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What brings that to mind this week is the impending release of Volume X in the Left Behind series, those incredibly popular books which offer a fictionalized account of the events which, according to one stream of theology, will precede the end of the world. The new book, The Remnant, has an initial press run of some 2,750,000 copies, insuring the series' lofty position far atop the history of religious publishing. And there are three more books to come.
This is big news. TIME magazine's cover story this week is devoted to it.(1) People are fascinated with end-of-the-world scenarios, and apparently always have been - you heard it in the lesson: "As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. 'Tell us,' they said, 'when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?'" Anyone who offers to make sense out of what generations have puzzled over in scripture, is bound to attract an audience, even if the explanation is couched in fiction.
As we have discussed before, the authors of Left Behind and its sequels have been clear that their work is fiction. But that affirmation is a tad disingenuous because, if you pressed Tim LaHaye, the pastor whose idea for the series sparked the phenomenon, I suspect he would say that the CHARACTERS are fictional, but the EVENTS in the midst of which they find themselves are not. The events reflect LaHaye's understanding of what lies in store just prior to the promised return of Jesus Christ. "Wars and rumors of wars...Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom...famines and earthquakes... an increase in wickedness." We have all that, so these must be the last days. Soon comes the Rapture, the instant calling to heaven of all good Christians, while everybody else will be LEFT BEHIND (thus, the title of the series).
You have seen the bumper stickers: "Warning: In case of the Rapture, this car will have no driver." Perhaps that is part of God's judgment on unbelievers - all these out-of-control vehicles careening every which way and mowing down any reprobate who happens to be left in the road. Then there are the bumper stickers in response: "In case of the Rapture, can I have your car?" Uh huh.
For what it is worth, the popular interest in the Rapture pre-dates the Left Behind series. In fact, you may very well have its precursor on your own bookshelves: Hal Lindsey's, The Late, Great Planet Earth.(2) Lots of folks do. It predicted the fiery end of the world based on Lindsey's reading of the Old and New Testaments, and especially the book of Revelation, with the affirmation that believers need not concern themselves though because they would be miraculously spared, RAPTURED!
Lots of folks take this incredibly seriously. The TIME magazine feature introduces us to Todd Strandberg, by day an airplane mechanic at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Nebraska; by night, the webmaster at raptureready.com and the inventor of the Rapture Index, which he calls a "Dow Jones Industrial Average of End Time activity." Instead of stocks, it tracks prophecies: earthquakes, floods, plagues, crime, false prophets and economic measurements like unemployment that add to instability and civil unrest, thereby easing the way for the Antichrist. As you might imagine, ever since our experiences last fall - the terrorist attacks, the anthrax deaths, the market uncertainty - lots more people have become interested. Thus, the popular fascination with the Left Behind series - people are not reading it as something to pass the time at the beach, but almost as if it were tomorrow's newspaper.
If you recall, at the start of Book 1, on a 747 bound for London from Chicago, the flight attendants suddenly find about half the seats empty, except for the clothes and wedding rings and dental fillings of the believers who have suddenly been swept up to heaven. Down on the ground, cars are crashing, husbands are waking up to find only a nightgown in bed next to them, and all children under 12 have disappeared as well. (By the way, no one has ever explained to me why all these good Christians are being caught up to the beyond minus their clothes - this gives the term "rapture" an entirely new connotation.) At any rate, the next nine volumes in the series chronicle the terrible tribulations suffered by those left behind along with their struggle to be saved.
Now, as I have explained before, the theological underpinning of such a scenario is not generally accepted by the mainstream church. This concept of a "Rapture" in which Christians are snatched away from the troubles of this world at the return of Jesus comes from a fellow in the middle of the 19th century named John Nelson Darby, a lawyer turned minister who was a member of the Plymouth Brethren in England. Darby preached something called Dispensational Premillennialism which said that all of history could be divided into seven eras or "dispensations" and that the present age, which he called "the age of the church," immediately preceded this "Rapture." Darby's excuse for a Rapture was that a seven-year period of terrible tribulation was coming and the church was going to be spared that misery. Once the tribulation was over, then a thousand-year-long reign of God - the Millennium - would follow. The "Rapture" idea does not come from the book of Revelation (as the concept of the tribulation and the thousand-year reign of God do) but rather from Darby's literal reading of that one tiny passage from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians which we heard earlier. Chapter 4, verses 16 and 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.Two problems. First, the imagery is supposed to be understood as poetic, not photographic - it was a wonderful word of hope for Christians who were terribly worried that friends and relatives who had died would miss the return of Jesus - Paul says NO, they will be included too. The second problem is that Darby has taken two texts from two different sources and joined them as if they were a seamless whole. That is an interpretive no-no - as someone very wise has said, "A text without a context is a pretext." This idea of a Rapture is a relatively new concept in the church, and despite all we hear about it, has hardly any biblical support.
