Back in April 1945, Vice President Harry S. Truman received a phone call. He was told to come “quickly and quietly” to the White House. Without being explicitly told, Truman realized that the frail and ailing president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, must have just died. When he hung up the phone, Truman reacted with the exclamation, “Jesus Christ and General Jackson!” Truman was jolted with the realization that all the responsibility of the presidency was about to become his.
When I first read that, I did wonder how often Harry S. Truman heard that exact exclamation — “Jesus Christ and General Jackson” — while he was growing up. It sounds like a regional Southern-ism one of his parents might have said in a moment of exasperation. The phrase might-could have been original to Harry himself; but it has such an alliterative, poetic ring to it that I do wonder and sort of suspect that he picked it up secondhand somewhere. To me, it sounds like something a midcentury Southerner would have said and heard with some frequency. And yes, Truman can be considered somewhat of a Southerner — close enough, at least. Truman’s home state of Missouri was a border state and divided battle ground during the American Civil War, the war between the North and the South. The American Civil War was within a long lifetime and living memory of 1945. Harry S. Truman himself was only a generation removed from it, having been born in Lamar, Missouri, in the year 1884 (if Wikipedia has all that information right).
Incidentally and for those who might be interested, I first came across Truman’s “Jesus-and-General Jackson” exclamation last summer while reading or listening to an online preview of Countdown 1945, a historical book by FOX newsman Chris Wallace. Wallace also served as the moderator of one the 2020 presidential debates between then-president Donald J. Trump and now-president Joseph R. Biden. During that debate, former President Trump memorably and repeatedly interrupted and spoke over both Biden and Wallace. It was quite an interaction and quite the televised spectacle. To his credit, and although clearly exasperated, Chris Wallace had the self-composure not to react to Trump with any unseemly exclamations. That said, I do wonder how Wallace privately reflects upon and retells his back-and-forth with Trump during that debate. What would Wallace say about it in private, unfiltered?
Our uncensored exclamations and unfiltered reactions — such are my immediate interest here. What do you exclaim when you are exasperated? What do you say when you are shocked? What comes out of your mind and out of your mouth when your only company is you yourself?
Truman’s reaction to his fateful phone call in April 1945 can be perceived as something quite negative or something quite positive. Negatively, Truman might have been casually dropping the name of Jesus as a cus word. Or positively, he might have been issuing a quasi-prayer. It would have been a very unorthodox prayer, admittedly, which is why I call it a quasi-prayer. But still, it could have been a prayer. If, in a moment of great consequence, the first thing that comes from the lips of a stunned someone is the name of Jesus, it could well be a prayer. Truman may have been thinking, “Lord Jesus Christ, I am suddenly the President. Please help me.” And even the “General Jackson” addendum can be interpreted charitably. Truman may have been in the habit of playing off his knee-jerk prayers as mere Southern-isms for secular political society.
Not convinced? Okay yes, I do realize that I am probably being way too generous with the late Harry S. Truman. And no, I have not researched his life well enough to know how pious and prayerful he may have been as a person. It would be interesting to do some homework and find out. Maybe someday I will.
The Book of Exodus 20:7 is where the third of the Ten Commandments can be found. In that verse God declares: “Thou shall not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.”
Consequently and on the Christian assumption that Jesus Christ is indeed divine, after receiving that phone call, Harry S. Truman was either praying or taking the name of the LORD in vain. Whichever. I suppose when God replays it for us someday we will find out which one it was.
There is nothing covered that will not be uncovered, nothing hidden that will not be made known. Therefore, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in an ear in private rooms will be proclaimed on the housetops.
Jesus, remarking to his disciples, as recorded in the Gospel of Luke 12:2-3
Yes, I do read that literally (sort of). And yes, I believe it to be true. Someday, all of our laundry will be aired, no matter how dirty. Someday, our most private conversations and exclamations will be made public.
Jesus Christ! That’s totally terrifying!
Jesus Christ, I do hope that everything I have said and done is covered by your cleansing blood on that day.
To start, I should probably give credit where credit is due. The term Eschatological Exodus does not originate with me, but, as far as I know, with (the now semi-retired) Professor Richard Bauckham from Her Majesty’s United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Personally, I consider Professor Bauckham to be the most important recent and living interpreter of the Book of Revelation. Professor Bauckham may even eventually rank as the single most insightful and influential interpreter of the Book of Revelation (and similar biblical literature) in the last several centuries. Yes, centuries. I know, I know: That’s quite a big claim to make. Yet it may be both apt and true.
Although it has a rather generic title, way back in the early 1990s a younger Dr. Professor Baukham wrote a refreshingly brief, catchingly brilliant, and now-absolutely-essential scriptural study of Revelation called… drumroll… The Theology of the Book of Revelation, which will be abbreviated from hence as TBR. In TBR, Professor Bauckham identifies three primary symbolic themes that recur throughout the Book of Revelation: 1) The Messianic War, 2) The Eschatological Exodus, and 3) The Witness of Jesus. Nowhere is the second symbolic theme, the Eschatological Exodus, more prominent within the Book of Revelation than Chapter Fifteen. To quote Dr. Bauckham regarding that theme:
In 15:2-4 the Christian Martyrs, victorious in heaven, are seen as the people of the new exodus, standing beside a heavenly Red Sea, through which they have passed, and singing a version of the song of praise to God which Moses and the people of Israel sang after their deliverance from Pharaoh at the Red Sea (Exodus 15).
Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, p. 71.
To be something of a fastidious stickler, I will mention here that while Professor Bauckham identifies the triumphant throng as “Christian Martyrs,” Revelation Chapter Fifteen itself does not use either descriptor. Those who have triumphed over the Beast, its Image, and the Number of its Name are called neither Christians nor Martyrs in Chapter Fifteen. Dr. Bauckham is making a slight interpretive move (quite understandably) when he designates the heavenly throng as Christian Martyrs. I will explain why I am taking issue with his subtle interpretive move in a few paragraphs. But as it is, I am getting ahead of myself. We ought to start at the beginning of the chapter with Verse One.
Here in Verse One we are put on notice of utterly terrifying things to come. John, the narrator, sees a sign in Heaven: He sees seven angels with seven final plagues. The Wrath of God is about to be dispensed in seven sequential measures upon the Earth. Hitherto in the Book of Revelation the Wrath of God has not been dispensed on the Earth.
