Saturday, September 9, 2017

Look to the Sky

On August 21st, my wife and I along with my Dad and a customer who happened to be at my business watched the eclipse of the sun. We took turns sharing the two welding helmets at the shop to safely watch the shadow of the moon march across the face of the sun. It was an amazing experience. During the peak minutes of the eclipse, there were light clouds that made it impossible to get a good photograph. But a few minutes later the clouds dissipated, and I could get useable photos by holding the dark glass from my welding helmet over the camera on my smart phone. I was happy to have a record of this incredible experience.

The eclipse was truly the great American eclipse. It was visible as a partial eclipse from all 50 states and as a total eclipse from a 70-mile-wide sliver of 14 states. The solar eclipse path of totality stretched from Salem, Oregon, to Charleston, South Carolina. Everyone in the continental U.S. was able to see at least a fifty percent eclipse.

While total solar eclipses occur somewhere on Earth about every 18 months, This was the first total solar eclipse in the continental U.S. in 38 years. The last one occurred on February 26, 1979. Not many people saw it because it clipped just five states in the Northwest and the weather blocked the view of the sun in most places. It had been 99 years since the last coast-to-coast eclipse. When the next total solar eclipse over the continental U.S. occurs on April 8, 2024, Mena, Arkansas will be in the path of totality. I’m excitedly waiting to see a total eclipse on that day.

On August 21st, large numbers of people across North America watched the eclipse. Because of the attention the eclipse received from the media, and the information went viral on social media, more people observed and photographed this eclipse than any other eclipse in history. There is no hard evidence on the number of people who watched the eclipse, but a CNN poll taken shortly before the eclipse indicated that about half of the US population planned to watch the eclipse.

About 12 million people live in the solar eclipse’s 70-mile-wide path of totality. An estimated seven million people traveled to the path of totality to have the opportunity to observe a total eclipse. Some friends of mine made reservations months ago in Missouri so they could view the total eclipse. In many locations, this large number of travelers created massive traffic problems. Over one million people traveled to Oregon for the eclipse, causing the worst traffic mess in Oregon history. In Kentucky, there were twenty-mile long traffic jams on the Interstate. One man reported that had been in a traffic jam for eleven hours.  Another tweeted that the Bluegrass Parkway interchange “might be the worst traffic jam in the world right now.”

Eclipse travelers in Wyoming made history. The sparsely populated state had the most traffic it has ever seen, with more than a million visitors. Wyoming Department of Transportation spokesman Doug McGee said, “Our highway system was taxed like it’s never been before. The roads just weren’t designed for that volume of traffic.” He added, “the number of cars participating in the mass exodus rivaled the 636,294 registered cars and pickup trucks in Wyoming as of 2016.”

Even though a large number of people viewed the great American eclipse of 2017, I know of a celestial event that will have many more viewers. Shortly before Jesus was crucified, “His disciples came to him privately and said, ‘Tell us, when will all this happen? What sign will signal your return and the end of the world?’” Matthew 24:3 (NLT) After giving His disciples many signs and much information, Jesus told them, “And then at last, the sign that the Son of Man is coming will appear in the heavens, and there will be deep mourning among all the peoples of the earth. And they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” Matthew 24:30 (NLT)

No event in the history of the world has been more anticipated than the return of Jesus Christ to this earth. Every generation of believers has believed that Jesus would return. When He was on this earth, Jesus promised His disciples that He would return. He said to them, “let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” John 14:1-3 (NKJV)

This promise was reaffirmed when Jesus ascended to heaven. He had gathered His disciples and given them some final instructions. In Acts 1:9-11 (NLT) we read that, “after saying this, he was taken up into a cloud while they were watching, and they could no longer see him. As they strained to see him rising into heaven, two white-robed men suddenly stood among them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why are you standing here staring into heaven? Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!’”

From that moment until now those who believe in Jesus have been waiting for the world’s most amazing celestial event. And It will be the most viewed event in the history of the planet. “Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him.” Revelation 1:7 (NKJV)

But a significant number of Christians don’t believe in this celestial event that the Bible says will be the most viewed event in history; Every eye will see Jesus coming with clouds.

When Jesus promised His disciples, “I will come again” (John 14:3, NKJV), He created hope that has burned in the hearts of nearly all Christians for 2,000 years. And seldom since the first century A.D. has this hope burned more brightly in the hearts of more Christians than it does today.

