The Rapture, Part 2 (5/23/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
Over the past century, certain elements in the church have developed a new theology about the end of the world. To listen to many in the modern church, you would think that the rapture—the notion that just before the end of the world faithful Christians will be called away to another world—is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. We’ve all seen the bumper stickers on the cars of people who have centered their faith on the rapture. The bumper stickers say something like, “In case of rapture, this car will be left without a driver.” I personally like another bumper sticker I once saw that said, “In case of rapture, can I have your car?”
We began our examination of this rapture craze by looking at another big part of modern theology that has no valid basis in either the Bible or the historic Christian faith: Lucifer, the angel of God who fell to earth. That was our starting point because most people who believe in the idea of the rapture also believe they have solved the problem of the origins of evil with the story of Lucifer, which as we saw last week, is a myth.
The only way to explain away evil by saying the fallen angel Lucifer rules over the earth is by taking two sentences out of the New Testament and mixing them with a misinterpretation of a passage from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. The bottom line in all that is that if we look for the word “Lucifer” in our Bibles, we find that word only a single time, and then it is a mocking reference to the King of Babylon almost 2800 years ago—at the time of Isaiah.
Part of this misunderstanding can be attributed to a non-biblical, fictional story about Adam and Eve, written by John Milton in the 17th Century. Paradise Lost became a part of the collective unconscious of the Christian world. Milton, apparently unsatisfied with the lack of information in the Bible about the origins of evil, made up a wild story about Lucifer, an angel in heaven, who led his followers in a war against God, and was ultimately sent with them to hell. Thirst for revenge led him to cause humanity’s downfall by turning into a serpent and tempting Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. Good story—bad theology. Good reading—not in the Bible.
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We discussed a few men who created a new and strange end-of-the-world theology in the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century. As it turns out, many Christians today think the bizarre way those men interpreted the Bible is the historically correct way—even though there is not a single reputable Bible scholar in any respectable seminary who thinks those men—John Nelson Darby and Cyrus Scofield—were anything other than deluded and misguided. We also talked briefly about Hal Lindsay, whose 1970’s book The Late Great Planet Earth had millions believing the world would never see the year 2000.
So let’s look at the rapture. Most of what I pass along today is based on two new books by accredited scholars. The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation was written by Barbara Rossing; and Amy Johnson Frykholm just released a book, published by the Oxford Press, entitled Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America. An excellent review of those books in the April 20th issue of Christian Century, written by Jason Byassee, serves as the foundation for much of what I will say.
By now we’ve all heard about, if not read, the Left Behind series of books. Authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins have written twelve books in the series, and so far they have sold 62 million copies. These writers appear on the cover of Newsweek magazine this week. I read that article after writing this sermon. I was intrigued that Tim LaHaye says that preachers who say that God is benevolent and loving are inspired by Satan.
I can only say that my feelings about what these authors do to the faith are just as strong as their feelings are toward people like me. LaHaye and Jenkins have taken a few passages out of the Bible, combined them with the strange theology of Darby and Scofield, and written this series of books that explain what will happen when the world ends. I have read through a couple of the books, and they really are fun to read. They are interesting, and exciting. And I have lots of friends who really enjoy them. But I’m happy to say the people I know who read these books read them with an open mind. They don’t believe they are being given a secret glimpse of events that are soon to happen.
The Christian Century reviewer had seen those Left Behind books displayed in the book stores, and knew over 60 million copies of them had been sold. But even after years of seminary, and even after a lifetime of living the Christian faith, he had never met anybody who actually believed in the rapture.
And then he was assigned to a rural church in North Carolina, and much to his surprise, there wasn’t anybody at that church who did not believe in the rapture. The people of that congregation assumed that this was exactly what the Bible teaches.
Mainline seminaries have fallen down on the job in this respect. The mainline seminaries—Lutheran, Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, United Church of Christ, Episcopal, and Methodist—have made a concerted effort to demythologize the Bible. Over the past century they have quit worrying about whether Jesus really walked on water and asked, “What is the significance of the fact the Bible tells us Jesus walked on water?”
