The Rapture Is There, Kind of

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I am always amused at the way people, normally scholars who would never tolerate absolute, ultimatum-like statements on any subject be made without dispute, react to the periodic rapture craze. We biblical scholars especially tend to be so invested in the inductive nature of exegesis, that our conclusions are always more or less probable depending on the quality of evidence, the nature of our reasoning, and the framework within which we are reading, that often the biblical scholar is the last person you will find saying a resounding “The Bible says…” or the like. Most especially, contemporary biblicists tend to shy away from claiming things are “not biblical” or even “anti-biblical.” We are by nature creatures of open-ended thought processes, journeying along, as it were.

So imagine my puzzlement at the number of biblicists who are so furious over the movie Left Behind that they leave behind their carefully nuanced discussions and declare, unequivocally, that there is no such idea or doctrine or term anywhere to be found in the Bible, no basis for it whatsoever. The “rapturists” are presumably, in the technical terminology of the field, “nuts.” It almost gets funny to see how vociferously the non-existence of “The Rapture” is declared by post-modern types who will turn right around and try to justify something like same-sex marriage on biblical grounds.

I think in the modern scholarly tantrum of denying “The Rapture” we might even have a basis for a new consensus in biblical theology, a new solution to the long quest for a “center” and unifying view of the Bible’s theological message. Indeed, in the denial of the Rapture we might have a point around which biblical scholars could rally.

Except for the awkward fact that, well, something like the rapture actually is there, at least on some fairly decent readings of the Bible. It isn’t “there” the same way monotheism, or the prohibition of idols, or the banning of same-sex intercourse is, but there are a few hints that at least provided the start of the idea, nonetheless.

In 1 Thes. 4:17 St. Paul tells us that the Lord will descend from heaven, and that after the dead in Christ rise, “we who are alive and remain will be caught up with him in the air.” That term “caught up” in Greek is ἁρπάζω which pretty much means “to snatch away” or the like. More awkwardly, when Jerome translated the NT into Latin, he translated this verse “deinde nos qui vivimus qui relinquimur simul rapiemur cum illis in nubibus obviam Domino in aera et sic semper cum Domino erimus.” Yes, that’s the Latin verb “rapio” meaning to snatch away or the like, which found its way through a variety of language channels into English. Saying “rapture” is not in the Bible is about like saying any other Latin-derived word translating a Greek term “is not in the Bible.”

Am I a dispensationalist? No. Do I believe the portrayal in Left Behind is accurate? No. But I’m a little bit addicted to facts and data, and I am especially suspicious when people who are always asking for us to be critical, not to be exceeding data, to be nuanced… when these people suddenly go into a class A dogmatic hissy-fit, it attracts my attention. I’m not, of course, talking about scholars who offer a reasoned, serious explanation of the flaws of the interpretation that rapturous claims are based on. That’s great and I agree with them. What troubles me is the sudden burst of uncharacteristic dogmatism expressing a certainty we’d surely like to see on some of the other bigger issues facing us.

The point here is, of course, that highly unfashionable thing called objectivity. There just isn’t much of it out there. We scholars, however deep our convictions, are supposed to be honest brokers and fair tellers of the academic story. We are not supposed to be driven by our antipathies and cultural preferences. So when people who are normally quite the post-modern relativist turn around and start consigning people to some outer circle of the hell of ignorance, partly by displaying their own, or by simply refusing to admit that things are not as tidy as their liberal dream imagines. In fact, the authors of the popular rapture-oriented books have an unnerving likeness to the apocalyptic dreamers of the intertestamental era and 1st century. If historical-critical interpretation means empathy with the convictions and views of the original authors, then we need to admit that the authors of ancient apocalypses have much more viscerally in common with the makers of Left Behind than they do with the authors of modern exegetical commentaries.

There is plenty to criticize in the popular eschatological fantasies expressed in movies like this and the books that inspire them. It’s our job as scholars not to fulminate, but to be a voice of reason. Our job is to teach, to model fair-minded, empathetic examination of the scriptures, and to lead people to discover a responsible, well-informed view of things. We can’t do that when we rant that “it’s just not in the Bible.”

And that’s all I have to say about that.

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I'm 60 years old, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. I love my wife of 36 years, my three adult children and children-in-law. I love our three horses, two cats, and whatever other creatures decide to call our place home. I hate mowing grass, hanging pictures or shelves, or anything involving punching or drilling holes in walls. I love my job of studying and teaching the Old Testament. I've recently contracted a fierce interest in archaeology. I also enjoy guitars, jazz, vintage firearms, airplanes, photography, drystone masonry and, visiting the lands of the Bible.

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