For those who harbor doubts as to whether the Wrath of God has been withheld prior to this point in the Book of Revelation, a quick word study of Wrath and God will yield the following seven references in the Book of Revelation: 14:10; 14:19; 15:1; 15:7; 16:1; 16: 19; and 19:15. I interpret the two references to the Wrath of God in Chapter Fourteen as synchronous with (happening at the same time as) the terrifying events that come with the outpouring of the Bowls of Wrath in Revelation Chapter Sixteen. I would encourage the especially studious to read through those seven wrathful references; and will boldly suggest that if they do so, they will most likely come to the same conclusion: The Wrath of God only begins when the Bowls are poured out, one by one.
Verse One, therefore, lets the reader know that the outpouring of the Wrath of God is about to commence upon the Earth. But nonetheless, our vantage point is still up in Heaven. We are witnesses to what is happening in Heaven Above immediately before all Hell breaks out on Earth Below. Remind me then: What is happening in Heaven? Verse Two gives us the scene and tells the tale.
A celebration is happening. A concert is happening in Heaven Above. There is singing and rejoicing. It is a time of Triumph, an occasion of celebration.
Does that not strike you as somewhat strange? I mean, although all Hell is about to be unleashed on Earth, the seaside throng in Heaven is celebrating some sort of victory. Why is that? What is going on? Who are these triumphant harpists in Heaven?
We are told that the celebrants in Heaven are those who have triumphed over the Beast, its Image, and the Number of its Name. From henceforth I will refer to that nefarious trio as the Notorious B.I.N.N.
Bauckham says that these triumphant celebrants are Christian Martyrs. He is only kind of right about that. The problem is that you might misunderstand what he means with those two words. Christians are not necessarily those who loosely self-identify as such, but those who are really redeemed, the truly faithful, the steadfast Saints throughout the centuries and millenia. And the Martyrs are not necessarily those who have died for their faith, but include all those who have kept the faith and maintained their witness for Christ Jesus. That is because the word martyr originally just meant a witness. In contradiction to the very esteemed Professor Baukham, then, I want to suggest that in Chapter Fifteen we are seeing an even bigger crowd. The throng of triumphant celebrants in Heaven includes not just Christian Martyrs in a narrow sense, but all the Saints through the centuries, right up until the Second Coming or Advent of Jesus Christ. I do mean all of them, every single one, including you and me, hopefully.
To identify the size and compostion of the throng, the Notorious B.I.N.N. serve as perhaps the most important clue. One reason why the Notorious B.I.N.N. are mentioned here is because they will appear in their ultimate and worst incarnations right at the very end of this current common era.
For the sake of clarity, I need to explain what I mean by “the end of this current common era.” When I was a child, the historical timeline was usually divided according to the abbreviations of B.C. and A.D. But for better or worse, that chronological division has since changed. Now the abbreviations B.C.E. and C.E. are used more commonly to divide the timeline. And what do those abbreviations stand for? B.C. once abbreviated “Before Christ”; and A.D. once abbreviated Anno Domini, which translates from Latin to “in the year of the Lord.” To avoid the implicit Christian chronological assumptions of B.C. and A.D., sensitive souls in Academia made a switch to B.C.E. and C.E. over the last 35 years or so. As you may know, B.C.E. abbreviates Before the Common Era, while C.E. abbreviates the Common Era. So now, with this timeline revisionism explained, I will hereby assert and solemnly affirm that according to Revelation Chapter Fifteen this Common Era will come to an abrupt end with the return of Christ, the return of Christ for the Church. When Christ comes back for the Church this current Common Era will end ubruptly. Perhaps, then, the loss of the B.C. and A.D. abbreviations was not actually a loss, theologically speaking. One might argue that Anno Domini, the year of our Lord, actually begins when Christ returns for the Church.
So then, Revelation Chapter Fifteen shows us the scene in Heaven Above immediately after the current Common Era ends. In Chapter Fifteen, Christ has come. The Church has been lifted from Earth and has arrived triumphantly in Heaven. The throng beside the Sea of Glass is celebrating their escape from and Triumph over the Notorious B.I.N.N. and all their persecutors on Earth Below. Just as the Children of Israel were miraculously delivered from their Egyptian enemies through the Red Sea, so all the Saints of God will someday be miraculously delivered from their enemies through Resurrection and Rapture, when Christ himself returns to claim his Church.
And so, moving along to Verse Three, the Trimphant Celebrants are said to sing a particular song of deliverance – the Song of Moses, the Servant of God, and the Song of the Lamb.
If you were to cross-reference Revelation’s Deliverance Song with the original Song of Moses in the Book of Exodus Chapter 15, you might be struck by the comparative similarities and the differences. While both songs celebrate the amazing saving deeds of God, the Original Exodus Song is almost entirely ethnocentric and expresses hostility towards neighboring nations, whereas Revelation’s Exodus Song refers to God as the King of the Nations, and affirms that all the nations will ultimately come and worship God. Given its Anno Domini timing and its heavenly setting, this affirmation is intriguing, because it might allow some measure of hope for eventual salvation, even for those who have been left behind, the inhabitants of the Earth who are about to endure the Wrath of God.
And yes, with the phrase “left behind” I am affirming the reality of the Rapture here. The Eschatological Exodus is the Rapture. They are one and the same event. Revelation Chapter Fifteen show us the scene in Heaven Above immediately after all the Saints, and the entire Church, leave Earth Below. To be honest and fair to Professor Bauckham, I think he would not concur with me here. In TBR and his other books, Dr. Bauckham does not equate the Eschatological Exodus with the Rapture. He just says that those who are beside the Sea of Glass in Heaven are Christian Martyrs (as opposed to all the redeemed Saints and the entire Church throughout history). My question for him and for those who follow him would be how Chapter Fifteen fits in its wider narrative context. As I see it, the reason for our disagreement is because he does not see a sequential, chronological progression from the Series of Seven Trumpets (Revelation 8:6-11:19) to the Series Seven Bowls of Wrath (Revelation 15:1-16:21). I do. I see a clear sequential and chronological progression. There is an important topical excursus between the two series (from Revelation 12:1 through 14:20); but otherwise they follow each other sequentially and chronologically.
Interpretive decisions about how to divide and how to connect the flow of the narrative and the various scenes within Revelation are necessary and inescapable. Whether an interpreter sees a sequential, chronological progression from the Series of Seven Trumpets to the Series of Seven Bowls of Wrath will determine whether Revelation allows for and depicts a Rapture or not, in my estimation.
Plus, I believe that what Paul teaches in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 absolutely requires the Rapture be taken literally and seriously. It is simply what immediately follows the general resurrection of the redeemed. We ascend to meet Christ in the air. We ascend to Heaven, just as Christ himself was resurrected and ascended. We follow the same pattern set by Christ. And Revelation Chapter Fifteen gives us a brief glimpse of their/our celebration upon our arrival in glory.
