If a pollster asked you about the likelihood that Jesus Christ will return to earth in the next 40 years, how would you answer?
According to a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center on "Life in 2050," a majority of American Protestants believe Jesus will "definitely" or "probably" return to earth by that year. One-eighth (15 percent) responded that they "don't know" — even though that is the answer most in accord with Jesus' own teaching.
Recent end-time billboards and predictions — whether radio preacher Harold Camping's May 19, 2010, prediction of the rapture or the supposed Mayan apocalypse for Dec. 21, 2012 — heighten people's fascination with the end of the world. A prophecy industry of video games, comic books, websites, television and novels capitalizes on our culture's desire to figure out how and when the world will end.
But the Bible teaches we can't know the timetable of Jesus' return.
The rapture exposed
The return of Jesus is a central teaching in the New Testament and is foundational for Lutherans and other Christians. But this isn't the same as the rapture, a word that isn't in the Bible.
I first heard about the so-called rapture in college when 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 (Zondervan) 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 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.
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© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers