Tuesday, February 2, 2021
If you are reading this to see how I will attempt to refute the Right Reverend N.T. Wright on the question and reality of the Rapture, please feel free to skip past the historical stuff about Antiochus Epiphanes that follows immediately hereafter, interesting though it may be. However, you will be skipping some valuable information.
King Antiochus IV Epiphanes was a bad guy, a very, very bad guy. From a biblical perspective, Antiochus Epiphanes was one of the absolute worst bad guys ever. He was really, really bad. I wrote about the Greek Monarch Antiochus Epiphanes in a previous post entitled Damnational Geographic and explained why he was so bad. But I did not include an important historical anecdote about Antiochus in that post which I will include now. Antiochus only went totally bad after someone forced him to make a hard unequivocal humiliating choice. Antiochus was forced to decide something significant, and decide it immediately, publicly. He was literally put on the spot, right then and there, in front of his underlings. Only after he was forced to make that very humiliating decision did King Antiochus IV Epiphanes become one of the absolute worst bad guys ever. So exactly what happened? Here I will let brittanica.com tell the tale:
In Eleusis, a suburb of Alexandria, the Roman ambassador Gaius Popillius Lænas, presented Antiochus with the ultimatum that he evacuate Egypt and Cyprus immediately. Antiochus, taken by surprise, asked for time to consider. Popillius, however, drew a circle in the earth around the king with his walking stick and demanded an unequivocal answer before Antiochus left the circle. Dismayed by this public humiliation, the king quickly agreed to comply. Roman intervention had reestablished the status quo. By being allowed to retain southern Syria, to which Egypt had laid claim, Antiochus was able to preserve the territorial integrity of his realm.
A Roman ambassador drew a circle in the sand and in so doing forced Antiochus IV to decide whether or not to withdraw his forces from Egypt and Cyprus. Antiochus knew he could not defeat the militarily superior Romans, so he conceded to Ambassador Gaius Popillius’s demands. Then in his humiliated fury, King Antiochus turned in a raging rampage against the less-than loyal Jews who lived in the territory that he still held. His humiliation turned proud Antiochus into a seething, vengeful tyrant. The Jews would bear the brunt of his fury.
Why share all this information about Antiochus? I am figuratively attempting to get two birds with one stone. As for the first bird, I want to remind my readers and listeners of who Antiochus IV Epiphanes was, because he is a historical prototype of the Antichrist. As for the second bird, this account of Popillius humiliating Antiochus is originally where we get the idiom “to draw a line in the sand” and its variants. Popillius literally drew a circular line in the sand and in so doing forced Antiochus to make an unequivocal decision.
Sometimes lines must be drawn. Sometimes decisions must be forced on the reluctant.
There are things you have to believe. And then there are things that you do not have to believe. There are times we must draw hard and fast lines, and firmly insist that any equivocators make up their minds to be in or out of those lines. And then there are times when lines should not be drawn distinctly — or drawn at all.
Now I will address the Rapture, and my disagreement with N.T. Wright. Christians do not need to draw hard and fast lines on the question of the Rapture. It is not an essential matter. Fellow Christians will probably disagree with me after what I argue here, no matter how well I argue. But whatever. It is not an essential matter.
That said, I will argue it all the same. If someone were to ask me, “But since you admit that it is not essential, what does it matter?” I would respond with, “In my opinion, the Rapture matters because it makes Eschatology more coherent.” At which point, my hypothetical questioner might completely lose interest and check out, because I dropped an unfamiliar seminary word. “What does eschatology even mean?” N.T. Wright would be familiar with that word, though. He understands it from every direction.
Let me try again: The Rapture matters because it will help you understand certain sections of the Bible better. I hope I made myself more understandable that time. N.T. Wright would disagree with that claim, though. On his blog, NTWrightPage.com, you can find a brief post entitled Farewell to the Rapture. I encourage you to go read it for yourselves. It is always best to let someone in question speak for himself or herself. And N.T. Wright speaks for himself ably.
If you were to distill everything down, basically N.T. Wright and I disagree about one primary passage of scripture, just one crucial verse: 1 Thessalonians 4:17. It is well worth remembering that, because what someone believes about that one verse will likely determine what he or she concludes about the Rapture. I am going to argue that 1 Thessalonians 4:17 can and should be read literally. N.T. Wright argues that it is metaphorical. In his own words, here is what Wright says:
Paul’s mixed metaphors of trumpets blowing and the living being snatched into heaven to meet the Lord are not to be understood as literal truth, as the Left Behind series suggests, but as a vivid and biblically allusive description of the great transformation of the present world of which he speaks elsewhere.
Therein is the difference. I say it is literal; N.T. Wright says it is not. So who should you to believe and why? Me. Me. Me. Choose me. But that is not the most convincing argument. It might help if you had a better idea of why N.T. Wright does not like a literal interpretation of the Rapture. It has everything to do with his… wait for it… eschatology, his understanding of the End Times. N.T. Wright works within a particular scheme of how history will unfold. He has a hypothetical understanding of the future. That is called his eschatology. For anyone who takes the Bible seriously, eschatology is unavoidable simply because the Bible talks about future events.
Now we turn to the key passage itself. In 1 Thessalonians 4 Paul seems to be describing a future scenario in which Jesus descends from heaven, resulting in the resurrection of the dead (the dead in Christ — Christians who have died) and the ascent of all the faithful to meet Christ in the air. Notice that I skipped a few details; I only did so for the sake of keeping my focus on what I consider to be the three essentials. Essential # 1 – Christ Jesus himself descends from heaven. Essential # 2 – The dead in Christ are resurrected. Essential # 3 – All the faithful ascend (or are caught up) and meet Christ in the air.
Essential # 3 is what many call the Rapture. And it is extremely controversial. A whole lot of Christians join N.T. Wright in pushing back here with the claim, “Well, that is not literal.” But curiously, they will not argue against the literal-ness of Essentials # 1 and #2. Please do not miss that. Those who reject the Rapture usually know better than to argue against a literal descent of Jesus (because that is taught very clearly in the New Testament); and they know better than to argue against a literal resurrection of dead saints (because, same reason). Nevertheless, they will argue against a literal ascent of all the faithful. That, or they will say that any such ascent must immediately turn into a descent as soon as the Meeting with Jesus in the Air occurs.
But why? Why take Essentials #1 and #2 literally, but not Essential #3? Well, one reason why some dispense with or modify Essential #3 is because it has an embarrassing, humiliating recent history, a humiliating history which N.T. Wright himself references with the derisive words “as the Left Behind series suggests.” Over the last fifty years, eschatology, aka the End Times, has become a pop-culture fixation. And Rapture-talk has been a frequent source of embarrassment for Christians, time and again. That is one primary reason why N.T. Wright and his devotees want to bid farewell to the Rapture. Understandably so.
But in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 does Paul present a literal Rapture or not? Historical humiliation aside, a literal reading of the verse makes perfect sense, and is simple and straightforward. The real problem is not with a literal reading of 1 Thessalonians 4:17, but with literal readings of other eschatological verses and passages, as we shall see in forthcoming posts. Sometimes a literal understanding of a biblical passage is the best understanding; but sometimes it is emphatically not. TBC.