N.T. Wright and The Rapture

Seth offered this guest post and I’m happy to host it.

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For some time, I’ve been under the assumption that Mormons had quite a different view of “the end of the world” than other Christians. Recently, these differences have coalesced for me around the LDS narrative of the “Millennium” and the Evangelical idea of “Rapture.” But recent statements from Anglican scholar N.T. Wright have gotten me thinking that Mormon and Evangelical doctrines might not be quite so opposed as I thought – apart from popular conceptions and misconceptions among the rank and file.

Ask Mormons with no significant Protestant background what “the Rapture” is, and you’ll likely get a few blank stares. Mormons, of course, have our own millennial scripture, and generally look forward to Christ’s anticipated Second Coming, but “Rapture” is not a word in our common religious vocabulary.

For the uninitiated, “The Rapture” refers to a future event when Christ returns to earth from the heavens and all the faithful upon the earth will be instantly whisked away to heaven – after which the earth and all those remaining will be burned. Relevant Bible verses commonly cited in favor of the Rapture doctrine are found in John 14:2-3; Philippians 3:20-21; 1 Corinthians 15:49-55; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17; and 2 Thessalonians 2:1-7. The popular Christian fiction “Left Behind” series deals with the events of the Rapture.

Mormons do not necessarily disagree with the idea of Rapture, but we do not term it such. The word we use for this set of events is usually “Millennium” with the events surrounding Rapture placed somewhere within that broader framework. In particular, Doctrine and Covenants 101:24-25 speaks of the consuming of all corruption upon the earth and the melting of the elements with “fervent heat.” Which, combined with Mormon acceptance of the Bible as scripture, seems to support some view of the Rapture.

So we might simply call this a matter of Evangelicals and Mormons using different vocabularies for the same events and leave it at that. But I think there is something more going on here – something that actually directly influences how we speak to each other, and how we regard the earth and the things in it.

I want to be careful here. Mormon “Millennial” doctrine is a rather esoteric field, and not very well-understood by most Mormons (myself included). So I don’t want to put words in my fellow Latter-day Saint’s mouths and give the impression that lay Mormons walk about pondering the end of the world in such-and-such a manner. A lot of Mormons seem to take the approach to the idea of Millennium that it will “happen when it happens” and there’s no sense worrying too much about it while there’s work to be done.

But a basic idea of Mormon doctrine regarding “the end” is worth having for our purposes. Bruce R. McConkie does as good a job as any in “Mormon Doctrine,” which I’ve outlined here (bear with me, we’ll get to Wright’s statements in a bit):

1. An era of wickedness leading up to the end (Ezek 38; 39; Joel 2; 3; Zech 12; 13; 14 Mal 3; 4; D&C 29; 45; 64:23-25; 133)

2. Destruction of the wicked and burning of the earth and separation of the righteous (D&C 101:24; 29:9; 63:54; 64:23-25; 133:63-64; Mal 3; 4:1; Isa 13:9-14)

3. A day of judgment commences Christ’s Millennial reign (Matt 25:31-46; D&C 29:9-13; Rev 20:4)

4. The earth will be renewed to a “paradisiacal state” (LDS Tenth Article of Faith; Isa. 65:17; D&C 63:20-21; 133:22-24; 101:25) as it was in the days of Adam in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 1:31; 3:18; 2 Ne. 2:22). The City of Enoch will return to the earth (Moses 7:63)

5. Satan bound for 1,000 years (D&C 43:31; 45:55; 84:100; 88:110-111; 101:28; 45:58; Rev. 20:1-3, 7; 1 Ne. 22:26) and then loosed again for a short season (Rev. 20:7) after which will be a battle between righteousness and evil with Satan permanently cast down (D&C 88:110-114)

If you want a fuller account, I’d recommend a detailed read of McConkie’s writings under the heading “Millennium.” If anyone knows of better source material, I’m all ears. Until then, we stick with McConkie.

I suppose that while a lot of that won’t be too controversial to mainline Protestants, more than a few additions are going to raise some eyebrows. One of the most startling ideas, I would imagine, would be the idea that the Kingdom of Heaven for Mormons, is actually going to be “right here” on the earth. A restored and purified earth, but earth nonetheless. How would this notion be received among mainline Protestants and Evangelicals in particular?

Honestly, I don’t really know much about the Evangelical view of the Rapture. My general sense impression is that it breaks down thusly:

1. A time of unprecedented conflict, war and wickedness

2. Christ appears and the righteous are caught up into heaven (the “Rapture”) and the wicked are left behind

3. Earth is consumed in a holocaust of fire

And that’s about what I know of the evangelical take on the subject. Hopefully, Tim can fill in the blanks a bit for me.

