Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Do You Believe in the Rapture?


In an earlier blog article this month, I mentioned having a theological discussion my sister. One of the direct questions she asked me was, “Do you believe in the Rapture?”
If she had asked me that question 60 years ago in 1955, which was the year I graduated from high school and the year after I started preaching, I most probably would have answered Yes without hesitation. But now I had to say, “No, I do not believe there will be a literal Rapture.”
My sister, just as some other family members and friends who hold to a fairly literal interpretation of the Bible, likely thinks her unchanging view of the Bible and theology means she is upholding “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
The Rapture is considered very important by conservative Christians—and not believing in the Rapture is considered a serious matter. In his bestselling book “Four Blood Moons” (2013), John Hagee declares that “false prophets are now teaching there will be no Rapture of the church” (p. 76).
Hagee (b. 1940) also gives this grave warning: “If you are deceived into believing there is no Rapture, prepare to stand in line to get your personal tattoo from the Antichrist” (p. 79).
And then a little later, Hagee, who is the founder and senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, asserts, “Satan hates the Rapture teaching and has his deluded disciples saying there will be no Rapture” (p. 83).

There is not space in a 600-word article to explain all the reasons why I no longer affirm a literal Rapture. But the linking of Rapture theology to current world affairs is one reason for not only denying the Rapture as taught by Hagee and many others but for also seeing it as a dangerous teaching.
Back as far as 2010 Hagee was calling for the U.S. to join with Israel in a preemptive nuclear strike against Iran. Long a fervent supporter of Israel, he currently is a strong backer of recently re-elected Prime Minister Netanyahu and opposed to the President’s stance toward Israel—and toward Iran.  
Although he didn’t say so in those exact words, back in February one website posted this headline about Hagee’s position: “God Will Destroy America Because Of How Obama Treats Netanyahu.”
So, all of the talk about the Rapture and other aspects of the “end times,” often gets entangled with current political issues. Christians who believe in the Rapture and think that the apocalypse is near are most likely to support conservative politicians who support the nation of Israel and are hawkish toward Iran.
Christians (like me) who do not believe in a literal Rapture and do not think that the end times are necessarily near are likely to sympathize with the Palestinians, considered to be unjustly treated and to think that negotiating with all countries as being superior to use of military force.
Further, although the “Left Behind” series of books have been highly popular, I am among the many Christians who see the mass holocaust portrayed in those novels highly troubling.
So, there are significant differences in the thinking of Christians who believe in the Rapture (and related doctrines) and those who don’t. But even among those who disagree, those differences can be talked about in a civil manner.
Theological discussions rarely change minds, but they help clarify one’s own position. Thus, I appreciate my sister’s question—and I am thankful that in spite of our disagreement, we still have a warm, cordial relationship.

31 comments:

  1. Thanks for your thoughts, Leroy.

    Your discomfort with the violence of Left Behind is similar to the discomfort I felt almost ten years ago when I first learned that there was a Left Behind video game where you could earn points for killing people (although you could earn more points by "converting" them with "prayer").

    My main problem with Rapture theology is that it is built entirely using only one or two specific scripture texts (particularly in 1 Thessalonians), but otherwise ignores the vast witness of the scriptural narrative to the contrary. It also breeds a dangerous theology of Creation in which the current world is free to burn since we're planning on leaving it, anyway.

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    1. Joshua, thanks for making significant comments on my blog article. Your last sentence is especially important, I think.

      Since you are a New Testament scholar, I wonder if you would like to respond to Fred (below). I will be making some response to him later, but I would be interested in hearing what you would say in reply to his inquiry.

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    2. Thanks for alerting my attention to Fred's comment, Leroy. I will try to answer according to my best understanding:

      The Matthean text Fred mentioned is part of a text known as the "little apocalypse". Here, rapture theology has become so ingrained in our cultural psyche that it is different to read this text any other way. But consider the fact that although Jesus here mentions the angels of God "gathering the elect from the four winds," he makes no mention of where they are going. The more logical conclusion is that they will be together in one place (as opposed to being in diaspora). And if one reads the full context of Matt. 24:40-41, we find that the whole bit about one being "taken" while the other one is "left" is be conveyed as a retelling of the Noah story—one is "taken" (i.e. "swept away by the the rising tide" like those who drowned in the days of Noah) while the other remains behind. If anything, this is a text that could be used to argue for some form of annihilationism, the belief that the righteous will inherit the earth while evil/wickedness/unrighteousness/injustice will be annihilated or "swept away".