But back to the passage at hand. In Verses Three and Four, we read the lyrics of the New Exodus Song. The Triumphant Celebrants in Heaven give praise to God for His marvelous deeds, question the folly of not fearing and glorifying the Lord, and affirm both God’s Holiness and the inevitability of His universal acclamation. All of this is of course fitting for what Christ accomplished through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. It would be all the more fitting for what Christ accomplishes if and when he delivers us, the Church, from the final persecution of the Notorious B.I.N.N.
Now we move on the Verse Five. I cannot recall ever hearing someone teach or preach from the pulpit about this particular verse. John the Narrator sees the Temple of the Tabernacle of Testimony in Heaven opened. The Temple of the Tabernacle of Testimony has a nice alliterative ring, with its triple Ts, an alternative translation being the Sanctuary of the Tabernacle of Witness. Significantly, the Church is often called a Temple or a Sanctuary in the New Testament. And I do suggest that the Temple of the Tabernacle of Testimony in Heaven is the Resurrected Church while it resides in Heaven. Here John the Narrator sees the Raptured Church as a Temple or Sanctuary. He witnesses its inaugural opening in Heaven. Based on Old Testament passages regarding the inaugural opening of the Tabernacle and the Temple (see Leviticus 9:22-24; 1 Kings 8:11; and 2 Chronicles 7:1-3), we ought to anticipate something awesome is about to occur. And so something does.
At the Sanctuary Church’s inaugural opening in Heaven, seven angels resembling priests emerge, dressed in their Sabbath finest. They have business to attend to.
The angel-priests are dressed immaculately in clean linen and golden sashes. You might even say that the seven angel-priests are dressed to kill. One of Heaven’s Four Living Creatures gives each of the seven angels a bowl, each full of the Wrath of God. The angels are about to visit Earth, where they will execute divine vengence on the Notorious B.I.N.N. and the pitiful Inhabitants of the Earth.
And though the Sanctuary Church in Heaven is open for the seven exiting angels, the Glory of God makes it entirely impossible for the anyone to enter from the outside (again, this refers back to Leviticus 9:22-24; 1 Kings 8:11; and 2 Chronicles 7:1-3) until after the Seven Bowls of Wrath are dispensed, each in turn. The Sanctuary Church in Heaven is thus temporarily closed to any incoming traffic. Any repentant Inhabitants on Earth must wait until the Wrath of God is entirely spent.
To me, the scenario presented in Chapter Fifteen only makes coherent sense narratively and historically if the Rapture occurs. With the Church off the scene, the Current Common Era comes to a close. Then the truly scary stuff commences.
Thanks to Horrible Hal (Hal Lindsey, that is, whom I honestly do not regard as highly horrible) — thanks to Horrible Hal and other End-Times Enthusiasts, no one takes the idea of the Rapture seriously any more. Okay, yes, that is a wee bit of an overstatement. But as overstatements go, it holds true more often than not. Practically speaking, the rejection of the Rapture is a widespread reality that must serve as any theologian’s operational assumption within contemporary Anglo-American Christian Academia. And the same assumption also applies at most self-respecting, liturgically-formal churches. As a doctrinal and eschatological scenario, the Rapture is widely regarded as rather ridiculous, even embarrassing. Nowadays, the Rapture is usually held in derision by those who are convinced they know better.
But I do believe in the Rapture. When Rapture-skeptics realize that I do in fact believe the Rapture will occur, they usually respond with comments like, “So… do you mean you seriously believe in the Rapture? As in, the sudden disappearance of all true Christians, past and present, from around the globe, upward from Planet Earth? Beam me up, Jesus! Seriously? You do know the word rapture doesn’t even appear in the Bible, right? You really ought to go read what N.T. Wright has to say about that.”
And yada, yada. The (usually polite) ridicule just featured is what the Rapture skeptics will often rehash.
And as I quietly endure the skeptics’ very predictable, polite ridicule, babies jettisoned along with their bathwater come to mind, as do diamonds discarded with dirt. To the dismissive (and potentially smug) skeptics who still might be reading or listening to this, I want to request that you hear me out. Please consider the Rapture again, and try to set any knee-jerk prejudice aside. Please do not immediately reject what might in fact be a valuable interpretive insight just because it has been poorly packaged. Just because the Rapture has often been misrepresented over the last 50 years does not mean it should be rejected without careful scriptural study. I mean, as a kind of parallel, just because zombie movies often make the resurrection look like a freakish scenario does not mean that we should dispense with the doctrine of the resurrection. Similarly, just because the Rapture has been portrayed poorly in low-budget movies does not mean it ought to be discarded. The truly important thing to consider is whether Scripture teaches it will happen.
To repeat and rephrase somewhat, the really important issue is whether Scripture presents the Rapture as a future event that will occur.
So please grab your Bibles, ye studious People of the Book. If you will, look up Revelation Chapter 15. Read it and re-read it. You might not recognize it at first as the thorough-going Rapture passage that it is.
1 Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and amazing, seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is finished.
2 And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire—and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. 3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying,
“Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations!
4 Who will not fear you, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy.
All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”
5 After this I looked, and the sanctuary of the tent of witness in heaven was opened, 6 and out of the sanctuary came the seven angels with the seven plagues, clothed in pure, bright linen, with golden sashes around their chests. 7 And one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God who lives forever and ever, 8 and the sanctuary was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the sanctuary until the seven plagues of the seven angels were finished.
Revelation 15:1-8 ESV
At the risk of being harsh, I have a few questions for you. When was the last time you heard a sermon about this passage? When was the last time you heard anything coherent taught about this particular passage? If you yourself were asked to interpret this passage in its narrative context, how would you do? Could you present it coherently, or would you and your listeners walk away completely confused?
These probing questions I do ask because I am willing to bet that the vast majority of skeptics who ridicule the Rapture cannot make much sense of this passage in its broader context, that is, immediately after the events of Chapter Fourteen, and immediately before the Seven Bowls of Wrath are dispensed. However, please realize that these eight verses make perfect sense to those who take the Rapture of the Church seriously. With the Rapture in mind and in place, this passage is completely coherent within the overall contextual flow of the Book of Revelation. It is like a puzzle piece that fits exactly where it ought. And that clean, orderly coherence should give y’all pause, especially because alternate explanations are almost always messy and incoherent.
Please allow me to interpret and explain this passage.