This brings us to N.T. Wright.

In a recent ABC televised interview, Anglican theologian, author, and ordained bishop, N.T. Wright stated that the popular Christian view of the end of the world, and specifically “the Rapture” has gotten it all wrong. Rather than the popular notion of good people being lifted up to heaven, and God destroying utterly what is left over, he claims that the correct Biblical view of the end is a reunion of Heaven and Earth accompanied by the resurrection of the righteous – who will then live on this “new earth.” Bishop Wright elaborates upon this in further detail in an article written for Christianity Today – “Heaven is Not Our Home.” Apparently, his book “Surprised by Hope” also treats this subject as well.

As a Mormon, I found the interview startlingly familiar. I had been raised, from my earliest days in high school seminary, learning that the location of the Celestial Kingdom – the highest of the three degrees of glory humanity is bound for in Mormonism – will actually be right here on this very planet. What is more, Bishop Wright’s view of what happens after death sounded very familiar indeed. Wright posits that what happens after death is that we go to a sort of waiting place – a temporary holding pattern – until the final reunion of Heaven and Earth. He claims that this temporary holding pattern is actually not the primary focus of interest for the New Testament, but what happens afterward. Again, startlingly familiar for me. Mormon doctrine itself postulates that the “Paradise” Christ mentioned to the thief on the cross, is nothing more or less than the temporary “Spirit World” where we go after death to await the final judgment. For the righteous, this will indeed be “paradise” – a time of joyful anticipation. For the wicked, it will be a place of anxiety and apprehension. It is after this spirit world, that we are judged and go to the various degrees of resurrected glory.

Is N.T. Wright a closet-Mormon? Well, probably not. I’m sure there are plenty of other doctrinal areas on which he would disagree emphatically with the LDS faith. But his explanation of the afterlife certainly sounds familiar.

I mentioned earlier that this had something to do with Mormon-Evangelical dialogue. Let me explain that now. How you view others, not of your faith, has a lot to do with what your religion tells you is going to happen to them. Where we think our fellow humans are bound for tomorrow directly impacts how we talk to them today. If you take a simplified, stark “saved” vs. “damned” view of the afterlife popularized in the Rapture, the world becomes full of only two types of people: those you can help “save” from the fire; and those you might as well give up on as a bad job. The urgency of the “Left Behind” mentality (if I can call it that) combined with its black and white division of saved and damned gives the believer a very tight deadline to make sure she witnesses to as many of the “right people” as possible. Anyone who falls outside of that category of “right people” is just getting in her way, and ought to be avoided. That can seriously affect who you are willing to spend time with and how you talk to them.

N.T. Wright also makes the primary point that how we view the end also affects how we view the earth now – and how we treat it. If you think that the earth is bound for God’s wastebasket once we are through with it, then what is the motivation to care about it, ultimately? Of course, there are general Biblical reasons to do nice things here and now, but if the most important priority for a Christian is getting people on the right side of the Rapture dividing-line, isn’t all that earth-stewardship stuff really just optional? Kind of a bonus package that you can attend to IF you have any time left over after witnessing to the potential “saved?”

I don’t want to make this just about targeting Evangelicals. Mormons also have some very similar fatalistic thinking about the fate of the earth – and I think some of them neglect the earth for ultimately similar reasons. But I think this is one area where improvements in theology really have the potential to make some practical improvements in here-and-now Christian practice – both for Mormons and for Evangelicals.

But is N.T. Wright Biblically out-to-lunch? Are there really these similarities between Evangelical and Mormon apocalyptic thought? What does the Bible really say about the end of the world? And how does it matter to you?

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About Tim

Evangelical Christian living in Southern California. I live with my wife and whatever foster children happen to be in our home at this moment. I love photography, baseball, movies and I'm fascinated by Mormonism.

34 thoughts on “N.T. Wright and The Rapture

  1. Keep in mind, this is only one Christian take on the Second Coming. There have been a truckload of different spins on the subject over the last two millennia.

    This particular take is major currency right now because it is popular among fundamentalists and evengelicals–and because of the Left Behind books–but it’s not universally adhered to.

  2. That’s what I figured.

    The main interest of Wright’s stuff was how it brought up possible points of commonality between Mormon and Protestant thought where I previously thought there weren’t any.

