Harold Camping, mainstream Christians and the Rapture

In the weeks leading up to May 21, Christians everywhere denounced Harold Camping’s prediction that the world was coming to … Continued

In the weeks leading up to May 21, Christians everywhere denounced Harold Camping’s prediction that the world was coming to an imminent end. Many did so on the basis of Jesus’ words in Mark 13, that “no one knows about that day or hour” except the father. What remains troubling, however, is that many of those denouncements suggested that Camping was wrong about the date, but not necessarily wrong about the event itself. Maybe it’s high time to reconsider the theology behind the very idea of the rapture. For some time, theologians (such as N.T. Wright and Jürgen Moltmann) have been pressing for a de-raptured eschatology to permeate the general Christian consciousness.

Spencer Platt

GETTY IMAGES

NEW YORK, NY – MAY 13: Participants in a movement that is proselytizing that the world will end this May 21, Judgment Day, walk through the streets on May 13, 2011 in New York City.

Rapture theology has captivated the contemporary public imagination. The most recent iteration was the popular Left Behind material. Prior to that, in 1970, Hal Lindsey’s
The Late, Great Planet Earth
fascinated countless Christians. In contrast, contemporary evangelical theological scholarship found its voice, to some extent, as a counter to the sensationalist eschatologies of dispensational fundamentalism. George Eldon Ladd’s influential work on New Testament eschatology moved evangelical theology away from a focus on literal fulfillment of end-times scenarios, especially literalistic readings of Revelation and “Rapture” theologies connected to tribulation schemes. Yet within popular evangelicalism, fascination with the rapture continues to pervade preaching and teaching about the “end of the world.” This is a problem.

Biblically, Rapture theology finds its roots in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, with its language of being “caught up . . . in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” N.T. Wright suggests, however, in
Surprised by Hope
,

Moreover, while Rapture theology retains the apocalyptic vision of the New Testament, it does so in precisely the opposite direction of the biblical authors (see
Moltmann’s The Coming of God
, p. 159). Rather than seeing the apocalyptic as a reason to resist evil, Rapture theology suggests that Christians are meant to escape this world and that the destiny of this world is destruction. In such a view, Christians will be swept off the face of the planet, leaving it to the devices of evil and the horrors of tribulation.

The biblical witness suggests exactly the opposite, that Jesus is already king and that his kingdom has already made inroads into this world, which will one day be ratified and confirmed (at his Second Coming). Tribulation is a past and present reality, and the church is called to endure it on behalf of the world and to stand up against it through the power of the Spirit. Rapture theology, in which Jesus will take his people away and leave the world to the devices and whims of evil, runs counter to the good news that the kingdom of God has already come in Christ (e.g., Mk. 1:14-15).

In contrast to Rapture theology, a biblical eschatology:

1) Affirms the inherent value of the earth and motivates care for creation. Rapture theology suggests that we are “just passing through” this temporary dwelling place. Eventually we will escape this world and find our final home in an ethereal realm, a “heaven” filled with mansions and streets of gold. Again N.T. Wright helps to re-frame our expectations. God’s plan is for “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1), what Wright calls “life after life after death” (pp. 148ff). Since the goal is the re-creation and redemption of this world, we have motivation to care for and cultivate it now.

2) Offers a compelling vision for resistance against evil, injustice, and all forms of oppression in the present world order. Rapture theology generates an “escapist” mentality whereby our best hope for dealing with injustice, wickedness, and hopelessness is to simply fly off to a perfect spiritual world unhampered by sin and finitude. Most harmfully, Rapture theology sees injustice, oppression, and even natural disasters as predictive signs of the end of this life for Christians, rather than as the evil and discord they really are.

3) Redefines Christian mission as anticipation of and participation in the kingdom of God. Salvation, as Wright suggests, enables us to be witnesses to and signs of the ultimate salvation of the cosmos, as well as participants in that salvation (p. 200). That’s why the biblical witness says that Christians are to be agents of reconciliation with those who do not yet know God and are to participate in the restoration of the cosmos (2 Cor. 5:20). In contrast, rapture theology suggests a sudden, disruptive end to that project, cutting off hope for reconciliation and renewal.

Chris Pietsch

AP

Mose Macdonald works the impound yard of Stealth Recovery and Towing in Eugene, Ore. May 19, 2011 under the shadow of a billboard proclaiming this Saturday as “The Judgement Day.”

A de-raptured theology reorients evangelism and the meaning of salvation around the centrality of the kingdom of God. Rapture theology tends to use scare tactics—”Don’t get left behind!”—that market individual salvation as an economic transaction rather than a new way of living justice, righteousness, and peace. A de-raptured evangelism is an invitation to embrace the reality of the kingdom inaugurated by Christ.

