Jesus Coming on the Clouds or Our Heads in the Clouds?
The theory of the rapture still mesmerizes the evangelical community in the USA. Nothing turns on an evangelical like visions of Jesus riding the clouds to help the true believers escape an awful world. When we hear the word “cloud,” we think I-Cloud storage; evangelicals think Jesus is coming soon.
Anglican New Testament scholar N. T. Wright notes that the “American obsession with the second coming of Jesus continues unabated. The American bit matters a great deal because there’s virtually no interest in the rapture in Great Britain and the rest of Europe. Americans, when it comes to the rapture, are football fans. Europeans are soccer fans. Both sides claim to be the only true football.
There’s a parallel to this difference between Americans and the British – evolution. Kenneth Miller writes that a British friend asked him, “What’s the matter with you Yanks? Ya turnin’ into a bunch of dummies and know-nothings?”
The British scientist then explained what would happen in Britain if an anti-evolution protest arose there. “Why, if this happened anywhere in Britain, we’d simply dispatch a couple of dons from Oxford or Cambridge.” When these learned individuals arrived in the provinces, he went on, they’d lay out their university degrees and distinctions for the locals to admire. Then they would explain the standing that evolution held in the scientific community, in which they held positions of eminence and prestige, and that would be that. The local board would apologize, thank them kindly for their time, and then put its house back in order. Why wouldn’t that work in the States? he wondered. I had a good laugh in response.
The primary difference is that the credentials of a scientist or a biblical scholar count less in evangelical circles than a humorous, well-dressed, populist preacher with no theological education. There is no putting the American Christian house back in order. Millions of Americans are enraptured with the Left Behind series of books and movies.
The rapture is an illusion, a false theory about the end of the world, but there is still a basic need to explore why this hair-brained scheme has managed to take root in the USA and flourish. As many as 100 million Americans believe that Jesus will soon return and “snatch” all true believers into the clouds.
Given the precarity of human life on our planet, we would be naïve not to better understand these millions of Americans who believe Jesus is coming soon and as a result, environmental destruction should be welcomed.
Here are the verses of Scripture that lie at the heart of rapture theory:
- Mark 13:26 “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.”
- Mark 14:62 “You will see ‘the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’”
- Matthew 24:30 “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the cloudsof heaven’ with power and great glory.
- Matthew 24:40 – 41 “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken, and one will be left.”
- Matthew 26:64 Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the cloudsof heaven.”
- 1 Thessalonians 4:16 – 17 “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God. The dead in Christ will rise first; then we, who are left alive, will be snatched up with them on clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.”
- Revelation 1:7 “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. So it is to be. Amen.
N. T. Wright, addressing the Mark passage says, “The gospel passages about “the Son of Man coming on the clouds” are about Jesus’ vindication, his “coming” to heaven from earth. The parables about a returning king or master (for example, Luke 19:11-27) were originally about God returning to Jerusalem, not about Jesus returning to earth. This, Jesus seemed to believe, was an event within space-time history, not one that would end it forever.
If a Christian had only one text that suggested something like a rapture would happen, I Thessalonians 4:16 – 17 would be the primal text.
Paul’s description of Jesus’ reappearance in 1 Thessalonians 4 is a brightly colored version of what he says in two other passages, 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 and Philippians 3:20-21: At Jesus’ “coming” or “appearing,” those who are still alive will be “changed” or “transformed” so that their mortal bodies will become incorruptible, deathless. This is all that Paul intends to say in Thessalonians, but here he writes from within a total metaphorical world.
Paul reaches back to the ancient story of Moses coming down the mountain with the Ten Commandments. The editors of Exodus chronicle this moment when God’s own voice, with thunder in it and lightning cracking all around; the sound of a trumpet none of them knew how to play, with notes that made their scalps crawl; the mountain itself, smoking like a kiln, shaking so violently that the ground slid beneath their feet, thundered in the ears of the people.
Then Paul picks up images from Daniel 7, in which “the people of the saints of the Most High” (that is, the “one like a son of man”) are vindicated over their pagan enemy by being raised up to sit with God in glory. This metaphor, applied to Jesus in the Gospels, is now applied to Christians who are suffering persecution.
Next, Paul borrows political metaphors of an emperor visiting a colony or province. The citizens go out to meet him in open country and then escort him into the city. Paul’s image of the people “meeting the Lord in the air” should be read with the assumption that the people will immediately turn around and lead the Lord back to the newly remade world.
Paul’s mixed metaphors of trumpets blowing, and living beings snatched into heaven to meet the Lord are not to be understood as literal truth, as the rapture theory insists, but as a vivid and biblically allusive description of the great transformation of the present world of which he speaks elsewhere.
Rapture believers, when pressed for justification for their strange arguments, have one fall back position based on Matthew 24:40 – 41. “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken, and one will be left.”
Jesus, as he often does in his parables, reaches for actual human experience in first-century Palestine. He says that his coming will be like a band of brigands showing up to attack a village. Such an event was commonplace in Palestine. As workers in the fields ran for the cover of the village walls, not everyone made it to safety. Some where killed, others were kidnapped.
Jesus, using this dramatic trope, warns us that his coming will be “like a thief in the night” – when we least expect it. There’s no rapture in this story. In fact, there’s no rapture anywhere in the Bible.
Paul’s misunderstood metaphors present a challenge for us: How can we reuse biblical imagery, including Paul’s, so as to clarify the truth, not distort it?
A good start would be to get so many Christian heads out of the clouds and anchor them bodily on this ground of human responsibility. We are the ones with the message of good news – that God is not going to destroy the world, but Jesus is coming with a new heaven and a new earth. The rapture be damned to the pits of hell from whence it came!