Friday, May 20, 2011

On Rapture, Apocalypse, the End of the World, and why you shouldn't cancel your mortgage

If you've been paying attention to the news/Facebook recently, you know the Rapture is happening tomorrow at 6 PM. In what time zone, you ask?--in every time zone; it will supposedly start with a global earthquake at the international date line that will then make its way west to hit every time zone at 6:00 PM. So here in Minnesota, we should actually hear the first reports of it at midnight tonight! The brain behind this deduction is Harold Camping, the leader of Family Radio Ministry. He and his followers have set up a website at He says the Bible "guarantees" the end of the world will happen on May 21, 2011. (He earlier predicted it would be September 6, 1994, but he got the math wrong. He's sure this time.) To warn people of the impending end, they've been renting advertisement space and wearing sandwich boards and such; one man even spent his life's savings to spread the word.

Don't think for a second that I'm writing to convince my readers that Camping is wrong. I know you're smarter than that. But for any of my non-Christian readers (who I hope exist), I just want to assure you that the Bible does not predict the second coming of Christ today, or any day; in fact, it specifically says that we can't know the time or date. (The audacity of Camping's followers naming their site '' is amazing) The Bible states this several times, but most explicitly in Matthew 24:36, where Jesus says: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." Not even Jesus himself knows when he'll be coming back. Why should we expect to? And having read the entire Bible, I can assure you that there is no janky prediction or calculation of such a date anywhere in it. Maybe Camping is thinking of a different Bible? So when midnight strikes and nothing happens, don't say "The Bible was wrong", say, "Harold Camping was wrong" (again).

But with that out of the way, maybe it is a good thing that they've gotten people thinking about this important (yet unknown) date. It's certainly not something most people (including me) tend to dwell on. We can't know when it will happen, but I wanted to spend a bit of time on what we can know about the second coming. (The word "rapture", by the way, isn't in the Bible) Since there's an entire book (Revelation) written on it, you'd think we could know plenty. But I think Revelation is highly metaphorical--St. John wrote it based on a dream or vision--and I wouldn't treat it as a play-by-play of what will happen. Still, you can get some basic events out of it. What does the Bible actually say about the second coming of Christ?
  1. The Earth as we know it will pass away. They don't call it "the end of the world" or "apocalypse" for nothing. Chapters 6-16 pretty much depict God destroying the old earth in a manner not altogether unlike how He created it. There are wars, monstrous beasts (who have been interpreted as being quite a few historical leaders), just about every natural disaster imaginable, and the four horsemen (who, unlike the seven deadly sins and the date of the end of the world, are actually in the Bible). It doesn't sound like a very pleasant time. And yet...
  2. God will finally come down, and it will be glorious. One unmistakable theme in Revelation is God fully establishing His kingdom on earth. Don't think that His final plan for us is with Him in heaven--no, He's going to remake the earth the way He originally meant it to be and dwell there with us. 21:3 says, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." No verse in the Bible gives me more hope than this one. The present, fallen, screwed-up condition of the world with all its pain and sorrow is just a blip in eternity--God will make everything perfect the way He meant it to be.
  3. Christians will go up to meet Him. In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, Paul gives the church in Thessalonica a surprise sneak peek at what's to come: "For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet them in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever." First those who died and went to heaven will be bodily resurrected and meet the Lord, then those who are still alive will be taken up for a big reunion in the clouds. As far as I know, this passage is the basis for the "rapture" depicted in the Left Behind books (Also, in Matthew 24:40-41, Jesus talks about how some will be "taken" and others will be left, supporting this concept.) Does this mean Christians will apparate away like in the books? I don't know. But I look forward to it nonetheless.
  4. Those who were martyred by decapitation will be raised and reign with Christ for a thousand years before that. (20:1-10) Wait, what? And then Satan will be released and be allowed one last stand before his final demise? This is where it gets strange. But that part is awfully specific... At the very least, Biblical scholars think this means there will be some kind of "interim period" in between the current, fallen Earth and the perfect, redeemed Earth. Why it's there, no one but God knows!
  5. Everyone will be judged. (20:11-15) It says everyone will be judged according to their deeds as recorded in the "book of life". Those who did evil were thrown into the lake of fire, along with "death and Hades". And the lake of fire itself is the "second death". This is also confusing, and I share C.S. lewis' view that it basically means total separation from God and the destruction that inevitably ensues. It sounds kind of like we have to earn our salvation by doing good deeds, but here's the tricky part: if we believe in Christ, our sins have already died with Him on the cross and we get His perfect righteousness instead! Our slate is wiped clean!
Christians would be lucky just to agree on these extreme basics of the end of the world, let alone the details. Even among wise, learned Christian theologians there are several accepted views on what will happen, mostly differing by the order of the events listed above. I have no idea which view (if any) is correct. But I don't think it really matters; regardless of the specifics, we should be ready to meet Jesus whenever He comes. 1 Thessalonians 5:4 says "you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. This is the verse that Camping and his followers seize on, thinking that it shouldn't surprise us because we can know when it will happen! But of course, Jesus Himself said otherwise. The verse means that we shouldn't be surprised not because we saw it coming, but because we were prepared. Just like that crazy guy whose bomb shelter you'd be knocking on in the event of a zombie apocalypse, we should make sure we're ready for the real apocalypse, whether it's coming in three hours or three centuries.

Alright, I've convicted myself enough by writing that last paragraph. Stay ready, my friends.

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