Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Right Kind of Rapture

Sherlock Holmes immunized me to specious Biblical speculation.

I became aware of Sherlock Holmes through the old Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movie series. Then, on my 12th birthday, my mother got me the "Complete Sherlock Holmes," a collection of all 56 short stories and 4 novels about the Great Detective written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. What I didn't know then was that this was playfully called the Canon by fans, as if it were the Bible. In the 1920s Biblical scholar, and later Monsignor, Ronald Knox decided in jest to apply the techniques of biblical Higher Criticism to the stories of that most logical of detectives. This intellectual pastime was picked up by fans like the Baker Street Irregulars. The most notorious example was when Rex Stout, author of the Nero Wolfe novels, wrote a paper purporting to prove that Dr. Watson was a woman. Stout presented the paper at the January Irregulars' dinner in New York. In mock outrage at this heresy, his friends carried him outside and dumped him into a snow drift.

I first became aware of this pseudo-scholarly game when I picked up a book entitled "A Sherlock Holmes Commentary" by D. Martin Dakin. There I discovered how clever people would, through often tongue-in-cheek deductions, try to account for discrepancies such as Watson's wandering war wound or the number of his wives or which university Holmes attended. Later I picked up William S. Baring-Gould's 2 volume "Annotated Sherlock Holmes," which is a collection of the stories with extensive footnotes in the style of a study Bible. I've even written such "scholarly" papers myself, having one published in the Baker Street Journal and a few more cited in the Universal Sherlock Holmes.

The basics of the game are this: (A) Come up with an intriguing thought or outrageous assertion about Sherlock Holmes, his friend Watson, or his cases, preferably based on something in the stories, no matter how slim or tenuous. (B) Make your case anyway you can: by finding evidence in other stories, using literary types, psychology, analogy, or deduction, even if suspect. Ignore or explain away anything that doesn't fit. Cleverness counts more than truth. (C) Take your argument to its logical end, even if absurd. (D) Do this with a straight face and make it sound as scholarly as possible.

So imagine my surprise when I started working as a research assistant for one of my Bible professors only to find, among serious papers about the translation of this passage in Hebrew, or an overview of that topic in Scripture, some writings that unwittingly used the same specious reasoning as game-playing geeks to work out the monetary system of the New Jerusalem or map out its streets. It was done not in jest but in earnest because, like some fans, some believers hate mystery, ambiguity, paradox or unanswered questions in their favorite subject and will resort to going way beyond the text, or twisting the Scriptures into knots, in order to work out an answer that satisfies their curiosities or their need for absolute certainty in absolutely everything.

You see this kind of reasoning in the sciences, too. Some physicists point out that, for all its elegance, string theory and the concept of multiple universes have no solid proof and no predictive power. And evolutionary psychology, which tries to explain why certain features of culture arose, is a morass of speculation, even according to other scientists. It's one thing to go from the burial of weapons and tools with the dead to inferring belief in an afterlife; it's quite another to posit that assuming the rustling of high grass meant an unseen predator led to belief in an invisible God.

It is this inability to take "no" or "we don't know," for an answer that drives some people to set dates for Jesus' return. No doubt this week you saw on the internet someone post a reference to Matthew 24:36: "But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." That's Jesus talking, in a chapter wholly devoted to the end times. And he says that even he doesn't know when he will return. From this one ought to draw the conclusion that we mere mortals cannot know this either, nor should we worry about it. But some people's need to know it all drives them to disregard what God Incarnate has plainly said. This is akin to Rex Stout's elaborate joke that Watson was a woman. He could only do this by ignoring obvious indications that the good doctor wasn't, such has his being a British army surgeon in the 1800s and his having a moustache. Plus he found confirmation of his assertion in a secret message encoded into the titles of the stories. Which is one reason I also disbelieve the so-called Bible Code, in which one treats the text of the Bible as one large Word Search puzzle. You could do that with any sufficiently large book.

As I've argued before, parts of the Bible are obviously meant to be taken metaphorically. When we get to passages about the end times, we also get intentional symbolism, often used to hide their meaning from oppressors. The main sources of teachings about the last days are found in the books of Daniel and Revelation, which are replete with symbolic images and numbers. The authors even tell their readers to be careful when interpreting these. Yet some folks can't resist going way beyond what was written and trying to work out what is supposed to be way above their pay grade.

I can't cover all of eschatology (the theology of the last things) in this short space. But I can touch on a few things that have come up during this week of foolish speculation on Jesus' return.

Like the Rapture. This is the idea that just before a 7 year period of tribulation leading up to Jesus' actual return, our Lord will drop down out of heaven, levitate true believers into the sky and return to heaven with them in tow. It's a doctrine that comforts a lot of Evangelical believers. Too bad this divine bungee jump is found nowhere in Scripture. You don't find it in Daniel, Revelation, or the passages in the Gospels where Jesus talks about his return. The closet thing to it is a passage in Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians. In this, the earliest book in the New Testament, Paul is comforting believers concerned that some of their members had died before Jesus' return. In chapter 4, verses 16 through 18, Paul writes, "For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up into the clouds with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words."

