At an Easter Camp when I was a young Christian, I watched a movie called "Thief in the Night" - not the Russell Doughten one but an earlier incarnation. It told the story of a group of young people who decided to follow Jesus. One guy, from a Christian family, procrastinated and preferred going his own way. One day he came home from school to find his parents and siblings gone. Gradually, he realises that "the Rapture" has happened. Millions have disappeared; including one we see whisked up into the air while mowing the lawn. Scary. I don't recall the rest of the movie. But I do remember that there were more than usual went forward for salvation at the altar call that night.
I didn't grow up knowing about what fundamentalist Christians call "the Rapture". I was raised Presbyterian, where eschatology (the study of "last things) is based on firm convictions but precious little detail. In other words, we believe "something's coming, something good - gonna be great!" The end of the world, we know, will include the return of Jesus Christ, God's final judgment, and the full reign of God. But most Presbyterians refuse to speculate about the 'When' and 'How' of the "end times." No one but God can know the time and way (Matthew 24:36). Certainty that God's purposes will one day be brought to completion is sufficient for us; it is the 'Who' that matters, not the 'When'.
But I soon learned that in evangelical circles, detailed timelines and charts of prophetic imagery are common, especially among Baptists, Brethren and Pentecostals. Ideas are often passed down through the culture without robust scholarship to support them. My husband has a cousin who has written a whole book about such matters, even though he has no formal Biblical training. Many believers get their ideas about these events from the discredited Dispensationalist Theology of Darby and Schofield, and especially from the 'Left Behind' series of fictional novels about the End Times. Something like 50,000,000 copies of these books have been sold, making it the best-selling Christian fiction series in history. The authors’ conviction that God is at work in the world, is in ultimate control of history and will make things right in the end by intervening in human affairs is Biblically authentic, but much of their exegesis is dodgy. Biblical scholar William Hull, a research Professor at a Birmingham University, pointed out a conference some years back that the idea of Rapture - with Christians being snatched out of the world and sent straight to heaven to avoid a period of suffering known as the tribulation - is not how it is written in the Bible."There ain't no `Left Behind' theology in the Bible, it's just not there," he said. "The Bible nowhere talks about every living Christian suddenly being transported to heaven, with everyone else being left behind."
So where does this popular perception come from? It seems the "Left Behind" eschatology is based on a fairly common misunderstanding of the Greek word "parousia" in passages such as 1 Thess. 4:15 -17, where Paul says, "the dead in Christ will rise first... Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever." It is assumed that where we shall be with the Lord is somewhere other than the earth, and so we go to meet him in the air, part-way on the journey to heaven. I've been carefully reading N T Wright's book Surprised By Hope all this year, and I found what he had to say about parousia and Rapture very helpful.
The New Testament word which has often led Bible readers of all sorts astray is Parousia, which is usually translated "coming" but in fact means something more like "presence". It occurs in two wellknown passages: 1 Thessalonians 4: 15 (dating from about the year 50 CE) and 1 Corinthians 15:23 (written about five years later) but also in several other places. The first tells us "all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back, " and the second that "we who are alive on the day the Lord comes will not go ahead of those who have died." But people today often use the word more generally, to describe the scenario I encountered in that scary Camp Movie, of Jesus coming down on a cloud and his people flying up to meet him. New Testament scholars such as N T Wright say this is flawed thinking. In fact, the early Greek speaking Christians knew this word well, and used it in two contexts, which influenced its meaning in the epistles.
First, parousia meant the mysterious presence of a god or divinity, often with healing power. Sudden awareness of this divine presence was "parousia". The Jewish historian Josephus, for example, used this Greek word when referring to the coming of Yahweh to rescue Israel. Secondly, the word was used to describe the visitation of a ruler of the Hellenistic era to a city within his dominion, eg a King or Caesar and his entourage visiting a state or province under his jurisdiction. This royal presence is "parousia" in the Greek. Neither of these contexts bear any suggestion of someone flying around on a cloud. Nor do they presage an earth-shattering final event. It seems Paul picks up this word to describe the sudden presence, after a physical absence, of the Lord and King Jesus. He also saw that the notion of his returning to join his subjects, the true Emperor returning in glory, was apt. Paul deftly combines the Jewish apocalyptic tradition of the day of the Lord, the coming in power of Yahweh to rescue his people, with the Graeco-Roman notion of an emperor being welcomed into his rightful place of glory and honour. Paul often demonstrated how Jesus is the true Emperor - "the reality of which Caesar is the parody" (Wright p 131).
Wright and others then are clear that what Paul writes in 1 Thess 4: 26f is not meant to be a literal timeline of endtime events, but rather a way of describing the slightly different picture he will later draw in 1 Corinthians 15: 23 - 27 and 51 - 54, and Philippians 3: 20 - 21. In Corinthians, Paul speaks of the parousia in relation to the sudden resurrection of the dead and transformation of those still alive. And in the second he refers to our citizenship of heaven, and our eager anticipation of his Coming. In both, the image of being snatched up into the air is replaced by a reference to a glorious change. So from whence does his notion of believers meeting the Lord in the air come? Well, the apostle Paul was a master at mixing metaphors; in 1 Thess 5 he says that the thief will come in the night, so the woman will go into labour, so you mustn't get drunk but must stay awake and put on your armour (Wright p132). Here in interpreting Chapter 4, Wright carefully draws together three exegetical threads - Moses meeting with God on the mountain in Ex 19 - 20 (that's where the trumpet comes from), the persecuted people of God being raised to glory in Daniel 7 (that's the cloud) and the visit of the Roman Emperor to his colony, which we have already mentioned. It was expected that the subjects wodul go out in to the countryside to receive and greet the ruler, and to escort him back to the city. "When Paul speaks of meeting the Lord in the air, says Wright, "the point is not - as in popular theology - that the saved believers would stay up in the air, evacuated to safety. The point is that having gone out to meet their returning Lord they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, the place they have come from" (p 133). The Philippians, as citizens of a Roman colony, would have understood this. Being citizens of heaven doesn't mean we are expecting to go back to the mother city, but rather that the emperor comes from that city to bestow on the colony full rights and dignity, to subdue local enemies, and restore the Peace for which his rule is known.The final question is not 'who is going to heaven?', but how God will renew his creation through, and in, the human beings for whom he bears such a neverending passion and purpose.
Now I have been reading this intriguing stuff from Tom Wright for a year or two now, and am still getting my head round it, so don't be surprised if you find it deeply disturbing. We have been talking about "going to heaven when we die" for so long that we have overlooked the myriad other metaphors that describe how things will be when God's rule is implemented fully. Lets be honest that our past reliance on words and images emanating from Darby and Schofield has often been naively uncritical. Their Dispensationalist schemas are not as robust theologically as some would claim them to be, and we are wise to be more open to what scholarship can tell us about interpreting the rich resources that are in our Bible.
To Chew Over: What do you think about the End Times? From whom did you get these notions?
There's something due any day;
I will know right away,
Soon as it shows.
It may come cannonballing down through the sky,
Gleam in its eye,
Bright as a rose!
It's only just out of reach,
Down the block, on a beach,
Under a tree.
I got a feeling there's a miracle due,
Gonna come true, Coming to me!
Could it be?
Yes, it could.
If I can wait!
I don't know what it is,
But it is Gonna be great!
....The air is humming,
And something great is coming!
It's only just out of reach,
Down the block, on a beach,
Maybe tonight . . .
From West Side Story.