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