And even for those of us who do believe in miracles, we accept the fact that the Bible can be read superstitiously. Mainline seminaries have tried hard to eliminate the superstitions of primitive humanity from biblical interpretation. But at the same time, parts of the church have done just the opposite. The dispensationalists, as they are called, have mythologized the Bible more than ever. The have built a superstitious theology that is based on reading the Bible as a hidden code that predicts the coming end of the world.
At first it was the poor and uneducated that fell into this trap. But now, it has spread like a cancer. All three branches of the United States government now have lots of people who believe the end of the world is near, and that the Bible holds the key to unlocking how it will all come about.
The two recent books that Jason Byassee reviews in Christian Century differ from one another. They both try to understand the thinking of people who believe in the rapture. Although Amy Frykholm has no regard for the theology in the Left Behind series, she shows a great deal of understanding toward the people who enjoy those books—and the people who believe they convey the truth of scripture.
Barbara Rossing, on the other hand, is angry. She thinks the Left Behind series, and rapture-style theologies in general, have poisoned the Christian faith. A big part of the Christian faith involves trusting in the ultimate power of God, and the hope that goodness prevails at the end of time. That is not the message of the rapture and dispensationalist theology. The message there is that people end up getting what they deserve if they don’t believe the right things about Jesus and live the way the church wants them to.
Let’s make an overview of the theology that serves as the foundation for this rapture fiction. The theology is called premillennial dispensationalism. It originated in the 19th Century with a rebel priest from the Anglican Church named John Nelson Darby. Darby concluded that the Bible contains a hidden schedule that reveals the events leading up to the end of the world. He was evidently unbothered by Jesus’ warning about false prophets, and Jesus insistence that nobody could know the day or hour of the end of the world—that God alone is in charge of that.
Darby decided that God had divided the history of the world into seven ages, or dispensations, and that God dealt with the world differently in each age. We now live in the sixth dispensation—the age just before the end of the world—and we are balanced on the edge of the seventh.
The first thing that will happen when the seventh dispensation comes is the rapture. That will signal the changing of the age. This is the secret return of Jesus to the earth, when he will transport all true believers to heaven. Please understand, the Pat Robertson types who preach about the rapture have figured out exactly who will and who will not be among the people who are raptured. You may remember Robertson’s famous words that mainline Christians—Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists—people more or less like you and me—are the embodiment of the anti-Christ in America today. According to those who accept this theology, Catholics, Orthodox, and mainline Protestants will all be “left behind” by Jesus.
This rapture—the first event of the seventh age—the final dispensation—will leave the world in confusion. Cars will rocket out of control as their drivers suddenly disappear. Airplanes the world over will fall to the ground in fiery crashes. If the rapture occurred here, in this sanctuary, on a Sunday morning, there might be a few folks out there who are among the truly elect. For the rest of us, we would be gazing in stunned confusion as the place where one of our fellow parishioners sat just moments before now held only her clothes, purse, and glasses. (Assuming, that is, that everybody in heaven has 20-20 vision.)
After the rapture comes the tribulation. Those of us who are left behind will suffer through seven horrible years. This suffering will be inflicted upon us by the Antichrist, who will be disguised as a great political leader who unites us all under a world government. Of course, every good dispensationalist claims that what we are talking about here is the United Nations.
Now, after the shock of the rapture and the rise of the Antichrist, a tribulation force will organize itself to fight the Antichrist. These are the people whose loved ones were raptured, and who now will be carrying around a Bible everywhere they go, finally having gotten the message.
The Left Behind books follow several characters through this period of tribulation. The three major characters are Rayford Steele, an airline pilot; a journalist named Buck Williams; and Nicolae Carpathia—the Antichrist. The authors of the Left Behind series go to the book of Revelation, and picking out a sentence here and a sentence there, interpret the modern political situation to explain what is about to happen to our world. With a little help from the Antichrist, Russia will invade Israel and rebuild the temple, while leading the nations of the world to begin warring against each other. Between the global warfare and lots of natural disasters, the world becomes a truly nasty place.
After seven years of fighting between the Antichrist and the tribulation force, Christ will return a second time, and he will defeat the forces of evil at Armageddon, a large plain in Israel. Then Christ will reign for 1000 years over a new Kingdom of Israel, full of Jews who have converted to Christianity.
