Part IV of “The End of the World as We Know It:” The Book of Revelation
People suddenly disappearing, infrastructure collapsing, wailing people wondering what happened to their loved ones and why they’ve been left behind, apocalyptic signs in the heavens, antichrists running amok. These are just a few of images from the popular “Left Behind” series of books that also sparked a couple of bad movies, the most recent one starring Nicholas Cage—a movie that Variety called “irritatingly sanctimonious and doctrinally vague.”
That’s an interesting choice of words. The Left Behind series is, of course, all about what has become popularly known as “the Rapture,” or the time when some Christians believe that God will suddenly evacuate true believers from the earth (leaving behind their clothes, apparently, which makes the Rapture quite a sight) and “leave behind” on the earth those who are unbelievers and evildoers to be subject to a “tribulation” of a thousand years of torture under the rule of the antichrist and/or Satan. Of course, other Christians believe that the Rapture happens after the tribulation, and there are lengthy screeds supporting or denouncing one or the other all over the internet.
The Rapture has captured an interesting and theologically puzzling hold on many Christians in America. In effect, the idea is that the world is so corrupted that God will eventually abandon the earth and destroy it violently and completely. The only way out, then, is to be spiritually saved so that one might be part of the raptured few who escape to heaven where they can enjoy an eternity with Jesus (and, hopefully, get some new clothes to wear). As for the rest of the world, to hell with it! Literally.
A lot of Christians are thus waiting around for the ultimate Calgon moment when God takes them away. “Heaven is our home!” is the rallying cry, and some have even gone so far as to try and use the Scriptures to discern when and how God will evacuate them from a dying creation. We talked in the first sermon in this series about Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, the literary ancestor of Left Behind, but whenever things in our world become dicey or dangerous, many Christians turn their eyes to skies and wait for Jesus to pull the ejection handles that will launch them from their earth to their true home in heaven.
But is this really what the Bible says about the last days of the world? Is our destiny to leave the world behind completely, or is it something else? We’ve been studying Revelation and a lot of people assume that this is what Revelation is talking about. Actually, however, there’s virtually nothing in Revelation about the Rapture. In fact, there’s very little about it anywhere except for a few passages that some interpret as outlining the scenario I outlined for you a minute ago.
Before we do, however, keep in mind that virtually no one in the first 1800 years of Christian history thought about the Rapture in the way that the Left Behind series and its ilk present it to us. The doctrine is in none of the historic creeds of the church. Even today, the historic “mother” churches of the Christian faith, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, do not teach anything like it. The history of the Rapture as a part of Christian theology is actually quite recent, relatively speaking. It first appears in earnest around 1830 in Glasgow, Scotland, when a teenaged girl, appropriately named Margaret MacDonald, was at a revival and had a vision the included a kind of rapture of the saints from the earth. One of the people who heard her was a man named John Nelson Darby, who began preaching this idea which came to be known as dispensationalism, or the idea that God has related to human beings in different ways in different periods of history, which are called “dispensations.” Dispensationalism holds to a very literal reading of Scripture where even figures of speech and other non-literal passages are taken to have literal meaning. Darby saw the millennium described symbolically in Revelation to be a literal millennium and that Christians would either have to be raptured out of it or suffer through it and then be raptured; hence the debate between pre-millenial and post-millenial dispensationalism.
Darby’s views would have been a curious historical footnote had he not traveled to America and spent time with Dwight L. Moody, who was the Billy Graham of his day. Moody began fervently preaching dispensationalism and the Rapture and in a country where Protestant religious fervor often ran high, this idea of Rapture soon became part of the American religious landscape. It really took off a few years later when a man named Cyrus Scofield published a reference Bible with headings in it that pointed the average reader in the direction of his own dispensationalism. Readers who picked up a Scofield reference Bible and read a heading like “Jesus predicts the Rapture” for Matthew 24:36-44, didn’t or couldn’t differentiate between Scofield’s notes and the biblical text and would have thought, “Well, there it is in print. That must be what it’s about.” Scofield’s Bible is still out there today in various forms, and many people still accept the ideas of Scofield and his spiritual descendants to be gospel truth, including the writers of Left Behind.
But, again, for 1800 years the church read these passages quite differently and contextually. I would argue, in fact, that Darby, Moody, and Scofield, though well meaning, actually interpreted the biblical text in a way that the original writers and their audiences never would have recognized and a lot of dubious theology has been the result—theology that has sent part of the church, especially part of the evangelical church, on a wild goose chase away from the actual message of the gospel.