Those who have conquered the Beast, and its image, and the number of its name — who are they, exactly? Most interpreters would agree that these conquerers are true Christians, Faithful Witnesses for Christ. And while that interpretation is not wrong, it is not precise enough. Yes, these are Christ’s Faithful Witnesses, true enough. But more exactly, they are all the Faithful Witnesses who have persevered and thus prevailed through to a particular point in Church History — to its final terminus, to the end of the present age or era. The Beast, its Image, and the Number of its Name (referred to hereafter as the Notorious BINN) will not appear in their final, ultimate, and most fearsome manifestations until the end of this era. Therefore, the Faithful Witnesses who persevere and who thereby manage to conquer the Notorious BINN must necessarily include all of those who live through (and perhaps die during) the very end of this current era.
By the way, and very importantly, please do notice that I do not mean to exclude any of the Faithful Witnesses who died in the centuries and decades before the final days — not at all. Instead, I simply mean to include those who have lived through (and those who may die during) the final tumultuous period of time. The Faithful who prevail over the Notorious BINN include all the faithful throughout the entirety of the age. Chapter Fifteen depicts all the Faithful Saints, from the beginning to the utter end of the Church Age.
Notice where these conquering Saints are said to be standing. They are standing beside the Sea of Glass, otherwise and alternatively known as the Crystal Sea. And where, pray tell, is the Crystal Sea? If I am not mistaken, the Crystal Sea is not on Earth, but is up there in Heaven. Yep, according to Revelation 4:6, the Crystal Sea is situated before the very Throne of God, up in Heaven. (This matters because those who deny the Rapture will often claim that after Christ’s Second Coming his Saints do not go to up heaven, but instead stay on Earth.) So, based on Revelation 15, is it safe to assume that all the conquering Saints have somehow made their way up to Heaven? Personally, I am altogether willing to assume just that. The Saints got there somehow. In Revelation 15:2 all the Faithful, Conquering Saints throughout the entire Church Age are seen standing beside the Sea of Crystal in Heaven. Rapture skeptics need to explain how this is true.
Okay then, exactly how did those conquering Saints get up there to Heaven?
They either made it up to Heaven through Death or through the Rapture. As far as I can tell, the Bible offers human beings no alternative means of transport to Heaven. Death or Resurrected Rapture — those are the only two viable transit options to Heaven. And be very careful before you easily opt for Death as their sole means of transit. In 1 Thessalonians 4:17 Paul claims that some very blessed Christians will escape death altogether. Those Christians will be physically transformed in an instant (for that, see 1 Corinthians 15:51-52), and will meet the Lord Jesus in the air. I would like to suggest that from their meeting place in the air they will (or hopefully, we will) continue to ascend to Heaven, where they/we will find ourselves besides the Sea of Crystal, before the Throne of God. While we are there, absent from Earth, the Seven Bowls of Wrath will be poured out upon the unrepentant upon the Earth. And notice that exact sequential scenario follows the narrative flow of Revelation Chapters 14, 15, and 16, neatly, cleanly, and coherently. Uh huh, it really does.
If this is the correct contextual interpretation of Revelation 15, then the Resurrected Rapture can and should be understood as one and the same as the Eschatological Exodus. That simply means that just as the Children of Israel were once delivered from Egypt by means of the Miraculous Parting of the Red Sea, so the the Church of God will be instantaneously delivered from out of the fiefdoms of this world by means of a miraculous Parting of the Time-Space Fabric. The Eschatological Exodus is the Resurrected Rapture of the Church; and its immediate aftermath is the scene presented in Revelation Chapter 15.
When the roll is called up yonder, will you be there? I do hope to see you beside the Sea of Crystal in Heaven someday, perhaps even someday soon.
Its precise latitude and longitude coordinates criss-cross at 31 degrees, 46 minutes, 41.2176 seconds north of the equator; and 35 degrees, 14 minutes, 9.5748 seconds east of the prime meridian. Many years ago, long before those coordinates had any meaning at all, heaven and earth intersected there, at that very location, give or take a few fractions of a second north or south, east or west. According to the Bible, the Presence and Glory of the LORD God Almighty once dwelt at those coordinates precisely, inside a magnificent temple, in an inner chamber known as the Holy of Holies. But the Glory of God has long since vacated that location, and abandoned those geographic coordinates. In the language of the Old Testament, it might now be called Ichabod. As the Prophecy of Ezekiel depicts using very evocative imagery (see, for example, Ezekiel Chapter 10), it is a God-forsaken place.
Even though the Glory is long, long gone, that same geographic spot is hotly and sometimes violently contested turf, even today, and especially today. If you happen to keep an eye on the international news, you are aware that the Israelis and some of the Palestinian politico-military factions have been firing volleys of rockets and missiles at each other over the last several days. This latest round of renewed claim-staking and blood-letting began last Friday, just a few days ago. And the back-and-forth retaliatory strikes seem likely to escalate into the foreseeable future. Alarmingly, the fighting could ripple into a wider regional war.
Why are they fighting, yet again? Primarily, the two sides are fighting about who controls that once God-forsaken geographic location. And they have even been fighting each other face-to-face, man-to-man on top of that spot, on top of the blocks of stone that cover that geographic location. This past weekend, they were sometimes literally physically fighting each other inside the hilltop complex that now stands where the temple once stood.
But who cares? Why should we care? Does it matter to anyone besides them? Does the fact that the Israelis and the Palestinians are once again fighting at that location — at the place where the Glory of God once dwelt on Planet Earth — does it have any special significance? Or is it much ado about nothing?
It might matter a lot. Whether it matters entirely depends on whether those spatial coordinates and that geographic location continue to have any special significance to the God who once dwelt there in Glory, only to abandon it later. Asked most simply: Has God forsaken that location forever?
It nearly goes without saying that I am here implicitly affirming that the God who once dwelt there is actually the LORD God Almighty, the actual Creator and Sustainer of heaven and earth, and not just a fictional, mythological being. But I will hereby make the implicit explicit. I am assuming and affirming just that. I do believe that the Creator once dwelt in Glory in a gilded chamber on a hilltop in ancient Jerusalem. Indeed, the historical events that transpired on and near that particular hilltop make that claim much more believable, when they are given careful attention and close examination. Prophecies have been made and fulfilled there, repeatedly over the centuries.
If that is indeed so — if prophecies were made and fulfilled there in the past — could it be that prophecies are continuing to be fulfilled there in the present and in the future?
