The Rapture, Part 1 (5/16/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Today we begin a two-part series on the rapture. We’ll start by talking about the reason this subject recently came to my attention. Several weeks ago I taught a theology class for the United Church of Christ. This class is one of twelve classes designed for lay people who are considering becoming licensed ministers. There are many smaller churches that simply cannot afford to hire an ordained minister, and this program is designed to help fill the pulpits of some of those churches.
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It was a daunting task—cramming all of Christian theology into ten hours of class time. It was difficult for me, and even more so for the students. But the class went well, and I learned a lot about the theology of people out there in the pews. Many of the assumptions these very intelligent people have developed about theology and religion are based on what they’ve been told by their preachers. And preachers—they are a strange lot. We preachers seldom let a lack of information or education stand in the way of our conviction that what we say is right and true.
The class went well until we started talking about two subjects: evil, and the rapture. These two subjects go hand in hand, and today we will concentrate on evil, and how the way we approach that subject—biblically—relates to the subject of the rapture.
The problem of evil is the ultimate theological puzzle. Think about it. Why would an all good and all powerful God create a world that has so much suffering? I’ll bet you can envision a world that would be better than the one we have—a world without disease, or perhaps a world where food is so plentiful nobody ever goes hungry. Why didn’t God create that world? Do you have a better grasp on what creation should look like than God does?
There are no easy answers to the problem of evil, although there are answers—hundreds of them, all in conflict with one another. So this is no easy question to resolve in the 45 minutes of class time I had allotted for the discussion of evil. But this is where things got interesting. I asked where evil comes from, and walked the class through the problems that theologians have wrestled with over the centuries:
Where does evil come from?
Is the whole universe a battle between good and evil?
If so, is evil an eternal power just like God?
If a person is damned, doesn’t that mean evil wins, at least in that particular case—that evil wins out over the will of God?
My intention was to discuss the ways these questions have been addressed through Christian history—from St. Augustine and the early church theologians to the reformers, and then to modern theologians. But the discussion was immediately sidetracked by people who had no problem with the problem of evil. In fact, they wondered what all the fuss was about. And they were happy to enlighten me.
They said that in the beginning God surrounded himself with angels, and that one of those angels—Lucifer—rebelled against God and was ordered out of heaven. Lucifer then led a team of bad angels to earth, and working through the snake in the Garden of Eden, tricked Adam and Eve and took control of the earth. Lucifer will remain in control of the earth until the end of time, when, following the rapture of the saved, Christ will return to earth and establish his kingdom.
I was blindsided by this logic. Even after all my theological education, I was at a loss for words. I did not know how to argue against this reasoning, because this simply isn’t something professors talk about at seminary. I asked the leader of the group of students who was confident they were on solid theological ground, “Where did you get all that stuff about Lucifer?” The response was an instantaneous and loud: “The Bible!”
And in a strange sort of way, they were right. Somewhere along the way in their faith journeys, somebody had strung together a piece of scripture here and a piece of scripture there, and convinced these folks that the mystery of life, death and the origins of evil are as simple as 1+1=2.
And that’s what I want to talk about: the abuse of scripture for the purpose of creating theology. We’ll talk about how this is done with regard to the rapture soon enough. First we need to consider this notion that evil came into being because of an angel named Lucifer, who rebelled against God, fell to earth, and now reigns over the world.
Consider the Bible. It’s a big book. Seriously! 39 books in the Protestant Old Testament—more in the Bible of the Hebrews, Orthodox and Catholics. 27 books in the New Testament. And what is the Bible about? Well, it covers a lot of ground. But generally speaking, it is a record, sometimes historical, sometimes metaphorical, sometimes poetic, that speaks of humanity’s relationship with its Creator. There is hardly a problem we face that is not addressed at some point in the Bible. And as we read through the Bible, there is a problem that haunts us every step of the way: the problem of evil.
Throughout the Old Testament—the Hebrew Bible—God is in this relationship with the Jewish people in which God constantly warns them against turning to evil ways. God gives them prophets, priests, commandments, laws, and repeatedly tries to keep them walking the paths of righteousness…and they continually stray onto paths that lead them toward evil.
This is not the day to discuss differing theories about the atonement, and how it is that Jesus Christ somehow took the evils of the world upon himself, but the Christian story holds that evil was so predominate in the world, God had to take decisive action, and did so in the life, death and resurrection of Christ.