  3. Right–I got that. After I commented, of course. That’s what I get for skimming. 😉

    I think my point about a multiplicity of views on the end of the world is still legitimate, though. Just because everyone knows about Left Behind doesn’t mean it’s the single message preached by Christianity.

  4. Hey Seth,

    Good post, I think there are some gaps in your understanding of mainstream eschatology (end times theology) that I think will bring more to light about NT Wright’s comments.

    There are 3 main views of the Tribulation and the Millenium.
    1) Post-Millennial: The tribulation will happen AFTER the 1,000 year reign of Christ’s Kingdom here on earth
    2) Amillennial: Christ’s kingdom is currently reigning through his church. It is not a literal 1,000 years
    3) Pre-Millennial: The tribulation and the rapture will take place BEFORE the millennial reign of Christ.

    All views hold that there will be some sort of kingdom here on earth.

    Within the Pre-millennial view there are 3 views about the rapture:
    1) Pre-tribulation rapture – Christians will be raptured before the tribulation (most popular but with the least scriptural support)
    2) Mid-Tribulation rapture – Christians will be raptured mid way through the tribulation
    3) Post-Tribulation rapture – Christians will be raptured after the tribulation.

    The Left Behind series hold to the most popular view in the last 100 years. Pre Millennial/ Pre Tribulation. This view is the newest view and didn’t really come about until the turn of the 20th Century. NT Wright is directing his comments at those who hold this view. It is certainly the most popularly understood view but by no means does it have a controlling majority. In my own life I’ve seen more and more people switch over to a Post-Tribulation view of the rapture.

    Certainly all of the view have their implications for both evangelism, creation care, government, family life and planning for the future.

  5. I didn’t know we could offer guest posts! I have several posts in the works that I was planning on posting at FPR, but I think one or two would perhaps be well suited for this forum also.

    What do you think? I don’t know your policy(ies).

  6. Tim pretty much said what I was going to say — there is far from a unified evangelical point of view on the end times. Of the premillennial, postmillennial and amillennial views, Mormons fit in the premillenial camp quite well (as did many Protestants around the time the LDS church was organized). And the idea of a “Left Behind”-style rapture (which isn’t a necessary part of premillennialism) is of relatively recent development; while a very popular (and popularized) belief, many evangelical theologians take issue with it.

    I hadn’t thought much before about the relationship between eschatology and environmentalism. There’s some food for thought there.

    To be honest, eschatology is something I haven’t studied much, and particularly as it pertains to LDS doctrine (even though it’s part of the name of the church). During my pre-LDS theologically formative years, there were some authors such as Hal Lindsay who popularized their own ideas of premillennialism, and I basically found them to be crackpots who played extremely loose with the Bible. Also, many of them tended to mix their views on eschatology with radical right-wing politics. Those approaches to the subject kind of turned me off to end-times studies, so they’re a subject I have neglected. (Of course, if Hal Lindsay’s interpretation had been correct, the Second Coming already would have happened. The fact that he was so wrong hasn’t kept him from selling more books.)

  7. I hadn’t thought much before about the relationship between eschatology and environmentalism. There’s some food for thought there.

    You must not be talking to the same people I am.

    This is a big liberal/progressive concern with Fundamentalist Christianity: the undrstanding is that Fundamentalists believe that the Earth is ours to plunder and use up, since it will be destroyed at the second coming anyway. Or something like that. There are a few choice quotes from Fundamentalists floating around out there.

  8. LDS have a “tribulation” (of sorts) both before and after the millennial period. So which camp does that make us?

  9. Seth, I just want to say that, as someone who was raised as a traditional RLDS, the beliefs I have are almost exactly as you have stated in your post. For example, we too were taught that after death the righteous go to “paradise” and that paradise is like a holding place before the final judgement. I am also in step with many of your fellow LDS as someone who doesn’t particularly spend much time thinking about it because, “it will happen when it happens and there’s work to be done.” I don’t really know what the modern, Community of Christ believes about it. When I think of the millenium in RLDS terms, I think of the Holy City of Zion coming down out of heaven and resting at Independence.

  10. An interesting question for me is, if it is not clear in the scriptures about the precise timing and nature of second coming events, why does it matter?

    In my opinion, focus on eschatology generally distracts people from living better lives and having responsible politics. Paul admonished people not to marry since it would distract preparation from a second coming that we are still waiting for almost 2000 years later. (1 Corinthians 7: 25-31, 36-40)

    Marriage may not be for everyone, and what Paul said was true about it distracting men from other things, but I think the advice was based on what proved to be a false eschatological assumption, i.e. that the second coming was close in the first century. To me this raises questions about basing how we live today on what we think will happen in the end.

