Sunday, January 07, 2007

If the Rapture is a Heresy...


... should it matter?

Yesterday I threw out a few points against the idea of the Rapture. To reiterate, I consider it a heresy because it's an alternative eschatology that stands over against the biblical story of God saving and redeeming his world, and using his church as a major instrument of this. I believe that if a church does not understand itself to be cooperating in the redemption of the whole creation, it's going to tell a story that's very different from the biblical one, and we're going to have a lot of Christians running around believing that their jobs and hobbies and interests and loves and hates don't matter, 'cause God's gonna burn the whole thing up anyway. Oh, wait, we do!

Of course I believe in the literal second coming of Jesus, at which point he will raise folk up and judge the living and the dead - finish the job of putting the whole cosmos to rights. What I (and many of my friends) deny is that God is going to pull all the Christians off the planet and screw around with everybody left for seven years and leave them in the hands of some critter called the Anti-Christ. That's literalism ad absurdum, baby. Hit up yesterday's post if you want to debate or contribute that argument.

Today's question: if the Rapture (and the whole project of premillenial dispensationalism) is a heresy, how much should it matter to us that it is?

Point One. I have encountered many Christians in recent years who, when asked to tell the Christian story, will spend a good deal of time talking about the Rapture. Haha, not even "justification by faith," but the Rapture. It's not a story about God creating and loving the world and working for its redemption, but his angry destruction of it. Christians have actually said to me that if they did not believe in the Rapture, there doesn't seem to be any point to Christianity, and that losing the doctrine would destroy their faith. For me, that's a big red flag that suggests we should actually work pretty hard to beat that stuff down.

Point Two. I have met some Christians who believe that a Rapture-less Christianity is an entirely different kind of faith than "Rapture Christianity." On that, we are clearly agreed. For some of them, Christians who are not awaiting the Rapture are at least very nearly heretics. Should I issue the anathema right back? I have moved from the position I used to hold, which was that Rapture Christians were part of a different religion altogether. It was reactionary and uncharitable, and not really true. I don't want to be so quick to issue anathemas (anymore).

Rapture Christians might be heterodox, but I'm not ready to label them heretics as such and put them on the level of Arians, but it's not nothing, either.

One friend has suggested that since so many Christians hold so tightly to the idea of the Rapture, that fighting them over it would be a losing battle - there might be a more serious imperative to unity and fraternal love in all of this. It's hard enough to navigate what ecumenism and striving for Christian can look like in the post-denominational, Christendom-in-its-death-throes Bible Belt without making the Rapture even bigger than it already seems to be.

So what do I do? What do you do? Should I pretend I believe in the Rapture for the sake of peace? For Christians who do believe in the Rapture, and for those who do not, how do we behave when folks on either side want to make the Rapture a litmus test for "true" Christian faith? Or should I devise strategies to fight the good fight?

I do even wonder that the whole thing might be so incendiary that I shouldn't even wrote blog posts about it. Frankly.


Garrett said...

I grew up scared to death of the rapture and such. I ignored "mundane" sermons and read Revelation every week from very early on, because my parents were so scared of the book, and would barely talk to me about it, nevermind answer questions. I remember a series of sermons on Revelation when I was very young, and the whole church (yes, THAT church) was atwitter scared to death that they'd all be smitten if brother chuck accidentally sneezed and left a word out (since, ya know, you're screwed if you take anything out).

Then all the sudden, I find out that the rapture is sorta an arbitrary point of theology, arbitrary to the point where people didn't believe in it for something like 1800 years, which makes me think, gee, maybe this isn't so essential to the faith experience after all. Arbitrary theology is pretty problematic, because isn't the whole point, at least from the mainstream baptisty sort of POV, that there's nothing arbitrary about the Bible? Baptists don't accept ambiguity very well. So I said bye-bye to the Baptists, bye-bye to literalism, and bye-bye to making my family proud of me in any meaningful way. My mother actually chided me a few weeks ago, "you'd never know we took you to Sunday School." That stung.

I'm guessing that if you asked a bunch of random folk what's the most important thing to learn, a bunch of them might try to stay ahead of the curve and say, "the most important thing to learn is to think for yourself." But that's the problem. People do think for themselves, using a complete inability to evaluate (or even find) evidence in order to formulate thoughts of value. And that's why the rapture problem is useful for me, because it shows me that I couldn't think for myself as long as I limited my evidence to what I could find in the Bible after 20 years of Baptist brainwashing.

So yes, Kyle, keep pushing the rapture as bullshit. Theology isn't politics, and reality isn't decided by committee (even if the books in the Bible were). You have a strong, evidential argument that the rapture gets in the way on the quest to a Christ-like existence, and that its textual basis is rocky at best. Run with it.

