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Monday, September 10, 2007

why i will not be raptured, part ii

In part i, four months ago, I erroneously said that rapture proponents claim Matthew 24:37-42 as support for the rapture doctrine. That was incorrect. Rapture proponents do not claim that Matthew 24:37-42 supports the rapture. They do, however, claim that Matthew 24:32-34 does. (This is just one of the reasons I can't buy into the whole rapture thing. What kind of theology builds doctrines on isolated snippets forcibly removed from their original context?)

Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near--at the doors! Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place.

- Matthew 24:32-34

There are two sets of "these things" in Matthes 24:33-34. If you fail to distinguish between them, you will not understand what our Lord said. They are definitely not the same. The first "these things" in verse 33 refers to the tumultuous events begun by verses 7 and 8. The second "these things" refers to the prophetic future, including the Tribulation and the glorious appearing of Christ.

- Tim LaHaye, Are We Living in the End Times? p. 57

Why does LaHaye believe this?

The key is found in verse 34. Jesus said, "This generation will by no means pass away until all these things [the second "things"] are fulfilled." The crucial issue concerns the meaning of "this generation," for whatever generation He had in mind would not pass away until the Second Coming occurred.

In Greek, the demonstrative pronoun haute (this) always refers to the person or thing mentioned immediately before it. The thing mentioned just before "generation" involves those who see the sign of Israel as she either becomes a recognized nation or when she takes possession of most of Jerusalem.

- Tim LaHaye, Are We Living in the End Times? p. 58

How does LaHaye get all this from Matthew 24:32-34?

Many prophecy students interpret this passage to mean that when we see the rise of Israel as a nation (as we did in 1948), we will know that the time of the end is "near--at the doors." They reason that when a fig tree is used symbolically in Scripture, it usually refers to the nation Israel. If this is a valid assumption (and we believe it is), then when Israel officially became a nation in 1948, that was the "sign" of Matthew 24:1-8, the beginning "birth pains"--it means that the "end of the age" is "near."

- Tim LaHaye, Are We Living in the End Times? pp. 56-57

How does LaHaye extrapolate all this from "fig tree"?

chirp, chirp, chirp

- crickets

A quick Bible search on the phrase "fig tree" turns up a number of different symbolic uses, some of which clearly refer to Israel, and some of which just as clearly do not. But none of them, as far as I can tell, mention the modern secular Israel founded in 1948. So to recap, LaHaye is saying, essentially, that "these things" in Matthew 24:34 refers to a different "these things" than the same words in verse 33, and that the fig tree in verse 32 refers to Israel, but to a different Israel than the one of Jesus' day.

This is the same guy, recall, who has said, "When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense, but take every word at its primary literal meaning, unless the facts of the immediate context clearly indicate otherwise."

Common sense would tell me that the phrase "these things" used twice in consecutive sentences refers to the same things both times. Common sense also tells me that the words "fig tree," in a literal sense, refer to a fig tree. But I don't have LaHaye's sophisticated theological training.

So much for Matthew 24. On to the biggies.

Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

- 1 Corinthians 15:50-52

Of all the verses we've looked at, this appears to be the most promising yet as support for the rapture doctrine. With its talk of the dead being raised and such, it sounds very much like an end times verse.

And indeed it is. The problem for LaHaye's theology is that this passage cannot refer to a secret rapture.

Recall LaHaye's rationale for splitting Christ's second coming into two events:

The first is the Rapture, when all living and dead Christians will be snatched up to be with Christ in the Father's house. The second is for all the people of the world, who will be judged for rejecting Christ. The first is secret, for a special group; the second is public, for everyone left on the earth. They are entirely distinct events!

- Tim LaHaye, Are We Living in the End Times? p. 104

LaHaye insists that the rapture is "secret, for a special group," yet 1 Corinthians 15:52 speaks of a trumpet -- twice. (Presumably in LaHaye's theology these are two distinct trumpets, but that's another issue for another time.) An event heralded by a trumpet blast is not a secret.

