Americans seemed obsessed with the second coming of Jesus – especially with distorted interpretations of it. Now at the movies you can see Left Behind. Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins wrote 8 titles for runaway best sellers in the Left Behind series. They wrote that there will be a literal “rapture” in which believers will be snatched up to heaven, leaving empty cars crashing on freeways and kids coming home from school only to find that their parents have been taken to be with Jesus while they have been “left behind.” This pseudo-version of Home Alone has reportedly frightened many children into some kind of (distorted) faith.
Left Behind is based on a doctrine that was invented in the mid-1800s and which is built on incredibly brittle interpretation of Scripture. A little history will help. D. L. Moody preached,the church was “a voluntary association of the saved.” His influence was staggering so that by 1874 the church was not seen as a corporate body but as a gathering of individuals. Revivalists who followed him preached his word. It is noteworthy also that Moody was heavily influenced by the Plymouth Brethren teaching of the end times. This was the teaching that Christ may return at any second before the great tribulation (also called “pretribulational Dispensationalism).
Then there was John Nelson Darby (see The Incredible Cover-Up, Medford, OR: Omega Pub 1975). The Scofield Bible popularized the new doctrine and so did Moody’s Bible Institute. Since then, the doctrine of the rapture has fostered an escapist mentality among believers.
One idea this spawned was that Christians must act quickly to save as many souls as possible before the world ends. Yet this does not match the mind-set of the first-century Christians who did not appear to be pressured into trying to get the entire world saved in one generation.
This dramatic end-time scenario is based (wrongly, as we shall see) on Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, where he writes: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God. The dead in Christ will rise first; then we, who are left alive, will be snatched up with them on clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord” (4:16-17).
What on earth did Paul mean?
The Ascension of Jesus and the Second Coming are vital Christian doctrines. I believe some future event will result in the personal presence of Jesus within God’s new creation. This is taught throughout the New Testament outside the Gospels. But this event won’t in any way resemble the Left behind account. Understanding what will happen requires a far more sophisticated cosmology than the one in which “heaven” is somewhere up there in our universe, rather than a different dimension, a different space-time, altogether.
The New Testament, building on ancient biblical prophecy, envisages that the creator God will remake heaven and earth entirely, affirming the goodness of the old Creation but overcoming its mortality and corruptibility (e.g. Rom. 8:18-27; Rev. 21:1; Isaiah 65:17, 66:22). When that happens, Jesus will appear within the resulting new world (e.g. Colossians 3:4; I John 3:2).
Paul’s description of Jesus’ appearance in 1 Thessalonians 4 is a brightly colored version of what he says in two other passages, I Corinthians 15:51-54 and Philippians 3:20-21: At Jesus’ “coming” or “appearing,” those who are still alive will be “changed” or “transformed” so that their mortal bodies will become incorruptible, deathless. This is all that Paul intends to say in Thessalonians, but here he borrows imagery – from biblical and political sources – to enhance his message. Little did he know how his rich metaphors would be misunderstood two millennia later. (For a more thorough discussion see N.T. Wright Surprised by Hope, pp 119-122).
First, Paul echoes the story of Moses coming down the mountain with the Torah. The trumpet sounds, a loud voice is heard, and after a long wait Moses comes to see what’s been going on in his absence.
Second, he echoes Daniel 7, in which “the people of the saints of the Most High” (that is, the “one like a son of man”) are vindicated over their pagan enemy by being raised up to sit with God in glory. This metaphor, applied to Jesus in the Gospels, is now applied to Christians who are suffering persecution.
Third, Paul conjures up images of an emperor visiting a colony or province. The citizens go out to meet him in open country and then escort him into the city. Paul’s image of the people “meeting the Lord in the air” should be read with the assumption that the people will immediately turn around and lead the Lord back to the newly remade world.
Paul’s mixed metaphors of trumpet’s blowing and the living being snatched into heaven to meet the Lord are not to be understood as literal truth, as the Left Behind series suggests, but as a vivid and biblically allusive description of the great transformation of the present world of which he speaks elsewhere.
Paul’s misunderstood metaphors present a challenge for us: How can we reuse biblical imagery, including Paul’s, so as to clarify the truth, not distort it? And how can we do so, as he did, in such a way as to subvert the political imagery of the dominant and dehumanizing empires of our world? We might begin by asking, what view of the world is sustained, even legitimized, by the Left Behind ideology? How might it be confronted and subverted by genuinely biblical thinking? For a start, is not the Left Behind mentality in thrall to a dualistic view of reality that allows people to pollute God’s world on the grounds that it’s all going to be destroyed soon? Wouldn’t this be overturned if we recaptured Paul’s holistic vision of God’s whole creation?"