This week’s question has to do with the end of the world—or at least, the end of the world as we know it. According to a note I got, Mr. and Mrs. Malone have a difference of opinion about the rapture. “I am aware that it is a term not used in the Bible; however, what about the passage ‘two working side-by-side, one taken and the other left’ and the dead in Christ rising and meeting in the air?”
In recent years, the Mainline Church has been struggling with this very question. There is clearly a good bit of discomfort around “the end times” and all that entails, perhaps because it’s been nearly 2,000 years and we’re still waiting. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad, if it wasn’t for the fact that the writers in the New Testament thought the end times were just around the bend. Indeed, many of the writings imply the end will happen within the writer’s lifetime.
But obviously that wasn’t the case. And so, 2,000 years later, the Mainline Church avoids talking about it, and when it does it is almost apologetically. Let’s face it, it isn’t PC to talk about such antiquated ideas as the end of the world, the Rapture, the Tribulation, the Millennial Reign, and so on.
So, is there going to be a rapture or not?
To begin with, as our writer points out, the term rapture doesn’t occur in the scriptures; however, the concept is firmly entrenched. “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 Thessalonians 4.16-17a). Similar passages are sprinkled liberally throughout the New Testament (cf., Matthew 24.30-31, 1 Corinthians 15.22-24).
Beyond the passages that speak of those who are followers of Jesus being “raptured,” the New Testament is filled with references to Jesus’ second coming (Luke 17.30f, 2 Thessalonians 2.8f, 1 Timothy 6.14, Hebrews 5.2-4, James 5.7-8). The fact is, the scriptures are full of references to Jesus’ return at some date. No one disputes the sheer volume of biblical evidence.
However, in years past, there has been a move to reinterpret these passages, or at least to downplay the eminence of the second coming doctrine in the Bible.
One of the chief arguments used in this debate is the fact that by the time the gospel writers put pen to papyrus, 25 years or more had passed since Jesus had departed. Over this period of time, Christians had developed a more “advanced” theology than Jesus’ simple message of “Love God, Love Others, Follow Me, Make Disciples.” A great many scholars believe that the early church picked up some of the popular Jewish apocalyptic themes associated with the Jewish faith and infused them into Christianity during that 25-plus years.
The Jewish faith was still looking for a militaristic messiah, whom Jesus was not. Additionally, the prophets of the Old Testament wrote of the “Day of the Lord” when God would judge the world. The assertion, therefore, is that the early church came to believe that Jesus would return in such as way as to fulfill these expectations. Clearly, Paul was a proponent of these teachings, since the majority of rapture-like scripture comes from his writings. However, scholars generally believe that those apocalyptic passages in the gospels were not primarily authentic to Jesus, but were extrapolated from his teachings. Thus, counter those who refute the rapture (and the rest of the apocalyptic doctrines), all those biblical passages are Christian hopes and do not reflect the teachings of Jesus.
Two views. One supported by the weight of biblical evidence, the other refuting those same passages. Which is right?
This is one of those issues that we’re not going to be able to “prove.” The rapture, the second coming, and all the events surrounding the end of the world are on the shelf marked faith. Whether it happens or not isn’t in our hands and our belief or disbelief has no bearing.
However, it might be helpful for those who follow Jesus to at least behave as if the rapture and the second coming were eminent, for in the words of Peter: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God” (2 Peter 3.10-12a).
And if we’re living the holy and godly lives
Jesus taught us to, what else really matters?