      The Thessalonian passage also makes no mention of the faithful being carried off to heaven, but only says that they will be "caught up in the clouds". The word Paul uses for Christ's "reappearing"—parousía—has its roots in the Greco-Roman tradition of loyal citizens rushing out of the gates of a city to welcome a visiting emperor. The implication (in Paul's mind) is that at Christ's reappearing, the faithful will rise up to greet him before returning to terra firma where God will finally be united with and dwell among God's people on earth. Despite the best efforts of Darbyists to twist these two texts into dispensationalist rapture propaganda, it just doesn't work with what the grand narrative of scripture portrays as the Christian hope.

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    3. Good heavens. Just realized that there are a lot of typos in my response above.

      Anyway, just wanted to pop back in to say that I have written several blog posts about rapture theology in the past. Not sure that I would have worded them exactly as I did (they are a few years old at this point), but my thoughts are generally the same as they were then.

      Here's one called "Why You Should Leave Behind Left Behind":
      https://joshuapaulsmith.wordpress.com/2012/08/27/why-you-should-leave-behind-left-behind/

      Here's one called "More Thoughts on Death and Afterward":
      https://joshuapaulsmith.wordpress.com/2012/08/30/more-thoughts-on-death-and-afterward/

      And, just for fun, here's a recent post I wrote about my own thoughts on eschatology:
      https://joshuapaulsmith.wordpress.com/2014/05/30/the-last-things-eschatology/

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    4. Thanks for your explanation, Joshua--and for the links to your blog articles; I enjoyed reading all three.

      Part of the discussion with my sister was about believing the Bible. I thought later that I should have talked about believing what the Bible originally meant and not as seen through the lens of Darby and Scofield.

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  2. Once upon a time, I believed in the rapture, too. It embarrasses me to think that I did. It's a monstrous idea, as are a number of others rooted in the fearful and vengeful theologies we've concocted. Probably most people wouldn't know what we're talking about, which might be a good thing. And most who do would know it from movies. It's things like this that tempt me to sidle over towards the New Atheists, while pointing back at us believers and say, "I don't know those guys." :-D

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    1. Anton, as you probably have heard me say before, there is no need to go from one extreme to the other.

      Further, "us believers" includes a wide variety of people, some of whom are extreme (and thus objectionable) in their views and some of whom (thankfully) are thoughtful and speak and live a life of love and compassion for others. I am happy to know some of the latter and try to be one of them.

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  3. One of the scariest moments/memories of my life was watching "A Thief in the Night." The local Youth for Christ club in my hometown of Weston, Mo., in which my family was very active, hosted a rally in the high school auditorium where the movie was shown. When the movie was over, I remember shaking while we all sang "The King is Coming." I laugh about it now, but it's never made sense to me why the God of love, mercy and redemption (or mainly people who serve him) would scare you to death in order to get you to turn to him. Thanks for you thoughts here, Leroy.

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  4. "Audience Raves/Sold-Out Fathom Events for ‘FOUR BLOOD MOONS’ Drive April 9 Encore"

    This headline about the new movie based on Hagee's book just came in from http://pressreleases.religionnews.com/2015/03/25/audience-ravessold-fathom-events-four-blood-moons-drive-april-9-encore/

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  5. I was raised in a setting which believed this. But in those formative years there was also a fundamental Sunday school teacher who advocated an Arian Christology. The early Church fathers certainly did not advocate this doctrine. But as with so many novel doctrines, this began in the Roman Catholic church. The protestant version became popular in the 1800's, and has remained so in large segments. It is probably not worth dividing over, and should it occur, I will gladly allow those by into this minor doctrine all the bragging rights.

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  6. As a rule, I feel safe in listening to whatever John Hagee says, and then believing the opposite. I have relatives who hang on his every word. "Dangerous" is the word that comes to my mind too. I remember being fascinated by this doctrine as a young teenager. Now I'm just confused. The rapture of the church has not been an area of study for me since then. Clearly, it's problematic in terms of consistency with a God of love. And as alluded to above, it's inspired dangerous attitudes and, ironically, for those with a high view of Scripture, it ignores other elementary doctrines: like creation stewardship responsibilities to care for life on this planet, to say nothing about common sense caring about the future of our children and grandchildren. Such ignoring translates into ignorance and confirms our backwardness in the minds of others.

    But because the rapture has not been an area of study for me, I'm curious to learn how others who take Scripture seriously (not necessarily as inerrant) understand Matt 24:30-31,40-41 and 1 Thes 4:13-17.

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  7. Thanks, Leroy. Here is a link to N.T. Wright's 2001 article, "Farewell to the Rapture": http://ntwrightpage.com/Wright_BR_Farewell_Rapture.htm And here is a video with him discussing the subject: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kxzf00qrErw

    It's interesting how "belief in the Rapture" becomes for some the dividing line between who is in and who is out.

