Tuesday, November 13, 2007

N. T. Wright on the Rapture

This picture is not directly related to Paul, but I'd thought I'd share it.

When I was in London in October 2007, I had the chance to go to the British Museum with a good friend, Dr. Alp Aslandogan of the Institute for Interfaith Dialog. Although we had only a few hours, we took the short walk to the museum and spent some time looking at the wonderful artifacts of past civilizations. One of my favorite spots was a stop where I got to hang out with Alexander the Great (see above--Alexander is the pale fellow on the right). I had seen this image of Alexander many times in photographs and on the Internet. Now I was standing face to face with the famous bust of one of the most important people in history.

Follow the link below to N. T. Wright's article from 2001 in the Bible Review called "Farewell to the Rapture." You will probably have to copy and paste it into your web browser.


Read the article and the biblical passages Wright quotes. After you read his article, come back to the blog and respond to it. In particular, why do you think the "Left Behind" phenomenon has been so popular? What do you believe about this passage and why?


Anonymous said...

To see some non-LaHaye- and non-Lindsey-approved Google pieces on the rapture fantasy, type in "Pretrib Rapture Desperados," "Pretrib Rapture Diehards," and "Thomas Ice (Bloopers)." They'll do your heart good! John

brad said...

I agree that the US has a facination with the Rapture. I think this is for several reasons. One, I still think that there are a lot of churches out there that choose a scare tactic type of evangelism. We've all heard about the church haunted house that has the hell rooms and the parts of the rapture played out to literally scare the hell out of us. Another reason for this upswing in this rapture craze is it does provide some church that is not BORING. I have spoken with scores of people who are not Christians, but who have read at least of these books. They enjoyed it, period. It was a story about God that didn't bore them. I asked this one young lady if church bored her and she said Yeah that's why she didn't go. BUT I also think that there is a spiritual hunger out there as we have never seen. People are seeking SOMETHING, they just don't know what. When you have these two forces combined, you get the popularity of this book series. I think that people who seek will naturally gravitate to the popular books. Why would they not? Plus they are completely unable to discern what is truth from fiction. Finally, it has to be noted that TONS of Christians are reading these books. This "tons" includes my wife. She read them and "really got into them" from a story standpoint. It seems as if these stories were able to fill in detail that the Scriptures could not on a part of the Bible that is fantastic and wild much like science fiction. My wife did not believe all this stuff to be true, but the writing is good and it held her attention. It was fun. When was the Bible last fun?

I have not read them. Being in seminary tends to cut down in enjoyment reading just a tad. But I do feel that the popularity of these books present the church with an awesome opportunity to teach.

On Paul...I used to joke that the definition of hell has nothing to do with flames, the devil, and all that nonsense. Hell would be chained to Paul or told to stand guard over him. I used to think of him as this type AAA personality who was going to tell you about Jesus whether you wanted to hear about Him or not. Think of an insurance salesman or used care salesman on steroids and you have Paul. I thik I now have a deeper understanding of what made him tick. This is where the difference has been for me. I always deeply respected him, but didn;t think I would ever want to hang out with him. Make sense? I never really saw the passages where he described himself as a poor preacher, quiet, not much to look at kind of guy...when he was comparing himself to the super apostles. I think this showed me a side of Paul, the humility side, that I had never seen before.

Barbara said...

I think the “Left Behind” phenomenon has been so popular in the United States because it fits so well with our mind-set. Though I have not read the books, my understanding from what I have heard, read, and gained from N.T. Wright’s article is that they promote the very individualistic view of the world that marks so much of who we are a people. It reflects the concern for me and my salvation and a responsibility for only myself. The “left behind” viewpoint has no room for creation and seems to be simplistic, reductionistic and as Wright pointed out, dualistic; earth is bad and heaven good, some people are good and others bad, etc.

