Last Thursday I took a look at one of the “Rapture” passages, Matthew 24:36-41. Today I’d like to go back to a passage I’ve already discussed on this blog, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Here’s the text:

13Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For 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. 17After 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. 18Therefore encourage each other with these words.

Those who hold to Rapture Eschatology see here undeniable evidence that the Rapture will happen. What else could “we…will be caught up…in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” possibly mean? For many, this is the clearest teaching of the Rapture we have in the Bible.

But there are three questions that stand out. First, what is this passage really about? Second, what is the physical path that Jesus will take when he returns? Third, where exactly will we be with the Lord forever? Let’s examine each of these questions in turn.

To answer the first question, we must look back at verse 13, where Paul tells us why he is writing everything he writes in this paragraph. “We do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep.” The Thessalonian Christians became alarmed when their brothers and sisters began to pass away. Jesus had, after all, promised them eternal life. Paul’s solution to this conundrum was to look at Jesus and see that, just as he had died and risen again, so we will die and rise again. The resurrection of our bodies is our hope through death. This passage is first and foremost about what happens to dead Christians when Jesus returns and why those who are alive can have hope for them. This passage is about resurrection.

To answer the second question we have to look more closely at verse 16. “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven….” Paul’s picture of Creation was vastly different from our own because he lived before the time of Galileo, Newton, space flight, and the Hubble telescope. He understood heaven to rest directly above the earth, so when he says Jesus comes down from heaven that means the only place for him to go is the earth. There is no mention of Jesus taking any other path. He moves in a straight line down from heaven to earth. There is no indication from the text that he stops halfway, calls all true believers to himself, then turns around and goes back into heaven.

The answer to the third question begins with an examination of verse 17. “We who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with [the resurrected Christians] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” The question of where we spend eternity with Jesus has, according to this verse, two options. We either meet Jesus as he is coming down to earth and escort him down, or we meet him halfway and stay there. Again, nothing about this text says that he turns around and goes back up to heaven. We either meet him as he is coming or we meet him halfway—meaning we either spend eternity on earth or in the air. The one place that is not an option, according to this passage, is heaven.

Our understanding of this passage is colored by our misunderstanding of eternity. Only if we bring an American folk-lore picture of eternity and heaven to this passage can we interpret a Rapture here. The key to reading this passage aright is fixing our picture of heaven. If Revelation 21 and 22 are the definitive biblical teaching on eternity, then we will not be in heaven or in the air. We will be here, on the recreated and renewed earth, living with the Trinity in the New Jerusalem. (And if you want to go really deep, look at how John talks about the New Jerusalem and how other NT authors talk about the Church. This will blow your mind.) When we trade in our pseudo-Christian, American folk-lore picture of eternity for a biblical one, then this passage in 1 Thessalonians 4 will come into clear view.

There is so much more that could be said about this passage, but for now we can know, 1) this text is primarily about resurrection, 2) Jesus travels in a straight line down from heaven to earth when he returns, and 3) we spend eternity with the Trinity here on the new earth. Finding the Rapture here is a bit like finding an F# in a rainbow. There is no Rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.

As I’ve had quite a few people ask me about my thoughts on the Rapture, I thought it would be best to take a look at my exegesis of the important passages. For this post, we’ll be looking at Matthew 24:36-41.

36″No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.

Those who believe in the Rapture see it clearly in verses 40 and 41. One is taken, the other is left. And given what is about to happen–the Great Tribulation–it’s far, far better to be taken. The one who is left must suffer the curse of enduring seven horrible years of persecution and torture. It will, quite literally, be hell on earth. So those who are taken are taken up to Heaven for this time; rescued, as it were, from this great period of suffering.

But a careful reading of the text reveals that Jesus is saying quite the opposite. Being taken away is the worse fate, and it is much better for those who are left behind. The key to interpreting this passage is Jesus’ retelling of the story of Noah.

“38For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.” The flood waters, quite literally, took away, in judgment, all those wicked people. God exercised his judgment against humanity by taking away the overwhelming majority in the great flood, and leaving behind only a handful–Noah and his family. In the flood, it was far better to be left behind.

“That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” As it was in the flood, so will it be at the return of Jesus. Those who are taken away are taken away in judgment. They are not transported to Heaven, rescued from the coming seven years of tribulation. No, they are taken away in the judgment of God. These are the goats that Jesus talks about just a chapter later, in Matthew 25:31-46.

The sheep, however, are left behind. Just like Noah and his family, those who are left are the ones who survived the judgment. They were not swept away by the flood waters. They remained. Better to be like Noah than like the mocking, arrogant heathen that died in the ‘whelming flood.

Rather than giving an early teaching of the Rapture, Jesus is teaching that God’s judgment at his return will come upon us unawares. We don’t know when it’s going to happen. But it will happen. And just like in the days of Noah, you will want to be left behind. Being taken away means that you are taken away in judgment. Those who are taken away are the goats, and those who are left behind are the sheep. Live in such a way that you will be left behind.

C. S. Lewis had a bus. Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof had a plane. The Great Divorce and LOST are essentially about the same thing: Learning to let go, to forgive, and to be forgiven. If Lewis were alive today, I’m sure he would have been the first to spot the story arc of LOST and the last to get bogged down by the details. The weird, scientific wonders of the Island were ultimately nothing but context. Only the characters mattered. It was always the characters.

