Apparently there was supposed to be rapture on the 21st May 2011, as predicted by Harold Camping of the Family Radio Network. So if you are reading this piece, two things must have happened. Possibly, your sins were too many to warrant you a passport to partake of the rapture, or the more obvious thing happened – the rapture predictions of Mr. Camping were simply what they were; a failed weather forecast.
However in my interactions with most Christians, the generality of Ghanaian Christians do believe that there will be a Rapture of some sorts indeed. Their only beef is the attempt by the venerable [sic] Mr. Camping to put a date to something that Christ did not know and said we could not know. Well, I do not only question the predictive skills of Mr. Camping, I want to go beyond that and question the premise of biblical support for something called “The Rapture” in the first place. So let’s try and push the envelope of eschatology and see what we get.
I will admit before I go on that there is so much that needs to be answered that I cannot answer in this post alone, and some which I (and many other Christians) don’t even know the answer to, given the symbolic nature of how apocalyptic hopes are described in the NT and other non-biblical but related documents. I will focus solely on the concept of Rapture, and leave the rest to our own personal research.
The Jewish Hope of Yahweh’s Coming
Again, as I’ve been doing in my previous posts, we cannot fail to overlook the fact that Christianity is the junior brother of Judaism. Therefore any attempt to understand Christianity on its own without a reference to the root from which it originated will be an attempt to create a caricature of our own idea of Jesus and his purpose for his people.
The Jews have always had a hope of God coming to transform this earth and set it aright, where he himself dwells amongst man and as a result Jerusalem will be the light to the rest of the world. Because of their special ideas about God establishing his kingdom and ruling from Jerusalem, they always considered themselves the royal people, and there was no shortage of boasting about this status. Take a look at Isaiah 65 and see how “different” it is from Rev 21.
“Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.” (Isaiah 65:17-18 NIV).
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them’” (Rev 21:1-3 NIV).
From the above (and a host of other prophecies as well as a proper study of Judaism), their mindset of the earth was quite different from ours. The earth was not some damned place that we need to escape from and go to heaven – the earth is where the action is, because God’s intent is to dwell with men in a renewed heaven and earth. The Jewish mind understands that God is in charge of both the heaven and the earth and he created a good earth, but sin had blighted this earth. Therefore their hope and expectation was that God will come and renew this earth, and bring the wonders of that heaven in which he lives to bear fully on this earth, causing a fusion of the two. Unlike Greco-Roman paganism’s thoughts of the spirit leaving this corrupt world for the world of the gods (heaven), Jews believed that we will walk on a renewed earth in a renewed body (the resurrection body) and experience the joys of this earth with God himself. Unfortunately Greco-Roman paganism seems to have carried the day even in Christian teachings about heaven and earth. As Paul taught, our spirits only go to be with the Lord in heaven to wait for our other brethren and for the time when we’ll return to reign on this earth and God will clothe us with immortal bodies. The earth is indeed where the action is.
This hope of a new and renewed earth also went along not only with joy for them, but judgment for those they esteemed in their mind are “sinners” – Gentiles and those Israelites who were not “faithful” to the law as they interpreted it. This judgment was to be brought by the one whom God will give authority over the kingdom to – the one whom Daniel calls the Son of Man in Daniel 7:14 – the Messiah. Interestingly most Jews viewed it as a day of God vindicating Israel and judging its enemies, but the prophets Amos and Zephaniah were not so charitable to them in their claims of superiority.
“Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not light … Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” (Amos 5:18; 23-24 NIV).
“The great day of the Lord is near – near and coming quickly. Listen! The cry on the day of the Lord will be bitter, the shouting of the warrior there … I will bring distress on the people and they will walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the Lord” (Zeph. 1:14; 17)
In fact Isaiah 61 captures the spirit of what that day entails and what the Messiah will do – both on the positive – renewing the earth and bringing joy to “them that love his appearance” – and the negative – bringing “vengeance” to those that do not.
The Christian Hope of Jesus’ Coming
In a lot of ways there is very little difference between the Jewish hope and the early Christian hope of the return of Christ. To us Jesus is the Messiah, and therefore all the prophecy relating to the kingdom will be fulfilled in him. However, because this Messiah had already appeared amongst men and expounded specifically that his kingdom had begun; the early Christians did not only wait for the eschatological appearance of their king, but preached his current reign over all the earth. Those of you who have read my previous post on “The Gospel of the Kingdom – Resurrection Perspectives” would be familiar with the point made by many contemporary NT scholars that Christ’s kingdom is both now and in the future. Therefore our responsibility on this earth as we wait for that future kingdom is to manifest the King and his kingdom’s character today on this earth.
The Origins of Rapture Theology
It will surprise you to note that the ideas around the Rapture event are very recent in history. Even a Wikipedia entry will educate us that there is very little mention of this idea of Jesus coming in two phases until the 17th century. Unfortunately this theology has been picked up and drummed up by a group of theologians called Dispensational Theologians. It’s wide spread began with John Nelson Darby, who was the founder of the Plymouth Brethren in England and went over to evangelize in America as well between 1859 and 1877. According to Ben Witherington III in “The Problem with Evangelical Theology”
“Darby showed up on the brink of the [American] Civil War, during the war, and after the war, right when many Americans were quite vulnerable to an escapist theology that promised they would not have to go through the great tribulation. The timing could not have been better for promulgating such a theology”.
This teaching was further spread by the popular evangelist D.L. Moody and his Moody Bible Institute and John Scoffield with his Scofield Bible. To promote this theology, the Dallas Theological Seminary was established in 1924, and there is no question why most of the popular Dispensationalists all went to, are associated with or claim influence from people who went there. In contemporary days, this teaching has led to popular “Left Behind” books and movies, picturing Christ coming to take the Christians away from this earth and leaving everyone else behind. From the preceding historical discourse, it’s not surprising that Mr. Camping is an American.
The Theology Backing It
This whole theology hangs on the somewhat misunderstood interpretation of Paul’s description of the coming of Christ in 1 Thess. 4:13-17 and 5:1-11. In particular, this theology has hang it’s boots on two phrases or words i) parousia – which means “coming” or more correctly “presence” and ii) haparzo – which means “caught up” and is the root word for rapture. As usual because of our penchant for creating theologies without recourse to context and history, we have presented Paul as saying in the above passages that there is coming a time when Christ will come and take us up to heaven, before he subsequently comes a second time to judge the world. Let us see if a little contextual background and further probing will not help clear up this confusion.
In the times of the Caesars – Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar and his lineage – when the emperor visited any of his subject cities/states, this was announced beforehand by the sounding of trumpets (just like 1 Thess. 4:16 (KJV) – For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God). Those who are the leaders of the city and all Roman citizens living in the city were mandated to form a welcoming party and meet the king outside the gates of the city (Just like Ps 24:7 (KJV) – Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in).They then escort this king through the city gates into the city, singing his praises and declaring “peace and security” in the name of that emperor (Just like 1 Thess. 5:3 KJV – “For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape”).
Those with a keen eye will also notice that this sequence of events is very similar to the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem on his colt. It will be noted also that the book of Psalms is full of such imagery related to the Messianic King. In fact, these practices of subjects welcoming their kings were very common in ancient times, and the Roman emperor was no exception. Of course, the emperors probably demanded even more courtesy, pomp and pageantry for the emperors actually declared themselves gods in every right.
Most people do not take into account the fact that at some point, Thessalonica was historically quite a respected city in Greco-Roman times. Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica was indeed a dangerous one, for already in Act 17:7, Paul had been accused of “defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus”. Therefore there was no doubt that the Christians in Thessalonica were under a lot of persecution for their defiance of Caesar and declaration of Jesus as king. Therefore it is natural that having lost some of their members to persecution, they’d be worried if their dead brethren will be able to partake of the “parousia” of Christ and therefore wrote to Paul to find out the fate of those who’d died.
The Thessalonians may have been Greeks and didn’t know that the OT had the same concepts, but they definitely understood “parousia” of Jesus not in “rapture to heaven”, but welcoming king Jesus into the city – in this case onto this earth. Hear the New Testament writer Ben Witherington III:
“ Paul’s Thessalonian audience may have missed some of the allusions to the OT, but they would not have missed the language used here about a royal visit, indeed an imperial visit. They would remember the visit of Pompey and later Octavian and others in the days when Thessalonike could even be talked about by Pompey as the capital in exile.”
It is instructive to note that although v 17 says “Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord” – it does not say that we will then go on to heaven. It only says that we will be with him. Are we just going to be hanging with him in the skies, or as a kingly visit denotes and as the context clearly shows, we will come down with him to show the rest of the world this King we’ve been making a big fuss about all along? This king whose kingdom we’ve been building on this earth through love and self-sacrifice for one another?
“The Ascension of Jesus and the Second Coming are nevertheless vital Christian doctrines, 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.” – NT Wright, Eminent NT scholar in “Farewell to the Rapture”
I don’t want to go beyond 4 pages on my word processor, so I’m forced to cut short the discourse. However, is our gullibility in respect of “rapture” not a reflection of the fact that we haven’t understood what the Kingdom of God/Heaven – which appears more than 50 times in the Gospels – truly means? And if we haven’t understood it, then whose kingdom are we building – ours?