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THE RAPTURE EXPOSEDThe Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation
By BARBARA R. ROSSING
Westview PressCopyright © 2004 Westview Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Destructive Racket of Rapture
If I knew the world were going to end tomorrow I would plant a tree. MARTIN LUTHER I need a new car. Something tells me it's going to be our only chance to survive. "BUCK" WILLIAMS (TIM LAHAYE AND JERRY JENKINS, NICOLAE, 12) We need a shelter ... I'm talking about getting an earthmover in here and digging out a place we can escape to. REV. BRUCE BARNES (LAHAYE AND JENKINS, TRIBULATION FORCE, 32)
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!
Rapture theology is disastrous for the Middle East and it is even more dangerous for planet earth. Proponents love to use the image of a countdown, reminiscent of a missile launch or space travel. God has a clock that is counting down, its hands drawing ever closer to midnight. Never mind that clocks and stopwatches were not invented until long after the Bible was written, it is their favorite image. God's prophetic stopwatch is ticking down to the end of the world.
John Hagee, pastor of the 15,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, borrows his particular doomsday clock from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, an effort on the part of nuclear scientists to alert the world to the danger of nuclear annihilation. In 1947, these scientists initially set the hands of the clock at seven minutes to midnight. They periodically moved the hands closer or further from midnight depending on their evaluation of the global nuclear arms risk.
"God has a similar clock, my friend, and its hands never move backward," writes Hagee in the introduction to his book Daniel to Doomsday: The Countdown Has Begun. "Doomsday-the stroke of midnight-is coming." But note the crucial difference between Hagee's prophetic doomsday clock and that of the scientists. The nuclear scientists developed their clock to alert the world to our perilous situation so that the hands will never reach midnight. The scientists are trying to keep us from destroying the world.
Not Hagee. For him and other Rapture proponents the stroke of midnight on the doomsday clock is inevitable and even welcome. God plans to destroy the earth and there is nothing we can do to stop it. The countdown to the end is already under way. Each chapter of Hagee's book advances the clock one minute closer to midnight, culminating in the final chapter, entitled "Midnight: Doomsday at the Great White Throne," when the world comes to an end.
The Rapture is the reason Hagee and so many others revel in the prospect of destruction for the earth; the Rapture will be their "great escape" from earth. As Hagee boasts about the Rapture, "Believers in Christ will escape doomsday! Mark it down, take it to heart, and comfort one another with these words. Doomsday is coming for the earth, for nations, and for individuals, but those who have trusted in Jesus will not be present on earth to witness the dire time of tribulation."
Similarly, Hal Lindsey writes, "Although I grieve over the lost world that is headed toward catastrophe, the hope of the Rapture keeps me from despair in the midst of ever-worsening world conditions." He and other proponents of the Rapture are confident that Jesus will come to snatch or "Rapture" them up to heaven before unleashing a seven-year period of global tribulation and terrible destruction on the earth. Lindsey interprets Revelation's reference to "those who dwell in heaven" in chapter 12 of Revelation as proof that he and other Christians will not be found on earth during the woes and tribulation but rather will be part of "another special group called 'those who dwell in heaven.'" Only non-Christians will suffer the fate of being "left behind" on earth.
In the summer of 2003 Ted Turner and Public Broadcasting System sponsored an eight-hour special "Avoiding Armageddon," warning of nuclear and chemical weapons proliferation and urging the world's leaders to take steps to curb the danger. The next week, in reviewing the week's news through her end-times lenses, a breathless Rexella Van Impe asked her husband on their fundamentalist Christian cable television show, "Jack, Ted Turner thinks Armageddon can be avoided. Is he right?" No, Armageddon cannot be avoided, was Jack Van Impe's enthusiastic reply to viewers. Van Impe is the author of The Great Escape: Preparing for the Rapture, the Next Event on God's Prophetic Clock and other books on the Rapture and the Middle East. Like Hagee and Lindsey, he is confident that God will destroy the earth and also that he and Rexella will be raptured up to heaven before it all happens.
Rapture and Armageddon scenarios tap into Americans' love for disaster films and survivalist plot lines. Readers of end-times novels readily envision themselves among the select few who will escape planetary disaster. Like the remnant who survive an attack on the planet by alien creatures in the 1996 film Independence Day, or the couple who survey the devastation of New York City after the tidal wave caused by the impact from a comet in the movie Deep Impact, or survivors in the 1998 thriller Armageddon, readers of these scripts place themselves in the role of the elite individual heroes who will survive Armageddon or other disasters while the rest of the planet perishes. Even once-jailed televangelist Jim Bakker has now disavowed his previous pre-Tribulation Rapture theology as escapist, calling it a racket that preached a false gospel of prosperity-combined with the promise of escape from any consequences.
Christ will return, on that the Rapture proponents and I agree. I pray for it each time I pray "Thy kingdom come" in the Lord's Prayer-a prayer that is never once prayed in the twelve Left Behind novels. Jesus taught an urgency about his kingdom in this prayer that is still very much alive for Christians today.
But we completely disagree on what that urgency means for the world and for our life today. We differ, first of all, on our views of God-whether our God is a God whose will is to destroy the world. Second, we differ on whether Christians are to embrace an escapist ethics, as Rapture proponents argue, or are to urgently love and care for the world in anticipation of Christ's return, as I advocate. These differences in ethics will be crucial for our future.