What I want to do this morning is to give you a snapshot of what an original interpretation of the text looks like and what it means for the future of God’s people and God’s world—the future that we will explore further when we get to the end of our study in Revelation.
We begin with Matthew 24, which is probably the most famous Rapture passage. When I was a kid at church camp we used to sing a sad song titled “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” which had lines in it like this: “A man and wife asleep in bed, she hears a noise and turns her head he’s gone; I wish we’d all been ready. Two men walking up a hill, one disappears and one’s left standing still. I wish we’d all been ready.”
These are lines imagined from the text in Matthew 24:36-44. “Two will be in the field; one will be taken, the other left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken, the other left.” Coming as this passage does near the end of a long apocalyptic discourse by Jesus, we might suspect that Scofield and the rest are right—someone is going to be instantly left behind and they probably deserve it.
But read the text carefully. This passage comes in the midst of a chapter where Jesus is predicting the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD66-70—not the end of the world, but the end of the world as they knew it. The text then transitions into talking about eschatological themes about the return of Jesus, but this particular passage, at best, gets the Rapture backwards.
Jesus is talking about watchfulness and he uses the example of the story of Noah. “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.” In the flood, those who were taken were the wicked who were swept away in God’s judgment. Noah and his family were the righteous ones who were left behind! The point? Being left behind is not a bad thing, it’s a very good thing!
This exposes a major problem in the way Christians talk. We often hear Christians say that God “took” someone. That God has “taken” them to heaven, as though God randomly plucks people out of the world and takes them “home.” In only one place in Scripture does God “take” someone and it’s a good thing—that’s in the case of Enoch in Genesis. Enoch was righteous. Here, however, Jesus says that those who are taken are those who are actually taken out—those who will receive the full weight of God’s judgment. Be ready, says Jesus, so that when I come you are the one who gets left behind! We should be like the slave in verse 46 who is working when the master arrives unexpectedly back at the house. The thrust of the biblical narrative is not about us going to heaven but about Jesus bringing heaven to earth. The question is not “when will we be evacuated” but rather, “will we be ready and working when he comes!” (Like another bumper sticker I saw that said, “In case of Rapture, can I have your car?”)
I Thessalonians 4:13-18
Which leads us to the second passage that is often used to support the idea of the Rapture and that’s I Thessalonians 4:13-18. Some in the Thessalonian church are wondering what will happen to those who have already died will be raised in time to share in Christ’s coming; or will they simply stay dead and miss out on the hope of resurrection? Paul gives them a word of hope: Jesus died and rose from the dead and through him God will raise up all those who have died. “We who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who have died.” Again, being left behind is good! But, Paul says, the Lord himself will descend with a cry and the blast of the trumpet and all the dead who are in Christ will rise. “Then we who are alive,” says Paul, expecting this to happen sooner rather than later in his time, “we who are alive 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.”
There it is! Rapture! Our destiny is in the clouds. Well, not exactly. Here’s where literary and historical context and language help us. Remember, a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean. First, Paul is calling to mind two Old Testament images—the first one is Moses coming down the mountain with the law, and the second one is from Daniel 7, another apocalyptic passage, where Daniel has a vison of “one like a Son of Man” coming on the clouds. In that case, however, the Son of Man is going up, and now Paul says he is coming down and we will meet him on the way. Interestingly, the Greek word for “air” here (aera) is not the word for heaven (ouranos). That tells us that this is not primarily a text about going to heaven and meeting Jesus there. Rather, Paul picks up another metaphorical image from the Roman world. The scene is that of the royal return of a king to a city—which was a big deal in the Roman world and a scene familiar to people in the empire. When the emperor approaches and the trumpet sounds to announce his presence, the people of the ancient world, living in walled cities, would send a delegation (in this case, those who have been left behind) out to meet the emperor and escort him back into the city where he would enter the city gates and stay with them. Paul’s imagery here is not about us dwelling permanently in a faraway heaven, but rather of Jesus, the world’s true king, returning to earth and bringing all of heaven with him, joining the two together forever and establishing his kingdom. It’s a text about the return of the king.
That dwelling imagery is all through the Scriptures—from the temple, the dwelling place of God, to John’s image of the Word being made flesh and dwelling among us. The ultimate hope for God’s people is not our evacuation from the earth but Jesus’ returning to reign on it. Our home is where he is, and the message is that he is coming here—not to take us away, but to take over. You will want to be left behind to live with him!
Now, some of you might be thinking, why is this important? Does it really matter if we believe in the Rapture or in something else? What does that have to do with the present? Well, in my view, everything! Here’s why:
The world matters to God.