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    1. I finally took time to listen to the presentation by N.T. Wright, and it was an impressive interpretation of the Rapture as something that calls us Christians to work in the world with the coming King rather than to look forward to leaving the world to destruction.

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  8. The first email received this morning about this article was from a local Thinking Friend. She wrote,

    "I so agree with you. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this subject. I fear few minds like the pastor you mention will change. They need their literal interpretations to frighten people into their way of worship and politics. Sad."

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  9. About 20 minutes later, a Thinking Friend who was a former missionary colleague in Japan and who now lives in Texas wrote. She said,

    "Thank you for sharing this blog. I agree with you, as would a number of our church members . . . . I think the word 'literal' is important here; the Bible teaches truth, but much of it is done in symbolic, not literal, ways."

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  10. An hour or so later, a Thinking Friend in Maryland commented:

    "Seeing this makes me realize how little I hear or think about this in the church communities I’m in (which is a wonderful thing!)."

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  11. Then, as he often does, Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky sent a brief, but significant, comment:

    "I join you in that, Leroy. Those who cling to millenarian theology rely too much on apocalyptic passages of scripture and neglect too many more basic ones."

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  12. Another former missionary colleague and Thinking Friend who lives in Virginia wrote (and with his usual wit):

    "I do not believe in a literal rapture.

    "I am NOT a supporter of Israel. It persecutes Christians.

    "It does not accept the New Testament as Scripture.

    "It (especially Netanyahu) is filled with hate.

    "Of course, that does NOT make me a supporter of Iran.

    "Think a 90 year old Christian should be afraid to die if he believes what I have just affirmed?

    "Want to take me off your "Thinking Friends" list?

    "I appreciate you, my friend."

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  13. Here is an email message (in its entirety) from another former missionary colleague--and his opinion probably represents the majority of the fellow Southern Baptist missionaries in Japan during the time I served there:

    "I BELIEVE IN THE RAPTURE AND ALSO THAT WE ARE IN THE END TIMES."

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  14. Rapture theology (pre-mil, pre-trib, left behind) is relatively new on a historical scale. Some Brit named Darby came up with it in the mid-19th century, and it was popularized by Scofield and the Scofield Bible in the 20th century, and sensationalized by Late Great Planet Earth in the latter part of the 20th century, and hyper-sensationalized by the Left Behind stuff in the early 21st century. Were all the pre-Darby theologians and NT scholars deceived by Satan? I don't think so.

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    1. Leslie, your post reminds me of something I once heard baptist historian Bill Leonard say during a speech at a conference a few years back: "If the rapture happens, I ain't going. Because I've read my Bible, and I know that the Shepherd stays with the sheep until every last one of them is safe and accounted for."

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  16. A Thinking Friend in California sent me an email, which I post here in part:

    "Wow Leroy!

    "I am in three different Bible studies and have a dear friend that used to be a Catholic and they are amazed at your view on the Rapture . . . .

    "They advised me Not to send you their materials because . . . it would be an effort in futility and that I should just pray for you.

    "They say that the Rapture or the taking away of the church before the Tribulation is so clearly described in the Bible, that they cannot understand why any believer would not believe in that event."

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  17. Here is what I have just written in response to my TF in California (and partly in response to Fred's inquiry above):

    The primary passage in the Gospels used to support belief in the Rapture is Matthew 24. But for those who interpret the Bible literally, I would like for them to consider seriously Jesus’ words in verse 34: “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (NIV).

    Not just because of that verse, but in harmony with it, there is a long tradition in Christian theology known by the technical term preterism. Wikipedia gives an accurate description of that position: “Preterism is a Christian eschatological view that interprets prophecies of the Bible as events which have already happened. Daniel is interpreted as events that happened in the second century BC, while Revelation is interpreted as events that happened in the first century AD.

    According to that view, which I agree with in general if not in every detail, most (but not all) of what Jesus talked about in Matthew 24 was fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

    The opposite of preterism is futurism, and while there are some appearances of that belief through Christian history, it has been most popular since the first half of the 19th century. Futurism, also known as dispensationalism, was the emphasis of John Nelson Darby from 1827 and his views were further popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1909.

    Views of many contemporary evangelicals, such as Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye in their very popular books, to a large degree seem to be based on the interpretation of Darby and Scofield. And when conservative Christians claim to believe what the Bible says about the Rapture and other eschatological matters, most often it is the Bible as interpreted through the lenses of those influenced by the teachings of Darby and Scofield.

    Futurism is not the only way to interpret the Bible and it certainly has not been the primary way it has been interpreted in the 2,000 years of Christianity—or even during the nearly 500 years since the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

    My desire is to understand the message of the Bible (especially the New Testament) in its entirety, focusing specifically on the teaching of Jesus, and to understand the Bible as much as possible from the context in which it was written and through the eyes of those who first read it.