  11. I tend to agree with you, Jared. At best, eschatology is a benign distraction. At worst, it leads to possibly destructive decisions.

    History shows that “the end times are coming soon” is a really, really bad bet. Christians have been anticipating the second coming right around the bend since pretty much right after the Ascension. The odds are pretty long that today’s Evangelicals and Fundamentalists are right about it now. And they’re going to feel pretty stupid in 2080 when it still doesn’t look any more like it’s coming than it does now.

  12. Thanks you for bringing up the subject matter of N. T. Wright’s recent book, although I was surprised to see the topic brought up as a point of discussion between Mormons and evangelicals. Usually such fine points of theology in the area of eschatology, or so called “last things”, are the stuff of evangelical debate.

    As has been noted in the discussion, not all evangelicals believe in a “Rapture,” although on a popular level many evangelicals equate the Second Coming with this idea. The roots of such theology can be traced back to a system of theology called Dispensationalism, and in recent years their has been a surge of interest in alternative to Dispensational eschatology in the form of what is called moderate preterism. (See the fine discussion on this in The Tribulation: Past or Present? by Thomas Ice and Kenneth Gentry.) Beyond this, Wright is addressing issues more broadly, and rightly calls into question the evangelical tendency to emphasize heaven to the abandonment of the prominent biblical emphasis on a restored creation in the form of a new heavens and earth with a connection to the resurrection of the body. Wright and others wonder whether the emphasis on heaven and the abandoment of the creation is pseudo-Gnostic, and contributes to evangelical neglect the material aspects of creation including the body and environmental issues.

    I have found Wright’s historical and theological reassessment of Christ, the gospel, and the theology of Paul most helpful. This new book adds to his growing body of material that pushes us forward into new reflection of cherished assumptions. My hope is that it might also provide new venues for evangelical-LDS dialogue as well.

  13. Thanks John. While the focus of the post was on the Rapture, a lot of what interested me in the interview was Wright’s envisioning of heaven in a manner similar to the Mormon doctrinal position – namely a reuniting of heaven and earth in a glorified resurrected and material state.

    This discussion leads to several interesting tangents – one of which is the possible gnostic tendency in modern evangelism to deny the material realm as inherently corrupt, as you mentioned.

    This, of course, takes the dialogue into issues of whether God is material, and a popular Mormon suspicion that the mainline Christian rejection of a presently corporeal God is simply an extension of gnostic prejudices that have infiltrated Christianity (though the majority of Mormons wouldn’t use or understand the term “gnostic”). For Mormons, the mainline Christian hostility toward a corporeal God seems almost like a refutation of the resurrection of Christ.

    In fact, I think it would probably be useful, for the purposes of clarifying to lay Mormons, to point-blank ask the Protestants here whether mainline Christians really do believe in a resurrection or not. Are people going to be resurrected after death? Or are they going to be spirits instead? How does the lay Protestant envision the reunification with God in heaven?

    And why is Christ’s incarnation and resurrection thought to be only a temporary state? What is the problem with a material God?

    And does the sometimes emphatic Evangelical rejection of such a corporeal God have any tie-in to popular Protestant notions of Rapture and the annihilation of the material world?

    I suppose this is going too far afield and maybe we don’t need to go down this tangent on this thread. But I guess I’m trying to make the point that these popular notions on fringe doctrines seem to have an impact on more central points of disagreement between Mormons and Evangelicals. At least, I suspect they do.

  14. Thanks Kullervo. This quote from the interview:

    “Wright: It really is. I’ve often heard people say, “I’m going to heaven soon, and I won’t need this stupid body there, thank goodness.’ That’s a very damaging distortion, all the more so for being unintentional.”

    Which just reinforces my confusion as to whether mainline Christians really believe in this resurrection stuff or not. Is this just a misconception among the laity?

  15. I believe I have been consistently taught that we will have restored/perfected resurrected bodies. I will have my same body but it will be made without the taint of sin. And to follow the discussion even further, we will have jobs and “careers” in the afterlife.

    I don’t know how universal that understanding is and I certainly wouldn’t disagree that there is a gnostic thread running through parts of Protestantism. I think as many Christians are corrupted by images of angels sitting on clouds with harps and non-Christians.

    I think orthodoxy states that God is in-material but Jesus has (he possess) the same body he ascended with. Which starts to get into the Christian view of the soul, that we too are not bodies with souls. But we are souls with bodies.