Barnard College's Randall Balmer, the author of several books on Evangelicals, has called Darby's Rapture "a theology of despair." In the new volume, The Remnant, one character remarks that "the world is a spent cartridge." Things are going to hell in a handbasket, but that is OK - when things get bad enough, Jesus will come again to rescue his faithful. In real life, when televangelist Pat Robertson floated his presidential run in 1986, a New Hampshire pastor complained, "Wait a minute. The next event on the [End Times] clock is the return of Christ. Things in society should get worse rather than better. If Christians worked to turn our nation around, that would delay Christ's return." Hmm.
Truth is we probably should not bother. As we read a moment ago: "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." OK. As one commentator notes,
"Jesus says that he does not know...There were things which even he left without questioning in the hand of God. There can be no greater warning and rebuke to those who work out dates and timetables as to when he will come again. Surely it is nothing less than blasphemy for us to enquire into that of which our Lord consented to be ignorant."(3)The TIME article quoted an annoyed St. Augustine: "To all those who make calculations... 'Relax your fingers and give them a rest.'"
So saying, a TIME/CNN poll finds that more than one-third of Americans say they are paying more attention now to how the news might relate to the end of the world, and have talked about what the Bible has to say on the subject. Fully 59% say they believe the events in Revelation are going to come true, and nearly one-quarter actually think the Bible predicted the September 11th attack. And even though the mainline church has been clear about our position concerning the UNbiblical nature of Rapture theology, there is plenty of interest in what IS biblical. How will it all come out? Two-thousand years ago, the disciples wanted to know. Twenty-first century disciples want to know as well.
In answer to the questions from the Twelve, Jesus responded with warnings about world events - the destruction of Jerusalem and its magnificent Temple, the coming of false teachers who would claim to speak on Jesus' behalf, wars and rumors of wars, rampant evil, a litany of despair. This world is not an easy place, and it is not going to get better.
The scene shifts down through the corridors of history. We find suicide bombers in Israel, genocide in Rwanda and Kosovo, 22-and-a-half million Africans with AIDS, 600-million children around the world living in absolute poverty,(4) everyday the threat of another September 11th. Even here in peaceful, placid Warren, once-solid businesses go under, jobs are lost, marriages founder, disease takes it toll, politics are in chaos, and if that's not enough, a landmark goes up in smoke. Another litany of despair. This world is not an easy place, and it is not going to get better.
Where then is our hope? More than 400 years ago, in another time of great social conflict - the Reformation raging, people fighting and dying in support of their beliefs - two young men (one a pastor, the other a professor in the local university) were asked by their German Governor to put on paper just what Reformed Christians believed. They were asked to write in simple terms so the next generation, the youth, would not have so much trouble.
We still have the results of their work in our Presbyterian Book of Confessions. It is called the Heidelberg Catechism, a series of 129 questions and answers that provide an overview of the faith.(5) They are all helpful, I suppose, but for me, the very first question and answer make the whole thing worthwhile. When all around you is in chaos, when life seems no longer worth living, when it seems to be the end of the world, "What is your only comfort in life and in death?" The answer:
That I belong - body and soul, in life and in death - not to myself, but to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ who, at the cost of His own blood has fully paid for all my sins...that he protects me so well that, without the will of my Father in heaven, not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit His purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for Him.That is gospel. I belong to Jesus, and even if it seems like the end of the world, I am safe. That makes all the difference, not only in this world but in the whole new world still to come.
1. Nancy Gibbs, "Apocalypse Now," TIME, 7/1/02, pp. 40-48
2. With C. C. Carlson, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970)
3. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM edition (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press
4. G. Thompson Brown, "A New Initiative," The Presbyterian Outlook, 7/1/02, pp. 6-7
5. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part I, The Book of Confessions, (Louisville, KY : General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA)), 4.001 ff.