliver us,
and blot out our sins for your name’s sake.
10Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?”
Let the avenging of your servants’ outpoured blood
be made known among the nations before our eyes.
11May the prisoner’s groaning come to you
—according to your great power,
preserve those born to die.
12Return our neighbors’ taunts sevenfold to their bosoms,
taunts with which they taunted you, My Lord,
13and we, your people,
and the sheep of your shepherding,
will thank you forever;
from generation to generation we will recount your praise.

One often begins the enterprise of Biblical exegesis by noting the great distances in time and geography between the author of the text and the audience now reading it. One usually starts by comparing the technological, cultural, and political divide between the ancient world and our own. However, in reading this text, a French proverb kept coming to mind: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose—The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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Image courtesy wordle.net

To be sure, ours is a different world than that of 6th century B.C.E. Judah. We Americans live in a superpower, with an arsenal capable of annihilating all human life. Judah was a second or third-rate power, beset on all sides by powers greater than it, constantly struggling to survive. The United States of America is a large, populous nation, unparalleled in its commerce, unrivaled in its technology, unmatched in its military might. The Kingdom of Judah was a small vassal state, often behind in technology, dependent on the various trades through its territory for commerce, and dependent on the good will of the surrounding empires for its very survival.

And yet, there is one thing that our two greatly divergent nations share—the bitter pain and disorientation of having been dealt a blow that has brought us “very low.” Certainly, the very existence of our nation is not at stake. The devastation wrought on September 11, 2001 is not comparable in relative terms to the devastation wrought on Judah and Jerusalem by the Babylonians. But in a very real sense, the existence of our nation—that is, the existence of our understandings of our nation—has been reduced to rubble. We wonder about our future and the well being of our people in light of the destruction in New York and Washington. Things that were certain in our minds are no longer. Our understanding of our technological, commercial, and military strength has taken a great blow. Continue reading

Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem: Psalm 122

“Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem…” as I read these words penned thousands of years ago, I cannot help but reflect on how far we in twenty-first century America are from ancient Jerusalem and, increasingly, from peace.  Ours is a world of technological marvels, instantaneous communication, and high-speed travel.  A pilgrimage to Jerusalem now takes only hours and can be made from thousands of miles away. Ours is not the world of the author of the 122nd Psalm.  Sadly, it is not even the world envisioned by the psalmist for a hopeful future.

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Image courtesy wordle.net

Since the writing of the words of this Psalm, two great world religions have arisen from lands familiar to the author.  Those religions, along with the author’s own, would value and revere Jerusalem as a holy city and in the many years in between would contest—often violently—for control of that same city.  They contest for it even now and the consequences of that struggle have had repercussions around the globe. Continue reading

Waiting for God: Isaiah 30:8-18

We occupy a very different place than the people who would have first heard Isaiah’s words.  We are separated by time, distance, and culture.  We see the world through a lens colored by modernity.  Instantaneous communications, industrial manufacturing, information economies, chillingly technological warfare—all these shape our view of the world, a world very much removed from the world of Isaiah and his audience.  Moreover, we live in a society that has not seriously been threatened from without in over a generation.  Even in the height of the last global conflict, our nation’s borders were not threatened and our shores have not seen foreign armies for over 185 years.  Though we have had periods of unrest, internal conditions have not threatened the existence of our nation since our Civil War over 135 years ago.  We also live in a culture that values individual initiative and responsibilities over communitarian values.  We believe in the “self-made man” and the idea of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.

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Image courtesy wordle.net

There is also personal experience that must be accounted for.  As a single, childless person, I acknowledge that metaphors of rebellious, faithless children do not have the same impact with me as they might another.  I have relatives who continue an agrarian way of life, but I have never lived on a farm or depended on an agrarian way of life.  I have lived, with the exception of my years as a law student and then a seminarian, in relative material comfort and financial stability.  In short, my world has never been in the kind of peril that Isaiah’s was. Continue reading