An old article on an old subject….

A couple of people around the Diocese have asked me about a spate of books, and more recently a movie, associated with ‘the Rapture’ and the end times.  The best known of these books at present is one co-authored by a Protestant evangelist named Tim LaHaye called Left Behind.  This book also has been made into a movie of the same title.

I have not read the book or seen the movie, so I cannot tell you whether they are successes as fictions or entertainments.    I can tell you, however, that the theology behind them is sectarian and is not that of the universal Church.  A movie from a few years back called The Rapture starring Mimi Rogers was quite successful in some ways (though with a beginning not for the squeamish), but also was doctrinally suspect.

The branch of theology involved is called eschatology, the doctrine of the eschaton (meaning ‘the end’ in Greek).  Errors in eschatology were common in the ancient Church.  Sometimes these errors were maintained by persons who were deep into heresy on more important matters, most notably the gnostics, who believed that the material world was evil and created by a bad god.  In other cases these errors led to schisms from the universal Church but were associated with fewer and less serious errors in other matters.  In the case of a group called the Montanists, eventually the schismatics returned to the communion of the great Church.  In other cases the errors were taught by early Fathers of the Church, such as Saint Justin Martyr and Saint Irenaeus, before the Church had achieved agreement on the matter.  In any case it seems fair to say that errors in eschatology are relatively mild.  They are often compatible with sound doctrine on most matters of greater importance.

Some commentators have suggested that the chief problem with views such as those propounded by Mr. LaHaye is that they distract attention from the proper Christian emphasis upon our Lord.  Concern with discerning our present position in relation to the end and emphasis upon the stages through which the world and Christians supposedly will pass on the way to the end, displace that which properly should be at the heart of Christian faith, namely adoration of the glorious Trinity and life in the Church as the Body of Christ.  There is something to this criticism.  Certainly errors in eschatology arise when the doctrine of the Church is flawed and underdeveloped.

The most common ancient error in eschatology was known as chiliasm (from the Greek, chilioi, ‘a thousand’) or millenarianism (from the Latin word for ‘a thousand’).  This theory is based on a literal reading of Revelation 20 and holds that there will be thousand year reign of blessedness for Christ’s saints, the Millennium.  Various versions of the theory hold that this blessedness will take place on earth or in heaven and that it will precede and prepare the way for Christ’s Second Coming or will follow and be a consequence of the same.  ‘The Rapture’, according to some milleniarian theories, is the removal of the saints to Christ’s kingdom and away from the tribulations of this world as part of this millennial process.

These views have been rejected, often tacitly, by most Christians since the days of Saint Augustine.  Neither Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, nor the magisterial Protestant reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, accept millenarianism.  In the Middle Ages the only millenarians were the adherents of minor, radical, heretical sects.  Since the 16th century most millenarians have come from the radical Reformation or Anabaptist tradition, whose modern, Baptist representatives have a larger significance for American Protestantism than they do in the overall history of Christendom.  Some intellectual historians argue that modern ideologies such as Marxism are secularized version of millenarianism: some cataclysmic or radical alteration in the world will lead to a paradise on earth and the banishment of human sin and evil.

The summary of the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church on this matter is adequate: ‘Though Millenarianism has never been formally rejected by the larger Christian bodies, they have treated the subject with the greatest reserve.’  So, see the movie if you like, but do not sell your house in expectation of the Rapture.  It is not going to happen.