My spiritual life would be pretty poor right now had I not at least been shown the limits of my own ability to reason about religion without going beyond the talking points of the American protestant pulpit. A lot of people make a lot of bad arguments using bad assumptions (a statement which, I'm sure, somebody could turn back around on me easily). I know I'm better off having slightly better knowledge of the limits of my understanding than I am hiding in a rapture bomb shelter believing a bunch of crap some crazy Midwesterners formulated playing scriptural magnetic poetry.

Besides, my grandmother, although she really likes Barack, is worried that maybe he's the Anti-Christ, because of his middle name, race, and ability to actually make sense when he talks. People only have a right to be stupid about things as long as they're not confronted with better evidence. Confront, dear Kyle. Confront! :0)

Rob said...

For actually having my eschatological views called heretical, I'm not as willing to slap that label on rapturism as you guys are, even if I do think the whole thing is nonsense.

However, I usually just try to stay off the topic. I'm not as vocal about my alternate eschatology as I used to be, mainly because it scares people. They think you're weird, and that can bar further ministry in other areas where they would listen to you. Like, if they know Rob doesn't believe in the rapture, who knows what kind of things he'll say in the prayer group he runs, you know?

But it is very frustrating to have the whole system thoroughly engrained in the minds of people. I mentioned the other day that we needed a stronger UN, and that, of course, raised red flags of "antichrist." If we are continually afraid that some guy is going to unite the world with with a one-world religion/government, we are really not going to get very far in our increasingly globalized world.

How frustrating.

the jesse said...

I, like Garrett, also feared the rapture growing up. Nobody else in my church seemed to fear it, and I felt like the only person who took seriously what people kept saying all the time about the end of the world. That freaked me out, and the fact that nobody presented me with any alternative kept me believing the same thing that was bad for me.

While I sympathize with you Rob, I want to ask you if you are actually serious in suggesting that whenever we believe something controversial we should just keep it to ourselves to preserve unity and keep ourselves respected in the community. If nobody speaks up, if the subject isn't broached boldly in the public domain, people will keep on believing things that are bad for them. If you believe that believing the right thing really matters in peoples' lives, as I hope you do, then it becomes imperative to set them straight (in a relational context of course). Let us not talk as if it doesn't matter what people think about these things. It clearly has gotten out of control when we have become so paranoid that we are anxious to ascribe the title "antichrist" to anyone with the slightest resemblance to the Biblical discription (of Nero).

Ironically, I do think that these matters are better discussed over a cup of coffee in the living room and not over the internet. Serious topics like these are much much different when we can look at each other and smile.

Anonymous said...

What should you do?
You should believe what you believe. If you're concerned about people thinking their jobs and hobbies and interests don't matter then tell them they DO matter. They'll probably believe you. People want things to matter.
What should you do when people who believe in the rapture make it a "litmus" test?
Tell them that's silly and stick out your tongue and then smile real big and give them a hug.
Should you fight the good fight?
Fighting is overrated...but you already know what I think about that.

I definitely can relate to frustration with the kinds of people you describe but I also come at this issue from an extremely different place. I guess you could say I'm immersed in premillenial dispensationalism. From my perspective I don't think your "point one" and "point two" are really fair or representative of the majority of the people I encounter. I hope I'm not being unhelpfully defensive but I wanted to add that because, while this may not make a lot of sense to you, I know a lot of P.D.'s that believe and live in themes of redemption. (I don't know if that last sentence made any sense...I'm tired and a little sick and can't think straight...and YES, I realize I've just shot myself in the foot by admitting that :0)

Rob said...

Jesse, you're a nice guy. relax.

And unfortunately, I am not going to convince anyone. People in my circles don't want to hear a new thing (new is a funny word to use here, since rapturism is pretty recent). It would just be a waste of time and effort for the majority.

Kyle said...

Garrett, I really appreciate what you're saying here. Sometimes I don't feel like I'm doing anybody any good when I get going on things like this, so I'm grateful for the needed encouragement.

I really think that any reading of scripture that results in faithful, loving Christians who are in communion with the church being afraid of God in terms of pain, death and smiting, is just bloody evil. Full stop. Any reading of scripture that precludes love driving out fear (see 1 John) is blasphemous, never mind heretical. Christians can and should know themselves, in most general circumstances, to be accepted in and loved by Jesus the Christ.

Any account of the end of the age that contradicts the notion that the triune God is absolutely, ridiculously, bat-shit crazy in love with everybody on this bloody planet is a lie from the pit of hell.

Oh, and it's "bullshit," too. You better believe it.

I am serious.

