Like fellow blogger Fred Clark, I find this hysteria among a very small number of American Christians about the end of the world—and the very large media firestorm having fun at their expense—too sad and depressing to laugh about. I like what Fred said:
Fortunately, Camping [the self-styled theologian who is predicting the world’s end tomorrow] is not as widely influential as LaHaye, so we’re talking about only thousands of followers, not millions. But that’s thousands of people, thousands of families experiencing one kind of trauma now and due for another, existential, shaken-to-the-core trauma come Saturday. That some of this trauma is self-inflicted or that, like most victims of con-artists, they are partially complicit in their own undoing doesn’t change the fact that we’re still talking about thousands of people in pain, fear and despair.
These people who are setting themselves up for this kind of existential disappointment are are still my brothers and sisters in Christ. The family profiled in this New York Times article (whose snarky headline doesn’t match the more evenhanded tone of the article) hardly seems like a bunch of lunatics. Nevertheless, I profoundly disagree with their theology and outlook.
Of course the end of the world isn’t happening tomorrow. Or maybe I should qualify it by saying that, even if it were happening tomorrow, it wouldn’t be because some guy has calculated the date from scripture. It can’t be found there. We can know this in part because, among many other warnings in scripture, Jesus teaches us that when the end of this present age comes, it will come unexpectedly (Matthew 24:42-51). Jesus said explicitly that he didn’t know, and he didn’t tell his own apostles. If anyone presumes to know today, therefore, he or she will surely be wrong.
The idea of a “rapture”—of believers being instantly snatched away from this world prior to the general resurrection of the dead at the end of human history—represents an unwelcome innovation in Christian theology, having emerged only in the 19th century among dispensationalist Christians. It has remained a strictly small-minority opinion within the realm of Christian thought. I wish journalists who are so eager to report on this controversy would point that out by—you know—talking to some credentialed theologian at a major divinity school somewhere.
I heard a talk-radio host on Christian radio preface her words by saying, “I may be an old-fashioned dispensationalist, but…” I was thinking, “That’s the problem! If you’re a dispensationalist, you’re not old-fashioned enough!” When it comes to theology, older tends to be better, and certainly more orthodox.
O.K., so the rapture isn’t an historic Christian doctrine. But why? Isn’t it in the Bible? No. The dispensationalist proof-texts for rapture, as best I can tell, are a creative blending of 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 (“we who are alive… will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air”), Matthew 24:40-41, Revelation 20, and probably many other scattered verses.
The 1 Thessalonians passage does describe the Second Coming— often called the parousia, literally “presence,” of Christ. And the Second Coming is orthodox Christian doctrine. But the big-C Church has understood this to be the event signifying the end of human history as we know it. It inaugurates the resurrection of the dead, final judgment, and the coming of God’s kingdom in all its fullness. In this present age, we are living in the tension of the “already/not yet” of God’s kingdom. The Second Coming means that this will not always be the case.
As for the Matthew 24 verses, N.T. Wright and others argue persuasively (to me) that this scripture refers to events surrounding the siege and fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple ca. A.D. 70—a cataclysmic event if you were living through it. And the idea of being taken—forcibly by Roman soldiers—is not a good thing. Being “left behind,” in this context, is actually preferable.
The classic Christian interpretation of the millennium described in Revelation 20 is that it is a symbolic number representing completion and perfection: “‘The sacred number seven in combination with the equally sacred number three forms the number of holy perfection ten, and when this ten is cubed into a thousand the seer has said all he could say to convey to our minds the idea of absolute completeness’ (Warfield, Biblical Doctrines: 654).”1 Most of the Church throughout the ages has believed and taught that we who live between Christ’s resurrection/ascension and his Second Coming are in the midst of the millennium, that Christ is currently reigning during this time (which accords well with the New Testament), and that this millennium is not a literal number of years.
There’s much more that could and should be said about these issues, but not by me. I’ll leave you with a few general thoughts on the subject of the end of the world: The Christian interest in the end of the world—otherwise known as eschatology—is not at all silly, even though some Christians make it seem that way. We believe that there is a definite end to history as we know it. Resurrection implies that there must be. Whatever life in the resurrection means, it is continuous with life in this world, but also radically discontinuous. Creation will no longer be subject to death and decay. As Revelation 21 suggests, heaven and earth become one. We can’t get there from here.
Among other things, this means that we Christians are not optimistic about the future—at least apart from our resurrection hope. In this way, we stand alongside our premillennial dispensationalist brothers and sisters in their pessimism about the world-as-it-is. Apart from God’s intervention at the end of history, humanity is not going to suddenly get its act together and start acting nice. Consequently, we reject modernity’s faith in “progress.” In general, the world isn’t getting better and can’t get better. Sin and evil—whose defeat by Christ is only made manifest at the Second Coming—are too powerful.
That being said, eternal life is not something we have to wait for until after we die. It begins now. In fact, we Christians are empowered to work now for this future world. As Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 3, what we do now for God’s kingdom somehow lasts for eternity. N.T. Wright, picking up on this theme, writes, “I don’t know what musical instruments we shall have to play Bach in God’s new world, but I’m sure Bach’s music will be there.”2
This “already” aspect of eternal life is often called realized eschatology. We can begin experiencing now—however imperfectly—a life in God’s kingdom that will find its ultimate fulfillment on the other side of death and resurrection. As Paul writes in Romans 6:4, we are buried with Christ in baptism and raised to “walk in newness of life,” which begins in the here and now. In Ephesians 2:6, Paul writes that God has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
This emphasis on realized eschatology is why, I think, mainline Protestants like myself don’t spend much time fretting over the end of the world. In a sense, heaven is now. Christ is with us now through the Holy Spirit. We have heavenly work to do now. Moreover, even if we’re not alive at the time of the Second Coming, none of us escapes the end of the world that is our own death. Our days are numbered. Our time is short. Our task is urgent. Let’s not be distracted by idle speculation.
This emphasis becomes a problem for us when we start thinking that we’re responsible for building God’s kingdom on earth, or that heaven is merely the cherry on top of a perfectly good life in a perfectly good world. No, it is because of God’s future world that we can live differently in the present one.
1. Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York: HarperOne, 1992), 806.
2. N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 208.