Monday, March 20, 2023

Anonymous Asks (241)

“What happens if I miss the rapture?”

Last week was sort of a mini-rapturefest at the blog. I am involved in a home church gathering on Tuesday nights these days, and the rapture loomed large in last week’s study and became the subject of a couple posts here, as often happens with Bible passages I am wrestling my way through with friends.

In one of those posts I made reference to an ex-evangelical named Joshua Rivera who now writes for Slate.

The Rapture as ‘Seduction’

Rivera says this about his evangelical upbringing and the impact of end times doctrines on his thinking:

“It’s hard to overstate how large the rapture loomed while I was growing up in the evangelical world. As a child, I was taught that I might live to see the end of the world. I learned how to see it coming, too: How the nation of Israel was ‘God’s timepiece’ hitting marks on a prophetic timeline, how the machinations of the Catholic Church and the United Nations would soon come to a head and form a one-world government, how God would be driven out of America’s public square as people looked to other things for salvation.

This was OK, though, because it meant the end was near and that the faithful would have a reward better than eternal life after death. They’d skip death entirely, raptured before the Earth was allowed to rot in its filth for that era of tribulation before Christ’s return to rule all forever, with the faithful by his side. That part is important: The rapture isn’t just about terror. It’s seduction. Something to feel special about.

I’m no longer waiting for the rapture, and yet I see it everywhere.”

That’s well put, and I think other people will relate. I did, though Rivera’s version of rapture theology seems like a bit of a caricature compared to how Christians presented the teaching to me. Rivera says he left church about seven years ago. His father avoids pressuring him about why he has abandoned the faith. His mom still sends him links to church livestreams, which he studiously avoids.

Something to Feel Special About

Rivera finishes his Slate piece with this:

“My mom and dad love me hugely, but they don’t have the language for vulnerability, for uncertainty, for meeting people where they are.”

Rivera’s complaint is similar to one voiced by Stephen Fowler about his own “fundamentalist” evangelical upbringing in his 2017 book Probing the Mind to Free the Soul. But one has to be careful when one criticizes people for adopting beliefs that make them “feel special”, assuming that is indeed the source of the rapture’s appeal. Those who have fallen off the evangelical wagon always seem to want to tell us how vulnerable, how uncertain, how sensitive they are (and, by implication, that we are not), and how they understand the need to “meet people where they are” (and, by implication, that we don’t).

Sounds like they need “something to feel special about” too. It’s just a different species of smug superiority, that’s all, and virtue signaling doesn’t look any more flattering on ex-evangelicals than it does on evangelicals. So let’s cut each other some slack here and just talk about the doctrine itself rather than other people’s motives for believing and teaching it.

I too grew up in a godly evangelical Christian home. Sometimes as a teenager I felt like the pieties got a little thick on the ground, and the sentiments maybe just a little unreal or aspirational. But my parents never gave me any reason to doubt their sincerity, whether or not they expressed things the way I thought they should. And, if I’m honest, as I’ve gotten older I’ve discovered the reason people of their generation hew as closely as possible to the language of scripture rather than attempting to translate for my generation. All I ended up doing when I tried to eliminate what I called annoying church-speak was to choose inferior, murkier ways of saying what the Bible already said with perfect clarity. My parents were not so much spouting clich├ęs as quoting timeless truth from a version of the Bible written in slightly more precise English than The Way or The Message, which would be most of them.

Rapture Fear

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also discovered rapture fear is astoundingly common among children raised in evangelical homes, especially Pentecostals, who would happily get saved every Sunday if they thought it would guarantee them a ticket to hear the last trumpet. I too have wandered home from school to find the house empty with no obvious reason why. As the minutes wore by, there was always one possibility that seemed a lot worse than any other: I’d missed the Lord’s coming, and I wasn’t really saved after all. That can definitely send a chill up your spine at a certain age.

