I remember it well.
Billboards were being purchased with warnings: The Rapture will happen in 2011.
Do you remember this?
Christian radio host, Harold Camping, sincerely believed and taught that the rapture was coming in May 2011.
He was wrong.
He changed the date by several months.
He was wrong again.
When he passed away shortly thereafter, he was dumbfounded.
Never for a minute did I doubt his sincerity.
But that isn’t always enough.
The problem lies in predicting.
One of the problems is that we’ve inherited a couple hundred years of reading Revelation poorly. And the gospels poorly. And Paul poorly. Etc.
It is amazing how quickly ideas become convincing in one particular time and space… and then quickly become tradition… meaning… the right view.
One person or group’s innovative view becomes the ‘correct’ perspective for many persons and groups, within a short span of time.
A view that is innovative at in one moment becomes second nature the next moment.
This is true of the modern conception of the rapture.
The rapture is a new idea.
It originated in the 1800s (no joke!).
You can look this up. Google it.
But back to our main idea: rapture predictors always get the timing wrong.
Why is this?
Because no matter how well someone is at making a guess, you will never correctly predict something that isn’t actually in the Scriptures.
Jesus didn’t teach it. Paul didn’t teach it. Neither should churches. I wrote a full article at that breaks this claim down.
Now perhaps I should make clear that the word rapture (and the concept of a rapture) also never appears in the book of Revelation.
Those who try to fuse all of the apocalyptic sounding passages of the Scriptures into a roadmap toward the End Times (rapture, anti-Christ/7 year tribulation, final judgement, cosmic destruction, and remaking of heaven/earth) will push back.
I get it.
We read the Bible differently.
We can respect each other.
Love each other.
And challenge each other.
Although I won’t go into details about it today, I don’t see anything futuristic in Revelation with the exception of the return of Christ (not a rapture away from the earth), the final judgement, and the restoration of creation as God brings the heavenly city down to earth.
So, if the book of Revelation isn’t primarily about future events like the rapture and a Great Tribulation, what is it about?
Here’s my summary of Revelation in a nutshell…
Revelation speaks to seven Churches in the 90s CE who are facing pressures in ancient Asia Minor where the Roman Imperial Cult is in full force.
Since before the time of Jesus, the people of the region had been worshipping Caesar Augustus, Julius Caesar, Pax (the god of peace and ‘pax romana’) and Roma (the goddess of imperial flourishing) as gods.
Systems of buying and selling were predicated on offering incense at altars as acts of devotion to the imperial cult.
Altars and/or temples to the imperial gods existed in each of the seven cities where the churches were located.
And being Christ-followers who refused to participate in what they considered ‘idolatry’ was a real present threat.
Thus, in Revelation 17 you get the great “whore,” Babylon, with seven hills (which tells us that this is really an image for the city of Rome–since Rome literally has seven hills around it and several ancient sources outside of the Bible highlight this fact).
The “harlot’s” excess created real hardship for the poor, especially the lower-class Jewish Christians in the area. And by the way, the whore/harlot/Babylon/Rome character is supposed to be a way to disgrace a Roman goddess, Roma: the deity of imperial conquest. John calls her a harlot!
Not only so, but verse 18.4 says “come out of her my people,” which is a sexual euphemism for the infidelity that some Christians had metaphorically engaged with by giving into the imperial system as a compromise.
The way of Jesus, the one who is covered in his own blood (not that of his enemies) invites his followers to a subversive pattern of life in the midst of the Empire.
This may lead to social pressure, persecution, or death, but they can know that the Beasts (emperor and his cult/priests) and the dragon (the satan) have been defeated by the slaughtered baby lamb, Jesus.
And this defeat will ultimately be fully present, when their hope (those in Asia Minor following Jesus) comes to its final consummation: the renewal of creation as the heavenly Jerusalem descends on the earth, for eternity. Notice the trajectory… heaven come down… we don’t go up. That’s Revelation in a nutshell.
I hope that this summary is helpful. I’m so passionate about this issue that I’m giving away a free Revelation Bible Study Cheat Sheet.
I realize that this summary is incomplete in many ways, but I’m convinced that many of us simply need to start with new narratives about what Revelation is actually trying to communicate.
When we get the rapture out of our heads, while keeping in place the second coming, we can see the first century picture with greater clarity.
When the basic storyline is improved, we no longer expect things to show up that don’t belong in there.
Rapture predictors are wrong, not only because they try to “predict,” but because what they are predicting isn’t actually part of the story.
God’s story moves from creation, to crisis, to covenant (Israel), to Christ, to church, to creation renewed! It is a movement for and toward creation, not a movement away from it.
Revelation is about resisting evil and being empowered by hope!
We need some more hope in and for our world.
Author: Kurt Willems
Kurt Willems is a pastor, author, and spiritual director. His first book, Echoing Hope: How the Humanity of Jesus Redeems our Pain, releases in March 2021. Kurt is also the host of the Theology Curator podcast. He has a master of divinity degree from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and a master of arts in comparative religion from the University of Washington.
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