Is Left Behind Movie’s Rapture Biblical?

A few days ago I blogged about the two so-called “left behind” passages found in the New Testament—Matthew 24:40-41 and Luke 17:34-35. I pointed out that, placed in proper context, these passages could not possibly mean what current rapture theology teaches.

I said that I hoped to soon write about the other passage that people often cite as describing a “rapture” of the church—1 Thessalonians 4:17. But today I discovered that a friend of mine, Dr. Dan Boone, has written a wonderful, concise explanation of that verse. So rather than writing about it myself, I’m giving you the link to Dan’s article…

Is Left Behind Movie’s Rapture Biblical?

Dan is a man I greatly admire. He is the president of Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee.

In addition to Dan’s explanation of 1 Thessalonians 4, here is a video from Ben Witherington that addresses the same passage. (Also, at the beginning, he briefly deals with the “left behind” passage of Matthew 24).


What Does “Left Behind” Really Mean?

I recently posted a video by Ben Witherington titled, “Where Did Rapture Theology Come From?” In my comments I said that I would blog about some of the exegetical problems of rapture theology.

When it comes to eschatology—the study of last things—it’s very difficult to debate the details. That’s because the Bible is not trying to give us details. In my estimation, the biggest problem with dispensational theology is not so much exegetical as it is hermeneutical. In other words, dispensational theology uses the apocalyptic literature in the Bible in ways that it was never intended to be used. The Book of Revelation (and other Jewish apocalyptic literature, such as that contained in Daniel) was never intended to be a detailed road map to the last days. Revelation uses dramatic imagery to convey large themes to the persecuted Christians of the first century. While it has great application for us today, it is not giving a timeline of twenty-first century events. So arguments about what nation today is being talked about in a particular verse miss the point.

But let’s step away from Revelation and into the gospels to talk about the origins of the term “Left Behind.” Ironically, the two passages that gave birth to that term cannot possibly be referring to what is called the “secret rapture” of the church—a day when believers will disappear from the earth.

The passages used are the words of Jesus in Matthew 24:40-41…

“Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.” (NIV)

…and Luke 17:34-35…

“I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.” (NIV)

In biblical interpretation, context is everything. If you want to misinterpret a passage, you start by ripping it out of its context. When we talk about the context of a scriptural passage we’re speaking about the type of biblical genre we’re dealing with (poetry, law, history, gospel, apocalyptic, etc.), the cultural context (where, when, why and by whom it was written—the world and circumstances in which it came about), and, of course, the immediate context (the verses and chapters surrounding it). So let’s look at the context of these two passages.

First of all, Jesus preceded them both by saying, “Just as it was in the days of Noah…” (Matthew 24:37, Luke 17:26). If you’ll recall the Noah story, it was the unrighteous who were swept away and it was the followers of God who were left behind to rebuild the world destroyed by the flood. If Jesus was trying to tell us the opposite, He certainly would not have specifically chosen the story of Noah as a point of comparison.

Then in Luke 17:37—immediately following Jesus’ words about those who are taken away—the disciples ask, “Where, Lord?” Jesus replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.” In other words, they die. That cannot possibly refer to a rapture of the saints. He’s saying that those taken away are killed.

Throughout those two passages Jesus gives a number of warnings that simply do not make sense if we maintain that He is talking about the disappearance of His people—their evacuation from this earth.

“Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 24:17-20)

“On that day no one who is on the housetop, with possessions inside, should go down to get them. Likewise, no one in the field should go back for anything.” (Luke 17:31)

“Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath” is certainly not a reference to a flight to heaven!

So what is Jesus talking about? He is obviously speaking about a cataclysmic event. He’s warning His disciples.

Most biblical scholars believe that Jesus was speaking about the impending destruction of Jerusalem, which did indeed happen in 70 AD. The Romans came and desecrated the Temple, destroyed it and burned Jerusalem to the ground. This desecration and destruction would explain Matthew 24:15-16…

“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.”

If you were raised to see Matthew 24 as a rapture and tribulation passage, it’s going to feel like a real stretch to see it solely as a description of what happened in 70 AD. There are so many cosmic phrases in there, such as…

“..then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14)

“They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory.” (Matthew 24:30)

…and many others.

Some scholars will point out that in this passage Jesus has reverted to apocalyptic language—the language of imagery. In fact, Matthew 24 is often referred to as “the little apocalypse” (referring to its length, not its importance).

I’ll be honest with you. I’ve wrestled with Matthew 24 for a number of years. I certainly don’t claim to understand it all. I do believe Jesus is warning His followers about what the Romans were going to do. That much is clear to me. But it feels like there is so much more there. But what is crystal clear to me is that Jesus is not teaching about a secret rapture—the disappearance of His people from the face of the earth.

The term “rapture” does not occur in the New Testament. But, more important, the concept of the rapture does not appear in the Bible. For two thousand years Christians have believed that Jesus would return to earth, not that we would evacuate the earth.

