Tag Archives: dispensationalism

Brief History of Rapture (Left Behind) Theology

The Left Behind reboot with Nicolas Cage has Christians talking about all things rapture. Oh, joy.

I suspect that the continued cinematic production of such a ridiculous and counter-biblical narrative will only serve to wake folks up to the undeniable truth that rapture theology is nothing more than a baptized escapism–sort of a neo-Gnosticism. And it has only been around since the early 19th century.

Dr. Ben Witherington III, evangelical professor of NT for doctoral studies at Asbury and St. Andrews, has recently completed a video for Seedbed entitled “Where Did Rapture Theology Come From?” (10-8-14).

This brief history of rapture theology is worth watching.

For those interested, I’ve posted the following on rapture theology:

You might also enjoy reading a few blog posts from my friends:

D.D. Flowers, 2014.

Advertisements

The Rapture Fallacy

If you have been following my posts here at the blog, you know that last month I began addressing “rapture” theology that has permeated American evangelicalism over the last century.

I’m confronting rapture theology head on because I think it has obstructed the gospel of the Kingdom that Christ proclaimed. In fact, it distorts the unique Christian hope, thereby influencing the way in which we evangelicals think and live in the world today.

I do affirm the orthodox teaching of the church that there will be a literal return of Christ. It completely bewilders me how anyone could deny this essential doctrine of the early church (Matt 24:36-42; Mk 13:26-37; Phil 3:20; 1 Thess 4:13-18; 2 Peter 3:8-10, Rev 22:20-21 etc.).

So while I do believe in the bodily return of Christ, I do not believe in the “dispensational” timetable of the end times—which has only recently (in the last century or so) been elaborately constructed by cutting and pasting verses together, and mishandling apocalyptic texts to promote something foreign to the NT apostolic hope for the future.

In the next few posts on this topic, I will deal with key “end times” verses that I believe have been mishandled, thus enabling the propagation of bad theology. This has major implications for our understanding and practice of the gospel, and our expectations for the future.

I have expressed here, here, and here that there are many good reasons to question the legitimacy of the popular Left Behind version of the future.

If you haven’t seen it already, please watch this short video on the history and influence of rapture theology in American evangelicalism.

The Situation & Context

I’ll go out on a limb here (though not a very long limb) and say that rapture theology is entirely based upon Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17.

Let’s first begin with what I believe to be the foundation stone of this popular teaching. If we’re going to examine a verse or two of Scripture, it’s always best to read the surrounding verses in context. So, let’s do that first.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (NIV) reads:

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 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. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

It should be understood that Paul is writing in response to the confusion among the believers in Thessalonica. They apparently were led to believe that Christians who had died before the return of Christ would miss out on the Kingdom being fully realized on the earth.

Paul is correcting their theology and assuring them in the hope that the “dead in Christ will rise first” (v.16).

The main point of this passage is that the dead will not miss out on the resurrection. They will participate in God’s final victory. They are not lost. Christ will raise them up on the last day.

Now let’s look at the metaphors Paul uses to paint an altogether familiar, albeit ancient picture of a king returning in victory as a conquering hero.

The “Rapture” Proof-Text

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.  1 Thess 4:16-17

I will grant that it’s entirely understandable how, without any background knowledge of ancient literature and the common use of biblical metaphors, that a person could see a “rapture” idea.

But keep in mind, what may seem like a “plain” reading to our modern eyes, is not necessarily a plain reading to the ancient reader.

What did this imagery mean to Paul’s readers? The only way to get at Paul’s meaning is to recognize the metaphors he is using here.

You really need to have some knowledge of OT word pictures, first century ideas of imperial coronations (crowning of kings), and an awareness of second temple Judaism to understand the imagery Paul uses in this passage.

The church can’t be reminded enough that the Scripture is an ancient text that does often require help from trained individuals who have spent a great deal of their time studying the ancient literary and cultural context of the biblical world. Some have been trained better than others.

That isn’t to say that formal study guarantees correct interpretation. But it does mean that the ancient world is not the modern world. Therefore, an intimate knowledge of ancient literary genres and styles are necessary for getting closest to the original intent of the author.

Do you want someone performing open-heart surgery on you that has no real training and relies on the Holy Spirit’s guidance alone? Not very comforting is it? Let’s not set formal training up against the Spirit.

