Sunday, January 19, 2014

Wanting to be Left Behind

...Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. (Gen 7:23)

When I was in high school I started to become interested in "the rapture", an event that I believed would happen at the end of this age when the believers of Jesus are to be brought out of this world prior to the Tribulation, which is when God would punish the unbelievers who were left behind. I even watched one of the Left Behind movies that portrays what this might look like, as believers are taken up and cars they were driving crash and unbelievers wander around the earth trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together before the eeeeeeeevil pope, who is obviously the antichrist, tries to establish a world church for Satan.

Yes, for a couple short years I was taken in by the theology of "the rapture" because a couple of my friends started to convince me about it. I hadn't heard the Catholic version of the end times, since I wasn't a Catholic until recently, but thankfully over the last few years some Catholic authors have started to refute the idea of a "rapture", an idea that didn't appear in Christianity for over 1,800 years; Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, and some "Old World" Calvinists generally reject this supposed future event. The idea of a "rapture" didn't exist until the 1830s when it was expressed by Englishman John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren; it was then popularized in fundamentalist groups of the United States in the early 20th century by the Scofield Reference Bible (although some 18th and 19th century Calvinists in America were starting to develop similar theories to Darby's). I admit, when they quote Jesus talking about people being taken and others being left behind, it's quite convincing! And I cannot condemn these people who honestly believe these things - they've been taught error from the past and their love and fear of the Lord drives them to hope in their rescue from the unbelievable evil they see in this world; we all wish to be delivered from these things! However, the "left behind" errors need to be corrected if we're to truly get a sense of the "end times". I know many people - even family - who refuse to lift a finger to change the wrongs of society because "the end is coming" and the more chaotic and evil, the quicker "the rapture" can take place. So, this is a serious discussion that needs to take place in our ecumenical efforts. Let us begin by looking at the Bible quotes that have been misinterpreted - for ecumenical reasons, we'll read the Authorized Version (the King James Version) of the New Testament (I hope that in the future we'll be able to settle this by going over the subject in the original Greek).

The context here is that Jesus is telling his disciples about the end of the age as he is about to return to earth:

But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. But as the days of Noe [Noah] were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe [Noah] entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come. (Matthew 24:36-42)

Similar details can be found in the Gospel of St. Luke (17:34-36):

I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left. Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two men shall be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.

St. Paul mentions being "taken up into the air" in his letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 4:15-18):

For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.

Pretty scary stuff, right? It definitely sounds like the "saved" will be brought up out of the earth so that God can rain justice upon the earth. However, let's look at the context here for a moment. What was being discussed when these quotes were made? In Matthew and Luke, Jesus was discussing the end of the age with his disciples and what was his warning? To be prepared. What is it that we all do? We put off the things of God to the end, don't we? I do it all the time! I sin and then I add evil to evil, all the while Jesus implores us to be prepared. We put off praying. We put off reading the Scriptures. We put off being holy. We procrastinate, always thinking that "there will be time for that later." But in Jesus' discussion with his disciples (especially in Matthew), he is explaining how the kingdom of heaven is a treasure and that those who discover it give up everything to pursue it (selling everything to buy the field, the pearl of great price, etc.). He puts all of these things - about how awesome heaven and salvation is - and then shows us through parables how we usually act instead: we ignore the treasure we have found. He explains to us how if the homeowner knew when the thief would come, he wouldn't have been caught off guard and would have remained awake to be prepared for when he came - he then compares himself to that thief, that Christ will come when we least expect it and so we should be prepared. He then tells us of the wise and foolish virgins, the wise being prepared for when the groom came, but the foolish having put off the important things so that they missed it when he appeared. You can see that Jesus was emphasizing preparedness throughout this discourse. So then, when he gets to the part about some being taken and others left behind, how does he start that discussion? But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. But as the days of Noe [Noah] were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. So, let's go back to Genesis and look at parts of the story about Noah: And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually...But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord...The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth. (Genesis 6:5-8, 11-13)