Unfortunately, out of distaste for Rapture theology, some Christians have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. They focus everything on the present, believing that our world is what we make of it and that it is not only futile but even counter-productive to look to an apocalyptic Eschaton. Perhaps biblical eschatology resides not at either end of the spectrum, but somewhere in the middle. Only God can bring about the Kingdom, and Christians rightly await the second, and final, return of Christ (Col. 3:4). We look for his coming and long for the justice it will bring. In this sense, Christian theology should retain the apocalyptic (the hope that God is coming to make things right) without falling prey to fanciful notions of apocalypticism.

America is a nation imbued with eschatological consciousness. It’s often how we talk about hope, change, and how we motivate action in the present toward a better future. As such, American Christianity will always be infatuated by and prone to predictions about the coming end. The recent media preoccupation with the doomsday, Rapture theology of a well-meaning but deeply mistaken radio broadcaster is just the latest example. Christian leaders have a responsibility to remind people that we cannot know the “day or hour” and that it is counter-productive to speculate about it. They should also emphasize, however, that Christians should not seek to escape the world, but to embrace and engage it instead.

Kyle Roberts is assistant professor of Systematic Theology and lead faculty of Christian Thought, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul, MN). Adam Rao is pastor of teaching and strategic leadership at SafeHouse Church in Minneapolis, MN.

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  • johnnormansp

    Camping broke the implicit rule among the clergy: never affirm anything as a religious truth that can be objectively disproved. The Catholic church learned its lesson since the days of Galileo (though evangelicals are in a corner on evolution they still manage to muster a specious smokescreen of creationism and ID). This is why the mainstream clergy has banded together to call him a fool. Well, THEY aren’t fools, they make sure no one can ever get hold of a lever to pull their whole airy crock tumbling down.

  • featherknife

    The cloaking device has broken, the floundering hulk of religion is revealed in all its crumbling decadence. This is a time for unclouded minds to explain to the “faithful”, at every opportunity, the obvious fallacy of the theistic view. There is no magic. There is no spiritual force guiding the physical world. Following religious dogma is giving up your opportunity to contribute to the progress of human evolution. Nothing saves you from ignorance except truth. Objective, black and white, provable truth. If there was a god, he would not communicate with humanity in vague, ambiguous ways. His words would not need to be interpreted. His instructions to humanity would be clearly the ultimate statement of the laws and principles by which he created life and matter in the universe, not some magical force that goes against all the physical laws that we have been able to discern through the use of the scientific method, our primary tool in seeing reality clearly. The signature of the creator would be obvious. Instead all I see in religious ravings is the signature of fallible, deluded human being, or opportunistic grifters. Harold Camping is an opportunity to see this fallacy from a different perspective, and hopefully, for the millions of people who are searching for the truth, to seal off the blind ally of religion that has trapped so many well meaning men and women for far too long. We are complicit in bringing about our own destruction by losing sight of what we can do to prevent it, and, with arms raised to a non-existent deity, proclaiming “It is gods will.” Open your eyes. Religion is either a business, or a delusion.

  • Counterww

    OF course those that disbelieve in the first place will mock and make commentary about belief in God and the rapture.

    What those of us who believe and read the words of Christ is, is that he said no ONE know when the 2nd coming is. Period.

    We also know to live our lives like he is coming, but understand that could be tomorrow or 1000, 10000 years from now, so we have to take of the earth too and treat others like Jesus wants us to. With love and compassion.

  • JoeyTranchina

    Nothing new about religious delusions. The history of millennialism is long and sad.

    The arrogance of those who believe, with such fervor, that the prime-mover of all existence in an infinitely vast and incredibly beautiful universe, would explicitly choose to spend eternity with a gaggle of fools who could find nothing better to do with life but pray for it to be over, amuses me.

    I do have one question: Did somebody form a syndicate to buy-up the houses and cars of these “Saints.” before the great day fizzled?

  • JoeyTranchina

    I think that treating others with love an compassion is a really good idea, what ever the reason given…

    Sadly, when one looks at history, religious belief is traditionally used to teach people who to hate and who to kill.

    Religion is a very dangerous element in society; it should not be confused with love and compassion which is the glue that holds people and states and nations together… to the extent that we are held together.

    Again, look at the way that religion is being used to destroy unity in America. “Culture war” as a way for a right-wing party to get people to vote against their economic self interest, in a classic “divide and conquer” tactic, that Caligula would understand.

    Attempt to show me the love and compassion in Jesse Helms, Pat Buchannan, Newt Gingrich, James Inhofe or Michelle Bachmann, and I’ll show you how you are making it up.

    As important as love and compassion are, religion is consistently used to crush liberty. That is explicit in secular history; every church history uses its own set of facts.

    I published a poem more than 20 years ago that asked:
    If G-d is a reason to love, how can religion be an excuse to hate?
    Is religion then the G-d of bigots?

  • pjsmith31

    Learnt about the Rapture when I becamea Christian in 1978 at aged 42 it scred me and my familya lot ,but we are still here. If it had happened on May 21st then all the mockers I heard that day would not have gone anyway,either non believers or and backsliders wer elaughing about it not happening.
    Anyway it will come soon by the look of the disasters and floods etc here in Australia and worldwide earthquakes and so on Jesus said <"As in the days of Noah," Look up daily.

