My reasons for presenting these sermons on the Rapture are as follows: it figures greatly in the way many Americans think about the end of time; the idea of Rapture is based on a fanciful and false interpretation of the Bible; and belief in the Rapture leads to dangerous and sinister ways of thinking and acting in this world. Barbara R. Rossing in her book The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation puts it well. She writes, “The Rapture is a racket. Whether prescribing a violent script for Israel or survivalism in the United States, this theology distorts God’s vision for the world. In place of healing, the Rapture proclaims escape. In place of Jesus’ blessing of peacemakers, the Rapture voyeuristically glorifies violence and war. In place of Revelation’s vision of the Lamb’s vulnerable self-giving love, the Rapture celebrates the lion-like wrath of the Lamb. This theology is not biblical. We are not raptured off the earth, nor is God. No, God has come to live in the world through Jesus. God created the world, God loves the world, and God will never leave the world behind!”
Let me give you an example of how dangerous and unfaithful “Rapture” thinking and living is in our world. Belief in the Rapture has disastrous consequences for ecology. James Watt, Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, told U. S. Senators that we are living at the brink of the end-times and implied that this justifies the destruction of the nation’s forests (as well as other unsustainable policies.) When he was asked about preserving the environment for future generations, Watt told the Senators, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” And this was the man in charge of the interior of our country! Compare this unbelievably irresponsible attitude with that of Martin Luther who said, “If I knew the world were going to end tomorrow, I would plant a tree.”
People who believe in the Rapture and who believe it will happen in their lifetime (and amazingly that includes practically all those who think this way) are not concerned about the environment. They are going to escape all the trials and tribulations of this earth. They are going to just “fly away” leaving this world behind to rot in the filth they are partially responsible for “leaving behind.” This is as far as you can get from the prayer our Lord taught us to pray—a prayer, by the way, not found in a single one of the “Left Behind” books: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The kind of thinking and acting resulting from a belief in the Rapture is the total opposite of the Christian hope that God loves this world, is committed to its healing and redemption, and will one day transform it into God’s dwelling place. This Rapture kind of thinking forgets that according to the New Testament, we do not escape this earth. Even after death when we are resurrected we return to this healed, transformed earth to live to the glory of God and the celebration of all creation. The whole New Testament is about how God loves this world and sends us into the world to help with its healing and redemption. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me into this world, so I send you.” From heaven to earth is the direction of the Bible, not from earth to heaven, escaping all the suffering and pain of others. Belief in the Rapture leads to some of the most unchristian dreams and attitudes possible. This “Beam me up” theology is wrong-headed and wrong-hearted and certainly not helpful in dealing with today’s ecological crisis. As Barbara Rossing says, the Rapture vision invites a selfish non-concern for the world. It turns salvation into a personal 401 (k) plan that saves only yourself.
Similar examples can be given in areas of world peace, combating world hunger and life-threatening diseases. People who believe in the Rapture relish bad news. They love to hear about floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, epidemics like AIDS and flesh-eating bacteria. When I was teaching a college course on the New Testament, I had a student who approached me asking if I had heard the news. I asked her what she was referring to and with great excitement she said, “The vultures in the Middle East are laying twice as many eggs as they normally do.” Not being that fond of buzzards, I asked, “And the significance of that is–?” She looked at me as though I were an imbecile and said, “To prepare for the slaughter of Armageddon, of course!” I was appalled that a nineteen-year-old should already be misled and burdened by such a sick theology.
Instead of trying to do what they can to heal this world and minister to its people, those obsessed with the Rapture, when they hear of calamities and tragedies throughout the world, clap their hands, and shout, “Hallelujah, praise the Lord, and pass the ammunition.” Their way of preparing for hard times is to stockpile food and weapons to defend what is theirs until Jesus comes to take them home. I suspect that when Jesus comes back, he will ask them several questions—at least that’s what the New Testament says and what Jesus himself says. “I was hungry. Why didn’t you feed me? I was thirsty. Why didn’t you give me something to drink? I was sick. Why didn’t you do what you could to heal me? I was homeless. Why didn’t you give me a place to sleep?” Do you think Jesus will be impressed with the answer, “We were preparing for the Rapture to escape all the problems of the world. We didn’t have time to think about the hungry, sick, homeless, etc. After all, Jesus, they are not our kind of people.”
Belief in the Rapture leads to irresponsible, spectator, and self-centered living. Such belief also leads to a fatalism: “It’s all going to end. We can’t do a thing about it except ‘watch and wait’ for the time when Jesus will beam us up out of all this mess.” Rather than looking for solutions to the world’s problems, people who believe in the Rapture comfort themselves that they can do nothing to help the world. And after all, the world’s fate is sealed. I think that is why belief in the Rapture is so popular. It allows us to think we don’t have to go into the world with the good news of Jesus—we don’t have to build for the Kingdom of God. We don’t have to do the hard and sometimes dangerous work of following Jesus. All we have to do is watch, wait, and speculate.
I want to end this sermon with the words of Sojourner Truth, the 19th century former slave who helped set her people free. She criticized the escapism and self-centeredness in the Rapture mentality with these words: “You seem to be expecting to go to some parlor away up somewhere and when the wicked have been burnt, you are coming back to walk in triumph over their ashes—this is to be your New Jerusalem! Now I can’t see anything so very nice in all that, coming back to such a muss as that will be, a world covered with the ashes of the wicked. Besides, if the Lord comes and burns—as you say he will—I am not going away; I am going to stay here and stand the fire, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego! And Jesus will walk with me through the fire, and keep me from harm.”
Yes, Jesus walks with us through the fire. That is the message of the Bible. The good news of the Rapture enthusiasts is, “God so loved the world that he sent World War III.” Is that the message of the Bible? No. For God so loved the world God gave, and continues to give, and will not abandon this world to the fate of evil and death. That is the Gospel. This Rapture thinking is as far removed from the message and nature of Jesus Christ as you can possibly get. As such, belief in the Rapture is both heretical and blasphemous. In short, you could strongly argue that the whole idea and the attitudes it encourages are of the Devil.