I believe that Jesus will return. There can be no clearer teaching on this than what is found in Acts 1:11—“This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

That is our hope. The King and His kingdom are with us, but someday they will come in their fullness. We are called to do the work of His kingdom—today. We are called to be the answer to the prayer He taught us pray…

“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)


(I hope to blog soon on the other passage that some people believe refers to a rapture—1 Thessalonians 4:17.)


Where Did Rapture Theology Come From?

Dr. Ben Witherington III teaches at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is widely read and considered to be one of the preeminent evangelical New Testament scholars of our day. That’s right, Dr. Witherington is an evangelical. He cannot be written off as someone who is trying to debunk the Christian faith or someone who doesn’t take scripture seriously. He holds a very high view of scripture.

The reason I’m sharing Dr. Witherington’s evangelical bona fides is that most people will think his view of the rapture is at odds with evangelical Christianity. It certainly is at odds with popular evangelical culture and the majority of end times preaching that you see on television. But Dr. Witherington stands squarely in the historical and scriptural understanding of Christ’s return.

In this short video he makes a brief reference to the exegetical problems of rapture theology, but does not address them. There are many. (Perhaps I’ll blog about them soon.) We believe in the return of Jesus Christ, as Christians have for the past two millennia. But we should not embrace a theology that does not have its origins in responsible biblical interpretation.

Dispensational theology has done a lot of damage to the Christian witness for peace and justice in our day. I think it is important to see its origins. 

I agree with Dr. Witherington when he says that the “Left Behind” theology needs to be left behind.


Remembering Our Martyrs

This morning I read these insightful words from Michael J. Gorman's Reading Revelation Responsibly...

“The current dearth of martyrs in the Western church may be welcome, but its accompanying amnesia of past martyrs and our ignorance of contemporary martyrs elsewhere in the world are tragic. In addition to failing at practicing the communion of the saints, this lack also feeds the desire for national heroes and martyrs. In church history, there has often been a strong correspondence between the absence of truly Christian heroes and martyrs and the presence of religious-like commitment to the nation state and its heroes and martyrs—i.e., civil religion. This is not only because the absence of martyrdom means that the state is not persecuting the church (and may even seem to protect it), but also because Christians know instinctively that they collectively need to have something ultimate for which to live and die. Without a close connection to the church’s saints and martyrs, Christians will often follow the cultural norm and make their nation state (or tribe or race), rather that the Gospel, that ultimate.” — Michael J. Gorman

It brought to mind the Heroes blog I wrote a year and a half ago.


The Chaplain who Blessed the Hiroshima Bombers, Repents

I'm sharing an article and photo that were posted by Shane Claiborne at Red Letter Christians.

Sixty-nine years ago, as a Catholic Air Force chaplain, Father George Zabelka blessed the men who dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Over the next twenty years, he gradually came to believe that he had been terribly wrong, that he had denied the very foundations of his faith by lending moral and religious support to the bombing. Zabelka, who died in 1992, gave this speech on the 40th anniversary of the bombings. He left this message for the world:

The destruction of civilians in war was always forbidden by the Church, and if a soldier came to me and asked if he could put a bullet through a child’s head, I would have told him, absolutely not. That would be mortally sinful.  But in 1945 Tinian Island was the largest airfield in the world. Three planes a minute could take off from it around the clock. Many of these planes went to Japan with the express purpose of killing not one child or one civilian but of slaughtering hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands of children and civilians—and I said nothing.

As a Catholic chaplain I watched as the Boxcar, piloted by a good Irish Catholic pilot, dropped the bomb on Urakami Cathedral in Nagasaki, the center of Catholicism in Japan.

I never preached a single sermon against killing civilians to the men who were doing it… It never entered my mind to protest publicly the consequences of these massive air raids. I was told it was necessary – told openly by the military and told implicitly by my Church’s leadership.

I worked with Martin Luther King, Jr., during the Civil Rights struggle in Flint, Michigan. His example and his words of nonviolent action, choosing love instead of hate, truth instead of lies, and nonviolence instead of violence stirred me deeply. This brought me face to face with pacifism – active nonviolent resistance to evil. I recall his words after he was jailed in Montgomery, and this blew my mind. He said, “Blood may flow in the streets of Montgomery before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood that flows, and not that of the white man. We must not harm a single hair on the head of our white brothers.”

I struggled. I argued. But yes, there it was in the Sermon on the Mount, very clear: “Love your enemies. Return good for evil.” I went through a crisis of faith. Either accept what Christ said, as unpassable and silly as it may seem, or deny him completely.

For the last 1700 years the Church has not only been making war respectable: it has been inducing people to believe it is an honorable profession, an honorable Christian profession. This is not true. We have been brainwashed. This is a lie.

War is now, always has been, and always will be bad, bad news. I was there. I saw real war. Those who have seen real war will bear me out. I assure you, it is not of Christ. It is not Christ’s way. There is no way to conduct real war in conformity with the teachings of Jesus.

The ethics of mass butchery cannot be found in the teachings of Jesus. In Just War ethics, Jesus Christ, who is supposed to be all in the Christian life, is irrelevant. He might as well never have existed. In Just War ethics, no appeal is made to him or his teaching, because no appeal can be made to him or his teaching, for neither he nor his teaching gives standards for Christians to follow in order to determine what level of slaughter is acceptable.

