/ 25 October 2011

Rapture 2.0 newsflash: There is no escapism clause

The Rapture version 2.0 came and went without so much as a whisper of a trumpet call or a twinkle of an eye.

This despite the inspired numerological acrobatics of the good folk at Family Radio; the end times movement that has spent more than $100-million on advertising the end of days. Founder Harold Camping has reportedly predicted the rapture — an erroneous Biblical reference — on four different occasions since 1994. His two predictions this year attracted global media attention — and global scorn.

Never mind the atheists and agnostics, who no doubt see the debacle as further reason to mistrust religion. Even we Christians can scoff at the cartoonish movement with their bizarre beliefs that stray so far from mainstream theology. Camping and his followers believe, for instance, that all churches have been overtaken by Satan and that Judgment Day, or the second coming of Christ, can be predicted –contradicting scripture that teaches that no one can know “the day or the hour”.

So we judge. It’s easy to do, warnings about specks and logs in eye notwithstanding. But here’s the thing, I’m not sure most Christians have much of a leg to stand on when it comes to laughing at the desperate escapism of Family Radio’s beliefs.

I have recently been reading a book by NT Wright, called Surprised by hope. The Anglican bishop has been called the CS Lewis of his time, and his unveiling of biblical truths on resurrection and heaven has blown so many of my misconceptions out of the water; and shamed me into knowing that in some respects, I was in the same quack camp as Family Radio.

Think about it, even those of you who don’t necessarily believe in Christianity but may have had a Christian upbringing: How many times have you sung a hymn or expressed the sentiment that you can’t wait for your soul to go and rest with Jesus in heaven one day. Sounds about right?

It may, but it ignores some vital truths in the Bible: a number of these are matters of deep theology and will probably bore most of you so I’ll skip it but it has to do with the inherently unbiblical duality between matter and non-matter — a platonic idea that has infected Christian thought, which traditionally teaches that the earth and the body will be redeemed too.

But more important is this idea that the point of our faith is to escape to an eternal rest. It’ll all be rainbows and clouds and harpsichords and we just need to hang tight and get as many of our friends over to the right side till then.

It’s so far from what the Bible actually teaches.

We are told there will be a new heaven and Earth; that we are called to do good work in this world in preparation for that, and that Jesus will return — i.e. he will come to be with us here, to rule and reign with us in a world that he will rescue from suffering and pain, not to magic us away to the great rest up in the sky.

Now I’m sure that sounds like further quackery to some of you, but if you’re Christian or interested in Christian belief, you’ll see the important distinction there: There is no escape clause in Christianity, no being so “heavenly-minded” that you can’t think of earthly matters. We will continue to work, to create and to build. NT Wright’s major epiphany is that what we do here matters more than we ever thought.

Because like Tracy Chapman put it, heaven could be here on Earth: If we take the Bible at its word we are halfway there, and we can bring about a bit of what God originally intended for us right here every time we help an orphan, find a way to solve poverty and sickness, fight for justice and so on. These typically noble pursuits then don’t become a mere sideshow until we get to escape. They become the main storyline because they form the basis for what we’ll do in eternity.

Movements like Family Radio are easy to laugh at, but they’re just an extreme version of a desire that lurks in most of our hearts: to wash our hands of the mess this world can be and look to escape it all. But quite frankly I’m more interested in a faith that makes a difference here and now. Because as the organisation Christian Aid puts it, our real responsibility is taking care of life before death, not obsessing about what happens after.

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