Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin with the prophet Malachi who warns of a day when “the arrogant and evil-doers will be like stubble.” But the righteous will shine with healing rays. In the Gospel, Luke describes a scene when people were admiring the Temple. But Jesus told them that the time would come when “not a single stone will be left on another, everything will be destroyed.” They then asked Jesus when this would happen and what sign would tell them it was near. Jesus then told them not to be deceived by those who claim to know and those who claim that “I am he.” He also warned them of upcoming wars, earthquakes, plagues, and famines. He told them that they would be persecuted but they should not defend themselves because their “endurance will win your lives.”
If I ran things (whatever that means) I would have this passage from Luke engraved everywhere.
All four Gospels end with Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The Acts of the Apostles begin with Jesus ascending from them with the promise that at some point he would return. And despite several passages that told us that there will be no sign, we look anyway. Matthew 24:36 tells us that “As for the exact day or hour, no one knows but, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son but the Father only.” Even the Holy Trinity is divided on this.
But the ink wasn’t dry on this scroll before we attempted to predict and anticipate Jesus’ return. We even came up with a name: The Second Coming. The Second Coming also came with another belief: Some will be saved, and some will be not. Furthermore, those who will be saved will be immediately taken to Heaven (raptured) and the rest will be “left behind” and will suffer tribulation and most will be condemned.
I’m not going to list the entire swath of history, but it’s worth noting that much of what we now believe today happened in the last few hundred years in the United States.
We all have at least a passing familiarity of the Seventh Day Adventists. They were founded by William Miller, a man who didn’t expect to be the founder of a new branch of Christianity. He believed, and preached, that the Second Coming would happen on October 22, 1844 from his interpretation of the 8th chapter of the Book of Daniel. He attracted several people who spent that day waiting for an event that never came. Today Adventists describe it as “The Great Disappointment.”
In 1970 Hal Lindsey published a book called The Late Great Planet Earth and interpreted passages from the Book of Revelation to claim that Second Coming was at hand. He took passages from the Book of Revelation and placed them against recent events (e.g. the founding of the nation of Israel) to claim that the Second Coming was on the horizon.
In 1999 Rev. Jerry Falwell, also reading from the Book of Revelation, claimed that the AntiChrist was a male Jew living among us and the Second Coming was imminent.
Harold Camping, an engineer by training, claimed over radio that the Second Coming would happen on May 21, 2011. Several of my fellow chaplains called each other to see which were left behind. We all were.
There’s more: My friend Fr. Jim Kolb CSP was the campus minister at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks when he learned that a student predicted the Second Coming at a specific date at midnight. Jim held a party at the campus ministry that night. Fifteen minutes after midnight he called the student who answered the phone. Jim told him: “Oh man, you got left behind too? For what it’s worth the rest of us are having a party if you want to join us.” I’m guessing he didn’t.
We are approaching the end of the liturgical year and we live in a time where many think about the end of the world. And I suggest we look in another direction.
What if there is no Second Coming? What if our world had a beginning but no end? How should we live our lives if Jesus’ words don’t speak to our entire world but our own lives?
Jesus has promised to come back to us and make all things right, but perhaps Jesus made this promise individually instead of collectively. There won’t be an end of our world, but instead each of our deaths will be our Second Coming.
When Jesus tells us that no one knows the hour or the day we shouldn’t think about a moment when God will decide that this moment will end our world, but instead recognize that there will be a moment when our lives will end.
Let’s face it: none of us likes to think about the end of our lives. We’ve seen our grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and others die and we like to think this won’t happen to us. And the idea of a rapture that will deliver us from this sounds appealing. I believe the success of the 5 volume Left Behind series from 2003 lies in our fear of dying.
OK I get it. Believing that we will be instantaneously transported to Heaven (and everyone I know who believes in the rapture believes he will be raptured) makes the future less scary.
But much of our life asks us to put faith ahead of fear: Can I be a good spouse to this person? Will I be a good enough parent? Is this a job that will fulfill me?
And all of this dwarfs before our fear of dying. But as someone who has worked with dying hospice patients for nearly 22 years I can tell you that most people on hospice welcome death. They have lived lives that gave them joy, they are weary of being sick, they believe God’s promise of eternal life and are ready for the next chapter of eternity. They certainly have regrets, and they worry how their survivors will do in their absence, but they’re ready.
I have learned much from them, and they still have more to teach me. But I’ve stopped looking for signs of the rapture, not only because Jesus told us not to, but because I don’t think it will happen.