Jack, Kate, Sawyer, Locke–all of them had to learn to let go before they could move on. They had to learn to forgive and to receive forgiveness before they could enter Heaven. (If you watched the finale, don’t get caught up in the multi-religious stained glass windows. The risen Christ is by far the dominant religious imagery.) The “alternate dimension”, or “sideways-flashes” were a sort of purgatory (much like the setting of Lewis’ The Great Divorce), probably constructed by Hurley and Desmond to bring them together so that they could move on as a community. The reunion in the church was joyous because they had learned to let go, to forgive and to be forgiven. The sins and scars of the past were forgotten and healed in the church, all overseen by the risen Christ.

Unlike the Great Divorce, LOST is a happy ending. Through their travails on the Island, the characters learned that they needed to let go of the pain of their past. They needed to forgive those who had sinned against them. And they needed forgiveness for their own sins. The “sideways-flashes” were simply the consummation of what they experienced on the Island.

The funny thing about LOST is that it never needed an Island or a Smoke Monster or electro-magnetism or time travel to tell its story. It’s a universal story. We live the story of LOST not on an Island full of unexplained phenomena but in the mundane reality of our work and home. And then God comes along and brings something impossible, something incomprehensible and unimaginable into our lives to teach us to let go of the past, to forgive, and to be forgiven.

LOST is a brilliant sermon, an epic exposition of Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:14-15. “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Forgiveness is the door to eternal life. The rest (the Numbers, Dharma, the Mythology) is just details.

This is another excerpt from my sermon on Consumerism that I’ll be giving at dia•spora this coming Sunday. I cut this bit from the message, but am looking forward to exploring these themes more fully in the future.

•••••

You know one of the greatest temptations of power is to treat people like functions and not like people. Have you ever worked somewhere that you knew management, or the person at the top, couldn’t care less about you as a person? All that matters is your productivity and you are only as valuable as the function you serve. Have you ever gotten that message?

This is, I think, the greatest evil of consumerism. In our hot pursuit of productivity and profitability, people become positions. You are not an image-bearer of the living, Creator God. You are simply a part of the machine. It doesn’t matter who you are, just get the job done.

This is satanic. Anything that dehumanizes people is straight from the pit of hell. And the worst part of all is that this kind of crap goes on in our churches all the time.

A friend of mine was a pastor at a big church that had multiple services, and part of his job was to preach about once a month. And, without fail, every time he spoke the senior pastor would come to him between services and just criticize every little thing he did, from the way he prayed to the way he read the Bible to how he phrased some random sentence from the sermon. And then my friend would have to get right back up and preach again in a half hour, and if he didn’t make every change the senior pastor demanded you better believe he got an earful Monday morning. After years of this he just couldn’t take it anymore and quit.

This was a gifted person who was driven away by a man who could only see him as a function. He got chewed up and spit out because the senior pastor could only see him as a function and not as an image-bearer of the living, Creator God. And this kind of thing happens all of the time at churches all over the country.

Big churches. Little churches. It doesn’t seem to matter. Churches consume people. Sometimes the senior pastor is a megalomaniac. Sometimes the congregation is incessantly demanding of their pastor’s time. Sometimes we place too heavy a burden on our volunteers. Churches are notorious for burning out sound guys. We chew people up and we spit them out, and all too often people leave a church so hurt that they even give up on God.

This is an excerpt from a sermon I’m writing on Consumerism. I’ve decided to cut it out of the sermon, but I didn’t want to just erase it forever, so here it is on the blog.

•••••

Consumerism isn’t altogether evil. We are consumers by nature. We have to consume food and water in order to survive. We have to have clothes and shelter. And I think that having the freedom to make economic choices has spurred innovation, which has led to safer transportation, improved medical treatment, and the longer lasting light bulb. And without consumer choice we’d all be stuck with MySpace accounts. Gross!

But as with most things, there is a shadow side of consumerism—a side with which we are all too familiar. Greed. Debt. Theft. Oppression. Waste. Pollution. Reality Television. The list could go on and on.

We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have, and for what? To have an iPad that will be out of date in less than a year? To drive a car that you’ll still be paying for long after it dies? Why? To impress your friends? Or your enemies? Or your frenemies?

We buy stuff. We use it up. And then we throw it away when it’s no longer useful to us. I have 3 iPods! I have one of the original white ones, then I got a black video iPod, and now I have an iPod touch. All three work just fine. The music sounds the same coming out of each one. But I just had to have that iPod Touch because it has…Apps! That I spend money on and stop using in less than a week.

I am a consumer. I buy. I use up. I throw away. Why? Because I need. I need. I need to know that I’m not white trash. I need to know that, despite working in fulltime ministry, I’m still a success. And I think my iPod or my new computer will tell the world I’m a success, or more importantly, they will tell me that I’m a success.

I need, therefore I consume. Why do you consume? What is your need? I used to buy DVDs until I had, quite possibly, the best collection of films on the face of the earth. But buying the DVDs was nothing more than an attempt to medicate myself in the darkest time of my life. And watching those movies, incredible though they were, was just a way to escape the pain of my circumstances.

What about you? What is your need? Do you over eat or starve yourself because eating is the only thing in your life you can control? Do you disappear into video games because you’re afraid of growing up? Do you spend money you don’t have because you’re trying to be someone you’re not? Behind our consumerism lie two simple words: I need. But consuming things is no way to address those needs.

Food should be about nourishment, not about control. Video games should be enjoyed with friends, not used as a way to stave off adulthood. iPods are meant as a way to enjoy music anywhere, not as symbols of success.

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