In the Gospel of Luke 21:24, Jesus is recorded as prophesying this about the Jewish citizens of first-century Jerusalem:
They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
And guess what? History has proven Jesus right. It happened just as he once said. They did fall by the edge of the sword, and horribly so. They were led captive among all nations, and for almost two thousand years. And Jerusalem has been trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, and continues to be, especially at the very coordinates where the Glory of God once dwelt.
But when I hear the news reports and watch the Jewish citizens of Jerusalem literally physically fighting with their Gentile neighbors over that God-forsaken location, I do have to wonder if the times of the Gentiles are nearly fulfilled. Time will tell, I suppose.
According to a well-positioned and entirely reliable informant, a popular theology instructor at a local educational institution once believed that Jesus Christ was likely to return to Earth before the end of 1988. Someone had convinced him that the re-establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 meant that Jesus could return anytime, but likely no later than 1988. When he returned, Jesus was to take the worldwide Church upward from Earth in an event called the Rapture; and that astonishing event was supposed to transpire no later than the end of 1988. Yet while that year came to pass, the expected Rapture of the Church did not. And now the year 1988 recedes further and further into the past. In retrospect, that same popular theology instructor now looks to that unfulfilled date with both chagrin and wisened dismissiveness — chagrin that he was naïve enough to believe such a silly, errant “the-end-is-nigh” prediction, and wisened dismissiveness for anyone who would again presume to promote speculative eschatology.
Nonetheless, in spite of repeated misses, the speculators and predictors continue to predict Jesus’ imminent return. And some of them even dare set hard deadlines. Who would be foolish enough to do such a thing? Who would presume to set dates for Jesus’ second coming and promote speculative end-time predictions? If and when the end-of-the-world date-setters are proven wrong — as they invariably are — they make themselves look immensely foolish. They set up themselves and their gullible followers for public ridicule and derisive scorn. And yet one doomsday predictor after another invariably steps forward. They just keep on coming along, predictably mis-predicting that the end is near because Jesus is once again about to return.
Okay, zany apocalyptic preacher, exactly why should we believe yet another doomsday prediction? What makes you right, unlike everyone who came before you? Is the sky actually falling this time, Reverend Chicken Little?
Somewhat surprisingly, one of the most famous or infamous of the doomsday-predicting preachers is still active in the ecclesiastical eschatology-speculation business, after fifty-one years of date-setting miscalculations and subsequent adjustments. Yes, although he is now in his early 90s, this particular predictive preacher is still actively at it. He is considered by many to be the very epitome of repetitive eschatological error. And exactly who is this man? At the pinnacle of the heap of nefarious doomsday preachers stands a mustachioed Oklahoman named Hal Lindsey.
Here, though, is the twist and the kicker. It is something I should perhaps hesitate to admit: I kind of like Hal Lindsey, even respect him. When he speaks about the Bible (even about portions of the Book of Revelation), what he has to say is sound — at least what I have heard. Admittedly, I have only heard and read a little, and should listen to more of what he says. But what I did hear from Hal Lindsey demonstrated real depth of insight. I would even use the descriptive word profound for the recent sermon I watched online. He did not sound like the speculative, slick villain I had been expecting. Yet many Christians have nothing good to say about Hal Lindsey whatsoever.
Let me tell you why. Back in 1970 Hal Lindsey and a co-author wrote a best-selling book entitled The Late Great Planet Earth. It ranks as the 55th best-selling book of all time. And it was on basis of The Late Great Planet Earth that many prophecy-speculators began to believe that Jesus would probably (or definitely) return by 1988. However, this particular speculation fell flat. What Hal Lindsey suggested might someday happen did not happen, and seemingly cannot happen any longer, simply because the global political scene has changed so much since the 1970s. Over the last fifty years, Lindsey has consequently needed to make some adjustments to his prophetic political scenarios. And after a while, many have tired of such adjustments.
Yet when he speaks on the Bible, Lindsey is learned, sound, and even profound. How can that possibly be? And what does someone do with that? Someone explains why it is so. In my estimation, the main reason Lindsey has gotten Revelation wrong through the years is because he insists on reading and interpreting Revelation too literally.
If you understand his determination to interpret Revelation as literally as possible, Lindsey makes understandable interpretive mistakes. I would argue that Lindsey makes forgivable interpretive mistakes. Lindsey takes Scripture very seriously, and has been doing his best to make sense of Scripture for over fifty years. But his best-selling book made some errant speculative predictions. In the minds of many, it now stands as a massive embarrassment within Christianity. By virtue of at least one major errant speculation, Lindsey (and his interpretive scions) have given end-times eschatology a bad name.
That all said, at least some of what Lindsey wrote needs to be given re-consideration. If you understand why Lindsey suggested that Jesus might return by 1988, it actually makes a lot of sense. No, of course, Lindsey wasn’t right about it. And history has long since disproved his speculation. But his argument makes sense, nonetheless. Based on some of Jesus’ cryptic actions and explanations, Lindsey reasonably suggested that the generation that witnesses the re-establishment of the State of Israel must be the generation that sees the return of Christ. Since Israel was re-established in 1948, and since a biblical generation is 40 years (or so Lindsey once believed), Lindsey speculated in The Late Great Planet Earth that Jesus Christ would necessarily return by the end of 1988. To be fair, Lindsey was very careful to hedge his speculation about that particular date. But others after him were not as careful. If Lindsey had been writing in a sad old commentary somewhere, his errant speculation would be just a trivial curiosity. But to date, Lindsey’s book has sold well over 15 million copies. And it has even inspired a unique apocalyptic niche in literature and film.
Sometimes people will say that Lindsey is a false prophet. In my estimation, that is much too harsh. Lindsey is instead a slightly misguided biblical interpreter. He made and continues to make an honest effort at interpreting some very difficult sections of Scripture. By defaulting to a literal approach in interpreting symbolic prophetic material he and like-minded interpreters continue to bend the scenes from the Book of Revelation to unfolding or expected political events. Sometimes such interpretations may in fact work. Alternatively, such speculative interpretations can be (and have been) disproven by ensuing historical events.
Finally and affirmatively, I must say that I side with Lindsey more than many other Revelation scholars, insofar as I do believe that the Book of Revelation actually does predict the future. It actually does give specific details about future characters and events, and especially those in the political realm. I just believe Lindsey is too intent on defaulting to a forced literal reading of Revelation, when a figurative, symbolic reading actually yields a more coherent message.
What the Apostle Paul says about the Second Coming of Christ can and should be taken literally. Literally, you should read Paul’s writings literally (most of the time). What John the Apocalyptic Narrator says about the Second Coming of Christ should (almost always) be taken figuratively, and not literally. Figuratively, you should read John’s Apocalypse figuratively.
