Most evenings I contentedly watch right-wing television, hearing the old story one more time, told by the same persons, with familiar graphic illustrations, a pro-life father about to be imprisoned by the F. B I. for protesting abortion, a trans person in the process of trying to reverse surgical mutilation, a retired colonel who is supposed to know about Iran, and so on. All very contented, but then comes an advertisement to interrupt my peace by loudly proclaiming that Christ is about appear like lightening shining from east to west, that at his appearing believers will be caught up to meet Jesus, leaving behind the earth and the unbelievers on to presumably await their destruction.
This is a theology generated by First Thessalonians 4:16, which tells us that on Christ’s return those living as well as all those departed believers will go out to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. The First Epistle to the Thessalonians uses the Greek word ἁρπάζω, meaning “to snatch away” or “to seize”. “This view of eschatology is referred to as dispensational premillennialism, a form of futurism that considers various prophecies in the Bible as remaining unfulfilled and occurring in the future.“ This understanding of the return of Jesus was put forward by J. R. Darby in the 1830s and has since always had a following. It tends always to assign the world, invested as it is by sin, to destruction.
Thessalonians 4 is not the only text that may be used to support Darby. The parable of those suddenly taken from the mill, the shop, and the field may be used to support Darby. The account of the Apostle Peter that the cosmos will be destroyed by fire (while presumably the elect are saved) supports Darby obliquely because it assumes the destruction of the cosmos.
Let it be said that in the first three centuries, one might say even now, there is great confusion about the Christian future, which in no case is defined or depicted as thoroughly as we might like. It is not that we know too little but that we know too much. The third century saw an important controversy between Dionysius of Alexandria who believed that the Christian future would be ‘spiritual’ and an obscure presbyter named Nepos who believed the Christian future would be ‘real.’ One might suggest that both Dionysius and Nepos had missed the truth that the supernatural is the realm of glory that manifests itself to us in the resurrection of Christ and perhaps occasionally elsewhere. The supernatural is more real than the real world. It is perhaps to be regretted that the Creeds and the Councils do not tell us much about the life of the world to come, just “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. However that may be, the great Irenaeus undertook to supply the deficiency in the last chapters of the last book of his great Adversus Heresies. Remember that he had spent much of his distinguished career as bishop in Lyons combatting Gnosticism, one of the principles of which is the certainty that the created order has no future, indeed perhaps no substance, being as it is an illusion, destined for destruction. Irenaeus was an Asian who had migrated to Gaul.
The Adversus heresies is a long book, written in Greek but known to us mostly in a Latin translation that was never lost during the centuries when transmission of texts was difficult. Valentinus is perhaps the obvious target, but there are also chapters against Marcion, and other Gnostics.
In the last chapter of Against Heresies Irenaeus turns to consider the last things. The principle of his treatment of the topic is this:
Since there are real men, so must there be a real establishment, that they vanish not away among non-existent things but progress among those things that have an actual existence. For neither is the substance nor the essence of the creation annihilated (for faithful and true is he who established it.) but the fashion of the world passes away, that is those things among which transgression has occurred, since man has grown old in them. Therefore he made this present fashion temporary . . . . When this present fashion passes away and man has been renewed and flourishes in an incorruptible state so as to preclude the possibility of growing old, then there shall be a new heaven and a new earth, in which man shall remain, always holding fresh converse with God.
The point of Irenaeus theology of the new creation is the belief that just as the human person has a teleology, passing from finite sinfulness into eternal glory, so to must all creation have a teleology, which, as in the case of man, involves not destruction but purification and renewal, This is the burden of the highly suggestive text in Romans 5: “Creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
On the grounds of natural insight one might reasonably ask, especially as we know more about the history of nature itself, if it is likely that this vast drama of creation, proceeding from chaos to order, from the age of the flying serpents to the zoo, a world of animals that man can and does dominate, in which the seasons are stable; if it is likely that, assuming the providence of God, this should come to nothing. Looking at man and the world always as something being born rather than seeing it as destined for destruction undergirds a whole worldview that is distinctively Christian and which dominated imagination until the fifteenth century. One of the most significant shifts in Chrisian imagination is the abandonment of the image of Christ returning to the new creation in favor of the crucifix, the image of Christ suffering that echoes in Christian life. This in a sense represents the abandonment of future hope in favor of present experience, and it is the original de-eschatologicalization, not of course denying that Christ will return but refocusing thought and imagination on the present.
People fall for the rapture theology because they want to believe that their lives come to something. Part of that theology is the belief that true Christians will be spared the hard times called the tribulation. But there is nothing in Scripture or tradition that suggests that believers are spared the troubles of the last days that are history between Christ’s first coming and his return. But amidst these troubles it is reasonable and faithful to believe that the world and man in it is coming to something glorious.