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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Fundamentalist Heresies Part 1, The Rapture

The word heresy has not usually generated positive associations for me.  I think of heretics burned at the stake, people banished or punished or shunned, solely on the basis of what they happen to believe, or powerful interests using religion as a tool for control.  Mostly I have thought of heresy as a term used by the religious right to undermine the legitimacy of those with whom they disagree.

But the more I learn about what is popularly called the religious right, and the more I read in the history of Christian thought, I realize that it has deviated in important ways from the historic core of Christian faith.  From time to time in this blog I will explore various aspects of Fundamentalism and right wing Protestantism that might be called heretical.  The first one is inspired by Harold Camping, the radio pastor who believes the rapture will probably take place this weekend.

The rapture is not to be confused with the second coming of Christ.  From the beginning, Christians have believed that Christ will come again as he promised, and this is our blessed hope.  The idea of a "rapture" was developed in the 19th century by a Plymouth Brethren man from England named John Darby.  This development, and later promotion, of a "rapture" is documented in Barbara Rossing's excellent brief book, The Rapture Exposed.  Rossing is a professor of New Testament at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

Darby included the rapture concept in his theological system based on dispensations, clearly defined epochs within history.  In this system God relates differently to people in each period.  Dispensationalism also developed a unique understanding of the end times, beginning with the rapture in which the church is secretly taken out of the world, followed by a period of "tribulation" for seven years, and concluding with the second coming of Christ and his 1,000 year reign (millennium).  Although the rapture and dispensationalism had no clear biblical reference, and was unknown in classical Christianity, the idea took hold, especially in the United States, and is a staple of belief for many Christians, often with little thought given to its credibility.  The Left Behind series of books is structured around a dispensationalist world view.

Rossing, and Mennonites Ted Grimsrud, Loren Johns, and Nelson Kraybill, have written on the book of Revelation, and considered thoughtfully the true significance of this book for Christians through the centuries, including today.  They have also exposed the ways that dispensationalist eschatology is dangerous in that it leads Christians astray from the Way of Christ.

Evangelical historian Mark A. Noll, now at Notre Dame, in an important, and by now classic, book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, exposes a number of heresies present among evangelicals.  Dispensationalism is one of several gnostic tendencies.  Gnosticism is an ancient Christian heresy which has taken many forms, one element of which is the claim that the physical, material, corporeal, natural world is evil, and only the non-material, sometimes called spiritual is good or redeemable.  Ancient variations of this heresy argued that Jesus was not really human, but only appeared to be (docetism); and that the supreme God could not create physical matter, but was created by a Demiurge; that Christ came with gnosis (knowledge) from the supreme God to help humans escape the material world.

Rapture theology, and dispensationalism, have gnostic tendencies in that the natural, physical world are viewed with disdain, and the Christian hope is to escape.  Classic Christianity has emphasized Christ's return as our hope, not the prospect of Christian escape. This matters, of course, because it profoundly shapes how we think about our lives as people of faith.  If we view Christ as the means for our escape from the physical world in which we live, we will have a rather different faith than if we believe in creation's goodness, and groan for its redemption through Jesus Christ as we long for his return.

I may chafe at the use of a word like heresy.  But I have come to recognize that orthodox faith was developed thoughtfully and slowly through centuries, and tradition often serves as a corrective to what might even commonly be called a conservative belief.


Rocky2 said...

[Phil, I spied this on the web.]

Pretrib Rapture 101

This crash course is needed for this 2012 election year. The "rapture" is known theologically as the "pretribulation [or "pretrib"] rapture." It's a secret coming of Christ, said to happen years before the Second Coming, that reportedly can occur at "any moment" and can evacuate all true Christians from earth to heaven before the "great tribulation" found in Matt. 24, Rev. 7 etc. - end time escapism unknown in all official theology and organized religion before 1830!
Conservative evangelicals had long assumed that 19th century British teacher John Darby was the "father" of dispensationalism, the most popular aspect of which is the same "rapture."
Journalist/historian Dave MacPherson, focusing more than 40 years on locating long forgotten "rapture" documents in England etc., has found evidence destroying many such assumptions and, even more monumental, has run into pervasive dishonesty in that fanatical 182-year-old, mass-marketed-in-America theory - the fans of which are not above distorting and even deleting "rapture" facts on Wikipedia!
Curious? Google articles like "Pretrib Rapture Politics" (if the rapture doesn't happen before the election!), "Famous Rapture Watchers," "Pretrib Rapture - Hidden Facts," Pretrib Rapture Diehards," "America's Pretrib Rapture Traffickers," "X-Raying Margaret," "Edward Irving is Unnerving," "Deceiving and Being Deceived" by D.M., "Pretrib Hypocrisy," and "Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty." MacPherson's "The Rapture Plot" is the most detailed, accurate, and highly endorsed history on the same "rapture."
Excellent theological works that demolish pretrib rapture doctrine include Joe Ortiz's "The End Times Passover."
Here's hoping that all of you will get A+ in this course!