Thursday, September 25, 2014

Christ Will Come Again

             It has been interesting, in recent days, to see the number of, not just “family oriented” movies, but the overtly “Christian” movies being shown in movie theaters.  God’s Not Dead and Heaven’s For Real are the two big examples, thus far.  We have had biblical themed Hollywood movies, as well.  There was Noah, which, while having a much bigger budget and all of the Hollywood special effects, took such creative license that it just ruined the movie in terms of being true to the biblical story.  I am much more hopeful for the movie about Moses and the Exodus scheduled to be released in December.
            Nevertheless, these latter two are different from the former two.  The latter two seek to tell a biblical story, i.e., at least a story based upon a story in the Bible.  However, they are not being produced in order to propagate either a Jewish or Christian faith.  They are being produced . . . to make money . . . and, perhaps, to make an artistic contribution.  This is different from the other two that I have mentioned.
You see, the former two may hope to make money, as well, but they come from and seek to express a particular understanding of the Christian faith.  They seek to be a means of evangelism, or at least a Christian apology.  More specifically they seek to express the Christian faith as understood in popular evangelical circles.
On October 3 we will see the release of yet another movie that seeks to be “evangelical.”  It seeks to promote a particular understanding of a certain aspect of the Christian faith that is popular in many American evangelical circles.  -  The problem is it is wholly unbiblical.  It is based on a misunderstanding of Scripture which first made its appearance in the 1800’s (which means it was wholly absent in Christian teaching for 1800 years!).
New 2014 Movie

The movie in question is Left Behind.  It is actually a remake of a movie that starred Kirk Cameron some fourteen years ago.  It is based on Tim LaHay’s popular Left Behind novel series.  But, to be clear, while the books and the movie, themselves, are works of fiction, they represent a very real (though mistaken) theology.  This time around, the movie has a bigger budget and a little more star power in the form of Nicolas Cage, which makes it even more unfortunate.
Original 2007 Movie
So what’s the problem with Left Behind?  It is the whole concept of a “secret rapture” where people (Christians and children) all of a sudden simply disappear without a trace leaving planes hurling toward the ground and cars careening off of cliffs.  -  What is wrong with that?  Well, there is not one verse in Scripture that teaches that . . . nowhere . . . not one.
            Oh, there are two passages (two only) that are referenced to support this understanding.  The first is 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 which says:

For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.

The second comes from Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24:36-44 which, in part, says:

. . . so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.  Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. . . .

          “Well, of course,” some might say, “there you have it in black and white” (or red, if you have a red letter edition).  But is that the case?  -  Take a closer look.  Neither passage says anything about people disappearing without a trace.  Neither passage says anything about this being some secret event, where people have no clue as to what happened.  Neither passage says anything about our going to heaven to live eternally with the Lord.  Neither passage says anything about leaving a world in chaos.  So what do they say and how are they to be understood?
            Let’s look at the Thessalonian passage, first.  What we find here is something that those in the Middle East would readily recognize.  It draws on the image of when a king comes to a city.  When a king is arriving at a city, before he ever actually enters the city, loud trumpets are sounded.  People go out of the city in order to meet the arriving king, and they then usher him in in great fanfare and glory.  In fact, as was pointed out by the Rev’d. Peter Doyle, a colleague of mine, the actual Greek verb used in the passage is used in two other places in the New Testament.  In both of those places it specifies this very action of going out in order to usher one into the city.  In other words, far from our disappearing without a trace, we are going out to usher our King, Jesus, back upon His return to rule and reign forever!  And, as is stated in the Book of the Revelation, every eye will see Him.

            What, then do we make of the meeting Him in the air/clouds and our being with Him forever?  We meet Him in the clouds, because Paul is emphasizing what was stated by the angels in the Book of Acts, viz., “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (1:11).  He is affirming what Jesus has said about His coming in the clouds, and what St. John wrote, “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him . . .”   And, indeed, we will be with Him forever, for He has returned to dwell among us forever!
            How are we, then, to understand Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, then?  Well, it is helpful to read it in context.  -  If we start back in verse 29, we discover that this is in the context of Jesus’ second (and final coming), when “. . . all the tribes of the earth will . . . see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory” (vs. 30).  So, again, this is not a secret rapture, where no one knows what happened.
            In the immediate context, Jesus is explicitly stating that it will be like “the days of Noah”:

For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.  Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left . . .” (vs. 37-40).

In other words, it is the one who is taken that is the one who is in trouble!  They are the ones who are “swept away in judgment.”  The Rev’d. Joel Parsons, another one of my colleagues, lets us know that we want to be “left behind,” because to be taken is to be taken in divine judgment!  That is clear from the context of this verse.
            And folks, that was the understanding of these passages found in the entire Church until the 1830’s!  And, it remains the understanding of these passages in the vast majority of the Church, today.  The exception is in much of the American evangelical world which has been indoctrinated with this new (novel) position.
            So, if that is the case, then where in the world did this whole secret rapture idea come from?  -  Well, hold on to your seats!  -  It originated in Scotland with the purported vison of a fifteen-year-old girl named Margaret MacDonald.  She reported that her vision revealed this “two-staged” second coming.  In other words, Jesus came in the incarnation, He would “come” secretly to “rapture” the Church away, and then He would come yet again in glory to reign.  -  In no place does the Bible teach this.
            Nevertheless, her vision caught the attention of an evangelist named John Darby, who went looking for biblical support for this girl’s visions.  The “support” he found?  The two passages cited, above.  From this, Darby developed an entire system to talk about the “end times.”  The message was popularized in a war ravaged America by Dwight L. Moody and the Scofield Bible.  The people of the day were quite open to this idea of escape, because, in the midst of war, they had lost hope in the concept of redeeming the world.  As the message spread, organizations like Moody Bible Institute and Dallas Theological Seminary arose promoting this new dispensational understanding of the “last days.”  And so the evangelical community embraced the various “end times experts” and had their visions reinforced by popular novels and other books.
            But, if we should “leave behind” the misunderstandings that form the basis of the Left Behind movie, then where should we Wesleyan Christians stand?  -  We should stand with the Scriptures and the historic teachings of the Church.  We hold to the ecumenical and orthodox faith of the Church as found in the creeds.  We do not find in them any mention of a secret rapture, but rather they clearly affirm our beliefs in the resurrection of the body and that Jesus will “come again to judge the living and the dead.”  In short, we believe that “Christ had died; Christ is risen; and Christ will come again!”  -  Thanks be to God!
Special thanks goes to Randall Hardman, whose blog article prompted this article.


Victor Galipi said...

Thank you for this concise and informative article. When evangelicals latch onto spurious "interpretations" of God's word like this one, it makes it that much more difficult for them to convince people to take God's word seriously, because they are not taking it seriously.

I thought I had studied the doctrine of Darby and his followers pretty thoroughly, but I had never heard that it started with the a "vision".

Basing doctrines on supposed visions or divine revelations from God smacks of Gnosticism.

Thanks be to God indeed, for the promise and assurance of His personal, physical, public return!

Kelly said...

Thank you so much for this. I was raised in what I now think of as an end-times "correspondence cult" (our church was fine, but my family was completely obsessed with the writings and media of a publishing "ministry"). Just recently I've begun learning about the actual historical teachings of the church for nearly 2,000 years on these issues and it is very comforting and encouraging to me.