Wow. We have countless millions of people believing all of this is in the Bible. But it’s not. It is fiction. In Frykholm’s book on the rapture, she does a good job of pointing out the theological problems with rapture theology; but she also does a great job of showing how the people who accept this theology generally have a common political agenda. First, women should know their place in the world. In the Left Behind books, the women who are raptured are the stay-at-home moms who love their husbands even if their husbands are cheating on them. They know their place, and for that reason they get their reward.
There is a general feeling in rapture fiction that God is completely in control; so completely in control that it is ridiculous for us to try to make the world a better place. Our job is to get our souls right with God—not to confront social ills. I heard one of the more famous premillenial dispensationalists—Charlton Heston—once say on religious talk radio that it was an insult to God for humanity to actively care for the environment. His view was simple. There are no poisons that we could dump into a river that God couldn’t make disappear with a snap of his mighty fingers. Others use this logic regarding nuclear weapons, saying it is an insult to God to believe humanity could kill itself off in a nuclear holocaust. To think such a thing is to belittle the power of God.
That’s dangerous thinking, at least for those of us in the mainline church who think God has given us a fair amount of freedom to shape this world the way we will. But that is a common thread in rapture literature, and it comes through in a common political agenda.
Barbara Rossing is not as gentle as Amy Frykholm. Listen to the first sentence of her new book: The rapture is a racket. In place of healing, the rapture proposes escape. In place of Jesus’ blessing of peacemakers, the rapture voyeuristically glorifies violence and war. In place of Revelation’s vision of the Lamb’s vulnerable self-giving love, the rapture celebrates the lion-like wrath of the Lamb. This is not biblical theology.”
She cites Reverend John Hagee, one of the most popular televangelists in the world, as saying that the good people who are raptured away will get to enjoy the show. They will watch the tribulation and the desolation of the earth from a front row seat in heaven. Ah, good times! After all, what fun is there in going to heaven if you don’t get to watch the agony and suffering of all those people who didn’t measure up to your religious standards?
Rossing agrees with Frykholm that a pathological social and political agenda has grown out of rapture theology. I’ll quote directly from her book:
Secretary Of The Interior James Watt discouraged pro-environmental legislation because of what he saw as the likelihood of the Lord’s imminent return. Conservative pundit Anne Coulter recently paraphrased God’s giving over of creation to human sovereignty by saying, “God said, ‘Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It’s yours.’” Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe supported the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank by citing Genesis and calling the debate on the issue, quote, “not a political battle at all. It is a contest over whether or not the word of God is true,” end quote.
Rossing makes a great point in all of this, even though her anger sometimes gets in the way. The actual story of the Bible is “rapture in reverse.” The Christian message, based on the books of the Bible, is that God refuses to be a distant God; God refuses to leave us alone in our suffering; God refuses to abandon even those who deserve punishment for all the evils they have committed. In fact, God loves the world so much that God bridged the distance between God and humanity through Jesus Christ: not because we deserved it; not because God had no choice; but because God creates us and loves us—all of us.
Well, we need to wrap this up. I have a certain passion about this subject, because of my firm belief that God is in control of what happens on the other side of the grave, and God has given us control of things on this side of the grave. I will always stand against those who try to turn the Christian message into something scary and otherworldly. God sent Jesus to us so we could try to make sense of things here. It’s just an added bonus that in doing so, we also make sense of eternity.
I’ve always said, and I still believe, that the people who are obsessed with the Second Coming of Jesus, are the people who just can’t stand the Jesus we got the first time. They’ve had enough of the loving and forgiving Jesus. Next time they want his evil twin. They want a Jesus who is just as mad, and just as hateful, and just as judgmental as they are. And so they turn away from the Jesus who truly is and invent a Jesus who never was.
We Christians have a choice to make. We can scare people into the faith; or we can love them into the faith. We can imagine an angry future Jesus wreaking vengeance on a fallen world; or we can recall the loving and forgiving Jesus who was, and is, and who will always be. We can draw lines in the sand between the saved and the lost; or we can seek to be co-creators of the kingdom Jesus envisioned, building bridges of peace and understanding between liberals and conservatives; between Americans and non-Americans; between Christians and non-Christians.
We know we are called to follow Jesus. We each must decide for ourselves which Jesus to follow.