Christ insists that "as the days of Noe [Noah] were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be." And he rhetorically asks in Luke 18:8, "...when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?" So, we can see that in both instances, "The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence" and that with man "every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." Look at our present-day world, especially Western culture and its protection of contraception, abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, pornography, homosexuality, fornication...while mankind is inherently good, the thoughts of our culture have indeed become evil. And what do we do? Just as Christ said: "...they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe [Noah] entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away..." The people killed in the flood acted the same way we act today when we ignore God; we go about living our lives, being the foolish virgin and the man who didn't realize the thief was on his way. So, Christ's discourse is about being prepared for when Christ comes, either personally (when we die) or as part of the Second Coming. He's telling us, "When the end of the world was about to happen in the days of Noah, the people of the world went about their normal lives - never repenting - never being prepared for that day when the end would come. Don't be like those people who weren't ready, or like a homeowner unprepared for the thief or a virgin unprepared to meet her groom. Be ready, because Christ could come calling at any minute."

But what about the whole "one will be taken and one will be left behind" thing? Let's once again go back to the story of Noah, since that is the context in which the Lord is speaking: ...Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark.

Noah and his family were left behind. This seems to agree with what Christ said in Matthew: For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe [Noah] entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left. Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.

As it turns out, we've been concentrating on the wrong person! In the days of Noah, the evil people on the earth were taken (the flood came and took them all away), and the righteous were left behind (...only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark). This makes a lot more sense since Revelation explains that Christ will renew Creation, where there will be a new Jerusalem on the earth and God shall dwell with man forever - not in some far off place surrounded by puffy clouds, but on earth with the people that are left. Psalm 37 even alludes to what happens to the people who delight in the ways of the Lord compared to those who adore evil: Wicked doers shall be rooted out and they that patiently abide the LORD, those shall inherit the land. Yet a little while, and the ungodly shall be clean gone: thou shalt look after his place, and he shall be away. But the meek-spirited shall possess the earth, and shall be refreshed in the multitude of peace. Even in St. Paul's first letter to the Thessolonians, he says: ...we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air...

And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them...(Rev 20:13).

Which brings us to St. Paul's discussion about being taken up; he's speaking about the Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead. We can see in the Gospels and the Book of Acts that there was some debate in those days about whether or not there was a resurrection of the dead; there's a great story in Acts where St. Paul uses this debate to his advantage by causing an argument between the Pharisees and the Sadducees because they disagreed with one another about the subject. So Paul spends some effort in many of his epistles trying to explain to the early Church how we, as one people of God, can be saved from sin and death and be resurrected. In this particular passage, Paul is explaining that when Jesus comes again, even the dead shall rise to meet him. The part that is confusing for us is Paul's description of the living and the dead going up to meet Jesus in the clouds - it's very hard to understand the tradition of people going out to meet their king before he arrives back at his castle. However, this was a common sign of respect and honor due to a king or great military leader:

So the king returned, and came to Jordan. And Judah came to Gilgal, to go to meet the king, to [escort] the king over Jordan. (2 Sam 19:5)

...the women came out of all cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet king Saul, with tabrets, with joy, and with instruments of musick. (1 Sam 18:6)

Then the king arose, and sat in the gate. And they told unto all the people, saying, Behold, the king doth sit in the gate. And all the people came before the king... (2 Sam 19:8)

And David came to the two hundred men, which were so faint that they could not follow David, whom they had made also to abide at the brook Besor: and they went forth to meet David, and to meet the people that were with him: and when David came near to the people, he saluted them. (1 Sam 30:21)

Even more examples can be found outside of Scripture when people went out to greet a king or general returning from battle. So, when Christ the King comes the second time in order to destroy evil and death once and for all, all the people of the world that remain - the quick and the dead will arise to meet him in the clouds, an honor truly deserving for such a great King! And then what happens? The king and his people return to the city together in triumphant celebration! We who remain shall return to earth with our King, "and so shall we ever be with the Lord."

For more information on the Catholic response to "the rapture" and the end times, I would highly recommend the following resources as a start: Bible Christian Society's Rapture and the Bible (mp3), St. Michael Media's The Rapture (mp3), Catholic Education's article Questioning the Left Behind Rapture, the various articles and tracts on the rapture from Catholic Answers, and the following books:

Will Catholics be Left Behind?
The Rapture Trap
Catholics & the Rapture
What Does the Bible Say About the End Times?
Rapture: The End Times Error That Leaves the Bible Behind
The End of the Present World & the Mysteries of the Future Life
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: New Testament

Upon these reflections, perhaps it's best for us to hope to be left behind instead of taken.