If you get and keep that straight, it should help you a lot, even immensely. It will help you (and your community of devoted listeners) avoid a plethora of potentially perplexing problems and may clear up accumulated clouds of contradictory confusion. With the Apostle Paul, do default to a literal reading. With John the Narrator of the Apocalypse, do not default to a literal reading, but instead default to a figurative reading. This will help you. Please try it out, even if you are reluctant to believe me.
Forgive me. I know I sound pedantic and even tedious. But this point needs to be hammered home, because many, if not most, of the interpretive problems circulating in the churches and especially in pop culture can be explained as simple hermeneutical malpractice. If the word hermeneutics is unfamiliar to you, I will explain it in just a bit.
Parenthetically (but importantly), interpreting Jesus himself requires both a figurative approach and a literal approach, because sometimes Jesus flips into his mysterious, cryptic mode and speaks figuratively, as when he tells parables in public; and sometimes Jesus very deliberately takes a less mysterious tack and speaks literally, as when he answers his disciples’ questions privately. Since Jesus talks about his Second Coming Advent and the End of the World Age both figuratively and literally, we are left to sort things out a bit. And that is where the Apostle Paul in particular is quite helpful, simply because Paul speaks to his audience more literally.
But what does the word hermeneutics mean? A hermeneutic is how a reader, viewer, or listener approaches a book, movie, television show, play, or radio program. If you think to yourself, “This television show is probably going to be boring,” you have not only a grudging attitude, but also a skeptical hermeneutic, which will probably make it harder to win your appreciation. Your hermeneutic has everything to do with your expectations of what you are about to see, read, hear, and experience. Your expectation and your hermeneutic: They forever go together. Clear enough; yes?
Usually, we are pretty good guessers, when it comes to our various hermeneutics. What we expect of a play or a movie or a show is often accurate. But sometimes we are not good guessers, at all. Although we were expecting one thing, it turned out to be something somewhat different or entirely different. And when our expectations of a spectacle or an event are wrong, it sometimes has to do with what someone else told us about it beforehand. Other people can and often do mess with our hermeneutic. That is especially true when we consider our hermeneutic influencer a reliable expert. “But my friend told me that this was such a good movie. And she is usually right.”
When it comes to understanding the Bible, we are often very, very influenced by the Pastor. If he or she tells us that a particular passage must mean something, we usually believe him or her. Naturally so. But do realize that if the Pastor is wrong about the passage in consideration, it might completely skew your hermeneutic — maybe completely, and potentially for the rest of your life. That is why it is good to listen to more than one reputed expert. And it is even better to know the Bible well for yourself. Yes, indeed.
Now I will let you in on a secret: A lot of pastors have a hard time themselves figuring out and understanding what the Apostle Paul and John the Apocalypse Narrator and Jesus himself had to say about the Second Coming Advent of Christ and the End of the World Age. Part of the reason these pastors have a hard time figuring it out is because they are influenced by scholars who do not recognize what needs to be read literally and what needs to be read figuratively.
That last sentence actually explains a lot. I hope it carries adequate weight for you.
You may be wondering at this point why you should believe what I am saying here. Okay, I am glad you asked that. You do not need to believe me, at all. I just want you to hear my claims and consider them. Let them roll around in your head for a while. See if they pass the test of time. You might even ask your pastor if there is some validity to what I am saying. While he or she might take issue with what I say should be read literally and what I say should be read figuratively, your esteemed pastor will likely concede my point about the influence of skewed hermeneutics. Your hermeneutical expectation of a passage of Scripture is very likely to determine how you read it. And that expectation — that hermeneutic — was probably formed by what you heard from the pulpit.
Much more importantly, go back to the Bible and try to read all those passages about the Second Advent and the End of the Age anew. Are you understanding what you are reading too literally? Are you understanding what you are reading too figuratively? Most readers err one way or the other.
Within the last week, one of my readers asked me to cover the thirteenth chapter of Mark. If I am not mistaken, I think that reader wants me to interact with what the Right Reverend N.T. Wright has written about Mark Chapter 13. This, then, is that.
Since the Right Reverend Wright wrote in an academic manner for his fellow scholars and for seminarians, I might slip back into egghead mode here. If I do, one or two reasons explain the slippage: Reason One – They trained us to write in a particular, peculiar way until it became an ingrained habit. Reason Two – I am striving for clean, concise precision. If you dislike academic jargon and despise seminary-speak, this might not be the blog post for you. But if you’re even moderately tolerant of seminary-speak, please do read/listen on.
Basically, N.T. Wright claims that Mark Chapter 13 is not about Jesus’ Second Coming, but instead about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE. You heard (or read) that right.
In response, I will sing my usual refrain: Wright is right in what he affirms and wrong in what he denies. Yes, Wright is right when he claims that Mark Chapter 13 is about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE. Wright is quite wrong when he claims that Mark 13 is not about Jesus’ Second Coming. Wright unnecessarily forces a false dilemma on his readers. We do not need to choose between the Destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE on one hand, and the Second Coming of Jesus on the other. Mark 13 speaks to both and links both. Highly important point.
Some of my readers/listeners might wonder if I portray Wright’s position fairly and accurately. Yes, I believe I do portray it accurately. However, if you want substantiation and if you want to double-check my claims for yourselves, you can locate what he says in his book Jesus and the Victory of God, (hereafter abbreviated as J&VoG) Chapter 8, Section 4, beginning on page 339 in my copy from 1996. You will need to wade through several pages of material, though, to get what I give you in my brief summary above.
Again, Wright forces a false dilemma. And a lot of people fall for it. Wright argues persuasively that Mark Chapter 13 is about the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE, because it is in fact about that destruction of Jerusalem. But it is also about Jesus’ Second Coming. Verses 24-27 ought to erase any doubt as to whether Christ’s Second Coming is also in focus. It is. Here are verses 24-27:
24 “But in those days, after that tribulation: The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not shed its light; 25 the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 He will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
Wright insists that these four verses are entirely metaphorical. He points out that they contain imagery from the Old Testament. And they do. But the implication is that they must not be understood literally, at all. He spends several pages explaining that verse 26 does not mean that Jesus will someday visibly descend from heaven, but rather has already ascended to heaven in vindication, because the word translated as coming can mean either coming or going in the original Koine Greek (refer to J&VoG, Chapter 8, Section 4, Subsection v The Vindication of the Son of Man, pages 360-365). Wright wants his readers to conclude that Mark 13 is solely focused on the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD/CE. It is a “crass literalism” to perceive a “physical collapse of the time-space world” (p. 361) in these verses.