  16. Thanks Tim. I suspected that might be your take on it, but wanted to give you a chance to say it anyway. The idea of jobs and careers in the afterlife, sounds similar to LDS notions of the “spirit world” that we inhabit after death and before final judgment. It’s a common theme at LDS funerals when someone dies an untimely death that “God has further work for him to do on the other side.” It’s believed that the followers of God will minister to the spirits who had no opportunity to accept God.

    Interesting that orthodoxy would posit that Christ is STILL material in some sense. A common Mormon criticism of mainline Christianity is that they think Christ must have cast his body aside after his ascension into heaven. This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve misunderstood mainline orthodoxy though.

    I would posit that the Mormon view is that embodiment is the next stage of completeness and perfection of a “soul” or “spirit body.” As something becomes more and more perfected, it takes on greater and greater reality.

  17. I’m probably not being very careful with the wording.

    For me, when I say “mainline”, I mean the majority of present established Christianity in the USA (since I don’t know a ton about how it’s going in other parts of the world). Combining the word with “orthodoxy” now seems like an odd choice to me.

  18. I love Wikipedia:

    “In the United States, the mainline (also sometimes called mainstream) or mainline Protestant denominations are those Protestant denominations with a mix of moderate and liberal theologies. The hallmark of the mainline churches is moderation.”

    Oops. Embarrassing… But I’ve always held that no day you learn something new is a total waste.

  19. I knew what you meant. And my next post will be an attempt to define the various sects within Protestantism.

  20. I think that some of the questions that Seth R. has asked here get into some of the major differences among the various branches of Protestantism.

    There’s a huge difference between conservative evangelicals on the one hand and the theological liberals in, say, the United Church of Christ (one of the more theologically liberal of the mainline churches). The former certainly would believe that Jesus physically arose from the grave, ascended into heaven and will return to Earth (all in the same body, although now in some sort of glorified state). But for many mainline theologians, the resurrection of Jesus may very well have been a spiritual event only, and the ascension may merely be a concrete way of explaining some sort of a spiritual mystery.

    I’d go so far to say that — even while acknowledging there are huge and perhaps insurmountable differences — between Mormonism and evangelicalism, that there are at least as big of differences between conservative evangelicalism and the theologically liberal end of mainline Protestantism.

    When Tim says he believes that we will have “restored/perfected resurrected bodies,” he’s speaking Mormon talk. For many mainliners, the belief about the afterlife would be considerably more vague.

    I think one could make the case that when conservative evangelicals talk about God, Jesus, resurrection and salvation, to give a few examples, they aren’t talking about the same thing that theological liberals mean when they use the same words. That’s just like there are those who would argue the evangelicals and Mormons use the same words but don’t mean the same thing at all.

    Not all mainliners are as theological liberal as those I allude to above. Within the United Methodist Church, for example, you’ll find a significant number who are evangelically oriented (and even a few, not many, within the UCC).

    And before I tied up further in semantics, I think I’ll head to bed.

  21. Pre-millennialism has never been the rage among academic scholars.

    Too literalistic.

    Yet the view can more easily be picked up by the lay evangelical or lay LDS.

    Secondly, lay LDS and lay evangelicals see a very physical and beautiful new earth in eschatology, to be made and existing into eternity. Seth, Randy Alcorn lives over in Oregon. Pick up or browse through his book entitled “Heaven”.

  22. It’s a known fact that the leading pretribulation rapturists (such as Lindsey, LaHaye, Ice, Hagee, Swaggart, Van Impe etc.) are also anti-LDS. There are thousands of evangelical bookstores. They all have one thing in common: their best sales come from two corners of their stores, that is, the “rapture” corner and the “cult” corner which always features, very prominently, anti-Mormon books! The best and most authoritative exposure of the same 178-year-old pretrib rapture view is in the writings of historian Dave MacPherson who is also a resident of Monticello, Utah. Google his web pieces such as “Pretrib Rapture Diehards,” “Famous Rapture Watchers,” and “Pretrib Rapture Desperados.” His 300-pg book “The Rapture Plot” (see Armageddon Books online) drowns us with documentation showing that the same British-born escapist view has always been riddled with sheer dishonesty (plagiarism, changing of historical documents, phony D.D. degrees, etc. etc.)! MacPherson, a longtime guest on radio talk shows, declares that if the public knew all these facts, anti-Mormons would be totally chagrined and would soon fade off into the sunset! His are great reads! Bruce

  23. Bruce, my experience is that the worst of the anti-Mormon corner are usually too self-absorbed and unobservant to notice when they should be embarrassed. So saying they’d fade off into the sunset seems a tad optimistic to me.

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