Notice that there is no talk of tribulation, nor is there anything to indicate that Jesus will make a U-turn in the sky. In fact, the idea parallels that of an imperial visit. When the Emperor would visit a Roman city, heralds would loudly announce his coming, trumpets would sound and the citizens would go to meet him outside the city and escort him into it. Using that imagery, then, Paul is not indicating that Jesus will return whence he came like a yo-yo, but continue on to the earth. The Lord is visiting his rightful territory, not carrying out an extraction. (Rapture, by the way, comes from the Latin word for "caught up, carry off, seized," the same word behind "raptor" and "ravish." It doesn't appear in the original Greek but in the Latin translation.)

So where did the idea of a divine rescue mission come from? From a Scottish minister named Edward Irving who, 1800 years after Jesus, proposed a 2-stage Second Coming. This idea was adopted by John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren movement, and it spread to Baptists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. The idea was most widely disseminated by the notes in the Scofield Reference Bible. Like Darby, Cyrus Scofield was a Dispensationalist, who divided the Biblical saga into 7 eras in which the rules of salvation changed from one period to the next. Dispensationalists love to create timelines of the last days, fitting the different apocalyptic accounts in the Bible together into a harmonious whole. Scofield put the "rapture" before the tribulation and so the people who used his Bible were convinced that it was the Scriptural arrangement.

There are and have always been other ways of interpreting the apocalyptic literature in the Bible. The pre-trib rapture is a recent one. I have a commentary on Revelation with the text in one column and then a separate column for each of the 4 major schools of interpretation. Which is correct?

Again, there really isn't space here to weigh their pros and cons. I think what's more important is what the author of each passage intended. Paul states what he wanted to do: encourage those who mourn. And that really seems to be the primary purpose of most apocalypses. They tend to be written when God's people are oppressed and persecuted. Their message is quite simple: Have faith in God. In the end, our good God will win. Justice will triumph. When things look darkest, hold onto your hope. Present troubles are temporary. Those who remain faithful till the end will be rewarded. Beware of false Messiahs. Do not take up arms; God fights his own battles.

This last one surprises a lot of people. In the book of Revelation, like the rest of the New Testament, Christians are never commanded to be combatants. Why do so many people believe the opposite? Because they read it into the text. No book is immune from having people see things in it that aren't there. And the writer of Revelation had to use symbolism to keep the Roman Empire from understanding its radical message and destroying the book. Unfortunately this means that Revelation can function as a Rorschach test for those who are biblically unbalanced. By that, I mean people who do not take all parts of the Bible into consideration. They take one verse or one passage out of context and reinterpret everything in its light. It's a very common way that people misuse the Bible.

The most obvious example is that of a current hot button issue. For instance, there are only 7 passages in the Bible that are clearly about homosexuality, with perhaps 8 more that are murkier. However, there are 2000 about our duty to the poor. Yet the Westboro Baptist Church has made homosexuality the litmus test for damnation, not, say, how the richest country in the world treats its 47 million poor citizens. To say their reading of the Bible is unbalanced is being generous.

Similarly, by my count, the words for war, warrior, warfare, etc. are found 225 times in the Bible. The words for peace, peaceful, peacemaker, etc. appear 449 times. Since it's mentioned twice as often, it looks as if a biblically balanced view would place peace as a much higher priority than war. Yet throughout history, when leaders want to go to war, one big way to get support is to invoke God's will. They ignore the more plentiful passages about peace.

So if we aren't supposed to fight, what are we to do till Jesus comes again? According to Revelation, we are to act as witnesses to the good news about Jesus Christ. And according to Jesus in Matthew 24, we are to do our work as good stewards, taking care of our fellow servants. And according to Matthew 25, that includes feeding the hungry, quenching the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting those who are sick or in prison, welcoming the immigrant, looking for and serving Christ in everyone we meet. That's what Jesus says he wants to find us doing when he returns, which leaves us little time to try to calculate dates which nobody but God knows.

Calculating dates, you see, is easier than loving people. So are arguing theological details, and coming up with reasons not to do what Scripture plainly tells us to do. Doing the wrong thing is usually easier than doing what's right. As G. K. Chesterton said, it's not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting; it's that it's been found to be hard and so not tried. But where would we be had Jesus done the easy thing and avoided the disapproval, the persecution, the cross? How can we hope to be like him if we don't do the hard work of trusting God, loving others and putting our hope in him despite the darkness that threatens to engulf the world?

It was the way Christians responded when epidemics swept ancient Rome that changed how people looked at them. Folks who could afford to, fled. Christians stayed and nursed the sick and dying, often succumbing themselves. The witness of their actions when the world seemed to be falling apart around them made many consider the gospel and led them to follow Jesus in turn.

The world will end one day for each of us. Jesus will come for us. It will probably not be a day we foresee or choose. There is no guarantee that we will escape without pain. The difference is that Jesus will be there with us. He will never leave us or forsake us. He will receive us into his Kingdom. When we see him, we will be caught up in his love and carried away with joy. And that rapture will more than make up for any our poor imaginations seize upon.

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