Mixing the Metaphors

The language of Jesus coming on clouds and everyone going up to meet him, should not be understood literally, but should instead be seen as a powerful image of divine kingship.

In the first century, kings would return to the city victorious from battle and be paraded back into his city.

You will recall that they actually did this to Jesus on Palm Sunday. The striking contrast is that Jesus was riding on a donkey, not a white horse; he didn’t have an army, only a hopeful crowd of peaceful followers and fans.

Now that’s saying something!

The trumpets blasting indicate a victorious procession and anthem upon Christ’s return (v. 16). The clouds should rightfully be understood as exalting Christ as divine. In both the Old and New Testaments the cloud(s) speak of divinity—God’s presence.

You see this with the cloud by day which led the Hebrews out of Egypt, the cloud on Mt. Sinai that surrounded Moses when receiving the Law, the clouds of the Son of Man in Dan 7:13, the cloud enveloping Jesus during his transfiguration, and now here with the return of Christ.

Jesus will literally “come down from heaven” (God’s space), not literally float down from cumulus clouds, but a hidden dimension altogether.

The purpose of the dead rising to “meet the Lord in the air” is to mix the metaphors (as it were) in presenting this picture of a divine king coming to his city and being paraded back (to earth in this case) by his people. It’s a beautiful image that ancient readers would have understood.

Christ’s return is literal, but the imagery being used is not to be taken literally.

The authors and readers of the NT would have understood this. They communicated great mysterious truths (especially future events) in this fashion and weren’t bothered by it like 21st century American Christians who tend to think that the literal reading is always the right one.

Rapture theology distorts this imagery by reading it literally and emphasizing the rapio (latin: “to be caught up”) in order to promote an escapist view of the future. The promise of the Lord has always been to renew this earth, not destroy it to steal us away somewhere else.

The imagery Paul is using here is consistent with the biblical covenants, promises, and hope for the future of God’s good world. This is what all Jews, including Jesus, were expecting. The Kingdom of God was going to come to earth in one cosmic event on the last day.

Meaning & Original Intent

Paul is meaning to say that Jesus (king) will return victorious, and like a king coming into his kingdom, we will usher him back to the city (earth) and reign with him forever. As he says, “So shall we be with the Lord forever.”

The literary context dictates these things.

Therefore, the original intent of human language, in the ancient situation and context, is what makes the difference here.

Unfortunately, ignorance of the metaphors and Paul’s deliberate use of over-the-top language in 1 Thess 4:16-17 is why most evangelicals react with such frustration at someone claiming that the literal reading is a mistake.

It has only been translated literally by those who are unfamiliar with the metaphor(s) in the text and by defenders of an escapist view of the future.

As I said before, learning and study is required in reading this ancient text. Meaning isn’t always floating on the surface. Sometimes you have to dig down deeper so you can appreciate the context, the language of the biblical writers, and their methods of communicating ideas.

Let’s be honest, many Christians don’t like to be reminded of that. I suppose this skepticism toward in-depth “Bible study” is born from sheer laziness, anti-intellectualism, or pure dogmatism and fundamentalism.

I’m not sure which.

Either way, we can do better. We must do better.

The Second Coming of Christ

How then do I envision Christ’s literal parousia (coming)? Honestly, I don’t know exactly. And I’m not too sure that the apostles knew either. I think that’s why they use metaphors to describe it.

They are essentially saying this:

“When Christ returns, it will be like a king returning from battle in triumph to his city. We will all go out to meet him and celebrate his arrival. Then at last we shall live with our king forever on the earth.”

Paul mixes the metaphors of clouds (divinity) and meeting in the air (exalted and caught between heaven and earth) for obvious reasons. This is no human king. This is the divine Son of Man (Dan 7:13).

Throw in the resurrection of the dead in this meeting of the Lord and you have a beautiful way of talking about something mysterious and unknown to any man on this planet. What a glorious sight soon to behold!

All of this is lost when you force a literal interpretation.

So, I’ll stick to the metaphors and imagine that whatever it’s going to be like, it will be greater than the metaphors themselves.

For no eye has seen nor ear has heard what the Lord has in mind for those who await his coming (1 Cor 2:9).

