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The rapture debunked

The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has declared war on the "Left Behind" series, the hugely popular apocalyptic thrillers that "depict Jesus returning to slaughter everyone who is not a born-again Christian," as Kristof put it on Nov. 24. In that column and in one in July, the columnist condemned the "bigotry" in the bestsellers, quoting passages in which a warrior Jesus hurls Muslims, Jews, Hindus, agnostics, and virtually all other non-Christians "howling and screeching" into everlasting fire.

"If Saudi Arabians wrote an Islamic version of this series, we would furiously demand that sensible Muslims repudiate such hatemongering," declared Kristof, who has himself frequently denounced what he sees as liberal condescension toward evangelicals. "We should hold ourselves to the same standard."

Tim LaHaye, coauthor of the "Left Behind" series, responded to Kristof via email, after the July column, that he and other Christians would experience "no glee" in watching unbelievers die, and that those who perished would be only the most corrupt sinners who had rejected every last chance to repent. "We don't choose to live next door to such people in this life," LaHaye wrote. "Do you really want to spend eternity with them?"

So is the Left Behind debate yet another example of the all-too-familiar standoff between secular types and traditional believers? Actually, for the last year, one of the people doing the most to debunk the worldview of LaHaye and others who believe in the Rapture (when Christians will be pulled up into heaven) and Tribulation (the seven years of supposed horrors that follow, during which the "Left Behind" series is set) has been a woman who labels herself a conservative theologian: Barbara R. Rossing, an associate professor of New Testament studies at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.

"Today's Christian fixation on Armageddon and war is a sickness even while it may be thrilling and entertaining," Rossing said by phone, a few days after she preached on the theme of the Second Coming for the first Sunday in Advent.

Rossing, who has a doctorate from the Harvard Divinity School, says she wrote her latest book, "The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation," which came out earlier this year, because "more and more I was talking to Lutherans and evangelicals and even Catholics who had read the [Left Behind] novels and gotten the impression this was what the Bible teaches." In news stories on the Left Behind juggernaut, she has been quoted condemning the ethical implications of the "beam-me-up" aspect of Rapture theory, which she says "invites a selfish nonconcern for the world." But the heart of the book is Rossing's effort to go toe-to-toe with the Rapture theorists in Scriptural readings.

The Rapture theory itself is quite new, she argues -- one reason to be suspicious. It was largely invented around 1830 by a British evangelical named John Nelson Darby. One key proof-text, then as now, is Daniel 9:24-27, which speaks of "seventy weeks of years" between the time "the word went out to restore and build Jerusalem" and the second coming. Theologians disagree on when the clock should start for the countdown of those 490 years (70 times seven). After the 69th week, however, Daniel says a "prince" will come who "shall destroy the city and its sanctuary" through war and flood.

Rossing and other mainline biblical scholars believe this last is a historical reference to an emperor named Antiochus, who desecrated Jerusalem's main temple in 168 BC by erecting a statue of Zeus. However, the Rapture theorists say this can't be what Daniel refers to, citing a lack of the all-out "desolation" described in Daniel. Instead, they say, the 490-year countdown continued into Jesus' time and stopped when he was crucified. Therefore, the Earth still awaits one more week of years, or seven years, of the prophecy: first, the destruction of the Temple (which at this point must be rebuilt, on the site where the Dome of the Rock now stands) and then seven years of war and flood.

Rossing calls the purported 2,000-year clock stoppage -- unmentioned in Daniel -- a "complete fabrication." Additionally, she says, the Rapture theorists strain to impose a two-part Second Coming on the New Testament. The gospel of Matthew says, "Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left." But Rossing says those lines don't even make it clear which person is being saved, let alone specify a seven-year gap between the two events.

The Book of Revelation, with its hail and fire and plagues and blood, provides the grist for much of the Left Behind books' depiction of the Tribulation. But Rossing calls Revelation an allegorical vision of a possible future -- "a wakeup call" for first-century Christians. (She says it's not unlike the frightening vision of the future that Marley's ghost shows Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" -- another future that didn't have to happen.) And despite blood and gore, the centerpiece of Revelation, she says, is still the "Lamb" of God, who "conquers" only through love.

To Christians wondering which Biblical reading to believe, Rossing says: "I would just appeal to their experience of God in their lives. Is he a God who wants to destroy the world or who wants to redeem it and who gives us a vision of hope?" Tensions between secular elites and heartland believers have been getting a lot of ink lately. But Rossing's book shows that intellectual battles within Christianity can be just as heated -- and, given that they can shape Christian responses to, say, Middle Eastern wars -- just as consequential.

Christopher Shea's column appears in Ideas biweekly. E-mail: 

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