    So, without being more specific at this point, I stand by my statement that I do not believe in a literal Rapture. Further, I seriously doubt that there are any sure signs that we are now living in the “last days.”

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    1. When in my earlier comment I placed Darby in the mid 19th century I was working entirely from memory and was off a decade or so. (I guess anywhere from 1835 to 1865 could be considered mid-19th century.) But Darby's views were from 1827, acc to LKS, so he would have been early 19th century. I have heard that Hal Lindsey invested his huge royalties from "Late Great Planet Earth" in planet earth real estate, but have not verified that rumor.

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    2. Thanks so much for that explanation, Leroy. And thanks, Michael Newheart, for the link to the N.T. Wright article. Both were helpful.

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    3. The destruction of the temple in AD 70 is just the tip of an iceberg which at some point I expect Christianity will have to consider more fully. While it is normally assumed the only connection between Josephus and the New Testament is the questionable direct reference to Jesus in Josephus, the parallels between Jesus' acts and prophecies with the acts and statements of Titus Flavius lead one secular writer to suggest that the two were written to fit together rather like a hand and a glove. For those who are ready to test whether their eyes are ready to see, and their ears ready to hear, check out "Caesar's Messiah" by Joseph Atwill (2011). The apostle Paul may not be the only Roman citizen intimately involved with the birth of Christianity. And there may be a good reason why Paul and even some early church fathers seem quite ignorant of the gospels. They may not have been written yet.

      My main criticism of Atwill is that he writes quite harshly, as he assumes there was no Christianity there before Flavian propagandists made use of the the story, and that therefore it is nothing but Flavian propaganda. In this case, I believe this was the victors rewriting history, not simply inventing it. The life of Titus Flavius may have been overlaid on the life of Jesus, but I believe an historical Jesus is still there wrestling with him in the story. But that is a whole other topic. Let's just say there may be a reason why church rebellions often come at the church straight out of the inspiration of Jesus!

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  18. The Rapture (whether it happens before a given date) is the sort of controversy upon which I'm willing to gamble a monetary bet with a person who happens to be a strong believer that it will happen. I'm willing to bet that it doesn't happen, and if it doesn't the other person will be accessible for me to collect the winning bet. But if the Rapture does occur and I loose the bet, one of us (presumably the other person) won't be present to collect.

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  19. Leroy, I talked about the other view in my Palm Sunday sermon yesterday, using NT Wright's idea of the people going out of the city to meet their arriving ruler--on Palm Sunday and in 1 Thes 4. As for Matt 24, even an old premil like Dale Moody used to point out that those who are taken are said to be like those who are taken away in Noah's flood--those destroyed in the judgment, not those taken up to salvation. You should have received that sermon in an email. If not, you can access it here: http://www.blockislandtimes.com/affiliate-post/going-out-welcome-king/42062

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  20. Catholics know that the bestselling "Left Behind" books and movies have grossly perverted Catholicism's biblical "rapture" doctrine - the only "rapture" view before 1830.
    The 2000-year-old Catholic "rapture" occurs AFTER the final "tribulation" (post-tribulation) while the 185-year-old evangelical Protestant "rapture" supposedly occurs BEFORE it (pre-tribulation) and is said to be "imminent."
    All Catholics should read journalist Dave MacPherson's "The Rapture Plot" (available by calling 800.643.4645) - the most accurate documentation on the history of the pretrib rapture which began in British cultic circles in 1830. By twisting Scripture, this new doctrine gave folks the (false) hope of being evacuated from earth before the chaos found in the book of Revelation.
    "The Rapture Plot" reveals, for the first time, how a Plymouth Brethren historian, after John Darby's death, secretly and dishonestly changed the earliest "rapture" writings of the Irvingites (the first group publicly teaching a pretrib rapture) so that he could wrongfully credit P.B. leader Darby with "dispensationalism" as well as with that rapture view! (Some still view Darby as the "father of dispensationalism" even though MacPherson's book amply proves that Darby wasn't first or original with any crucial aspect of that system but subtly plagiarized others!)
    The leading pretrib rapture merchandisers (Scofield, Lindsey, LaHaye etc.) are openly anti-Catholic and believe that the Antichrist during the coming tribulation will be headquartered in Rome (and you can guess where!).
    For more shocks Google "Catholics Did NOT Invent the Rapture," "The Real Manuel Lacunza," "Pseudo-Ephraem Taught Pretrib - NOT!," "John Darby Did NOT Invent the Rapture," "Margaret Macdonald's Rapture Chart" (she originated the pretrib rapture!), "Edward Irving is Unnerving," "Famous Rapture Watchers," "Evangelicals Use Occult Deception," "Pretrib Hypocrisy," and "Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty."

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