Therefore, I believe the NT only recognizes the imminent “second” return of the Lord Jesus to establish his Kingdom on the earth forever without end.

Based on this reading of the biblical text, I think we can safely say that you cannot build a rapture theology from 1 Thess 4:16-17.

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

Suggested Reading:


N.T. Wright on Heaven & Rapture Theology

N.T. Wright is one of the leading voices within New Testament scholarship today. Wright taught New Testament studies for twenty years at Cambridge, McGill, and Oxford Universities.

He was the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England from 2003-2010. He presently holds the Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Andrews, Scotland.

Wright, a prolific author, has written over forty books, including both scholarly and popular works. His major academic series Christian Origins and the Question of God is making no small contribution to NT studies.

As I’ve said many times before, I sincerely believe he is one of the most important of Christian scholars alive today, particularly in the area of early Judaism, historical Jesus studies, and the theology of the apostle Paul.

Wright’s work offers fresh insights and a stimulating challenge to evangelical Christianity. In his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (Feb. 2008), Wright challenges the notion of “going to heaven when you die” and spending an eternity in some bodiless future. For if this was the case, Wright says, “then what’s the fuss about putting things right in the present world?”

What about the resurrection of the dead? What about renewed creation? What about the gospel of the kingdom come to earth?

For newcomers to the blog, I have reviewed Surprised by Hope in a series of five books that I believe are helping to shape a new vision for 21st century evangelicalism. I think you need to read all of them. Make it a group study!

In the following ABC News interview, Wright talks about how evangelicals, especially those in America, have distorted the Christian hope by obsessing over heaven, while neglecting the NT teaching of new heaven and earth—a future reality in real space and time (Rev 21).

In this video, Wright also critiques rapture theology and provokes us to rethink the implications of embracing such an escapist view of the church and a subsequent cataclysmic destruction of the earth.

Do you agree or disagree with Wright? Have many believers neglected the real Christian hope? Do you see a conflict with rapture theology and the NT vision of the Kingdom coming to earth? Do you believe that a person’s view of future things shapes their behavior and actions in the present?

D.D. Flowers, 2012.


Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Book One

N.T. Wright is one of the leading voices within New Testament scholarship today. Wright taught New Testament studies for twenty years at Cambridge, McGill, and Oxford Universities. He presently holds the Chair in New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Andrews, Scotland.

Wright, a prolific author, has written over forty books, including both scholarly and popular works. His major academic series Christian Origins and the Question of God is making no small contribution to NT studies. There are six proposed volumes in this series. The fourth volume is anticipated as being Wright’s magnum opus on Paul.

Wright undoubtedly stands at the summit of NT scholarship. I sincerely believe he is the most important of Christian thinkers alive today. His writings offer fresh insight and a stimulating challenge to evangelical Christianity.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise as to why I have chosen one of his books as the first in a list of five books offering up a new vision for evangelicalism.

In his book Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (Feb. 2008), Wright challenges the notion of “going to heaven when you die” and spending an eternity in some bodiless future. For if this was the case, Wright says, “then what’s the fuss about putting things right in the present world?”

Is our evangelical language of our future existence reflective of NT orthodoxy? Do we have a consistent biblical message on “life after death?” Wright doesn’t believe so, and he claims we have instead embraced a Gnostic view of the future that fouls up our presentation of the gospel in the present. He believes we have lost sight of the biblical vision for the future.

Our future home is not “heaven”—for this is where God is presently—another dimension altogether. Our hope is in this spiritual heaven coming down to earth. The climax of all human history is the consummation of God’s spiritual realm (heaven) breaking through to our earthly existence. Therefore, in Wright’s view, it is “life after life after death” that we find our hope, and a hope for the world.

Wright’s greatest emphasis is on “resurrection” and “new creation” that has already begun in this world. It is time to realize the great significance with that which is at the heart of our faith in Christ (1 Cor. 15:12-28). He writes, “it is (resurrection), principally, the defining event of the new creation, the world that is being born with Jesus.”

It is in the resurrection of Christ that happened in this old creation that gives us hope for a new creation taking place right now in the 21st century.

“Hope is what you get when you suddenly realize that a different worldview is possible…” (pg.75).

