A long time ago, I used to believe God hated the world.
I wouldn’t have quite put it in those terms, but the God I heard about was God who was merely biding his time before “rapturing” all the “true Christians” and pouring out his wrath and judgment upon the Earth.
For those who don’t know, the rapture is an event in some circles of evangelical Christianity in which God suddenly whisks every Christian into Heaven before a “Great Tribulation” of seven years – which usually involves some combination of World War III, plagues, a one-world government, and natural disasters.
If you grew up in this evangelical environment, you probably dealt (or are still dealing) with the fear of being “left behind.”
At church camp one summer, I remember a group of counselors performed a skit in which the Rapture occurs right before a Christian couple’s wedding night – much to the frustration of the virgin husband who had “waited” for this moment.
Last week, my wife and I spent ten days in Iceland reconnecting with each other, nature, and God. We both work more than sixty hours a week, so the opportunity to enjoy more than a week of adventure, exploration and relaxation in another country was a welcome respite.
At one point, amid thundering waterfalls, ice-blue glaciers, and moss-covered canyons, I remember distinctly thinking to myself, “God doesn’t hate this. God loves this.”
And, at that moment, I realized I had finally parted ways with a toxic view of God that for years had infected my perspective on the current events, other people, and the nature of God.
Rapture theology – or “dispensationalism,” if you’re a theology nerd – is not a fringe or inconsequential belief. It radically shapes America’s foreign policy and our attitude toward the environment. Rapture theology may, in fact, be one of the most consequential threads of American evangelicism that no one outside the faith really talks or knows about.
Contrary to what you may infer from the Current Events or Fiction section of your local Christian bookstore, the word Apocalypse does not mean “the end of the world.”
In its original Greek context, the word Apokalypsis actually means “to uncover and unveil” or “to make known what was once hidden.”
And we’re way past due for an apocalypse on rapture theology.
For starters, rapture theology was developed by John Darby in the 1830s, a British preacher who – and, this is true – had no formal theology training or education. There is little to no evidence that rapture theology was taught in any era of church history prior to the 19th-Century.
Nonetheless, it seeped into the bedrock of American Evangelicalism when Darby’s views made it into the Scofield Reference Bible – a popular study Bible – in 1909, and the formation of Dallas Theological Seminary in 1924 by Lewis Chafer, a man particularly taken by Darby’s views.
However, rapture theology shifted from the dry seminary classrooms to the mainstream in the late-1970s and early-2000s with the publication of popular books like The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series.
It’s no coincidence the public imagination was captured by rapture theology during periods of considerable cultural and political upheaval – which were highlighted by advances in mass media (broadcast news in the ’70s and the internet in the 2000s).
As Christians became more aware of the pain and dysfunction in the world, we began to gravitate toward systems that offered to make sense of the geopolitical chaos being broadcasted into our living rooms.
And the narrative of rapture theology – the world is getting worse, so Jesus must be getting ready to come back – offers a morbid sense of relief and comfort. It creates an illusion of control over world events and moral decay.
But it comes at a cost.
Rapture theology distorts Christianity into a doomsday cult,
and it reduces the holistic message of the Gospel into an admission ticket out of a fiery Armageddon.
Instead of optimism and hope, the Gospel becomes a message of bleakness and despair in which the only relief will be literal the end of the world – and, even then, only for a select few.
It creates Christians who zealously support armed conflict, harmful environmental policies, unbridled nationalism, and cold-hearted evangelism tactics.
It supports a multi-million dollar cottage-industry of Christian books and films attempting to “decode” Biblical prophecy and interpret world events to determine if we’re living in the “End Times.”
And it encourages a pessimistic worldview that says humanity is circling the drain and worse off than it ever has been.
Around the world, fewer people are dying of preventable diseases and natural disasters.
In the last two decades, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has been reduced by nearly half.
Most historians believe that we are living in one of the least violent eras of human history.
But just because things are getting better doesn’t mean there’s not work to be done.
Some of history’s greatest painters, musicians, authors, scientists, philosophers, civil rights leaders, and social justice workers were inspired and fueled by their Christian faith. It was Christians who founded the first hospitals, charities, and universities.
As any traveler knows, the destination affects how you approach the journey.
