One might say that I recently had a “breakthrough” with my theology. It has caused my entire worldview to change, particularly regarding the world as it is now as well as the world of the future (“end times” or eschatology as we call it in theological circles).
This shift in worldview began with a curiosity. I wanted to understand more about the end times. I wanted to become more fluent about what “the end” looked like. And so, taking the advice of a few friends, I picked up a book written by J. Richard Middleton of Northeastern Seminary called, A New Heaven and A New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology. Below are some of the things that changed regarding my worldview, thanks to this book.
What I have learned is that our view of the end times is often mistaken. The church likes to pretend that the events of Revelation are going to come in a pretty package with nice and neat instructions. Unfortunately, this leads to many writers wasting their time producing books where they try to map out the entire “eschaton” (end of time).
But, what I have also learned is of another way that the end times are often mistaken. It is often believed, no thanks to the popular Left Behind series as well as beloved hymns such as “I’ll Fly Away”, that there will be an event called “the Rapture”. This view has a few issues, to say the least.
The first issue would be the fact that it is not explicitly stated in the Bible (though this is a minor issue, especially considering that the Trinity is also not explicitly stated in the Bible).
My second issue is that it reflects an ideology called gnosticism. Gnosticism was a theology that permeated in the early church that suggested that the material world was bad and that, ultimately, our end goal is to escape it. This means that the world as we know it today is bad and so we desperately desire disembodied existence over what we have now here on earth. The goal is to leave the earth. This idea, however, doesn’t make much sense of what we call the incarnation, the fact that God came down in a physical person known as Jesus Christ. If the body is so bad, God would not have one!
And so if one believes in the Rapture, they are ultimately suggesting that the best possible thing that can happen is that they can leave this earth. This sounds eerily similar to what the Gnostics proposed in early Christian history. On a (major) side note, Gnosticism was condemned in early church history as a heresy. It directly contradicted the doctrine of the resurrection of the body that was so central to the creedal affirmations of the early church. Gnosticism also suggested that Christ didn’t actually come down in human form because the body is such a bad thing!
Another issue with Rapture theology is that it has problems with its most basic biblical proof texts. One of them is in Matthew 24 which suggests that “one will be taken and the other will be left”. However, when you look at the context of the verse, Jesus is telling the story of Noah. And what do we learn about the story of Noah? Noah was left while the world was taken by the flood. This suggests that to be taken is a bad thing.
Another proof text is found in 1 Thessalonians 4 which states that the “dead in Christ will rise first” and that those who are alive will meet him in the air. This, it has been suggested, contains imagery that would have been familiar to the first century Christians. The image that is employed here is of the return of a king to his city. The people would leave the walls of the city to meet the king and would usher him back into his city. So, this passage actually suggests that we are a “greeting party” that ushers Jesus back to earth during the second coming.
One of the final issues that I have with this idea of the end times is what it does with the New Heaven and the New Earth. Many people attempt to affirm both the Rapture and the new heaven and earth that is described in Revelation 21. This is not as easy to do, however, if you see leaving the earth as a good thing.
What are the implications holding a view of the end that does not have a Rapture, “escapist” mentality? The results are many.
The first is that we understand heaven differently. All of a sudden, when you realize that earthly, bodily existence is a good thing, heaven begins to look different. Instead of it being a disembodied, ethereal place up in the clouds somewhere, heaven is here. Heaven will be a restored earth where the Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, reign over the earth we have now. It is a great hope to think of this earth, this creation in all of its splendor, without all of the evil and darkness that pervades it. That sounds pretty “heavenly” to me.
Another result is that we see creation care differently. When you see the earth as good and that is our eternal home, you begin to realize that we desire to take care of it, reflecting the heaven that will come about on earth.
One more major result is that our idea of salvation changes. When you hold a Rapture theology salvation can be made out to be like a “get-out-of-tribulation” or “get-out-of-hell-free” card (though it is not necessary). But when you begin to see the end more as restoration and reconciliation, salvation becomes more about a renewed relationship with God and a renewed relationship with the people around you, not to mention a new relationship with the earth that we currently inhabit.
In closing, I think that it would be best if the church began to see heaven as a renewed earth and less of a disembodied existence that is “somewhere over the rainbow”. Because, when we do, there is an urgency for the world and the people around us.. I truly hope that, someday, I might just be left behind.