Having recognized the homotextual tendencies of the church last Friday, I want to spend this week diagnosing a peculiar malady that plagues the church, with hopes of finding the right prescription for our cure. I call this malady our “Ascension Deficit Disorder.”
It makes sense, of course, for us to tact toward this disorder. After all, the ascension of Jesus seems to be an important event and the gospel writers tell the story so well. Jesus bids his disciples goodbye, then begins to elevate right in front of them until, finally, a cloud receives him out of their sight. It reminds me of some helium balloons that I’ve seen go up and up to where I simply couldn’t see them any more through the clouds.
Taking off like this seems like a really cool way to leave this earth and go to God, so it’s no wonder that many Christians have felt entitled/hopeful/desirous to do the same. And, there are some scattered scriptures that seem to imply that ascending is exactly what some Christians- those who are “alive and remain”- get to do whenever Jesus returns. The writer of I Thessalonians says that when Jesus returns, the dead will rise first. “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air.”
Like the phrase “one shall be taken, the other left” from Matthew’s gospel, this reference to being “caught up in the clouds ... to meet the Lord in the air” in I Thessalonians is a key phrase for Left Behind Theology. And while the term “rapture” is never used in the Scriptures, this verse from I Thessalonians is what LBT proponents mean by that word.
Irrelevant, but remotely interesting linguistic thingy: Not every event in the Bible comes with a pre-packaged descriptive word. Surely a phrase like “the ascension of the saints” would have been a better way of describing this text than “the rapture of the saints.” Only in LBT does the word ‘rapture’ mean something like “rising upward,” whereas that’s exactly what the word ‘ascension’ means. But, it is also worth noting that the word ‘ascension’ is also a later descriptive word that does not appear in the Bible itself.
Regardless of what word has been selected to name the upward movement described in I Thessalonians, that movement seems to be drawing on previous stories of Jesus’ own upward movement (which the church has traditionally called ‘the ascension’) and it describes how the Christians who are alive at the time of Christ’s return will have the chance to participate in that original ascension. Please keep that in mind. The language of this text does not seem to express an escape as much as a participation in the ascension of Jesus Christ.
I think this is an interpretive key that is left out of a lot of LBT scenarios and explanations. To understand what is meant by this upward movement of being caught up in the clouds with the resurrected dead to meet the Lord in the air, one must begin with the story of the Jesus’ ascension and its significance. So, setting aside all of the detailed scenarios, dreaded portents, and other such fabrications, I want to begin tomorrow with a close look at Jesus’ ascension and what it means. I think it will be somewhat surprising. I know I'm hoping to be surprised.