If you believe Earth is literally “headed to Hell in a handbasket,” you have no reason to protect or care for the environment. Or to love your enemy. Or to alleviate injustice and suffering. Or to create great art. Or to invest in scientific or medical breakthroughs.
Instead, everything becomes a means to an end. And, as a result, the quality of the Christian witness greatly suffers.
Our art is mostly cheap imitations of secular culture, our science is ignorant and laughable, and our political posturing further alienates the people we claim need Jesus the most.
We’ve become our own worst enemy.
The end of Christian relevance in secular culture began when Christians started to believe the Gospel was all about the end of the world rather than the start of a new one.
In The Divine Dance, Franciscan friar Richard Rohr writes,
“This is much of our problem today; we have not given the world any message of cosmic hope, but only threatening passages of Apocalypse and Armageddon.”
I don’t know what the “end of the world” will look like.
And, to be honest, the Bible paints some pretty conflicting pictures of what will happen when “Jesus comes back.”
But, I really don’t think it’s going to involve a “rapture of the saints,” “Great Tribulation,” or anything else dreamed up by a 19th-century uneducated British preacher. In my own life, I saw how those views generated apathy, disengagement, and excuses for the suffering occurring in the world.
At some point, Christians are going to have to make a choice: Are we going to be part of the problem or the solution?
Because maybe more people would be drawn to the message of Jesus if his followers were known more for their counter-cultural acts of mercy, justice, beauty, and love rather than for their bigotry and doomsaying.
In Unafraid, Benjamin Corey writes,
“As followers of the way of Jesus, our invitation is not to escape to heaven, but to make heaven a reality wherever we are in the present moment. We’re invited not to escape a broken world for heaven, but to be people who are transforming the present world to be more like it.”
In perhaps the most famous scripture passage of all time, Jesus says, “For God so loved the world…” The Greek word for world used in the verse is Kosmos, or “the created order of all things.”
It’s where we get our word “cosmos.”
Later on in the passage, Jesus says, “God did not send his son to condemn the cosmos, but to save it.”
The fear of the Lord may be beginning of wisdom, but it’s not the end of it.
(After all, “fear not” is the most oft-repeated command in the Bible).
I was told when Jesus came back he would return in the form of a roaring lion soaked in the blood of his enemies. But someone forgot to tell me the whole story.
In Revelation – that scary and final book of the New Testament – the prophet John is, in fact, told by God that the conquering “lion of Judah” is on its way.
But there’s a twist.
When the “conquering lion” is revealed to John, it is not a lion, but a slaughtered lamb.
The Greek word used for “lamb” is arnion, which means – quite literally – “lambkin” or “baby lamb.”
And all that blood? It’s not the blood of the lamb’s enemies. It’s its own blood.
In Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, pastor Brian Zahnd writes,
“Revelation has been regularly shanghaied as a polemic against enemies and as a warrant for violence. All of this abuse is sad, since Revelation gives us one of the most stunning, creative, and beautiful portrayals of Jesus Christ and his kingdom in all the Bible.“
The theology of apocalypse is the theology of the cross.
It’s not a story of victory through overwhelming force and violence.
It’s a story of victory through the suffering love of a God murdered on a cross.
We follow a lamb, not a lion.
And that may not sound as sexy or compelling to those of us who’ve been saturated in the theology of American Civil Religion that overly relies on battlefield metaphors to inspire and captivate. But that’s what makes the Gospel so subversive, transformative, and healing.
The first Gospel was a message of hope,
hope that King Jesus had ascended the throne through his life, death, and resurrection,
and is in the process of reconciling all things – in Earth and Heaven – to himself,
and, in the fullness of time, will unite all things in Heaven and Earth under Christ.
Let’s keep the Good News good.
And, if not, maybe we’re the ones in danger of being left behind.
For more information on the book of Revelation, John Darby, and escaping fear-based religion, I recommend:
- The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation – Barbara Rossing
- Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination – Eugene Peterson
- Revelation for Everyone – N.T. Wright
- Four Views on Revelation – CounterPoints Series
- Victorious Eschatology – Harold Eberle & Martin Trench
- Surprised by Hope – N.T. Wright
- Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God – Brain Zahnd
- Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith – Benjamin Corey
For more information on how the state of the world is actually improving, I recommend:
- Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think – Hans Rosling
- Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress – Steven Pinker