In regard to Rob's comment, I'll just say that he more than most of us have to deal with ... power differentials... in a way that many of us don't. I think he makes a good point - and this is one that Jesse often makes as well - that the Rapture is probably not a good place to start when renovating someone's view of Christianity. Especially when some folks have power over you, it's important to be wise as a serpent but gentle as a dove.

I struggle with that.

In regard to "heretics"...

I consider the Rapture and its system to be heretical. I think it's a deviant story that subverts the larger picture of biblical, orthodox faith as has been received by the broadest sectors of the universal Church.

However, since it doesn't directly contradict anything in the creeds, I'd be willing to merely call it "heterodoxy." But I still lean toward the other word because that story just spits and stomps on Romans 8. Yah, that's right. Go read that junk.

But - and here I might contradict myself - I have no desire to call Rapture Christians "heretics." Heretics are folks who doggedly and deliberately reject the clearest counsels of Scripture and the Creeds. It's a rebellion issue. I think Rapture Christianity is in most cases an issue of being very very misguided. These are not bad people, but their eyes have been darkened. They can believe something that's evil, but not be so morally culpable that they earn the label of "heretic." The word should be thoughtfully descriptive only, and not used as an abusive term to shut down conversation.

Rob, by what standards would you call a doctrine "heretical"?

And thanks, Katie and Jesse, I will come back and respond to your kind contributions later. :0)

Rob said...

anything that doesn't agree with my church's statement of faith is heretical.


I'd say anything contra main accepted creeds.

Like, I believe hyperpreterism, which says that all of NT prophecy was fulfilled in A.D. 70 and that there will be no future bodily rez is heresy. Unfortunately a lot of people collapse that in with orthodox preterism, which still holds to a Second Coming as spelled out in scripture, a coming to judge the living and the dead and restore creation as in romans 8.

Kyle said...

Well said, Jesse. I think we might deal with that in the next post, "Debating Religion."

Katie, I think that's good advice, and I appreciate it. I'm always glad of your perspective. I do want to honor your experience, and say that I believe it's very possible to be a P.D. (premillenial dispensationalist) and to believe in redemption, but I suspect that too many of the details of that redemption are out of whack. But that is why I don't want to say that those folks aren't part of the Kingdom - I just think it's a really unhealthy detour.

Most Rapture Christians I've known deny the bodily resurrection and the physical reality of eternal life - a very central Christian doctrine. They believe that Christ was resurrected bodily, mind you, but not that they will be. I imagine that some do, however. And too many Christians can tell me all about the Rapture, but nothing - nothing - about the Trinity. I think that's a big problem.

Rob, I think Jesse's going to argue that Rapture Christians do explicate the faith contra the major accepted creeds, but I won't steal his thunder.

Do you think that the PD account of "the end" denies the restoration in Romans 8? If so, isn't it heresy? What do you think makes Rapture Christianity not a heresy?

Garrett said...

Jesse and I are officially forming the Heartland Medical Students Against the Rapture Foundation :0)

I wish I had time for coffee with people... I know I used to do that... I think.

Rob said...

The PD view does not directly deny romans 8, but rather believes in the creation of a new heavens and new earth, just not a restoration of this one. I suppose they get such ideas as this from II Peter, I believe it is, where it speaks of the world being judged by fire or something like that.

PD does not deny Christ's divinity, incarnation, death, resurrection, and eventual return, or even the resurrection and the judgment of the dead. These are pretty basic to me, and while it puts a really funny and totally unexegetical spin on the whole thing, I don't think it can be labeled as heretical.

But I continue to maintain that it is silly and detrimental to the faith, anyhow.

Anonymous said...

it's amazing to me how many Christians seem to enjoy and cherish the opportunity to be a part of judging the rest of the world. one guy in our church got to preach one Sunday, and his point was that, in the millenial reign, we would be enforcing the Mosaic law over everyone else in the Kingdom. and he just loved the thought of it. probably has a big pile of stones in his backyard, ready to toss at the first sinner.

like most people throughout history, the desire to control others - heck, the desire to make any kind of statement or rule or situation that applies to others, and not to one's own self - seems to make Christians salivate, too. i'm not a Catholic, so i can sit here and blame you guys for a number of too-prevalent doctrines that i think are more the result of the church trying to keep people in line than they are biblical. my dead horse of late that i keep beating, and beating, and beating, and getting nowhere with among the people in my church, is the doctrine of an eternal, fiery hell that people have conscience existence in. and i can lay out argument after argument after argument - i can even take them to texts in the Bible - and it's like they have their eyes shut, their fingers plugging their ears, and they're saying "I CAN'T HEAR ANYTHING".

but like my pastor said on Sunday, our role is to carry the message; God has to do the convincing.

of course, he meant we should go out and sell people fire insurance, but i can use his approach in my crusade, too.

wait, crusade - probably should pick a different word...

mike rucker