But there is a shadow that darkens the hope of many Christians. According to the Bible, a terrible time of trouble—often referred to as “the Tribulation”— will take place on earth just before Christ’s second coming. For nearly 1,800 years, Christians believed that all of God’s people would pass through this tribulation. However, about 200 years ago, a new theory was proposed—that God will take true Christians out of the world and take them to heaven before the Tribulation. Then only those left behind will pass through the Tribulation.

The carrying away of the saints to heaven before the Tribulation is called the “rapture.” According to those who hold this view, the rapture will be secret in the sense that, at first, no one will know that it has occurred. Those who are left behind on earth will only realize that it has happened when they become aware that many people have suddenly disappeared for no good reason. Many religious films have attempted to portray this rapture in recent years. These films typically show surprised people wondering what happened to their friends and loved ones. Another common scene is that of cars and airplanes crashing because their drivers and pilots were “raptured.”

In a sense, this view of the end of the world could be called a dual second coming theory because it splits Christ’s return to our planet into two parts—the rapture before the Tribulation and the Second Coming at its conclusion.

One of the more notable advocates in recent years of the pre-Advent theory of the rapture was the late Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping, whose predictions about the date of the rapture failed three times: September 6, 1994; May 21, 2011; and October 21, 2011. With each date, he claimed that believers would be secretly taken to heaven while those remaining behind would be engulfed in fire and plagues. These bold predictions gained him not only a following but also millions of dollars in donations, as thousands of people, believing they would soon be taken to heaven, gave him money and property.

Hal Lindsey’s 1970 multi-million best-selling book The Late, Great Planet Earth also promoted the rapture. And though Lindsey didn’t predict dates the way Camping did, he made all sorts of predictions about world events, particularly regarding Israel and the Middle East, none of which have yet come about, including—obviously—the rapture itself.

In more recent times, the Left Behind novels became a best-selling 16-part series that was subsequently used as the basis for a series of four films plus a more recent Left Behind movie starring Nicolas Cage. The books and the movies, with the rapture a key theological element, inspired a video game called Left Behind: Eternal Forces, which itself led to several sequels. There are Left Behind graphic novels, CDs, a Left Behind series for teens, and audio dramatizations.

I propose that the rapture is a fantasy of people’s imaginations—and that’s precisely the problem. The imagination is where the rapture idea originated, and that’s where it exists to this day. It can’t be found in the Bible.

But doesn’t the Bible teach that Jesus will return to earth and take the saved to heaven, while the lost remain? Isn’t the second coming of Jesus one of the crucial teachings of the New Testament? Aren’t Christians on solid biblical ground when they proclaim that Jesus is coming back and that when He does He will “rapture” His people to heaven?

The Bible does teach all of these things. The second coming of Jesus is, indeed, the great hope of Christians everywhere. Jesus Himself, more than once, promised to return. The problem is what those who proclaim the rapture in these books and movies say about it. Yes, Jesus is coming back; and, yes, when He comes He will “rapture” His people to heaven. It just won’t happen the way it’s popularly portrayed.

The popular idea is that Jesus is going to return quietly and unseen seven years before His second coming and secretly and quietly rapture the faithful to heaven. The common teaching is that people—spouses, children, parents, friends, neighbors; that is, any Christian who’s ready—will just vanish, having been taken to heaven. You could be driving in a car or sitting in a classroom or walking in the grocery store or traveling in an airplane when those around you will suddenly disappear, leaving only their clothes. Everyone else is, well, left behind.

Why do so many people believe this teaching about Christians being secretly snatched away to heaven? It comes from a misreading of a few texts while ignoring others.

The texts that are used to promote this rapture view are found in Matthew 24. While He was discussing world events just prior to His second coming, Jesus said, “In the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (verses 38–42).

Those who teach the rapture argue that, in the field and the mill, the ones who “will be taken” are the one secretly raptured to heaven while the ones “left behind” will be those who remain on earth.
There’s a major problem, though, with using these texts to teach a secret rapture. Jesus used Noah’s flood as a parallel illustration of His return. So what happened to those who didn’t get in the ark at the time of the flood? “The flood came and took them all away.” Notice that it was those who didn’t get in the boat who were “taken away”—that is, they were drowned; they were lost. How, then, can we read the next verses, which talk about those who are “taken,” as being the ones raptured to heaven? The Flood parallel shows that the ones taken are those who are lost, while the ones who are left will be those Jesus takes to heaven with Him when He returns.