Wright also mentions that this “pseudo-theological version of Home Alone” has frightened children into a distorted kind of faith. And perhaps more than children have been swayed by this fear-factor faith where fear is used as a means of conversion. Promoting this view of God, fear is used to ‘scare the hell’ out of people. This also seems to fit our “fasted-paced, fast-food” style of American living because it is the fast track for conversion - it seems easier to scare people into the ‘faith’ than to model the cruciform life of love and sacrifice lived in and under the grace of God.

The verses quoted in Wright’s article show a much different picture of the ‘end times’ which begin now (Romans 8:22) and continue with God’s glory being revealed, all of creation being transformed, the recreation of heaven and earth being realized, and death being swallowed up in the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ – more than the celebration of one and fear of others, it is a picture of the celebration of all of heaven and earth.

And, Happy Thanksgiving to each one of you! Enjoy this day that the Lord has made!

Barbara said...

I really appreciated your insights, Brad, that these type books provide an excitement that many of our churches do not and that there is a real hunger out there...perhaps one that people do not even know how to name. As the church, I beleive we have to be real and authentic and not fall into providing "exciting" for the sake of exciting. I also wonder about the selection of books in our popular bookstores...do some of our solid, theological writers need to come down to the level of the average, hungry heart and write something that will speak to them in their lives today...soemthing that will find its way off the shelves of the Fuller Bookstore and onto the shelves of Barnes and Noble?

Paul said...

NT Wright Blog

Personally, I have never read any of the Left Behind series. Not because I’ve spent the time to build a solid theological critique of the rapture, but because they just haven’t passed the “sniff test” for me. I’ve never been in a church which taught about the rapture. To me it has always seemed to be an extreme, fundamentalist description that didn’t line up with my (admittedly cursory) readings of the New Testament eschatological passages. So of course Bishop Wright’s essay makes a lot of sense to me.

The passage in 1 Thessalonians comes in the context of Paul offering hope to the Thessalonians in their grief. Here is the context: “Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope” (v.13). I don’t think his purpose was to describe the end times so much as to offer hope that those who have already died will not be left behind in the New Creation. In 1 Cor 15:54, Paul writes about the need for the perishable to be clothed with the imperishable, which emphasizes for me Wright’s point that the New Creation will be connected with our present Creation in a holistic way. It is not so much that the “Classic Creation” will be discarded and replaced, but transformed and redeemed by the power of God into a New Creation.

With respect to why the LB books have been so popular, I think the reasons are likely many, but here are three that come to mind: 1) Americans are so biblically illiterate that the interpretations offered by the books didn’t raise enough questions, at least in enough circles, to quell their popularity; and 2) There are far too many (in this case, millions of) believers who will accept a work of art, music, film or culture without question as long as it is labeled “Christian.” Quality, theology and worldview become secondary or tertiary or are not even critically evaluated. 3) The books resonate with our culture’s shallow fascination with the otherworldly—even if the LB movies were “C” grade, the books’ concepts resonate with those who long for freak-show fantasy. For many Christians, they are a “sanctified,” freak-show fantasy because they are “Christian.”

All of this reminds me of the significant fact that Satan quotes scripture to Jesus during the Temptation (Cf. Luke 4). I take this as a strong warning that we must be very careful in our handling of scripture. Heaven forbid that we would wield it in such a way that would further Satan’s purposes. We must come to scripture with great humility and interpret and “use” it with great care.

Paul said...

Spending the term studying Paul has sharpened my focus on him. It is hard to say what my previous opinion of Paul was, because I probably had not built a thorough opinion of him. He was the guy on a pedestal who wrote most of the NT—pretty much unapproachable. I don’t think I had evaluated him in these terms. Now he is more real as an historical figure—one who wrestled with Christ and CHANGED because of his encounter with the gospel. Paul responded to the gospel with his whole life. The lists of his sufferings for the gospel and the evidence through his relationships and letters are remarkable. I love Gorman’s concept of Cruciformity—this is probably my chief take-away from this course—that all of theology and the gospel points to or is dependant upon, the cross. The way of following Jesus and the ethics of Paul all align with this sense of downward mobility, self-sacrifice, and selflessness which is evident in Christ’s life. Hope is found in the resurrection made possible by the cross.

