Monday, September 22, 2014

"Left Behind" should be . . . left behind, and here's why

Many thanks to Randall Hardman of Ministry Matters for saving me the trouble of writing (yet again!) a lengthy refutation of the relentlessly popular, but biblically dubious, "rapture" theology and its latest Hollywood adaptation. You will want to read the entire piece, but here is a choice excerpt.
To the surprise of many, rapture-based theology has only been around for the past couple hundred years and predominantly in America. Indeed, the world's leading biblical scholar, N.T. Wright, refers to it as an “American obsession” and notes that few Christians in the U.K. hold any sort of belief in it. I would say the same for biblical scholars (in fact, I can't think of a single trained biblical scholar of Revelation that endorses rapture based theology minus a couple at Dallas Seminary.) The origins of rapture theology lie in 1830 Scotland where a fifteen year old girl name Margaret MacDonald claimed to see a vision of a “two-stage return of Jesus.” Enter John Nelson Darby, a British evangelist and the founder of the Plymouth Brethren. Darby took MacDonald's vision and created an entire system based off of it in which Jesus returns not once (as Christians have always believed) but twice! Darby and others who were sympathetic to his views went back to the Bible to search for clues, signs, and verses which would justify thinking of worldly history in terms of “dispensations” which included a seven-year tribulation and a preceding evacuation of the church from it.

Through various “mission trips” to the U.S. in the late 19th century, the notion of a “rapture” found itself appealing to American Christians who were going through the atrocities of the Civil War which, by all measure, must have looked like Armageddon: nation rising up against nation, brother against brother, son against father, etc. With more than half a million dead, who wouldn't find a “let's get out of here” theology attractive? This mindset, of course, was exasperated with World War I and the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible which was handed out to soldiers in the trenches. Two other events corresponded to the promotion of the “rapture” in America: the conversion of Dwight L. Moody to the eschatological system (he later founded Moody Bible Institute and a major radio program which would become important in the promotion of rapture theology) and the establishment of a dispensationalist training center, Dallas Theological Seminary (get why their scholars are the exception?)

Now Christians have always affirmed the second coming of Christ, but only in the system which Darby, Scofield, and later dispensationalists developed were there three comings. This was a brand new take on the end, and while Christians throughout the centuries have always wondered whether their day was the last day (including Paul), with some interpreting contemporary events in such a way, the establishment of a system and a timetable was entirely new, as was the presupposition that Jesus would exorcise his Church from the last days.

When Paul refers to some being “caught up” (1 Thessalonians 4:17) he's not referring to a rapture which will precede a time of tribulation in the modern world: He is giving his audience hope in the midst of persecution and death and reminding them of the hope that all Christians share, that Christ will come again (just not again and then again!) When Jesus speaks of “one being taken” (Matthew 24:40) he is not referencing how Christians all across the world will escape from a period of trial; rather, he is referencing the Genesis flood story (vv 37-40) and, as the context makes clear, being “taken away” is actually unfortunate, as it is the one who is “taken away” that faces judgment.

I could go on with a verse by verse analysis of all the “rapture verses” but there exists an underlying problem with rapture theology, one which has the ability to affect so many aspects of how Christians interact with the problems of this world: It embraces escapism as a solution. Rapture-based theology teaches us to think and hope for an escape from this world, not endurance to persevere in it. In this view, Jesus loves his Bride too much to let it go through the intense suffering and judgment the world will face (very similar to the popular notion that suffering doesn't happen to godly people). But that is not the message of Scripture, nor is it the message of Revelation in particular. Sometimes terrible things do happen to good people and Scripture doesn't promise us an “out.” It promises us a “how.”