Now, in this huge collection of books we call the Bible, evil plays a key role. The way evil came into being should be of great concern. And it is. There are many stories, from the creation accounts to the Book of Job to the New Testament Epistles, that discuss the origins of evil. And since so many people are completely convinced that evil came into being with the fall of an angel named Lucifer from the heavenly realm, this is surely a character we are going to find repeatedly in the Bible.
Now, before I go on, let me acknowledge that the Devil, or Satan, or the Evil One, are common subjects in the New Testament. But what we are looking for here is the origin of evil. Where are all the stories about this Lucifer, who was an angel of God and fell to earth? I noted from my reading that some Bibles translate the word Lucifer as “Day Star,” so I looked for any stories that discussed either Lucifer or Day Star.
Surely we find Lucifer in the creation stories. That’s where the serpent tricks Adam and Eve. That’s where we find the story about humanity’s exile from the Garden of Eden. So it must be there that we discover Lucifer. But no. He’s not there. Not even a mention.
So let’s go to the New Testament. It must be Jesus that taught us about the fall of Lucifer. After all, how often does Jesus talk about evil and the wicked? A big part of Jesus’ mission was to cleanse our evil hearts, but oddly enough he not one time mentions Lucifer. The Gospel of Luke does briefly mention the fall of Satan from heaven, in a strange and mysterious passage from Luke 10. Jesus is speaking to a group of seventy people who have been casting out demons in his name, and Jesus says, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.”
Hardly enough to anchor our theology regarding the problem of evil on the fall of Lucifer. Okay, surely the Apostle Paul gives us repeated quotations about Lucifer. Paul was pretty much the founder of the Christian Church. Paul established the church to stand against the evils of this world, and to seek salvation from this fallen world through Jesus Christ. But, you guessed it, not a single word about Lucifer!
Finally, I did find another mention of the fall of angels in the relatively obscure New Testament Book 2nd Peter. The author of that book goes through a series of stories that show God is quick to punish the wicked. He talks about the angels being cast into deepest darkness, and the flood that destroyed almost all humankind, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and so on. But again, no mention of Lucifer, and hardly enough mention of fallen angels to use as a foundation for our theology.
I was beginning to think this Lucifer character was a figment of the church’s imagination—that he had no reality, at least within the Bible. But I was wrong—sort of. I finally found Lucifer hiding in the 14th chapter of the Book of Isaiah. But was I ever disappointed with the Lucifer I discovered waiting for me in Isaiah! The passage in which we finally find Lucifer, or Day Star, is not about Satan, or the origins of evil, but rather about the King of Babylon.
Babylon was one of the historic enemies of Israel. Babylon was constantly invading and ruling over Israel. This passage looks forward to the day when the king of Babylon and all the power he represents will be dead. The passage is an ironic funeral dirge. The Jews associated Babylon and the power Babylon held over Israel to be the personification of evil in the world. So in this passage, Isaiah is looking forward to the day when Israel will celebrate the fall of Babylon. Listen, and I will use the word Lucifer, found in the King James Bible, in place of Day Star, which is used in more modern translations. From Isaiah 14, as the prophet rails against the King of Babylon:
All will speak and say to you, “You have become as weak as we! You have become like us! Your pomp is brought down to death, and the sound of your harps; maggots are the bed beneath you, and worms are your covering.
How you are fallen from heaven, Lucifer, son of Dawn! How cut to the ground, you who laid the nations low… Those who see you will stare at you, and ponder over you: “Is this the man who made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms, who made the world like a desert and overthrew its cities, who would not let his prisoners go home?
That is not the story of the fall of a rebellious angel from the kingdom of heaven in the first moments of creation. That story is a verbal attack on the king of Babylon, and it is the only place in the Bible we find the word Lucifer. Why does Isaiah use that word? Because Lucifer means “Light bearer,” or “Light-giver.” In Canaanite mythology—the religion the Jews fought against when they established Israel—Lucifer, or the Day Star, was a star that had fallen from a lofty place in heaven and been placed close to the earth. It was the planet Venus. The Day Star. Isaiah ironically compares the king of Babylon to the Day Star—Lucifer—in order to show how the king would be brought low from the lofty perch on which he sat when Isaiah wrote the story.