Paul said...

I agree with Brad’s comment about the prevalence of a scare-tactic gospel. I have seen it in youth ministry and other settings. It is frankly pretty disturbing. I don’t see any evidence of Paul or Jesus or anyone using fear to convert people to the way of faith. They did use some strong words, but always for the people of God who thought they had it all figured out & ought to know better. I imagine they would have some words for the scare-tactic folks, but before I get too riled up, I have to remember they would have plenty of words for me—hopefully different words, but strong, humbling, convicting ones nonetheless.

And Barbara is perceptive in mentioning the over-simplified, individualistic nature of Americanized Christianity. The “fast-food” approach has certainly flowed into our churches and our theology. We have a need for instant gratification and we resort to catchy, “bumper-sticker theology” (to borrow from Dallas Willard). This environment is a petri-dish for a “Christian” sub-culture of books, music, art, etc. So much “Christian” culture is aimed at a lowest-common denominator for maximum sales. I don’t doubt that the writing in the LB books is engaging & entertaining. But the “distorted faith” that results from an uncritical absorption of these books (and other “Christian” culture) is certainly disturbing. Let us be a people who think critically and teach our young people to think critically so that we & they can evaluate culture (“Christian” or otherwise) and choose healthy ways of following Christ in the midst of our culture. Paul calls us to this in Romans 12:2. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

David B. Capes said...

Thanks to Brad, Paul and Barbara for getting on the boards first on this essay. Wright is an interesting and important NT scholar. Likely, he is the most influential pastor-scholar in the world. So watch for his books.

I see a good deal to comment on here, but only have time now for a word to Brad. I think he is correct that for some people these books are more exciting than "going to church." We err in trying to make church "exciting" and entertaining. There is no way we can compete in the excitement factor. The SuperBowl will always be more exciting than going to church. A blockbuster movie will always be more entertaining than going to church. Recently, one of the churches in Houston advertised itself as "the fellowship of excitement." Are we fighting a losing battle on the excitement meter? Definitely. We don't have the writers, the talents, the props, etc. to compete with multi-million dollar industries. So we need to help people re-imagine the purpose of "going to church." If they think that going to church is like going to a performance, then whatever we do will appear lame. Our jokes aren't as funny. Our singers aren't as talented. I suggest we seek to re-train people to the purpose of church. When people discover the true nature of God, worship, spiritual transformation, and our mission, I think that they will forget to compare it to other things.

Happy thanksgiving.

brad said...

Awesome comments everyone...I hear each of you ie the excitement aspect of church and how we cannot or should not compete. Agreed. I do agree with Barbara on books and the language used. My British friends tell me that though many more of us in the US attend church, they have more education on the gospels simply becuase they read more. Could this be part of the reason why the LB series has taken hold so strongly? We should also mention the DaVinci Code. I had someone ask me as a seminary student how many classes were devoted to DaVinci and his sect of Christianity. So maybe I would change the word excitement as used previously to relevant. It's hard to say. I find the Lord, church, scripture to be relevant but I think it is obvious that our challenge is to make that message more so, hence Barbara's comments. I asked David on this paper as to who is the audience. We are writing this to a sem prof. I think that Yancy, Donald Miller, Rob Bell, and Ortberg to name a few DO write to this audience. Maybe we should do a better job of promoting them. I have used Blue Like JAzz as an evangelical piece to those who I thought would be repelled by the Bible.

I also want to bring up another area where we as the church may be able to improve. Paul stated that he has not heard any sermons on the rapture. Maybe we should. But it should be done in a way that educates the church on it, how to discuss it, and utilize that discussion to bring more in...

Great thoughts all...

francisco G said...

