Dear Parish Faithful,
Christ is Risen!
“It is much better to think that our death will come before the end of the world rather than the end of the world before our death.” ~ St. Nikolai Velimirovich
One last return to the subject of the “rapture” as I continue to think and read about it based upon some of the many responses I have received subsequent to my article of Tuesday. Perhaps I “struck a nerve” with my article, because I am receiving letters and responses from all over and from people I have never corresponded with before. I am hearing many stories – a couple of which I have already shared with you – about how belief in the rapture has shaped the faith and practice of many, though in ways that strike me as spiritually unhealthy. Fear and anxiety over not being “raptured” but “left behind” is a consistent theme in what I am hearing. Is that “Good News?” Some form of “rapture theology” is probably much more prevalent within American Protestantism than I have realized. Just by being “out there,” as it were. And it may have insinuated itself into the minds of many, even within churches that do not teach it. Has that happened to anyone in our own parish community? If you have believed in, accepted, or been influenced by some variation or other of the teaching on the rapture emanating from certain fundamentalist Protestant groups, I encourage you to confidentially share that with me, so that we can discuss it together. I am not heresy-hunting. I am trying to be pastoral and helpful. I am convinced, together with our entire theological Tradition, that this is a very false and dangerous teaching, precisely because of its inaccuracy and the false promises that it is using to gain adherents, often by fear.
Do not confuse the rapture with a belief in the Parousia (Second Coming of Christ), something we do believe in and confess in the Creed. To summarize again: The rapture is about Christians being taken up in the air to meet Christ who will come to gather up all true Christians, who will then return to heaven together with Christ so as to be kept safe from the seven-year tribulation that will engulf and basically destroy the earth as we know it. Only then will Christ return with finality (seven years later) in order “to establish a Jerusalem-based kingdom on earth.” This is all based on a hopelessly artificial reading of DAN. 9:25-27. As I wrote earlier, one can be “raptured” out of one’s car; from one’s work desk; from out of the shower (I would assume); and with no forewarning. In her book The Rapture Exposed, Barbara R. Rossing calls this “beam me up” theology. In her book, she further distinguishes the scriptural references to resurrection and the Parousia (Second Coming of Christ) from the non-scriptural term “rapture” :
The majority of New Testament passages on which dispensationalists base the notion of Rapture concern either resurrection or Jesus’ second coming – neither of which is the same as the Rapture, despite dispensationalists’ claims.
Resurrection is the foundational event for Christian faith. Ancient Christian creeds proclaim that God raised Jesus from the dead and declare that “We believe in the resurrection of the dead,” a belief shared by all Christian traditions today. But this is certainly not the same as saying that believers will be “Raptured” up from the earth to heaven. (The Rapture Exposed, p. 31)
This belief in the rapture is only about 170 years old. It was invented by the British Evangelical preacher John Nelson Darby, supposedly inspired by a vision that a fifteen year old Scottish girl by the name of Margaret MacDonald had in 1830. According to the historian Martin Marty, this teaching was then “shipped to America, and exported to the world.” As I study this recent phenomenon of Protestant dispensationalism with its attendant belief in the Rapture, I am discovering some of the pitfalls inherent in a rigidly “literal” interpretation of the Scripture. If everything written in the Bible has to have happened or be fulfilled “to the letter,” than account must be made for “unfulfilled prophecy” (supposedly the case in DAN. 9:25-27). This is when highly speculative interpretations that violate other scriptural teachings are made, none of which are spelled out in a literal manner. As I wrote earlier, the word “rapture” is not found in the Scriptures! The Bible is not so simplistic, and it cannot be subjected to a pseudo-scientifically determined timeline in which a series of divine “dispensations” are discerned concerning the end of the world. As the biblical scholar Craig Hill pointedly writes:
“Ironically, in their effort to interpret the Bible literally and consistently, proponents of the Rapture have mangled the biblical witness almost beyond comprehension. It is the Bible itself, this wonderfully diverse and complex witness to God and Christ, that has been left behind.” (Quoted in The Rapture Exposed, p. 42)
When Jesus spoke of the end of history – in what I would consider to be “symbolic” language – He emphasized that “that hour” is known is meant to remain unknown:
But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son but only the Father. (MK. 13:32)
In place of obsession, fear and calculation, Christ taught about vigilance and preparedness:
Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. watch therefore – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning – lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. (MK. 13:33-37)
I strongly believe that we should carefully heed the words of St. Nikolai Velimirovich, found as a heading to this meditation, that each one of us should prepare for our own personal death – and our subsequent judgment – as an event that will occur before the end of the world. Preparation means a life of faith in Christ strengthened by prayer, almsgiving and fasting. If, by the “dispensation” of God, the order was to be reversed, then we will be prepared for the glorious future prepared for those who love God wholly and unconditionally.