Maybe that’s what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he described the real rapture at Christ’s second coming.  “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17) This text clarifies three things about Christ’s second coming.

First, Paul said that those who are alive and who are left will be caught up “to meet the Lord in the air.”

Second, these verses teach that there will be a rapture, but contrary to the Left Behind version, nothing about it will be secret. Christ will come down from heaven with a shout, “with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God.”

Third, notice what else happens during this rapture: “the dead in Christ will rise first.” This is the resurrection of the dead, which the Bible has talked about for thousands of years. It’s what Jesus had in mind when He said, “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40, NKJV). Whatever the resurrection of the dead will look like, between that and the ruckus made at Christ’s return, the idea of the rapture being a quiet or secret event has to be wrong.

Several other texts show what the second coming of Jesus will be like. Writing in Revelation 1:7, the apostle John said, “Behold, [Jesus] is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him” (NKJV).

And in predicting His second coming Jesus Himself said that “as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. . . . 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 clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matthew 24:27, 30, 31, NKJV).

Those who teach the rapture theory argue for the secrecy based on a biblical metaphor of a thief coming to a house at night. Peter did write that “the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.” (2 Peter 3:10, NKJV) So, yes, Christ will come as a thief in the night, but what will happen when He does? The heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt, and earth will be burned up. That’s hardly a secret event!

The metaphor of the thief in the night means simply what the Bible has said in other places. 1 Thessalonians 5:4 says, “But you aren’t in the dark about these things, dear brothers and sisters, and you won’t be surprised when the day of the Lord comes like a thief.” We don’t know when Jesus will come back, just as we don’t know when a thief in the night will come to our homes. The secrecy has to do with the timing of the event, not the event itself.

On a Tuesday night in 1945, the air was clear over the city of Dresden, Germany. Children had already gone to bed. Suddenly, at about 9:30 P.M., the mournful wail of air raid sirens filled the air. Could it really be? Nobody seriously expected Dresden to be a target. Of course, an air raid was always possible, but few people believed it could actually happen. All over the city, trembling fingers fumbled with radio dials. A frenzied announcer confirmed their worst fears: The planes were really coming. Dresden was under attack.

Families scrambled to remember inadequately rehearsed emergency plans. Moments later the ominous drone of Allied bombers enveloped the city, followed by the sound of seemingly endless explosions. The intense heat of the resulting fires rose so quickly into the night air that it created a vacuum powerful enough to uproot trees.

The merciless pounding continued through the night and well into the next day as waves of Allied planes dropped their lethal loads on the helpless citizens of Dresden. Estimates of the death toll range from 35,000–100,000 people. When it was over, a once-beautiful medieval city lay in smoldering ruins.

According to the words of Jesus, His return to this world will creep up on millions of people like a thief. Many who hear the trumpet blast will be caught by surprise. It’s not that they didn’t know about the possibility of Christ’s coming; it’s just that they didn’t really expect it to happen.

Tragically, for those who choose to disbelieve, the appearance of Christ will come as a devastating surprise. It will be similar to that Tuesday night in Dresden. The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.

The parallels are sobering. In the city of Dresden, people understood that war was raged all around them. In our world today, almost everyone senses that a massive spiritual struggle between good and evil is taking place. With the passing of time, however, many people have been lulled into complacency. For them, the second coming of Jesus will be like a thief in the night.

The teachers of the secret rapture theory take one event— the second coming of Jesus when the dead will be resurrected, when everyone will be raptured, and when the earth will be destroyed—and they turn it into two events, the first being the one so graphically depicted in films, books, and video games, such as the Left Behind series. However, the Bible teaches only one event—the second coming of Jesus, when all of God’s people (not just some of them) will be taken up from the earth together.

That’s the hope that Christians have held for 2,000 years. And it’s the hope that can give us the courage to endure the ups and downs of life in this present world.

Jesus is coming back to this earth to reward His people just as He promised and to take them to the beautiful home He has prepared for them. My prayer is that on that day, you will be among the people who say, “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” Isaiah 25:9 (KJV)

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