In the midst of this pandemic, many are afraid–and rightly so. Already in February, over a month ago now,
Officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and epidemic experts from universities around the world conferred. . . about what might happen if the new coronavirus gained a foothold in the United States. How many people might die? How many would be infected and need hospitalization?
Their worst-case scenario, based on the evidence of the disease’s progress elsewhere in the world, was grim:
Between 160 million and 214 million people in the United States could be infected over the course of the epidemic . . . As many as 200,000 to 1.7 million people could die.
In the face of those numbers, a healthy fear is a rational response. What is irrational is the blithe refusal to acknowledge the seriousness of the disease, and so to increase the likelihood of infection:
First Baptist Church of Dallas, where . . . Robert Jeffress is senior pastor, announced on Friday (March 13) that it would still hold Sunday School and services this weekend.
The church, whose weekly in-person worship attendance hovers around 3,150, said it does plan to implement policies to comply with a recent ban on large gatherings of 500 people or more in Dallas County.
Paula White, a Pentecostal pastor from Florida who heads up the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, is scheduled to headline an evangelical conference that will take place in Phoenix, Arizona, April 9-12. Organizers of the “Passover 2020: Decade of Awakening” conference told potential attendees not to fear the coronavirus because the “Word of God promises us protection from these very things.”
Still, healthy fear is not panic, or despair. In these blogs, I am speaking to the fear that this pandemic is a biblical sign of the end-times: that the Rapture of true Christians, the punishment of the world through the Tribulation, the final condemnation of the wicked to the Lake of Fire, and the coming of God’s kingdom may be at hand. However, as the first blog in this series stated, I do not argue that the end-time the Bible predicts is not yet imminent. Instead, I propose that the Bible does not enable us to predict the future at all. I have not always thought that way. But today, as a Bible Guy and professional exegete, my lifelong study of Scripture has persuaded me that God’s future is in God’s hands, not ours, and is for God to know, not us.
Nearly fifty years ago now, when I was fifteen, I received the baptism of the Holy Spirit at a prayer meeting in my family’s living room. I have no doubt about the reality of that experience, or of its profound effect on my life. Although I had grown up in the church, I now felt an increased zeal for the Lord. I always wore (as in this picture) a cross around my neck. I carried my Bible–for which I had a renewed and passionate hunger–with me everywhere, and was always careful that it was on top of my pile of schoolbooks. I told everyone about Jesus: in study hall, in the lunch line, on the school bus–whether they wanted to hear or not. I covered my notebook with Christian slogans: “One Way,” “PTL” (Praise the Lord), and of course, “In case of Rapture, this notebook will be abandoned.”
One of the cornerstones of my young, passionate faith was the certainty that I would one day, very soon, be taken up out of the world to be with the Lord–just before the world was stricken with disaster upon disaster through the seven years of the Great Tribulation.
Certainly, I was not alone in that belief! Many believers regard Christianity as a means of escape from a world of trouble. Indeed, John Wesley had “only one condition previously required” for those who sought to join the Methodist societies: “a desire to flee the wrath to come” (John Wesley, ed. Albert C. Outler; Library of Protestant Thought [New York: Oxford University, 1964], 178). Many who understand salvation in these terms hope, as I did, that they will soon be taken out of this world together with other true believers in the Rapture, and go up into heaven to live with God.
A whole Christian industry has grown up around this idea, manifest most visibly in the best-selling Left Behind novels by Jerry B. Jenkins, based on the notes of Timothy LeHaye. Often, I have seen these books proudly displayed in church libraries and Sunday School classrooms, right beside the Bible. The Left Behind series has been made into comic books, films, television shows, video games–even, in 2014, a big budget motion picture starring Nicholas Cage.
The idea of an imminent Rapture has been extremely influential. Remember: according to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center, 41% of Americans surveyed expect Christ to return before 2050; among white Evangelicals, this number rises to 58%.
Curiously, for all my love for Scripture and my passionate study of God’s Word, I never realized that the Rapture was not in the Bible. If you search any Bible concordance for the term “Rapture,” you will not find it (for a little about where the notion of the Rapture originated, see my previous blog). Neither Matthew 24:40-41 nor 1 Thessalonians 4:13, the two passages commonly alleged to describe the Rapture, use the term. Matt 24:40-41 reads,
At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left.
For many readers, the one “taken” is Raptured, taken up to glory; the one left is, as Timothy LaHaye’s series title has it, “Left Behind,” to suffer the torments and tortures of Tribulation. But I am not persuaded that this is the best reading of that verse. The bulk of Matthew 24 offers warnings of coming persecution and trial, not instruction on how to escape them. Indeed, Jesus tells his followers, “They will arrest you, abuse you, and they will kill you. All nations will hate you on account of my name” (Matt 24:9).
Jesus compares those days to “the time of Noah,” when devastation came suddenly upon a people unprepared:
In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. They didn’t know what was happening until the flood came and swept them all away (Matt 24:37-39).
Likely, then, the “one taken” is not saved, but lost: perhaps metaphorically taken by death or disaster, or perhaps quite literally taken–arrested by the Roman authorities, and hauled away in chains.
