That Day and Hour
A bumper sticker popular among some fundamentalist Christians years ago proclaimed, “When the Rapture comes this car will be driverless.” Soon a humorous response began appearing on the bumpers of other cars: “When the Rapture comes, may I have your car?”
Recent end-times billboards and predictions—whether radio preacher Harold Camping’s May 19, 2010, prediction of the Rapture, or the supposed Mayan Apocalypse for December 21, 2012—heighten people’s fascination with the end of the world. A prophecy industry of video games, comic books, websites, television, and end-times novels capitalizes on our culture’s desire to figure out how and when the world will end.
Behind all the predictions and bumper-sticker debates lie real disagreements among Christians about the biblical understanding of Christian hope and of Jesus’ return.
I first heard about the “Rapture” in college when some fundamentalist Christian students tried to convince me that if I did not embrace the theology of Hal Lindsey’s 1970 book The Late Great Planet Earth, I would be “left behind” when Jesus returned. Similar fears about Jesus’ second coming have been instilled in young people more recently by the Left Behind novels, a fictional series set during the supposed seven-year period around Jesus’ coming in the so-called Rapture.
The entire Rapture notion is antithetical to traditional Christian theology. While proponents claim that the Rapture is based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, they employ a highly selective pick-and-choose literalism. This theology was invented less than 200 years ago, but it has gained prominence in American culture through televangelists and radio preachers. Rapture theology raises questions about the Bible’s view of prophecy, violence, and even Middle East policy. This theology should be challenged and replaced with a more biblical understanding of Christian hope for the future of the world and of Jesus’ coming again.
The Rev. Barbara R. Rossing is professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. She is author of The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, a critique of fundamentalist "Left Behind" theology, and the Bible study, "Journeys Through Revelation: Apocalyptic Hope for Today" available from Presbyterian Women.