The Last Days Have Begun
The rapture of believers..is not an escapism to mock those left behind but a picture in which the inhabitants of a city go to meet their arriving king to direct him to their city. Nothing points to the horrors of those left behind. Christ's future takes place on earth, not in heaven..The pious dream of rapture contains a resignation that abandons this earth to destruction..A God who only waits to rapture Christian crews..cannot be a God whom one can trust.
The Last Days Have Begun
Why many Americans read the Bible as a Coded Timetable of World History
By Jurgen Moltmann
[This article originally published in: DIE ZEIT 51/2002 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://zeus.zeit.de/text/2002/51/Weltuntergang. Jurgen Moltmann is an emeritus professor of systematic theology at the University of Tubingen and author of "Theology of Hope", "The Crucified God", "The Church in the Power of the Spirit", "The Trinity and the Kingdom" and "God and Nature: On an Ecological Doctrine of the Trinity".]
A regular flight with the jumbo jet over the Atlantic is on its way to London. The airplane is full to capacity. The stewardess suddenly goes to the captain in the cockpit. With shaking knees and trembling voice, she announces: Dozens of passengers have disappeared. Their shoes, socks and clothes remain behind. He looks around, finds everything in order in the first class while a woman cries for his disappeared husband in the second class. He calls Heathrow airport but cannot land there. Countless aircraft crashed because the pilots suddenly vanished and no one was in air control any more. (2000, Tyndale House Publishers, Inc/ www.leftbehind.com)
The pilot flies back to Chicago. The same chaos prevails there but a landing space was granted. The catastrophe is perfect: crashed airplanes, collided cars, derailed trains and thousands of dead. One sees pictures from delivery rooms where babies suddenly disappeared from the wombs of pregnant women, the bride was lost to the bridegroom at the altar and whole school classes dissolved into nothing in the Philippines. When the captain returned home, his wife had also disappeared.
What happened? For the captain, the matter with God was somehow okay but his wife went regularly to Bible studies and belonged to a group of born-again Christians. This put him on the track. His pastor explained to him: the last days have begun. As the Bible prophesied, true believers will be "raptured" in the clouds with Christ while the horrors of the end of the world come over the unbelievers left behind. The last days begin with the great rapture of believers and lead unbelievers for seven years into the great tribulation with plagues, earthquakes, tornados, floods and the terror of the Anti-Christ in the "sign of the beast". However Christ will return, kill the Anti-Christ and establish his thousand-year kingdom where believers will rule with him while unbelievers are destroyed.
The Hour Strikes
Obviously these are fictions but the readers are real persons. Since 1995 the series Left Behind (also filmed) of the two Sunday school teachers Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins that begins with this story has appeared in America in the novel form with more than 40 million copies. For volume ten "The Remnants", there were 2.5 million advance bookings this year. Only half of the readers may be evangelical Christians. Sales rose 60 percent after the attacks of September 11. Secular people also ask: Is the end of the world coming? Many love the doom and gloom in the world of detectives and science fiction. "Beam me up, Scotty!" is undoubtedly the most accepted way of dealing with evil.
In 1970, there was a similar fictional apocalypse in Hal Lindsay's book The Late Great Planet Earth also with editions in the millions. At that time, Armaggedon, the final battle between God and the devil, Christ and Anti-Christ, the good here and the kingdom of evil there in that valley were emphasized. The Red Army of the anti-Christian Soviet Union would be destroyed first and then the People's army of godless China with nuclear- or hydrogen bombs. Lindsay served Ronald Reagan as a Middle East- and Israel advisor and convinced the president of an inevitable "Armaggedon in our generation". Happily Michail Gorbatchev came with his peace policy. It seems that the apocalyptic scenario will always be attractive when secular people no longer understand the world as after the terror of September 11. According to Time/ CNN, 59 percent of all Americans fear that the apocalyptic prophecies of the Bible are coming true and 25 percent even believe that the Bible foretold the terrorist attack on New York.
What is the origin of the typical American delight in the end of the world? This is grounded theologically since 1860 in the dispensationalism of the English evangelist John Nelson Darby and was popular through the Scofield Reference Bible of 1909. Here the Bible is not read as a testimony of faith but as a coded divine timetable for world history. The number - for example 666 - becomes the key of world history. This reading of the Bible is called "biblicism", an achievement of the early age of the Enlightenment. As Newton demystified nature through discovery of natural laws, the early "prophetic Bible interpreters" wanted to see through the mysteries of history through knowledge of its planned end. The basic idea is simple: As God created the world in seven days, its history - called dispensations - will run seven ages. With Christ's appearance, we entered the sixth Christian age. Today the seventh and last world age approaches. Biblical prophecy should be historical prophecy. The prophecy for the last days is in the Apocalypse. Therefore the Revelation of John is the most important book of the Bible.
There are also interpretations of the Apocalypse by Sir Isaac Newton. His world machine was ultimately a world clock. One should recognize what hour has struck by the world's state or condition. In the age of general euphoria over progress, the apocalyptic prospect for the imminent horrors of the end-time gained importance for the fundamentalist reaction to the modernism and liberalism of the protestant world. This prospect comes from the same root of the age of the Enlightenment that sought to transport faith into knowledge.
This end-time scenario does not originate with Christ since "no one knows that day or that hour, not even the Son" (Mark 13,32). The "rapture" of believers about which Paul speaks in 1 Thess 4,17 is not an escapism to mock those left behind but a picture in which the inhabitants of a city go to meet their arriving king to direct him to their city. Nothing points to the horrors of those left behind. Christ's future takes place on earth, not in heaven. Thus it would be better if believers remain faithful to the earth even in catastrophes and not flee into the world to come. In contrast, the pious dream of rapture contains a resignation that abandons this earth to destruction. Whoever in his faith "leaves others behind" abandons them. That cannot be either a blessed hope or an expression of love. A God who only waits to "rapture" Christian crews from their aircraft so that the aircraft crashes and thousands of persons are killed cannot be a God whom one can trust. Rather that is the wicked idol of a pathological contempt of the world.
Such ideas have always existed in sectarian circles but have become a mass phenomenon in contemporary America. More and more Americans read and speak about the end of the world while this leaves European rather cold. Why? A land that justifies its destiny from the beginning in divine providence has a natural weakness for prophets. A nation that wanted to build a "new world" over against an "old world" is inclined to think in dualistic battle categories: here the good and there the evil and "whoever is not for us is against us". In the 19th century, the belief in progress mobilized America's ascent. However three apocalyptic movements of the "last days" also arose: the Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and Adventists. Today many stagger between a messianic mission consciousness for the American empire and fears of the end of the world. These are two sides of the same medallion called egomania. In contrast, Christian faith is humble, lasting and sustained passion for life.
contribute to this article
contribute to this article
add comment to discussion