Farewell to the Rapture?

 

(N.T. Wright, Bible Review, August 2001.  Reproduced by permission of the author) 

Little did Paul know how his colorful metaphors for Jesus’ second coming would be misunderstood two millennia later. 

The American obsession with the second coming of Jesus — especially with distorted interpretations of it — continues unabated.  Seen from my side of the Atlantic, the phenomenal success of the Left Behind books appears puzzling, even bizarre[1].  Few in the U.K. hold the belief on which the popular series of novels is based: that there will be a literal “rapture” in which believers will be snatched up to heaven, leaving empty cars crashing on freeways and kids coming home from school only to find that their parents have been taken to be with Jesus while they have been “left behind.”  This pseudo-theological version of Home Alone has reportedly frightened many children into some kind of (distorted) faith. 

This dramatic end-time scenario is based (wrongly, as we shall see) on Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, where he writes: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God.  The dead in Christ will rise first; then we, who are left alive, will be snatched up with them on clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). 

What on earth (or in heaven) did Paul mean? 

It is Paul who should be credited with creating this scenario.  Jesus himself, as I have argued in various books, never predicted such an event[2].  The gospel passages about “the Son of Man coming on the clouds” (Mark 13:26, 14:62, for example) are about Jesus’ vindication, his “coming” to heaven from earth.  The parables about a returning king or master (for example, Luke 19:11-27) were originally about God returning to Jerusalem, not about Jesus returning to earth.  This, Jesus seemed to believe, was an event within space-time history, not one that would end it forever. 

The Ascension of Jesus and the Second Coming are nevertheless vital Christian doctrines[3], and I don’t deny that I believe some future event will result in the personal presence of Jesus within God’s new creation.  This is taught throughout the New Testament outside the Gospels.  But this event won’t in any way resemble the Left Behind account. 

Understanding what will happen requires a far more sophisticated cosmology than the one in which “heaven” is somewhere up there in our universe, rather than in a different dimension, a different space-time, altogether. 

The New Testament, building on ancient biblical prophecy, envisages that the creator God will remake heaven and earth entirely, affirming the goodness of the old Creation but overcoming its mortality and corruptibility (e.g., Romans 8:18-27; Revelation 21:1; Isaiah 65:17, 66:22).  When that happens, Jesus will appear within the resulting new world (e.g., Colossians 3:4; 1 John 3:2). 

Paul’s description of Jesus’ reappearance in 1 Thessalonians 4 is a brightly colored version of what he says in two other passages, 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 and Philippians 3:20-21: At Jesus’ “coming” or “appearing,” those who are still alive will be “changed” or “transformed” so that their mortal bodies will become incorruptible, deathless.  This is all that Paul intends to say in Thessalonians, but here he borrows imagery—from biblical and political sources—to enhance his message.  Little did he know how his rich metaphors would be misunderstood two millennia later. 

First, Paul echoes the story of Moses coming down the mountain with the Torah.  The trumpet sounds, a loud voice is heard, and after a long wait Moses comes to see what’s been going on in his absence.

Second, he echoes Daniel 7, in which “the people of the saints of the Most High” (that is, the “one like a son of man”) are vindicated over their pagan enemy by being raised up to sit with God in glory.  This metaphor, applied to Jesus in the Gospels, is now applied to Christians who are suffering persecution. 

Third, Paul conjures up images of an emperor visiting a colony or province.  The citizens go out to meet him in open country and then escort him into the city.  Paul’s image of the people “meeting the Lord in the air” should be read with the assumption that the people will immediately turn around and lead the Lord back to the newly remade world. 

Paul’s mixed metaphors of trumpets blowing and the living being snatched into heaven to meet the Lord are not to be understood as literal truth, as the Left Behind series suggests, but as a vivid and biblically allusive description of the great transformation of the present world of which he speaks elsewhere. 