Some people react to that fear by saying the equivalent of “I don’t like that feeling so I reject that doctrine. It can’t be true because it’s unpleasant, and because the people who hold it seem to need it to feel secure.” Neither of these is good reason to reject anything. Truth is truth, whether it makes us feel good or miserable, and whether those promoting it are the cool kids or their much needier and less self-assured siblings. And, let’s face it, the rapture is taught plainly in scripture, in words that can only be misinterpreted if you try really, really hard. It’s difficult to imagine how Paul could have written about it so as to produce less confusion in the minds of his readers. When Christ comes to raise the dead, the apostle says, some of the living will accompany them back to heaven. We will “meet the Lord in the air” and “always be with the Lord”. In fact, the passage is so clear that those who reject the idea usually reject the rest of the Bible right along with it rather than trying to find a way to interpret it that doesn’t offend their sensibilities.

As I’ve gotten closer to the Lord in subsequent years, I found myself increasingly unconcerned about being “left behind”. When you regularly experience fellowship with Christ, his forgiveness, his presence, his love and his guidance and direction, you stop having doubts about whether you are really a child of God. My heavenly Father is not going to leave me anywhere. Getting me into the kingdom was way too expensive, and the decades he has invested in transforming my thinking and habits to bring me into some distant semblance of conformity with his perfect Son are far too painful and precious to throw away. I don’t fear missing the rapture anymore, at least not for myself. But I know there are people I love who still need to weigh in on the question “What do you think of Christ?” One day they won’t have the option to put it off anymore. I pray they take the opportunity God has given them while they have it, and if saving even one of them meant bumping the rapture back a day or two, I would be okay with that.

I doubt that’s how it works, though.

What Happens If I Miss It?

What happens if you miss the rapture? The Bible gives us no indication those who have not bowed the knee to Christ prior to his return will get another kick at the can. That’s wishful thinking, notwithstanding the way the rapture has been portrayed in some Christian media. The importance of not being “left behind” leads some Christians to write things like: “Today is the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2). Do not delay another moment. The matter is urgent. Trust Christ now.”

I’m not sure that’s the message Paul was sending when he wrote about the rapture, and I’m not sure it’s a useful strategy with the unsaved. Paul never intended the rapture doctrine to be exploited by Jack Chick and others as fear porn for the gullible. He plainly states why he is sharing this revelation: he does not want his readers to be uninformed or to grieve like the world. When the Lord Jesus comes for his people, the dead in Christ will all be raised and come with them to the Father’s house. Paul finishes with “Therefore encourage one another with these words.” That’s the message of the rapture. It’s not the least bit scary … unless you have a nagging feeling it might just be true, but have never put your faith in Jesus Christ. It’s a message of reassurance for those who already believe, not a message calculated to alarm the unsaved into panicky false professions. Unbelievers who come across 1 Thessalonians 4 are reading somebody else’s mail, and we are probably better not to offer it to them in the first place. The time to introduce believing children to the rapture doctrine is when they lose their first loved one. That’s what it’s for: comfort, not to induce fear.

Now, there is legitimate biblical precedent for encouraging repentance because God’s judgment is coming. “Save yourselves from this crooked generation”, Peter warned a crowd of Jews at Pentecost. He wasn’t suggesting they put off the issue indefinitely. Paul advised the Gentiles in Athens that God “commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed”. Both messages have a certain very reasonable urgency to them.

But whether we miss the rapture or simply die in our sins because we have failed to avail ourselves of the grace of God, like every unsaved man and woman for the last two thousand years, the outcome is exactly the same, and the issues at stake identical.

Fear and Rationalization

So what happens if you miss the rapture? I suspect you will probably find reasons to rationalize away whatever concerns you currently have about it. That’s what Joshua Rivera is doing when he attributes the panic attacks he has experienced since leaving the faith to the fears he says fundamentalists planted in his mind as a child. And maybe there was a better way for Rivera’s fellow Christians to present the truth to him than the way they did; that’s always a possibility.

But we didn’t make up the rapture doctrine. It’s right there in the word of God, and you can read it for yourself. Make of it what you will.

I just don’t think it was written to freak out the unsaved.

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