Is it really a crass literalism to perceive the Second Coming in these verses? Is it a crass literalism to perceive the Rapture in these verses? I ask because verses 26 and 27 read like the Second Coming and Rapture to me.
In Wright’s defense, someone might point out that these verses must be metaphorical because we know enough about astronomy to know that the stars will not literally fall from the sky. Plus, verse 25 says that “the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” What does that even mean? It sure sounds metaphorical. Maybe Wright is right here?
Hang on, though. Such a line of reasoning says more about our contemporary assumptions of what must be literal than about how the original hearers would have heard it. The language of these verses evoke vivid phenomenological imagery. We can visualize a sunset, and still know that really it is not setting because the Earth is actually rotating. But we call it a sunset all the same, because that’s what we see. Likewise, we can visualize stars falling from the sky and imagine curious disruptions to the normal order of the heavens. In a way, this is all quasi-literal language, because it is how it would appear phenomenologically. It would see, sound, and feel as Scripture describes. So though it is not necessarily scientifically literal, it could very well be phenomenologically literal. And significantly, it also can be metaphorical. We don’t necessarily have to choose one way or the other.
But I have an even more pointed reply to Wright; and that is this: Other passages of Scripture do portray Jesus descending in a second coming, and very literally so. In Acts 1:11 two men dressed in white robes (presumably angels) ask the skyward-gazing apostles a question. They inquire, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
That’s as literal as can be, N.T. That ain’t metaphorical, at all. Jesus literally ascended upward into the sky. And someday he will descend from the sky. And that we call the Second Coming.
Notice that I am using another passage of Scripture to interpret Mark 13. Is that a legitimate move on my part? Yes, it is. It is legit because of the nature of Scripture. You get pieces of information from here and pieces of information from there on the same topic. Both Mark 13 and Acts 1:11 speak to Jesus’ coming and going, or going away and coming again. You can begin to get a feel for eschatology — for what will happen — when you pull the pieces of information together. Jesus will literally descend from the sky. That is how it will appear to us.
That all said, you can learn a lot of valuable information from N.T. Wright about the Bible. He is right when he says that Mark 13 references the destruction of Jerusalem. He is also (partially) right when he says that the destruction of Jerusalem vindicated Jesus, because Jesus predicted it would happen.
My issue with N.T. Wright is that he forces unnecessary choices on his readers. He misses prophetic parallels, echoes, and patterns, and insists instead on this or that. He puts his readers in a false dilemma.
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.
Thirty years ago, I asked a young defense attorney if he had ever won an acquittal for a defendant he knew without doubt to be guilty. He gave me an easy yes, and explained that he had prepared a believable but bogus line of defense, a misleading argument that the jury had naively fallen for. As a result, his guilty-as-sin client was wrongly ruled innocent and walked off as free as can be. The attorney had won his case; but justice was not served. Justice did not have its way that day. To my befuddled bewilderment, the young defense attorney was upfront about what happened, and yet completely unbothered. He felt no need to justify what he had done. He took a matter-of-fact and nonchalant attitude about it all. I probably should not have been as surprised as I was. Like the hoodwinked jury, I was rather naïve.
If I had to squeeze a somewhat positive takeaway from my bewildering conversation with the young attorney, it would be this: Well-presented arguments matter, matter a lot.
Regrettably, a wrong-headed and yet well-presented argument can win out against a better argument presented poorly. Falsehood can have its way if it is presented more persuasively than truth. Truth ought to prevail, to be sure and absolutely so. But how it is presented might matter quite a bit more, at least in the short term.
Why is that, though? The simple reason why the presentation of an arguable claim can matter as much as the truthfulness of its content is because people are often naïve and gullible. Yes, that was a wordy sentence. Sorry. But think it through. How something is presented can matter as much or even more than whether it is true; and that it is because people are gullible.
Most people will buy a lousy idea if it is spun persuasively enough, and if others they respect fall for it. Consider that an important axiom that you can pocket and revisit. Know as well that it explains a massive amount of foolishness that routinely plays out around you. A lot of people have been inoculated against the truth because they have heard persuasive or pervasive lies. That was well-worded, so I will repeat it: A lot of people have been inoculated against the truth because they have heard persuasive or pervasive lies. Yes, I ought to give you some examples. And yes, I need to explain why I am pointing this out to you.
As for why I am pointing this out to you, I intend to argue against a first-rate and very influential theologian, whom I will refer to as the Right Reverend. I hope to persuade you that the Right Reverend is quite wrong on something quite big. He once presented a persuasive correction of a controversial biblical doctrine known as the Rapture. And his persuasive correction has become pervasive. Succinctly stated, the Right Reverend says there will be no Rapture. But I mean to correct his correction. Although the Right Reverend is right about a lot, here he is wrong. There will be a Rapture. It is a doctrine that can be established biblically. And we are supposed to expect it.
But before I get into the nitty-gritty of my arguments for the Rapture, I want to talk about the influence of the Right Reverend. Over a dozen years ago, I went to a local church where a very popular young pastor referred pejoratively to the Rapture as “Evacuation Theology.” The very popular young pastor insisted that God has no intentions of evacuating us Christians out of the world, but instead intends to return to this world and make Heaven and Earth one — one habitation for God and the Redeemed of Humanity.
Fancy Phrase here: The very popular young pastor was right in what he affirmed, but wrong in what he denied. And that is another important axiom to pocket: A lot of pundits are right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny. How was he right? The popular young pastor was right when he affirmed that God intends to return (Christ) to this world and make Heaven and Earth one habitation for Himself and the Redeemed of Humanity. True, that. But the popular young pastor was wrong when he denied that God will evacuate the Church. On the contrary, according to scripture God will evacuate the Church, albeit for just a little while.
The message I heard from the popular young pastor had the fingerprints of the Right Reverend. It is very, very likely that the popular young pastor came to his disparaging views of the Rapture — “Evacuation Theology” — either directly or indirectly from the Right Reverend. If I had to bet, I would bet that the popular young pastor read the voluminous and eloquent writings of the Right Reverend in seminary, just like me. Indeed, the Right Reverend is prolific, and one of today’s best-selling Christian writers. The Right Reverend’s name is N.T. Wright, more casually known as Tom Wright. He is a brilliant and important writer. But he is wrong about the Rapture. I need to do more than assert that, though. I need to explain why Wright is wrong and I am right. Did you catch the pun there?