So the world is watching today. Ethical hairsplitting over the morality of various types of instruments and structures of mass slaughter is not what the world needs from the Church, although it is what the world has come to expect from the followers of Christ. What the world needs is a grouping of Christians that will stand up and pay up with Jesus Christ. What the world needs is Christians who, in language that the simplest soul could understand, will proclaim: the follower of Christ cannot participate in mass slaughter. He or she must love as Christ loved, live as Christ lived, and, if necessary, die as Christ died, loving ones enemies.

For the 300 years immediately following Jesus’ resurrection, the Church universally saw Christ and his teaching as nonviolent. Remember that the Church taught this ethic in the face of at least three serious attempts by the state to liquidate her. It was subject to horrendous and ongoing torture and death. If ever there was an occasion for justified retaliation and defensive slaughter, whether in form of a just war or a just revolution, this was it. The economic and political elite of the Roman state and their military had turned the citizens of the state against Christians and were embarked on a murderous public policy of exterminating the Christian community.

Yet the Church, in the face of the heinous crimes committed against her members, insisted without reservation that when Christ disarmed Peter he disarmed all Christians.

Christians continued to believe that Christ was, to use the words of an ancient liturgy, their fortress, their refuge, and their strength, and that if Christ was all they needed for security and defense, then Christ was all they should have. Indeed, this was a new security ethic. Christians understood that if they would only follow Christ and his teaching, they couldn’t fail. When opportunities were given for Christians to appease the state by joining the fighting Roman army, these opportunities were rejected, because the early Church saw a complete and an obvious incompatibility between loving as Christ loved and killing. It was Christ, not Mars, who gave security and peace.

Today the world is on the brink of ruin because the Church refuses to be the Church, because we Christians have been deceiving ourselves and the non-Christian world about the truth of Christ. There is no way to follow Christ, to love as Christ loved, and simultaneously to kill other people. It is a lie to say that the spirit that moves the trigger of a flamethrower is the Holy Spirit. It is a lie to say that learning to kill is learning to be Christ-like. It is a lie to say that learning to drive a bayonet into the heart of another is motivated from having put on the mind of Christ. Militarized Christianity is a lie. It is radically out of conformity with the teaching, life, and spirit of Jesus.

Now, brothers and sisters, on the anniversary of this terrible atrocity carried out by Christians, I must be the first to say that I made a terrible mistake. I was had by the father of lies. I participated in the big ecumenical lie of the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches. I wore the uniform. I was part of the system. When I said Mass over there I put on those beautiful vestments over my uniform. (When Father Dave Becker left the Trident submarine base in 1982 and resigned as Catholic chaplain there, he said, “Every time I went to Mass in my uniform and put the vestments on over my uniform, I couldn’t help but think of the words of Christ applying to me: Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.”)

As an Air Force chaplain I painted a machine gun in the loving hands of the nonviolent Jesus, and then handed this perverse picture to the world as truth. I sang “Praise the Lord” and passed the ammunition. As Catholic chaplain for the 509th Composite Group, I was the final channel that communicated this fraudulent image of Christ to the crews of the Enola Gay and the Boxcar.

All I can say today is that I was wrong. Christ would not be the instrument to unleash such horror on his people. Therefore no follower of Christ can legitimately unleash the horror of war on God’s people. Excuses and self-justifying explanations are without merit. All I can say is: I was wrong! But, if this is all I can say, this I must do, feeble as it is. For to do otherwise would be to bypass the first and absolutely essential step in the process of repentance and reconciliation: admission of error, admission of guilt.

I asked forgiveness from the Hibakushas (the Japanese survivors of the atomic bombings) in Japan last year, in a pilgrimage that I made with a group from Tokyo to Hiroshima. I fell on my face there at the peace shrine after offering flowers, and I prayed for forgiveness – for myself, for my country, for my Church. Both Nagasaki and Hiroshima. This year in Toronto, I again asked forgiveness from the Hibakushas present. I asked forgiveness, and they asked forgiveness for Pearl Harbor and some of the horrible deeds of the Japanese military, and there were some, and I knew of them. We embraced. We cried. Tears flowed. That is the first step of reconciliation – admission of guilt and forgiveness. Pray to God that others will find this way to peace.

Thank God that I’m able to stand here today and speak out against war, all war. The prophets of the Old Testament spoke out against all false gods of gold, silver, and metal. Today we are worshipping the gods of metal, the bomb. We are putting our trust in physical power, militarism, and nationalism. The bomb, not God, is our security and our strength. The prophets of the Old Testament said simply: Do not put your trust in chariots and weapons, but put your trust in God. Their message was simple, and so is mine.

We must all become prophets. I really mean that. We must all do something for peace. We must stop this insanity of worshipping the gods of metal. We must take a stand against evil and idolatry. This is our destiny at the most critical time of human history. But it’s also the greatest opportunity ever offered to any group of people in the history of our world – to save our world from complete annihilation.

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