First, if we take the text seriously, then the first truth we come to understand is that this world matters to God. In the beginning, God created the world and called it good. He created humans to be his stewards and caretakers of the earth. In Romans 8 Paul talks about the whole creation groaning, awaiting redemption. God has invested himself in the creation project and he will not abandon it. Neither should we. If my theology is all about the Rapture and getting teleported off this rock, then I will have no need to care for it—to be a responsible steward of the earth’s resources or the physical needs of its people, for that matter. After all, it’s all going to be blown up in the end. Many Christians who buy into this false theological interpretation become so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good.
It’s a schizophrenia that we see even in some of our beloved hymns. Take the beautiful hymn, “How Great Thou Art” for example. It’s a favorite of many, I love it myself. But look at it closely (#77 in The United Methodist Hymnal). The first two verses praise God for his marvelous creation (O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds thy hands have made. I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed. When through the woods and forest glades I wander…you know this). It’s a hymn celebrating God’s good creation!…mostly. The third verse talks about the sacrifice of Jesus for us, which is definitely hymn-worthy. But verse 4 changes the whole focus: “When Christ shall come with shout of acclimation and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart…” Wait. What? What about the goodness of God’s creation we just sang about? Yeah, that’s nice, but forget about all that and take me home!
But remember. You want to be left behind! Heaven is not our home. It’s a vacation spot—a place of rest and refreshment after death—but our real home is where Christ is and where he will be in the end and where is that? Right here—completing the creation project and making it good again. In other words, heaven is important, but it’s not the end of the world! We’ll talk about that more in our final sermon in this series because this is how Revelation ends—the kingdom of God coming down to earth, the new temple embodied in Jesus himself. When it comes, our bodies will be resurrected and transformed to live in that new world—our true home with him. In the meantime, we are to make this world ready for the world to come—we care for creation, we steward its resources, we care for the physical needs of others, we take care of our own bodies, we make the world ready for his return. After all, John 3:16 doesn’t say, “For God so loved heaven that he sent his only Son to make sure we get there as soon as possible.” No, God loved the world so much that he came into it in the flesh. We should love the world at least as much as he does!
The Lord enters into a world in pain and calls us to join him.
The other reason why we ought to rethink the Rapture is that it takes our focus away from what really matters. We know the world around us is in pain. It’s so much easier for us to want to leave that pain behind, to not deal with it in the present. It’s so tempting to throw up our hands, to say that we can’t do anything about it, that the world has gone to hell in a handbasket and it’s time to get out. Take us away, God and burn it down.
But that’s Calgon Christianity and it runs completely counter to the witness of Jesus, the one who became human and entered into the pain of the world. In Christ we see that God has not stayed in his heavenly throne room watching over the decay of his creation. Instead, he became flesh and became one of us. He took on the world’s pain, entered into it with healing and grace and love. And he calls us to do the same—to see the pain around us and walk with the world through it—to give ourselves in sacrifice for others as he gave himself for us. Jesus said that we would not know the day or hour of his return, so we must not fix our gaze on the heavens but on the world he came to save. We don’t escape tribulation—the first few chapters of Revelation disavow us of that notion—rather we see tribulation as a chance to be witnesses for the Lord. That’s our mission until he comes!
Our citizenship is in heaven, but our life is here.
In Philippians 3:20-22, Paul writes to the Philippian church, “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we expect a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Philippi was a Roman colony established after the Roman civil war as a place for retired soldiers, who had earned there citizenship on the battlefield, to retire. Rome knew that having a bunch of ex-soldiers hanging around the capital was a recipe for disaster, so the consuls Octavian and Marc Antony gave their soldiers Roman citizenship and a place to live it out far from Rome. They knew that they weren’t going back to Rome, even though they were now citizens. Their job now was to extend the life of Rome into the place where they lived.
Our citizenship is in heaven, but the witness of Scripture is that, like those Roman colonists, our destiny isn’t back in the motherland. Rather, our destiny is to colonize earth with the life of heaven until the day they come together, the very thing that Jesus taught us to pray for. For one day the king will come from heaven and dwell with us. We will meet him and usher him into the great city, the New Jerusalem, his new capital where earth and heaven come together.
This is the hope of our future—a hope that is breaking in our present and should affect everything that we say and do. Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world but it is certainly for this world! This is the good news! We should spend the time we have not looking up, but looking out at the world God loves and doing our best to prepare it for his arrival.
That’s reason enough to want to be left behind!
Ben Witherington III, Seven Minute Seminary episodes at Seedbed.com: