ruptured rapture: christian gnosticism alive and well
The recent flurry of attention given to belief in the rapture, owing primarily to American fundamentalist Harold Camper’s predictions of its occurrence, offers some interesting points of reflection for Christians today. (It didn’t happen, in case you were worried you had been left behind.)
I don’t just mean this in terms of the apparent foolishness of attempting to predict the “rapture”, or more broadly “the end of the world”, in light of Jesus’ words in Matthew 24:36:*
But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.
Nor do I mean this in terms of reflecting on the fact that the concept of the rapture is based on a misinterpretation of one verse in 1 Thessalonians 4, or that no Christian before the 18th century had even heard of it!
Instead I think that Christians would do well to reflect on the unbiblical thinking that forms the foundation of ideas like the rapture.
Indeed, the rapture is undergirded by a conviction that the destiny of God’s people is to escape from their bodies, which are part of an evil and corrupted material/physical world, into a spiritual** (read as “non-material/non-physical”) existence in heaven.
This framework of belief, held by many (most?) Christians, actually ignores both the beginning and end of the Scriptural narrative; in the beginning God creates a “good” creation, and in the end he restores it ala Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15 and Revelation 21-22. In other words the aim of God is to restore all of creation, including the physical, not for us to escape from it.
Christian theology affirms the goodness of the material order, beginning with God’s affirmation of this goodness in Genesis. Jesus himself teaches “let your kingdom come … on earth as in heaven,” not “let us escape the earth so we can live in heaven.”
The idea that there is a spiritual being/soul that must be liberated from an inferior physical order is rooted not in Judeo-Christian tradition and teaching, but rather in the teachings of the Greek philosopher Plato.
Plato did not teach a rejection of the physical world, but he did teach that the idea (or ‘form’) of something was superior to its physical materiality (e.g. the idea of a bull is superior to an actual physical bull, which is merely the imperfect replica of the universal concept of bull-ness).
(Don’t worry too much if that all sounds to you like a lot of bull-ness…)
Those who came after Plato took his teaching to its logical conclusion; that the physical world is inferior to that of the immaterial/non-physical. This dualism was extended to the point of perceiving the physical world in a negative way, including the human body, which began to be viewed merely as an inferior shell for the supposed immortal soul.
Such ideas eventually permeated into early Christianity. Soon the Gnostic sect was formed, and the Gnostics completely rejected the goodness of the physical world.*** For them the aim of existence was to escape the physical world.
This is basically where the belief in ‘going to heaven after you die’ began.
Gnostic Christianity was condemned by the mainline Church as heretical. Many of its beliefs however continue today in the form of theological systems that perpetuate the radical neo-Platonic dualism of the Gnostics.
As I have tried to make clear (albeit briefly), the biblical witness is totally contrary to this kind of material/immaterial dualism. God affirms physical creation, and his plan is to restore it (the New Creation).
That is to say, God is keen on the physical world!
The difference between the two perspectives is not merely theoretical; if the physical world does not matter (as in Gnosticism and most Christian fundamentalism), then what we do to this planet and our bodies is irrelevant. If however the physical world is God’s good creation and he wants to restore it, then how we treat the planet, our bodies, and the bodies of others etc. is central to the plan of God.
Critics of Harold Camper may rebut his attempt at prediction, though many of them also believe in the rapture. In my view it is the theology of rapture that is far more dangerous in the long run than foolish predictions. The theology of rapture, or more broadly of escapism, is an unfortunate blight in the tradition of Christian theology that can lead (and has led) people to turn away from injustice and suffering in creation and look forward to an escape that God is not actually planning.
In the midst of ridiculing or revelling in the rapture, be sure to consider whether the way you perceive the plan of God for creation is based more on the teachings of Jesus and his followers, or the Greek philosophy espoused by the Gnostics.
P.S. For a great book on this subject read Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope.
* This verse has been quoted constantly over the last week to counter rapture predictions. I just want to state for the record that I don’t think this verse has anything to do with the Second Coming of Jesus. In fact, contra most commentators, I don’t think Matthew 24 is talking about this event at all. See my post Jesus’ Apocalypse.
** I would understand ‘spiritual’ to mean something like “animated/empowered by the Spirit”, rather than referring to a kind of immateriality.
*** Many Gnostics also believed that secret esoteric knowledge (gnosis) was necessary for salvation. It is interesting how Harold Camping has demonstrated a similar kind of insistence; “Camping, 88, has scrutinized the Bible for almost 70 years and says he has developed a mathematical system to interpret prophecies hidden within the Good Book.” (Source: San Francisco Chronicle)
Posted on May 22, 2011, in Biblical Studies, Culture & Art, Current Events, New Testament, Theology and tagged 1 Thess 4, 1 Thessalonians 4, Dispensationalism, Dualism, End of the World, Escapism, Fundamentalism, Gnostic, Gnosticism, Harold Camping, Heaven, May 21, Neoplatonism, New Creation, Plato, Platonic, Platonism, Premillennialism, Rapture. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.