Allow me to make a caveat here, though: I hardly think of N.T. Wright as a dangerous heretic. Much to the contrary, I think of N.T. Wright as a profoundly important, orthodox interpreter and theologian. He deserves his status as one of the most important living Christian thinkers. But the Right Reverend Wright does get this one very important point very wrong.
Since Jesus warned his listeners to be vigilant and ready for the eventuality of his appearance and the rapture/the evacuation that will accompany his appearance, it matters much that we affirm its reality (see Luke 17:20-37, which will be one of my key scriptural references). Jesus urged his followers to be ready upon his appearance to immediately and absolutely abandon everything near and dear. Like Noah’s family and Lot’s family — evacuees, in both cases — his followers need to be ready and willing to leave when the time comes. Jesus puts the onus on his followers to be ready, watchful, and willing to leave when the time comes and he appears. This all makes sense if the rapture involves an urgent angelic summons of those who are ready to go. However, it does not make sense if there is no rapture.
But beating N.T. Wright in a debate about the reality of the Rapture will take a lot more than just a few sloppy paragraphs. I have a negative task and a positive task in front of me. The negative task is to debunk his frankly persuasive arguments. The positive task is to more firmly establish my own arguments. Honestly, I might not convince my readers and listeners. But I am going to try, if only because I really do believe the rapture will happen, and could happen relatively soon. For now, though, I just want my readers to be introduced to what the issue is and whom I arguing against.
Yesterday I went to a nearby church to hear a twenty-something-year-old pastor preach. His message ranks as one of the best I have heard in a long time. He preached about the urgent necessity of self-disciplined discernment — discernment pertaining to various news sources, including both broadcast news companies and social media. Although I think he may have avoided the actual word gullible, in effect he urged his congregants not to be gullible news recipients. He encouraged them to seek out the most-factual, least-biased news reporting possible, while insisting that there is no such thing as a completely objective source. He also suggested they choose to listen to diverse and contrarian voices, lest they only hear one bias on a given narrative. It was all very timely and wise advice, especially coming from such a young pastor. I thought he was quite courageous to wade into such a potentially volatile topic from the pulpit. My chief regret about his message had nothing to do with him. I mostly regret that more people were not present to hear his message. He spoke to a very small crowd.
If I had been tasked with giving the same message, I would have toyed with whether to talk about how we are to discern the times in which we live. His concern and mine do overlap somewhat, but are not one and the same. In his message, my young pastor friend was concerned about how we hear the news, that is, about what we perceive to be true and accurate news. I am concerned about that, as well. Doubtless, getting our facts straight is crucially important. Yet I am even more concerned about the grander, broader narrative in which we insert the various factoids which we glean from the daily or weekly news.
To make my point here, I will use a river analogy. Imagine you are kayaking or canoeing on an unfamiliar river. Various people along the way shout bits of information to you about your immediate situation or your immediately-impending situation. One somewhat-suspicious character yells out, “Beware! There are lots of hungry alligators just ahead!” Another equally-suspicious person counters with, “The fishing hole just around the bend is absolutely fantastic! You should stop a while and fish there.” Whom do you believe? Should you pause to do some fishing or hurry along to avoid voracious alligators? Obviously, it matters greatly whom you choose to believe. But another, even more important consideration would be the anticipated end of the river itself. What if there are treacherous rapids and a dangerous waterfall ahead? Or what if the river empties soon into a placid lake or a beautiful ocean? Knowing that either scenario is true (or at least likely) will change your kayaking calculus quite a bit.
If the first scenario were believed to be true — if you suspected that treacherous rapids and a dangerous waterfall were soon ahead of you — it might be high time to get to the next dock, regardless of the voracious alligators or the prospect of fine fishing. Neither reputed fact would be as important as getting to the next dock.
Alternatively, if the second scenario were believed to be true — if you suspected that the river soon ends in a placid lake or a beautiful ocean — your one aim might be to push ahead and push through, regardless of the alligators or the prospect of a fine fishing hole.
In either case, your anticipated end can significantly change how you perceive your immediate situation or your immediately-impending situation.
Does the Book of Revelation tell us anything about the end of the river? Does the Book of Revelation help us discern when the end of the river is near? Consider that question carefully. How you answer it might determine how you respond to the news reports you hear.
I argue that the Book of Revelation does help us discern when the end of the river is near. Indeed, I would assert that the Book of Revelation was given to the Church for that very reason. God wants us to be able to discern the End of the Age as it draws near. If that claim comes across as wacky or weird to you, my counter-question would simply be, “Then among the other books of the New Testament, do you believe the Book of Revelation has a unique and distinct purpose? If so, what do you believe that purpose to be?” Again, I believe that the Book of Revelation is in the Bible to help the Church discern the times, and especially to help us recognize when the End is near. To say so is by no means a claim to establish an exact date, but is instead to claim that God has done us the favor of giving the watchful a descriptive and specific heads-up. Otherwise, the Book of Revelation seems to serve little-to-no discernibly distinctive purpose in comparison to the rest of the Bible, other than to perhaps confound and perplex interpreters. If that last sentence is an overstatement, I hope it still carries my point.
Now, to be very specific about the time in which we find ourselves, I wonder if (and even strongly suspect that) we are living in a prophesied period in which the Church appears to be defeated and done. Does Revelation actually teach that the Church will appear to be defeated? That is exactly how I read Revelation 11:1-10. And if it matters to my readers or listeners, a lot of other well-respected interpreters read this passage precisely the same way, which is to say that my interpretation here is not obscure, nor lightly dismissed. Major interpreters understand the Two Witnesses figuratively, just like me. They say the Two Witnesses must be the Church. Immediately before the Two Witnesses are resurrected and taken to heaven, the Witnesses are somehow conquered and killed by the Beast from the Abyss. Do not misunderstand me here. I am not saying that we should all expect to be killed. This is a figurative interpretation, and not a literal interpretation. Not every Christian dies; we know that from other passages in the New Testament, such as 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 and 1 Corinthians 15:51-53. But the Church of Christ will appear so defeated to its enemies that they will exult in celebration over their triumph, and even exchange gifts with one another. The more I see the Church persecuted around the world — persecuted both politically and culturally — the more I wonder if this is all happening right before our eyes. But to come to such a conclusion does require a figurative reading of Revelation 11:1-10, not a literal reading.
If my readers and listeners are willing to entertain the possibility that my suggested reading of Revelation 11 might be correct and may fit our current time, then I would suggest that the practical implications are straightforward. We need to be calling people to repentance, while there is still time for them to repent. Granted, if anyone does run with this interpretation, she or he might come across as “a bit much” to those around them. Therefore, one has to decide how to approach others. I choose to blog about it.