Revelation 1:4-8

Among the most common phobias and fears, such as fear of flying, fear of public speaking, fear of the dark, or fear of spiders, what is your worst fear? While flying does make me nervous, I’m not fond of heights, and I’m always a little spooked by the dark, for much of my life, my worst fear was something far less common, the fear of being “left behind,” a fear of my family and friends suddenly taken by God in “the rapture.” For those unsure, “the rapture,” refers to a belief held by some Christians that at any moment, Christians all over the world will suddenly disappear, leaving behind only non-Christians to face horrible disasters and destruction brought about by a God seeking to punish those who didn’t believe. While different verses in the Bible are said to predict this future event, the book of Revelation is also purported to describe the terror and suffering that God will inflict upon those “left behind,” after which Jesus will come a final time to judge those who remain. In coming weeks, we’ll look more at the book of Revelation and I’ll share why I think that book is misunderstood as well, but for now, “the rapture.”

 

-A fictional account of a fictional event-

For those of us who are either new to church or have a background in Catholic, Lutheran,  Methodist, or other churches it’s likely we have never heard of the so-called “rapture” and find ourselves bewildered and confused when someone talks about it. Those who hold to the idea of “the rapture”  are often very passionate in their belief, sometimes catching off-guard those are not well-versed in the topic or even aware of what it means. When presented with various arguments, those unsure or unaware are often ill-prepared to present a differing opinion and sometimes swayed to a belief they may not agree with but cannot counter.  I want to be upfront and say that I do not believe in “the rapture.”  With much study and consideration, I have come to believe that “the rapture” is not biblically accurate and I hope to share some of those reasons with you today.

I want to affirm that my intent is not tell people what they should believe. So if “the rapture” is something you feel strongly about, feel free to tune me out this morning. But since we so often only hear in Christianity one side of the perspective, I would like to detail why I think “the rapture” is not historically Christian, why it isn’t biblically accurate, why it isn’t true to the teachings of Jesus, and why it isn’t compatible with the mission of the church. Please understand that I do believe in the 2nd coming of Jesus. The return of Christ is something Christians have believed in and have been in agreement on for centuries. The Nicene Creed, a statement of faith agreed to by Christians nearly 1,700 years ago and cherished ever since proclaims: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” In the verses we read from Revelation, the author imagines seeing Jesus coming to earth again in the future. As one commentator says, ‘Christ’s coming is… is certain, visible, decisive, and world changing.”[1] The question is not whether or not Jesus is coming again, the question is how many times is Jesus coming back; once or twice. I believe Jesus is coming back some day to save our world once, not twice to rescue a few and destroy the rest, and this is why….

The average American has subpar knowledge of history, as often humorously displayed on late night comedy or news programming. More and more Americans it seems have no idea who we are or how we got here. A story from 2012 tells how one in three native-born Americans fare worse on civics exam than those applying for citizenship.[2] And we’re fearful of immigrants ruining our country! I think we would all agree that having intelligent and informed citizens is vital to the health of our democracy. As someone who has spent eight years of my life studying the Bible and Christianity in higher education, I want to educate and inform every Christian for the health of our religion.

Waiting for the Word via Flickr

Adherents of “the rapture” rarely admit that the concept was imagined less than two hundred years ago by a man who even then was criticized for this interpretation.[3] Never before in the history of Christianity has this idea been believed. The idea that Jesus is coming again is both biblical and consistent with historical Christianity. However, the idea that Jesus will come to rapture away a select group of Christians isn’t. “Traditional Christian theology has always looked to Jesus to put an end to quality and injustice, to judge the wicked and save the righteous, and to create a new world order in which equality and justice will rule.[4] Jesus is coming again, but only once—not twice; historically, Christianity is clear on this.

Perhaps you’ve heard of “The Bible Code,” a purported set of secret messages encoded within the original language of the Old Testament. This hidden code has been described as a method by which specific letters from the text can be selected to reveal an otherwise obscured message often predicting the future. It reminds me of the bill-folding trick in which a $20 bill can be manipulated to show what looks to be an image of the burning twin towers. Does anyone really think the creator of the $20 encoded a secret message predicting 9/11? Just because we can find something in the Bible doesn’t make it accurate.

$20 bill folded to create image of twin towers

The Bible verses used to promote the idea of the “rapture” are taken from twenty-one different Bible passages found in twelve different biblical books, eight in the New Testament and four from the Old Testament.[5]  The creators of Rapture theology “draw isolated verses from several biblical books, books written by different authors in different time periods, giving no attention to the meaning of those verses within their original contexts, and then braid them together.”[6] Even “proponents admit that the (rapture) system isn’t spelled out in any single passage of the Bible.”[7] Just because we can find something within the Bible doesn’t mean that it’s Biblically accurate, and I believe the idea of “the rapture” is not.