  • thomasmc1957

    The Christian Hoax has been making these failed predictions for almost 2,000 years. Why anybody still listens to them about anything at all anymore is a complete mystery.

  • Sajanas

    The quote about Jesus not knowing the day, the hour, or the week is followed by Jesus saying that *he does know* that the end of the world will be within the lifespan of those listening to him at that moment.
    If anything, most of the theological development of the early Church was specifically to move away from this sort of apocalyptic idea (since it kept not happening), towards a more personal judgement at the end of life, rather than everyone getting mass resurrected and judged at the end of time before going to heaven, as Jesus and Paul conceived it.

    In his own way Harold Camping is much more in keeping with the spirit of Jesus’s Gospel teachings (who knows what his real ones were) than those Christians who dismiss him, and quote a bible verse out of context as proof that they’re right. In reality though, none of them have any proof for what their saying, and these theological decisions for and against ‘Rapture’ seem like arbitrary interpretations of a text that can be interpreted many different ways, especially if you’re willing to imagine that Jesus said things one way but actually meant exactly what you want him to say.

  • bankalchemist

    “Are We There Yet?” I did not pay my mortgage.

  • persiflage

    Once the idea of the resurrection is reified as the pure mythic symbology that it is, then the idea of the rapture will quickly go up in smoke as well.

    However, this idea of folks suddenly disappearing bodily and re-appearing elsewhere is currently being very well executed on Fringe……but it takes a parallel universe to get it done.

    All of Christianity and it’s attendent theology needs a radical re-evaluation.

  • Counterww

    Coming from someone that does not believe Christ to any degree I find that easily dismissed, just as the Jesus Seminar should be dismissed.

    The Rapture is not key to believing in Christ, it is a set of beliefs not key to knowing Jesus Christ as God and Savior. The resurrection is.

    What is plain is that so called “intellectuals” can’t know God, don’t want to know God, and dismiss it out of hand. Why even comment on something that you don’t really care about but just live your life?

    Why? Because it makes you feel smugly superior.

  • persiflage

    Being skeptical of supernatural claims such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus is hardly the basis for smugness or some kind of pretentious intellectual superiority.

    For example, you’d hardly find a scientist today that would find bodily resurrection the least bit feasible. As far as ‘knowing God’ goes, this interior experience has absolutely nothing to do with the resurrection – an alleged historical event that is admittedly the foundation of Christianity. Knowing God means first being aware of the concept of God, and this comes with a particular kind of religious orientation.

    Countless mystics through the ages have undergone transcendent and transformative inner experiences without any kind of belief in a Supreme Being. I suspect that any knowledge of God has to be part of one’s early religious training because without the concept, how does one proceed to ‘know God’?

    Dismissing the idea of bodily resurrection is the act of a rational mind, nothing more or less.

  • persiflage

    I’m wondering why you’re privilaged to know something about the end of the world that none of your fellow Christians seem to
    be privy to. Where do you get this inside information?

    Have you ever considered that you’re as deluded as the rest of those holy prognosticators that can’t seem to get their dates right?? Of course not.

    End-of-times Christians are among the most deeply hypnotized people ever to walk the face of the earth – and that’s really saying something.

    George Gurdjeiff was absolutely right – humans are machines.

  • JoeyTranchina

    “All of Christianity and it’s attendent theology needs a radical re-evaluation.”

    Christianity was radically reevaluated in the Reformation then in the enlightenment. These folks missed it.

    The desire to believe something certain in an uncertain world is very powerful.

  • JUSTACOMMENT

    “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). This means that there are things that the monotheist Christian God knows that Jesus and the Holly Spirit doesn’t. How can that happen if monotheism means only one God? The Trinity I suppose is the Christian God, and there is only one God. It is like one part of God, which is omniscient is not omniscient. This contradiction is what happens when medieval minds invent fiction novels around old books written by iron age men. But stop right here, this is not a problem, this is a “mystery” that faithful religious people accept by suspending any vestige of critical thinking.

  • JUSTACOMMENT

    “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). This means that there are things that the monotheist Christian God knows that Jesus and the Holly Spirit doesn’t. How can that happen if monotheism means only one God? The Trinity I suppose is the Christian God, and there is only one God. It is like one part of God, which is omniscient is not omniscient. This contradiction is what happens when medieval minds invent fiction novels around old books written by iron age men. But stop right here, this is not a problem, this is a “mystery” that faithful religious people accept by suspending any vestige of critical thinking.

  • Carstonio

    Religious eschatology of any sort has no purpose other than to perpetuate in-group/out-group thinking. It’s merely a sublimated revenge fantasy, where the in-group gets the last laugh on everyone who “rejected” the group’s belief system. That’s unworthy of any religion that professes universal love.

  • joe_allen_doty

    When I was a grad student in the Master of Arts in Theological and Historical Studies degree program at Oral Roberts University in the 1970s, the textbook used was George Eldon Ladd’s “A Theology of the New Testament.” It does have a chapter on “Eschatology” in it.