Paul’s misunderstood metaphors present a challenge for us: How can we reuse biblical imagery, including Paul’s, so as to clarify the truth, not distort it?  And how can we do so, as he did, in such a way as to subvert the political imagery of the dominant and dehumanizing empires of our world?  We might begin by asking, What view of the world is sustained, even legitimized, by the Left Behind ideology?  How might it be confronted and subverted by genuinely biblical thinking?  For a start, is not the Left Behind mentality in thrall to a dualistic view of reality that allows people to pollute God’s world on the grounds that it’s all going to be destroyed soon?  Wouldn’t this be overturned if we recaptured Paul’s wholistic vision of God’s whole creation?              
           

 http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_BR_Farewell_Rapture.htm 

[1] Tim F. Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind (Cambridge, UK: Tyndale House Publishing, 1996).  Eight other titles have followed, all runaway bestsellers.

[2] See my Jesus and the Victory of God (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1996); the discussions in Jesus and the Restoration of Israel: A Critical Assessment of N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God, ed. Carey C. Newman (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999); and Marcus J. Borg and N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), chapters 13 and 14.

[3] Douglas Farrow, Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999).

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Introduction to the Book of Revelation, PI

Have you ever wondered what the book of Revelation is all about?

Minus the nonsense and feeble theories we theologians (not to mention the sensationalists) seem to come up with, what is its purpose for you now concerning how you live and lead your life? Revelation is a much debated and often misunderstood book. It seems foreboding and unattainable to some, while being over-simplified and twisted by others. But, it does have honest, truthful, and literal meanings for us now. And, simply put, we can know about Revelation, as it is about God’s power and purpose and how His plan will come about in our lives now and in a time to come.

Revelation is and has been the most controversial and difficult to understand book of the Bible. It has met its readers and redactors with suspensions, fears, and apprehension, as well as with excitement that fascinates and at the same time both confounds and awes us.

Why is this so? Revelation is unique; it is not Gospel, nor is it instruction and doctrine, although it contains all of these. It is poetic with seemly vague and elusive imagery that has sustained suffering Christians in all generations with consolation, encouragement, and hope as well as warnings of how things are and of things that are to come. Revelation and its truth are as precious and timeless as the rest of Scripture, if not even more so (Rev.1:9; 22:16).

This is a very difficult book to interpret and many gifted scholars over the centuries have taken very different views of it. This has cased divisions and conflicts that were needless and without purpose that, ironically, only served to give glory to the devil‘s ways while distracting us from its main purpose. To escalate this, many current sensationalists like to reinterpret Revelation to fit the latest news headlines and their own whims. Thus, I do not take my venture into Revelation lightly. In fact, having studied this book intensely for over 25 years in addition to all my degrees, readings, research, and experience has not prepared me for this quest. To think otherwise would be significantly arrogant. I approach this study as a fellow learner and as a humble student as I would with any of God’s beloved books.

My intention here is to stimulate your thinking and provide you with an honest and open look in to the book of Revelation from an Exegetical and Inductive perspective. I seek to honor the science and art of careful biblical interpretation and analysis. We will discover that John, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has given us something that is very important and clear for us to understand today, not just in the future.

That means I will seek to come to the text without preconceived, theological agendas or personal, eschatological viewpoints.

Rather, I will be carefully researching word meanings and historical examination as well as context and comparing with other passages in Daniel, Ezekiel, and the teaching of our Lord from the Gospels. Besides, you may discover that Revelation has a deeper purpose for us today on how to watch, build, manage, and do our churches better! Thus, I will not sate the usual viewpoints and trends of the day, try to argue my view, or twist Scripture to fit my theological education or denominational agendas. Rather, my aim is to challenge the current thinking by seeking facts and honestly examining what God’s inerrant Word says in context and in truth.

Thus, my other intention is to challenge myself and perhaps your thinking, too, concerning end time events and theories and to seek sound reason and Scripture, not myths, traditions, or popular theorems.

However, I want to state up front that whatever theory to which you or I subscribe is not as important as our love for the Lord and our desire for authentic spiritual growth. These are the things that are truly and eternally important! Arguing over conjecture or spurious, elusive doctrine does not bring glory to Christ; it only proves Satan!

Warning: a lot of Christian writers love to embellish on this subject and give their own version of what will happen. But, the scores of books that have been written in the last hundred years have not panned out in their theories. It is “their” theories, not ones based on fact or careful study of Scripture. The Bible clearly tells us we do not have access to that information, for no one will know the time… (Mark 13:14-37).