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Rapture Nonsense and Serious Matters

June 7, 2011

I thought about commenting on the recent and hugely-noticed and ridiculously false prediction of “the Rapture” set for 21 May, but recent travels and other pressing demands prevented me from doing so.  Now that the dust has settled a bit on Camping’s 21 May prediction (although he is reported now to have re-calculated the date for October this year), a few reflections on the matter.

First, it is profoundly troubling that people who claim to read and seek to follow biblical teaching allow themselves to be taken in by such predictions.   Given that Jesus is portrayed as not knowing the timing for the eschatological events that he hoped for (Mark 13:32-33), and that in another text he is portrayed as rejecting any calculation of when the kingdom of God would appear (Luke 17:20-21), how do individuals work up the confidence (hmm, “confidence game”??) to make the sort of prediction that was publicized so widely?

Second, it’s also troubling that the news media report readily on this sort of nonsense, giving it prominence in newspapers and in TV and radio news programmes, virtually ignoring religion otherwise (oh, except for religious-inspired violence). 

But perhaps the most troubling thing is that such phenomena trivialize, distort, and indeed miss entirely the serious religious and theological concerns that are involved in traditional Christian expressions of hope in God’s judgement and mercy.  The biblical texts expressive of such hopes reflect concerns about the injustice, cruelty, and oppression that characterize much of human history, and specifically whether God cares and will in some way and some good time make things right.  Will the human monsters of history answer for their crimes, if not before a human court, then before God?  Does the prayer “your kingdom come” mean anything beyond a wish?  Is death triumphant or is God finally triumphant, even over death?  Is the universe finally destined simply for decay, atrophy, and futility, or is it a creation with the prospect of some grander outcome?

Whatever you think about religion and Christian faith in particular, these are questions that ring with human authenticity.   These are the sorts of questions that traditional Christian eschatological hopes and ideas address, hopes for personal resurrection, hope for final judgement, hope for redemption of the creation.  You may find any such hope futile, perhaps even pathetic, but surely the longings involved are understandable and by no means stupid.

So, instead of (or along with) the smug (but justifiable) ridicule at Camping’s silly predictions, another book recommendation for those (whether Christians or not) who might like to have more explanation of what biblical ideas of “eschatology” are:  Craig C. Hill, In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

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  1. Larry, long time listener, first time caller:

    What do you think of work like Dale Allison’s “Constructing Jesus.” It seems like he paints Jesus along much of the same eschatological categories as Camping. Obviously there are differences in how they conceived of the “end of the world” and what that meant. But what I mean to ask – simply because it has bothered me for a while – is: Was Christianity was built on eschatological expectations that never quite panned out?

    I understand Wright’s point of new creation, that resurrection was the birth of Christianity and its real hope. But it seems like Jesus believed in actual judgement and restoration almost 2000 years ago. I don’t know how to reconcile these ideas. I don’t think Wright’s denigration of eschatology to metaphor is helpful.


    • I tend to agree that Jesus likely hoped for and expected a real eschatological outcome, involving final judgment, resurrection (personal vindication) of the elect, and new embodiment to immortality. It seems to me that the Gospels reflect a refusal on his part to predict dates, but a firm conviction that these things were to come in due course. Christians who accept this have to live with the fact that Jesus’ expectation has not yet been fulfilled, and it’s been a loooong time! I suppose that one could see this is one vivid demonstration of the reality of Jesus’ humanity (from a traditional Christian theological standpoint, the reality/fullness of the incarnation of the Son).

  2. Larry, do you have any other good books that lay out the history and development of rapture theology? Or perhaps a book dealing with both the history and whether or not the Bible teaches such?

    • Well, there have been a number of books over decades that have presented all this (including George Ladd’s 1956 volume, The Blessed Hope: A Biblical Study of the Second Advent and the Rapture). But they’ve tended to be solid and measured, not sensationalized, and so not accompanied by the marketing balley-hoo of something like Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth or the Left Behind series of novels. Actually, for a fairly good discussion, the Wikipedia article on “Rapture” isn’t bad.

  3. Drew Smith permalink

    Larry, Thanks for this post. I wrote a blog piece back in 2009, which I re-posted on May 23 at Give it a read when you have the chance. I hope you are well. Best, Drew.

  4. Carrie permalink

    After beginning to study NT Wright, especially his commentary on Romans, and listening to his lectures, I was aware of the Darby origin and believe Wright’s thoughts on cosmology are more in line with scripture. What I am concerned with is the level of traction rapture theology has gotten even though there are deep questions about it’s veracity. I am going to seek some explanation from our various Wesleyan seminary department heads.

  5. Carrie permalink

    I was so disappointed to see how the media flocked to Camping. This is typical for the mainstream media to seek the most fringe (ex. Phelps and his crew) to draw attention to Christianity.

    I am a Wesleyan gal who is working through the theology of rapture (reading NT Wright’s thoughts on this as well as many other things) and wondering if I have been duped by the whole Late Great Planet/Left Behind type theology. Rapture theology has been so pervasive in my denomination, that I had never considered any other scenario.

    • The common form of the idea of a “rapture” of the elect only goes back to the early 19th century, and is commonly ascribed to J. N. Darby (he of the Plymouth Brethren). It caught on quickly, esp. in the USA and then in places where zealous American missionaries spread the idea further. It would be an interesting study as to quite why the idea seemed so attractive and cogent then. And, yes, Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth has a lot to answer for!

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