I consider that the cultural environment of the 20th century is very appropriate for people to put attention to the Left Behind fiction series. People have a broader world view thanks to the globalization of our world through the internet, technologies, economies, etc. There are new philosophies like the New Age that promotes the individual to think in self-power, self spiritual transcendence for self salvation. Fiction stories like Left Behind and the Davinci code simply exploits these two elements. The Left Behind series uses the subject of World Doom and spiritualizes through fiction and Biblical quotes the individuals in the series. The Davinci code presents the scandal of a message that could end the era of a religion and creates several epic individuals that saved the day. Unfortunately the ignorant judges the truth of the gospels through these fictional books.
The richness of expression in 1 Tess 4 favors the exaggeration that the TV searches for this kind of stories and satisfies the curiosity of people trapped in the individualism of America. To me it is not new that America likes to play the role of savior of the world (Superman, Independence Day and many other examples). The painful aspect of the Left Behind series is that it messes with Christianity and it distorts the good news as it has been noted by everyone in the blog.

The conclusion of N.T. Wright that the richness of metaphoric language used by Paul has been misunderstood becomes more obvious when we look at other texts in the Bible that talks about the end of the Ages. The DPL has a research by S.Kim titled the Sayings of Jesus. Kims finds an echo of this text in Matthew 24:30 "And then athe sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see bthe SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF THE SKY with power and great glory. 31 "And aHe will send forth His angels with bA GREAT TRUMPET and THEY WILL GATHER TOGETHER His 1celect from dthe four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.
There is no mentioning of rapture in Matthew 24 but how about the fact that Angels shall appear sweeping the earth to gather the elect. I guess snatching people looks better on the screen.

francisco G said...

As I mentioned in the first class I had never had anything that I dislike from Paul. I was puzzled by his mysticism and I am still working on that. But now I find ways to connect his story to the texts. I don’t want to skip anymore over texts that show some of his apocalypticism or his mystical experiences. It was an aspect of his life that challenged him to go back and have a second look at scripture. That makes me want to now Jesus Messiah more through Paul’s interpretation of those events. I learned to appreciate the work of Seyoon Kim it is very hard to read but the level of detail that he presents opens new areas of research especially about Paul’s call as Servant of the Lord or Prophet. What to say about the help of the DPL, it simply puts things in context and in conversation with several bright minds. The readings also helped me know why so many scholars attack Paul to the point of blaming him of creating a different religion than the one Jesus created. But to me he is only guilty of speaking aloud and being engaged in the reality and complexity of missionary work like no other.

Anonymous said...

Great Blog.

I've found a militant atheist if you want to try and help him; he's at:


GBWY, James

CJD said...

It seems to me Wright's spot on. But as to why LaHaye et al. have enjoyed so much fame I just don't know.

But from a sociological perspective, the general contours of dispensational theology have been reified since the 19th century. We're just a few generation in, but it's now got the "taken for granted" status of a brute fact, you know, "it's just the way things are."

Of course, dispensationalism arose among the Plymouth Brethren, and since they embodied a kind of pessimistic eschatology ('the world's going to hell in a handbasket'), it makes sense that God's people were going to need an escape plan when things got bad. Subsequent generations of Americans adopted this, maybe because they perceived that the Republic had been crumbling for some time.

All that to say, I don't know. Seems hokey to me.

Anonymous said...

My brother says that there is not a lot of plot development in the individual volumes of the LB series and they are not very well written. In other words the whole LB saga could have been told in less volumes. If one were cynical one might say that LaHaye and Jenkins deliberately stretched the story over 7(?)volumes to rake in even more money.

All power to the good Bishop of Durham!!

Holly Swift said...

Actually, I want to thank N.T. Wright for writing this. I've never even been able to bring myself to read a "Left Behind" book because I've never liked the idea of a rapture. When I was a kid, I actually tried to learn as little about it as possible because I thought it was upsetting. I used to wonder why it was that Jesus was supposed to be my friend, yet I didn't really want him to come back.