GOD STILL LOVES THE WORLD-GOD DOES NOT DESTROY THE EARTH
Jesus is coming back at a moment we cannot know. But that does not mean that God is getting ready to destroy the earth and take Christians away to another planet. A Presbyterian pastor taught me a Rapture song he learned as a child: "Somewhere in outer space God has prepared a place for all those who trust him and obey ... The countdown's getting closer every day." This song reflects a key point on which the Rapture teaching is false and dangerous. There is no place in outer space to which God will take us to escape the earth. This is not the biblical message. We cannot trash this planet and assume there is another.
Space imagery is frequent in Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth. Published in 1970, just one year after astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Lindsey's book appealed to people's desire for the adventure of space travel in describing the Rapture as the "ultimate" space trip.
Astounding as man's trip to the moon is, there is another trip which many men, women, and children will take someday which will leave the rest of the world gasping ... Without benefit of science, space suits, or interplanetary rockets, there will be those who will be transported into a glorious place more beautiful, more awesome, than we can possibly comprehend ... It will be the living end. The ultimate trip. (Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1970], 135-137)
Left Behind author Tim LaHaye also engages in planetary speculation regarding earth's destruction and the creation of the "new earth" of Revelation 21. He explains how God's future timetable "does away with this planet as we know it" in two events of destruction. Earth's first destruction will be by fire while the second destruction will be more severe, and will include even the atmosphere. Here LaHaye fabricates a distinction between three different heavens in the Bible-the atmospheric heaven around the earth, which he says is the "abode of Satan"; a second, stellar heaven that contains the stars; and the third heaven, the heaven of the throne of God in the visions of Revelation 4 and 5, which will not be destroyed. The atmospheric heaven is what God plans to destroy in Revelation 21:1, according to LaHaye. "God will destroy this earth that is so marred and cursed by Satan's evil. He will include the atmospheric heaven to guarantee that all semblance of evil has been cleared away."
Only after those two destructions will God create a new heaven and a new earth, says LaHaye. He fantasizes that the new earth may not be "limited to the twenty-five thousand miles in circumference and eight thousand miles in diameter of the present earth. It may be much larger; the Bible does not say." In addition to a larger-size earth, LaHaye speculates about how the new planet won't waste any space with oceans or mountains or deserts, since such landscapes are uninhabitable for humans and are therefore "worthless."
This kind of speculation would be amusing if it were not so dangerous. God created the earth's mountains and deserts and called them "good"-they are not worthless to their Creator. Earth's atmosphere, too, was created by God, and God laments over it when we destroy it. The atmosphere is under assault today from ozone depletion, increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide that cause global warming, and other wounds-but these are wounds caused by humans. The atmosphere is not the abode of Satan. The view that total planetary and atmospheric destruction must take place on earth before God's renewing vision of "New Jerusalem" can come into the world is not biblical. It leads to appalling ethics.
To be sure, Revelation proclaims a "new heaven and a new earth," but that does not mean that God gives us a replacement for this current earth when we damage it beyond recovery. A new earth is not something we go out and get as born-again hero Buck Williams gets a new car in the Left Behind novels. Rather the earth becomes "new" in the sense of resurrection or renewal-just as our bodies will be resurrected, brought to new life, but they are still our bodies. The whole creation is longing for redemption, the apostle Paul writes-this is the sense in which there will be a new creation. It, too, will be redeemed, made new. The Greek word used for the "new" earth in Revelation 21:1 can mean either "renewed" or "new"-but it certainly does not mean a "different" earth. There is no justification for using up the earth on the grounds that we get to trade this one in for a new and bigger one in seven years.
Reagan-era Secretary of the Interior James Watt told U. S. senators that we are living at the brink of the end-times and implied that this justifies clearcutting the nation's forests and other unsustainable environmental policies. When he was asked about preserving the environment for future generations, Watt told his Senate confirmation hearing, "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns." Watt's "use it or lose it" view of the world's resources is a perspective shared by many Rapture proponents, whose chief preoccupation is counting down to earth's violent end.
Even more extreme is a recent remark by right-wing pundit Anne Coulter: "God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.'"
Raping the earth and justifying such behavior on the grounds that this earth is ours and it will be finished in seven years is like saying we might as well use drugs and abuse our bodies because we know we will soon be resurrected with new bodies. Our bodies are God's temple, the apostle Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans. They are not to be abused but rather reverenced. God dwells in these earthen vessels. Similarly with the body of the earth: It, too, is a body God created and still calls good. It is a temple in which God dwells. We do not leave this earth behind. God does not leave it behind and neither can we.
The British author C. S. Lewis's Chronicles Of Narnia, a popular series of Christian novels from the mid-twentieth century, depicts salvation in a much more earth-affirming way than the Left Behind story. When Lucy and her companions finally come into the "New Narnia" at the end of their journey in Lewis's The Last Battle, it is not an escape from their homeland but rather a going through a door more deeply into God's picture, into the world. The travelers slowly come to realize that the place is the very same place as the world they left behind: the same hills as those in their hometown, the same house, but everything is more radiant. The color blue is bluer. It is "more like the real thing." New Narnia is different from old Narnia in being a "deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more."
New Narnia is "world within world," Lucy realizes. The Faun Tumnus explains the within-ness of God's vision for our world: "You are now looking at the England within England, the real England." Most importantly, in Lewis's vision-contrary to the destructive Rapture script-"no good thing is destroyed." This is the wondrous land Lucy and her companions have been looking for all of their lives. A donkey named Puzzle, a Mouse, an Owl, the Good Badger, and "all the dear creatures" go with them into the new landscape.
The Narnia story's ending gives a much truer reading of the final vision of the book of Revelation than the Left Behind story.
Excerpted from THE RAPTURE EXPOSED by BARBARA R. ROSSING Copyright © 2004 by Westview Press. Excerpted by permission.
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