Complicated? A bit, yes. Important? Oh yes. Because a great number of well-intentioned but poorly informed Christians have adopted a theology that is simply wrong. They have placed, as a foundational part of their theology, a Bible misinterpretation.
What has happened, over the centuries, is that people have taken those vague references to fallen angels from Luke and Peter, combined them with the story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and created a whole theology based on a misinterpretation of Isaiah 14.
Now, some of you may be thinking, “So what?” Well, it may seem a bit more important to me than to others, especially since people who believe they have a full understanding of the origins of evil, and who base that understanding on a lie, are in my theology class, preparing themselves to stand in the pulpit. I have a problem with that.
But it gets even worse. Using the same type of erroneous connections and misreadings of the Bible, the folks who think they have figured out the origins of evil have also decided they know exactly what is going to happen when this world ends—which, they claim, will be very soon. They have arrived at their conclusions by combining the teachings of a rebellious 19th Century Anglican priest, an early 20th Century born-again District Attorney from Kansas, and a 1970’s writer of fiction who convinced the world he had written the definitive book about the coming end of the world.
The rebellious Anglican Priest was named John Nelson Darby. Darby decided he had found a brand new way of reading the Bible. He was convinced the Bible, when properly read, contains a schedule of events that lead up to the end of the world. Furthermore, Darby came to the conclusion that God had divided the world into “dispensations.” These dispensations were eras, or distinct periods of time in world history. Darby claimed there are a total of seven dispensations in world history, and that God deals differently with the world in each of those seven dispensations. We are presently in the sixth era, or sixth dispensation, which will soon be followed by the seventh—the end of the world.
Darby is the person responsible for coming up with the idea of the rapture. Even though many of our Christian friends believe the rapture is the centerpiece of the Christian faith, one look at any Bible concordance will reveal the fact that the word “rapture” does not appear anywhere in the Bible. One of the dictionary meanings of the word rapture is “to carry somebody to another plane of existence.” Darby pulled a single passage out of the Gospel of Matthew, and created a theology around it. In this part of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is warning people to always be ready for the end. And Jesus says, “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. Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
First, we should acknowledge that the end arrives for people every day. And at any time of the day or night, if there are two men standing in a field, one of them may indeed be called home. But even if we view this as an “end of the world story,” and we probably should, since it appears that is the way Jesus was framing it, many modern scholars claim that the person who is raptured—the person who is called away—is actually called to judgment! His life is taken from him and he must face the judgment of God.
Now, this is a major shock to the people who read all those “Left Behind” books, because they have built their theology on John Nelson Darby’s notion that it is the saved people who are raptured away, and the evil folks who are left behind. Something to think about!
Adding to the hysteria created by Darby is a man who served as a Kansas District Attorney in the late 19th Century, and who then had a religious experience that led him to become a Congregational preacher. His name was Cyrus Scofield, and he managed to reinterpret the Bible from start to finish in such a way that the Bible became one long code pointing toward the coming end of the world. The Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1909, maintains a cherished place on the shelf of every fundamentalist preacher. They seem to believe that finally, after 2000 years of confusion, John Nelson Darby and Cyrus Scofield finally figured out the true meaning of the Bible.
And then, in the 1970’s, Hal Lindsay wrote a book called The Late Great Planet Earth. Standing on the shoulders of Darby and Scofield, Lindsay looked at the geopolitical situation of the world in 1970, and made connections between our world and the biblical book of Revelation. It became the best-selling book of the decade; it scared people senseless; and it was a blatant misinterpretation of the Bible.
Well, we’ve set the stage. We’ve examined how the Bible can be misused to create deviant theologies. I’ve introduced you to Darby, Scofield, and Lindsay, who along with modern authors Tim Lehaye and Jerry B. Jenkins (with their Left Behind Series) have perpetrated the all-time great theological hoax on an unsuspecting church: the rapture.
Next week we will look at two new books, written by excellent scholars, that examine the rapture craze that has swept the church. Between now and then, I suggest we put our faith where it belongs: not in the twisted imaginations of superstitious modern writers; but rather in the hands of our loving God, who calls us into being with wisdom; carries us through life with love; and secures our futures with mercy, through the love of Christ.