So, yesterday we did a quick comparison of the gospels to see that Luke invests a lot of energy in telling about the event of the ascension, whereas Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ continual presence with the disciples, Mark’s passing reference to the ascension is a disputed text, and John ends his story without ever mentioning the event. Taken together, I would say that the early church did not consider the ascension to be a necessary part of telling the story of Jesus– at least as far as the gospels reflect the faith of the early church. And yet, that arresting image of Jesus rising up into the clouds seems to be what Paul is drawing on in I Thessalonians when he speaks of those Christians who are alive at Jesus’ coming (he suspected that he himself would be among them), will be “caught up in the clouds together with [the risen dead] to meet the Lord in the air.” And, of course, it is this arresting image that plays so powerfully in the scenario of Left Behind Theology.
However, I want to reiterate that Paul’s language in I Thessalonians has a very different feel to it than how that language is employed in Left Behind Theology scenarios. Paul’s language is the language of ‘participation and comfort,’ not ‘escape and threat.’ In First Thessalonians 4:13, Paul begins to address a hard question for the Thessalonica church: If we are orienting our lives for when Jesus returns any moment now, what are we to make of our fellow Christians who have died? Wouldn't it be incredibly unjust if they were to endure all of this suffering but miss out on this glorious affair? Paul’s answer indicates that the hope that we have is predicated on what Christ has done, saying, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died” (v.14). The point here is that our hope lies in participating in, being a part of, the great drama of the resurrection. And, twice, Paul tells the church to “encourage one another” with this hope.
Left Behind Theology gets its gas from depicting this ascension/rapture/caught-up-in-the-air event as an escape before tribulation takes place. Paul sees this ascension event as the hope that Christians can maintain- both for those who have died and for those who need to be encouraged through the trying ordeal that is already actually happening among them. In fact, reading into the second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul describes tribulation as what happens before Jesus returns, not some 'next stage' event afterwards. (But, that is not to say that this a “post-tribulation rapture” prophecy. It is a pastor speaking to a persecuted church that is dealing with the many difficult questions that arise in such a context.
Let me throw my stake down right here: Paul was simply wrong about timing, in his expectation of an immediate return of Christ. However, his primary emphasis, even within that initial, erroneous expectation of timing, was this: The power of the resurrection is something in which the church participates, enabling it to endure trials, maintain hope even for those who have died, and live with an expectation of salvation.
What Left Behind Theology does is to treat Paul’s (erroneous) expectation of an immediate return into an oracle that makes every disaster, even every looming disaster, the next great “this is the end!” moment. And that transforms the hope and participation that Paul taught into an occasion for fear and a need for an escape. And that is very, very sad.