Beginning and the end part 2: End of the world
Last time, I shared about how my understanding of the origins of life have evolved during my faith journey. If talk about the beginning of the world is controversial, so is talk about the end of the world.
I grew up in a liberal mainline church. We did not talk about the end of the world in our church. The closest we got to eschatology (doctrine of last things) was a vague notion that good people went to heaven. If we did discuss the end of the world, it was to criticize televangelists who used the threat of the imminent return of Jesus to get their audience to give them money.
Later I attended a conservative evangelical church and there was a radical shift in view of the end-times. There was a tremendous expectancy that Jesus was coming back soon. Not only was there expectancy, there was confidence in the details. Our church held to what was known as a pre-millennial, pre-tribulational view.
This meant that they believed in a literal thousand year reign of Christ as described in the book of Revelation and that Jesus’ return would begin that. They also believed in a seven year period of tribulation led by the antichrist and that Jesus would rescue his church just before the tribulation with a dramatic event called the rapture.
This is basically the view presented in the popular book series Left Behind. But for our church, this was not just interesting fiction, it was clear doctrine.
There was not a lot of room for discussion. I remember some friends acknowledging that those who believed the rapture took place in the middle of the rapture, although wrong, could still be considered Christians. There was not much more theological room than this.
I was shocked when I heard that there actually were Christians who did not believe in a rapture and that they were well respected evangelical scholars. This led to my own theological journey.
Instead of starting with an already developed system, I began to read the Bible and noting what it said for itself. I looked for statements that appeared over and over to get a sense of what the biblical authors really believed.
One of the first things that I noticed is that there was very little talk of Christians enjoying spiritual state freed from the body in a place called heaven. Despite hearing this at every funeral, I noticed that the emphasis by both Jesus and Paul was on the resurrection of the body.
That is not to say that Christians do not go to heaven when they die. But according to the Bible, heaven is little more than a waiting room. The hope that is held out to the Christian is the resurrection of the body. Desiring to be free from the body is more about the influence of Plato’s philosophy on the church than it is about biblical teaching. According to the Bible, bodily existence is good and it is our eternal destiny.
But when does this resurrection take place?
This brings us to the problem of the rapture. People who believe in the rapture are almost right, but not quite. Here is the passage in question:
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 the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, NIV)
While some people call this the rapture, it is more accurately described as the resurrection. The resurrection will take place on the day that Jesus returns. The purpose of this transformation of both dead and living Christians is not to rescue us from the antichrist but to make us into what we are supposed to be. Not only will our bodies be resurrected, so will our planet. The earth will be transformed and made into a paradise without sin or death.
Biblical scholar N.T. Wright describes all of this not as life after death but “life after life after death.” Our goal is not to just survive death but to wait out our disembodied state until Jesus returns and we receive resurrection bodies like his.
There is a place for us to discuss other topics such as the nature of the millennium and the meaning of the antichrist. But it is helpful to only hold firm on what is clear and that is that Jesus will return and will raise the living and the dead.
Part One can be read here.
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