What's more, the larger passage clearly indicates (verse 42) that this is the resurrection of the dead -- not a secret snatching away of the faithful. The passage ends with the promise, "Death has been swallowed up in victory." In LaHaye's theology, the rapture marks the beginning of seven years of tribulation -- hardly a time for a victory celebration.

No rapture yet, and we've only got one verse left.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and 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 forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

- 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Surely, if the rapture is taught anywhere is scripture, it is taught in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. The very word rapture comes from the Latin translation of harpazo ("caught up") in verse 17.

Unfortunately for Tim LaHaye and other rapture proponents, this passage suffers from the same problems as 1 Corinthians 15:51-52. The phrase, "with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet," hardly sounds like the way to keep a secret. But then there it is: "we... 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 forever." So the Bible does teach the rapture after all.

Or does it?

If Christ is returning to earth, and believers meet him to "be with the Lord forever," then regardless of what it means to be caught up in the clouds, the believers must be planning to return to the earth with Christ.

There's more. Bible scholar Barbara Rossing puts it this way:

Paul's description of "meeting" the Lord in the air employs a very specific Greek word for greeting a visiting dignitary in ancient times: apantesis, a practice by which people went outside the city to greet the dignitary and then accompanied him into their city. The same word is used in Matthew 25:6 to describe the bridesmaids who go out to "meet" the bridegroom and then accompany him into the feast, and also in Acts 28:15 to describe the Romans who go out to "meet" Paul as he arrives in their city.

- Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed p. 176

In both Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15, those who "meet" the arriving person then turn around and escort him to their home. So 1 Thessalonians 4:17 ought to be understood in the sense of believers leaping up into the clouds -- perhaps in ecstasy at his return -- to welcome Christ and accompany him back to earth.

Here's how Orthodox archbishop John Chrysostom put it:

If He is about to descend, on what account shall we be caught up? For the sake of honor. For when a king drives into a city, those who are in honor go out to meet him; but the condemned await the judge within. And upon the coming of an affectionate father, his children indeed, and those who are worthy to be his children, are taken out in a chariot, that they may see and kiss him; but those of the domestics who have offended remain within. We are carried upon the chariot of our Father. For He received Him up in the clouds, and “we shall be caught up in the clouds.” (Acts i. 9.) Seest thou how great is the honor? and as He descends, we go forth to meet Him, and, what is more blessed than all, so we shall be with Him.

- John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Thessalonians, Homily #8

Chrysostom clearly understood this passage to refer to a king returning to a city to pass judgment. To those "who are in honor," the king's visit is a happy occasion, but to those who are condemned, it is a somber one. There is no need to invent a second return of Christ: The same occasion can seem very different to people who have different perspectives.

John Chrysostom understood the New Testament in a way that Timothy LaHaye -- or you and I -- never could. LaHaye may have studied NT Greek in seminary, but Chrysostom learned it as an infant. As a native speaker of ancient Greek, Chrysostom -- like the other leaders of the early church -- was more in tune with the thought processes of the New Testament writers than we will ever be. And not one of the ancient Greek-speaking Christians ever suggested that there would be a secret rapture of the faithful before Christ's ultimate return. I'll take their word above a modern self-styled prophet any day.

The Left Behind series has proven to be wildly popular fiction. But personally, I'm not going to get caught up in all that hype.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

why i will not be raptured

Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkens have made an awful lot of money with their bestselling Left Behind series. And though the books are fiction, LaHaye and Jenkens have also authored a non-fiction book, Are We Living in the End Times? in which they attempt to show a biblical basis for the events of Left Behind.

Critical to Jenkins and LaHaye's story line is the idea of a rapture of the faithful before things get too difficult. True believers will be snatched away into the clouds to be spared from hardship.

Just how biblical are the Left Behind books, really? Just what does the Bible teach about the Rapture?

Remarkably, this whole doctrine is taken from one word that appears in just one verse in one of Paul's letters near the back of the New Testament.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.