This “new creation” should not be confused with baptizing the culture into Christianity and attempting to enact a utopian dream, as some evangelicals have embraced. Wright says that his misplaced trust in the myth of progress does not work because it does not fully account for evil.

This myth may sometimes run parallel to our Christian hope, but it “veers off toward a very different destination” that ignores the need for the cross of Christ upon the natural fallen creation. It doesn’t see the need for change within, only uniform capitulation to a set order of ideas.

Wright declares, “What matters is eschatological duality (the present age and the age to come), not ontological dualism (an evil “earth” and a good “heaven”)” (pg. 95). Evangelicals have also been guilty of preaching the apocalyptic demise of the space-time universe! Therefore, we all must get ready to be raptured for another world altogether.

This belief in a Platonic escapism has pervaded our theology and demanded that we adopt a popular dispensationalist view of the future—a future where we “fly away” and are “raptured” to spend an eternity in a glorified retirement home in the sky.

Wright believes that embracing the biblical vision of the future will lead us to a proper practice of the church. If our beliefs about heaven and the resurrection are wrong, then we are not entirely about the Lord’s business in ushering in the Kingdom of God, more specifically in ways keeping with the example of Christ who has revealed what it means to be human.

It is time we abandon this empty belief for one that appreciates the hope given to us in the NT—a hope where God restores his good creation and finishes the work he began in the universe. Wright states, “What creation needs is neither abandonment nor evolution but rather redemption and renewal; and this is both promised and guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead” (pg. 107).

Wright draws our attention to Christ’s ascension as well as his resurrection. Because of the ascension of Christ, we not only have a savior who is indwelling us and present with his people, but a Lord who is at the same time “gone on ahead of us” by being the first to enter into our promised resurrected existence.

In other words, the work of Christ is finished and yet to be realized. It is reflective of the “already, but not yet” tension of the Kingdom of God.

We await a savior to complete the work he began in us. This completion shall come by way of the parousia or his “coming.”  Wright very simply writes, “he will in fact be “appearing” right where he presently is—not a long way away within our own space-time world but in his own world, God’s world, the world we call heaven” (pg. 135).

Wright challenges our traditional picture of our journey being completed upon death. He argues that there is indeed a temporary “paradise” for believers awaiting the resurrection of the dead and the completion of all things. But if evangelicals ignore the finished work of Christ through the final resurrection of the dead, then we miss the entire Christian hope.

God’s judgment is a good thing, something that believers ought to celebrate—for evil will be dealt with once and for all and heaven will make its home on earth. On the other hand, the judgment gives the unbeliever much to worry about.

While Wright calls into question our modern interpretations of hell that are reflective of a theology from the Dark Ages, he finds it impossible not to believe in some sort of “ultimate condemnation” for those who have rejected God’s purposes for the earth. He says that these folks will cease to bear the divine image, and by their own choice become “beings that once were human but now are not.”

Wright believes that whatever “hell” is in reality, beyond the bizarre biblical metaphors, it should suffice for evangelicals to agree that it is a horrible end. And that should be enough. It is time to stop arguing over evangelical views about hell. Belief in a literal hell is not the true test of orthodoxy.

Wright’s main idea is this:

Heaven and hell ought not be the focal point of the Gospel.

The resurrection and ascension is not designed to take us away from this earth but instead to make us agents of transformation, anticipating the day when, “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

Wright looks at the themes of justice, beauty, and evangelism. What do these look like in light of this radical message of hope? What does this look like in retrospect to the resurrection of Christ and the promise that we will inherit the same? Furthermore, what should the mission of the church be in light of this biblical hope for the future? Wright believes it is “to live consciously between the resurrection of Jesus in the past and the making of God’s new world in the future” (pg. 213).

Finally, I have chosen Surprised by Hope as the first book in this series because it is a much-needed theological challenge to popular evangelicalism. It gives us a biblical vision of God’s good future for heaven and earth.

I pray that Wright’s message will begin a move among evangelical churches to return to the biblical hope for the future, and offer the world more than an escape from a devil’s hell for a distant realm in a bodiless heaven.

For those interested, you may also purchase the 6-session DVD study with this book. It is an excellent resource for both independent and group study.

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

Read the next post: Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Book Two

* See the first post Vision for 21st Century Evangelicalism, Intro for information on the free book giveaway at the end of this series.


%d bloggers like this: