Formation: Reverse Rapture
So far in this series we’ve explored some different ways of thinking about the terms heaven and hell, and how the Christian ‘gospel’ is much more focused on this life in the here and now; an earthy and grounded reality. Last time we discussed where the ‘Left Behind’ theology comes from, and how the book of Revelation is actually trying to wrestle with how to live in a world dominated by a violent empire (i.e. Rome) rather than predict all sorts of fantastical futures. In this post, our aim is to explore a few verses in the New Testament that have come to be known as rapture texts; to discuss what might really be going on in them and how our interpretation of them confronts our desire for escapism and evacuation.
The idea of a ‘rapture’ fits within an end-times theological framework that suggests that there will be the rise of a great Antichrist to rule the world ushering in a time of great tribulation. At this time Jesus will return, all “true believers” will be caught up into the air to meet him and taken to heaven. The tribulation will then be experienced by those “left behind”. Despite this being a common motif in the popular Christian imagination, it is only a relatively recent interpretation of some New Testament texts. In other words, ‘rapture theology’ in this form has really only been around for about 150-200 years. There are a couple of passages in particular that are often used to support this idea of a rapture:
1 Thess 4:16-17
“For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”
A couple of things to note here: the word used in the New Testament for Christ’s second ‘coming’ was parousia. This was a word used in the first century for when a King would enter a city. On this passage, N.T. Wright says this:
“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.”
The aim, says Wright, was to“subvert the political imagery of the dominant and dehumanizing empires of our world?”
The other verses used to support the rapture are:
“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son,but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark;and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
“It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed. On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything. Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it. I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.”
In rapture theology, the one who is ‘taken’ is the one who is caught up to go to be in heaven with Jesus. But at the end of the Luke passage (verse 37), Jesus suggests that the one who is taken ends up in Gehenna… “where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather” So in Jesus’ use of imagery, he suggests that the one ‘taken’ is the one who is in danger of Gehenna. At this point we must remember that when Jesus uses Gehenna language and imagery, he’s using it as a metaphor for the state of being which is destructive, violent and ultimately leads to one’s own disintegration - not about an eternal destination!!
The emphasis, then, is on how we might be the ones who ARE left behind i.e. the ones who value this life on this earth and want to live in tune with the kingdom of heaven and not the kingdom of Hades/Gehenna.