- 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

The Greek word harpazo in verse 17 above is the equivalent of the English words "caught up" and the Latin word raptus, from which Rapture is derived. The word appears nowhere else in the New Testament.

Rapture proponents also claim support elsewhere for this idea, most notably 1 Corinthians 15:50-51, Matthew 24:37-42, John 14:1-3, and Titus 2:13.

I'll look at these in reverse order, just because I can.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds. These things speak and exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one disregard you.

- Titus 2:11-15

Did you see it? I didn't either. To a normal person reading this text, there is nothing to suggest that verse 13 teaches the doctrine of Rapture. To a Rapture proponent who is looking for any support he can get, this is one of the Bible's strongest indications that Jesus is returning twice. In LaHaye's own words:

The coming of Christ must occur in two installments because they are for two different groups of people and fulfill two different purposes. The first is the Rapture, when all living and dead Christians will be snatched up to be with Christ in the Father's house. The second is for all the people of the world, who will be judged for rejecting Christ. The first is secret, for a special group; the second is public, for everyone left on the earth. They are entirely distinct events!

Dr. David Cooper often compared the Second Coming to a two-act play separated by a seven-year intermission (the Tribulation). The apostle Paul distinguished these two events in Titus 2:13 by designating them "the blessed hope and glorious appearing."

- Are We Living in the End Times? p. 104

And it doesn't get much better.

Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father's house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also.

- John 14:1-3

Jesus tells his followers he will go prepare a place, then he will return. Most Christians, who believe Christ will return but do not believe in a Rapture, understand this verse quite differently from the way Rapture proponents read it. For those who believe in a secret Rapture, the words "I will come again and receive you to Myself," acquire an additional meaning. The idea is that Jesus could not come both to comfort his faithful and to judge the nations at the same time. Apparently that's too difficult a task even for the Messiah.

For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one will be left. Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming.

- Matthew 24:37-42

At first glance, this passage looks like it may support the Rapture doctrine, with its talk about "one being taken" and all that. But what was it like in the days of Noah? Were the righteous taken away and the evildoers left on earth? It seems to me that it was the other way around. So maybe when Matthew says "one will be taken," he means taken away in judgment.

To be continued...

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Friday, January 19, 2007

goodbye, cruel world

Are we nearing the end of the world? A lot of people think so. According to a recent poll by the Associated Press and AOL News, 1/4 of all Americans expect the return of Jesus in 2007.

The Rapture Index attempts to estimate, based on current events, the likelihood of true Christians being taken away soon. In addition to floods, earthquakes, and crime, some of the warning signs are ecuminism, liberalism, the peace process, and civil rights.

I am completely mystified as to why so many people could be so devoted to such a blatantly heretical doctrine as the rapture. Is there something about this gruesome theology that actually appeals to people? Or are they just unaware that this is not the historical teaching of Christianity?

Can someone explain it to me?


Friday, July 14, 2006

birds of a feather?

Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkens have both, despite being grounded in controversial theological opinions, taken their places among the most popular works of fiction in recent years.

What else do the two have in common? According to Carl Olson of the National Review, more than first meets the eye. In both books, "the institutions of man, especially the Catholic Church" are seen as an enemy of all that is true and good. Both books "are created without much concern for fact and scholarship, but both give a wealth of lip service to supposed research and historical veracity." And both books are neo-Gnostic, in that they "promise special knowledge, or gnosis, to those willing to accept the authors' premises and suspend judgment about the veracity and solvency of those premises."

Olson's article offers an interesting analysis, especially given that many of the fans of the Left Behind series are very vocal opponents of The Da Vinci Code.

The good news about the success of these two works -- good news even for those of us who don't buy into either conspiracy theory -- is that their popularity makes for an easy introduction to talking about faith. The bad news is that, by associating faith with gnosis, these books make it easier to dismiss faith altogether.

A disturbing question raised by the success of these books: Has traditional Christianity become so irrelevant to the popular culture that, to many people, conspiracy theories look attractive by comparison?

What do you think?