The Second Coming is a doctrine we struggle with in the Churches of Christ. Years ago, in the 1940s and thereabouts, the Churches split over premillennialism. Almost all the Churches rejected the doctrine, with Foy Wallace making belief in the Rapture into damnable heresy. As a result, we know we don’t believe in it, but we are left with little idea how to interpret the verses that seem to teach a Rapture.
Thus, when the Left Behind books came out, many taught that they are heresy. Others found them guilty pleasures. For years, when someone asked me about such things, I said (and meant it), “I don’t care how the end comes, just that I wind up in the right place.” But Wright has begun to convince me that eschatology (the study of the end times) matters.
But I always felt a certain unease with the notion that the Bible traces the last 1,000 years of church history in great detail — enough to allow someone to write a series of novels! — while also repeatedly saying that no one knows when it will happen!
And yet there are denominations that speak of little else besides the Rapture and the 1,000-year reign, and all that. I can’t imagine that God meant for the Bible to move us to spend our Sundays trying to predict the future rather than trying to make a better present for a lost and hurting world!
Now, these speculations have a huge impact on American politics. Much of the religious right supports Israel out of a conviction that God is restoring Israel’s fortunes as a working out of the End Times, now fast upon us. To support Israel is thus to support God in his fulfillment of prophecy. (Although I wonder why God would need our help and, if he does, where he asked for it.)
Meanwhile, many a Christian argues that we need have little concern with this world or the environment because it’ll all burn and we’ll all be taken up to be with Jesus. Our hope is in heaven, not here. And so we need not much concern ourselves with this world.
Here’s the central proof text for the Rapture –
(1 Thes. 4:15-17) According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming [parousia] of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
Although we see the familiar coming of Jesus from heaven, we are also told that the saved will be caught up into the clouds to meet him. We don’t see the Christians taken into heaven or returned to earth. Surely, we don’t stay in the clouds!
Parousia also appears in –
(1 Cor 15:23) But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
Wright says that, when used of deity, the word was commonly used by the pagans to refer to discovering the presence of a god, such as when a prayed-for healing occurred. Josephus refers to God’s parousia when God saves Israel miraculously from the Assyrians during the reign of Hezekiah.
The second meaning is when a person of high rank visits a subject state, particularly when a king or emperor visits a colony or province. Hence, parousia refers to a royal presence.
In neither case does parousia refer to the collapse of the space-time universe or someone flying on cloud. Rather, the idea is that Jesus is bodily absent today, although present spiritually, but will one day be present again bodily.
Wright notes that in Paul’s lengthier discussion in 1 Cor 15, we also have a trumpet blown and people transformed, but no lift off into the skies.
(1 Cor 15:51-52) Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed– 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
Wright thus disagrees with the conventional interpretation of 1 Thes. 4:15-17 –
Paul’s description of Jesus’ reappearance in 1 Thessalonians 4 is a brightly colored version of what he says in two other passages, 1 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.
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 trumpets 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.
“Farewell to the Rapture” (2001). Well, I’ve never thought the Rapture theory made much sense. Or maybe I’m just tired of the “In case of Rapture, this car will have no driver!” bumper stickers. They just seemed a little smug, you know?
If our bodies are transformed in the twinkle of eye to bodies like Jesus’, and if Jesus was able to ascend into heaven in his new body, then it’s only natural that we would go up into the clouds to meet Jesus as he comes to earth. I would!
Matthew 24 is also seen as a prophecy of the Rapture –
(Mat 24:29-34) “Immediately after the distress of those days “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
30 “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.
32 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.
Jesus is actually speaking of his resurrection and the fall of Jerusalem, in language borrowed from Daniel 7 –
(Dan 7:13-14) “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
Wright is anxious to point out, however, that although that “Rapture” texts are about the destruction of Jerusalem, this doesn’t meaning the Second Coming was fulfilled in AD 70. There will be a Second Coming. It just won’t happen as described in texts describing the fall of Jerusalem.
And those passages that speak most clearly of the New Heaven and New Earth, also speak of Jesus’ coming — a recurring theme of Rev 21-22. They see no inconsistencies between a “coming” and a renewed earth.