Us vs. them thinking is a common tool of political leaders, a device used to cast blame for a nation’s woes. Depending on the political affiliation our country’s problem is rich people, corporations, the NRA, immigrants, Muslims, and welfare recipients. Whether we agree with these assessments or not, I think if we’re being honest, we could agree that we hear a lot of “us” vs. “them” talk from presidential candidates. Historically, disreputable leaders have used the “us” vs. “them” mentality to maintain control over a populace, to keep them from working together and thinking and acting for themselves.  This “us vs. them” mentality is not in accordance to the teachings of Jesus, who sought to break down barriers and bring people together.

Whether intentional or not, the idea of rapture creates an “us” vs. “them” mentality amongst Christians. Even if we are told that God loves everyone, I can’t help but see how the idea that God is going to “rapture” me away while leaving you behind to suffer leads to an inward, self-protective focus, in which the gospel message is truncated. When we’re only worried about not being “left behind, the hungry are not fed, the thirsty are not given water, the stranger is not welcomed, the naked are not clothed, the sick are not cared for, and the prisoners are not visited.[8] It is the gospel mandate to care for the poor, receive the stranger, and love both neighbor and enemy that is left behind.[9] Instead of worrying about ourselves being in the “in” group, what if we looked at each person as a child of God, all equal beneficiaries of God’s love and grace? What a difference it makes in our treatment of our fellow human beings and even of God’s creation when we realize Jesus is not taking us from the earth and leaving it to rot, but rather coming to us once again to redeem the world and all who abide on it! Jesus calls us to share God’s love with all, not drive people apart.

 Plausible deniability is the ability for persons to deny knowledge of or responsibility for actions committed by others because of a lack of evidence that can confirm their participation. The term was coined by the CIA in the early 1960s to describe the withholding of information from senior officials in order to protect them from repercussions in the event that illegal or unpopular activities became public knowledge. One of the reasons I so dislike the ideology of “the rapture” is that is disregards one of the main tasks Jesus asks of his followers—that of transforming the world to the ways of God. As nice as it would be to get magically zapped out of this earth and be rid of the responsibility to putting in practice the ways of God in the world, reality is different.

We as Christians have been commissioned to participate in the transformational work of God in our world. Each Sunday we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God’s kingdom to come, God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven. If Jesus taught his disciples to pray that prayer, doesn’t it also make sense that Jesus wanted his disciples to act in accordance with that prayer? To seek to live out the values of God’s rule, of God’s will on earth. Constantly obsessing about a coming “rapture” means “overlooking the role—and responsibility—the church has for ushering in that kingdom and thus changes the mission of the church.”[10] “Oh, sorry Jesus, I was too busy looking out for the rapture to worry about feeding the poor, caring for the sick, or clothing the naked.  I know you said caring for one of these was like caring for you, but I wanted to be ready for the rapture.” I don’t think Jesus consider such a denial plausible or acceptable.  The idea of “the rapture” allows the church to set aside it’s calling to change the world for Christ.

I do not think the idea of “the rapture” is historically Christian, biblically accurate, true to the teachings of Jesus, or compatible with the commission of the church. Whether you agree with my perspective is not important, rather I want each of us To have a complete perspective.  But, if I may in closing make on final remark, and that is that I cannot reconcile the idea of a gracious and loving God with a God who would only save a select few while leaving the vast majority to suffer an agonizing death. These two ideas are incompatible.  God is a God of love and compassion, a God of second chances, a God of unending forgiveness.  I do not know what the future holds or how and when Jesus will return, but I believe God’s love and compassion extends to each and every person on this earth—and I cannot accept an ideology limits the love and grace of God to a chosen few. Whatever you believe, I ask you to err on the side of the expansive love and unending grace of God.

 

[1] Stanley P. Saunders, “Revelation 1:4-8: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 2:395.

[2] Brian Greene, “Study: One in Three Americans Fails Naturalization Civics Test,” USNews.com < http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/washington-whispers/2012/04/30/study-one-in-three-americans-fails-naturalization-civics-test http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/washington-whispers/2012/04/30/study-one-in-three-americans-fails-naturalization-civics-test> (accessed March 31, 2016).

[3] Bingaman, Brock. “Learning from Left behind? A call for coherent accounts of Scripture,” Anglican Theological Review 91 no. 2 (Spr 2009):261.

[4] LeAnn Snow Flesher, Left Behind: The Facts Behind the Fiction (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2006), 101.

[5] Snow Flesher, Left Behind, 103.

[6] Snow Flesher, Left Behind, 115.

[7] Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004), 24.

[8] Matthew 25:35-46

[9] Snow Flesher, Left Behind, 149.

[10] Snow Flesher, Left Behind, 148.

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