Matthew 24 is not after all about us “going up.” It is rather about Jesus “coming down”! The coming of Jesus, the Human One (literally “Son of Man”), will also be unexpected, and unpredictable: “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows” (Matt 24:36; emphasis mine). Jesus himself does not know when this will be! He compares himself to a thief:
But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house. Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know (Matt 24:43-44).
The point, then, is to be ready–whenever his coming might be–so that we will not be taken unawares.
1 Thessalonians is Paul’s first letter, and the oldest book (dating to around 50 CE) in the New Testament. Paul writes to offer reassurance to a struggling church: the first he had established in Europe (see Acts 17:1-10). The Christians of Thessalonica are concerned because some of their members have died: perhaps from persecution, but perhaps too from illness or old age (1 Thes 4:13-14). Believing, as Paul had taught them, that Christ’s coming is imminent, they fear that these faithful dead will have no share in Christ’s kingdom. Paul, however, assures them that, far from being left behind, those believers who have died will have the inside track in the world to come:
What we are saying is a message from the Lord: we who are alive and still around at the Lord’s coming definitely won’t go ahead of those who have died. This is because the Lord himself will come down from heaven with the signal of a shout by the head angel and a blast on God’s trumpet. First, those who are dead in Christ will rise. Then, we who are living and still around will be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet with the Lord in the air. That way we will always be with the Lord. So encourage each other with these words (1 Thes 4:15-18)
Note that Paul does not describe an escape from this world prior to Christ’s return. Rather, “the Lord himself will come down from heaven with the signal of a shout by the head angel and a blast on God’s trumpet,” and as he does so, both the resurrected dead and also “we who are living and still around” (note the present tense; Paul fully expected the end to come in his own lifetime) rise to meet him in the air. Jesus is not taking the church out: he is descending to the earth, to rule. So this isn’t an escape plan–it’s a welcome back party!
Isaiah 2:1-5, which also speaks of God’s future, was the inspiration for the monument outside the UN building.
Then they will beat their swords into iron plows
and their spears into pruning tools.
Nation will not take up sword against nation;
they will no longer learn how to make war (Isa 2:4).
Isaiah’s vision of peace is realized in a transformed world, in which Zion, the hill on which Jerusalem was built and atop which the Temple stood, has become “the highest of the mountains” (Isa 2:2)! Still, the future world of which Isaiah dreams remains our world: it includes not only Israel, but also the foreign nations. Far from being “left behind,” those nations are drawn to Zion by the truth, justice, and peace God establishes there. As Zion is “lifted above the hills,”
peoples will stream to it.
Many nations will go and say,
“Come, let’s go up to the LORD’s mountain,
to the house of Jacob’s God
so that he may teach us his ways
and we may walk in God’s paths.”
Instruction will come from Zion;
the LORD’s word from Jerusalem.
God will judge between the nations,
and settle disputes of mighty nations (Isa 2:2-4).
To be sure, this is the LORD’s doing—but God does it, not in some other world, but in this world! Like Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4, this vision is not about our going up, but about the LORD coming down.
What difference does this make? If we believe that we are going to be “Raptured out” of this world, we will be far more concerned with being certain that our ticket is punched, and that we don’t miss our flight, than we will be with trying to solve this world’s problems. After all, if this world is doomed anyway, why should its problems matter to us? What motivation do we have to care for the world, or for its people?
The damage done by this unbiblical ideology is far reaching. It has made us ignore the plain teaching of Scripture in favor of a fantasy. Belief in the Rapture has caused us to forsake our God-given responsibility to care for the earth (Genesis 1:26-28) because we are leaving this world anyway. So called “Bible prophecy” has caused us to reject Palestinian cries for justice, despite the Bible’s admonitions (Exod 22:21-24; Lev 19:33-34; Deut 10:18-19), because Israel must be re-established out to its ancient borders so that Jesus can come back. Although the Bible plainly states that Christ’s church is called to be one (John 17:20-23), this manufactured future history has made us suspicious of ecumenism, because the One World Church will be the tool of the Antichrist.
But what if salvation is not about escape from this world, but about God’s transformation of this world? Then, we will seek to be a part of what God is doing, here and now, to bring in God’s kingdom. We will want to be found at our Lord’s coming doing those things that Jesus did among us: feeding people, healing people, freeing people, proclaiming the good news of God’s salvation.
For example, we can do something about this pandemic. The grim numbers in the CDC’s worst case scenario are not inevitable: by practicing social distancing, by avoiding large crowds, by cancellations and closures, we can slow the spread of COVID-19:
“When people change their behavior,” said Lauren Gardner, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering who models epidemics, “those model parameters are no longer applicable . . . There is a lot of room for improvement if we act appropriately.”
The task before us is immense; our problems–not just this pandemic, but climate change, institutional racism, hunger, poverty–are seemingly unsolvable. Yet whether we seem to be successful or not, we will not despair, because we know that, in the end, God’s kingdom remains God’s, and that God will bring it into fruition in God’s good time: when our Lord Jesus “comes down” in glory.
Friends, it is time for us to get back to the Bible, and leave “Left Behind” behind.