Raptured or Captured?

Much of the evangelical church in America today seems to be obsessed, just downright giddy, over the “Rapture” that’s expected to occur at any moment now.

Just checked. Hasn’t happened yet.

It appears to be the topic of just about every other sermon in some churches and on Christian radio or TV. But given all the facts about today’s church and biblical history, what is more likely to occur, rapture or capture?

Let me explain.

It appears that a huge portion of the evangelical wing of the church today expects the “rapture of the church,” a secret “snatching away of the saints” on some unexpected morning. That done, the world is going to wake up to the fact that the true church of Jesus Christ (usually their particular church) is simply gone. Everyone else has been “left behind.”

But let’s check this out.

The early church believed in and expected a “parousia” (the Greek word for “coming”) to occur in God’s proper time—when Jesus would return to earth and do whatever he’s going to do before setting up the New Heaven and New Earth. At the moment, I don’t want to get into the particulars of what all this might look like (there’s a variety of views), except to say that it was thought to be anything but secret.

They also expected the church (the “bride of Christ”) to be ready and waiting faithfully, kept from sin’s stain and looking forward eagerly to the beloved bridegroom’s arrival. But it’s not too difficult to demonstrate that the church today, at least in America (the country I know best), looks less like the blushing virgin and more like a tattooed porn queen.

It’s now impossible to deny that, generally speaking, the American church is not the slightest bit different from the world in just about every way you can measure it. Whether you look at a George Barna poll or someone else’s, Christians think and act pretty much like those who either openly reject Jesus Christ or just don’t care one way or the other. The lives of many Christians have become virtually indistinguishable from the culture at large. You have to look long and hard to find the church exert much positive influence upon our institutions as it routinely did in previous generations.

The kinds of things we find common in the church today—greed, fraud, slander, immorality, malice, racism, bitterness, self-righteousness, unforgiveness, revenge, deceit—are traits, the New Testament affirms, that can actually keep people from entering the Kingdom of God. It’s just not good enough to say, “Christians aren’t perfect, only forgiven.” This lame excuse for bad behavior among believers just doesn’t cut it anymore.

In addition, there exists in the church the most basic theological heresies of every kind, along with an almost complete absence of any sense of the gravity of sin and our desperate need for God’s forgiveness and transformation. The “Good News” isn’t that good to most of us because the “bad news” doesn’t seem all that bad. “Amazing grace” isn’t quite so amazing. Much of what we regard as Christianity in America is little more than a popular Jesus-centered (or pastor-centered) folk religion for “basically good people.” What the world sees in the church is often only an “amazing disgrace.”

So let’s take a quick look at history to see what the future of God’s people might look like when we absorb so much of the surrounding culture into our lives that we become virtually one with it.

In ancient Israel, the normal result was to end up in some form of captivity. A pagan nation would sweep in upon Israel, destroy their cities, and “snatch” them away (not secretly) in order to turn them into slaves. This lasted until they learned to call upon the name of the Lord again, repent of their wicked ways, and bring their lives into line with God’s design. This happened more than once.

In the histories of Israel and the church, when the people of God drifted from the faith and became so comfortable in their environment that they no longer lived the radical faith and love to which they were called, they often ended up in captivity. Typically, judgments upon the people of God were motivated by divine love and were for the purposes of purification and redemption, not just punishment.

For instance, Germany in the 1930s. The flabby and innocuous church in Germany was hardly able to offer the least resistance to the evil dictator Adolf Hitler. In fact, many believers, pastors, and theologians had become so spiritually dense that they regarded him as God’s man of the hour, and enthusiastically voted for him. Fortunately, a remnant of the church stayed faithful and resisted the tyrant and his highly placed stooges in church leadership.

So what is the church to do when it finds itself captured rather than raptured?

Here’s a more recent example: When the Soviet tanks rolled into the great city of Prague in 1968, the church responded in two different ways. Those church people who were accustomed to the privileges of wealth, worldly status, comfort, and power bitterly resented their demotion by Communist authorities from statesmen and university professors to dishwashers and street cleaners. They impressed no one, but did confirm what many thought about Christians.

However, others in the church saw real opportunities for witness in such captivity. Those who were more concerned about their Christian witness in the world than about their status in society, rolled up their sleeves and got to work becoming the best citizens of their new Communist-controlled land. The result over time was that Christians were no longer thought only to be self-righteous hypocrites, but very reliable people of integrity. Because of their decision to sacrifice themselves for the welfare of their captors, many of them found themselves rising in their positions. Hard workers became labor leaders and honest people earned the trust and respect of the authorities.

Sometimes, even a faithful and vital church can become a victim of captivity, and can give us a picture of how to be a godly captive. Read Soon Ok Lee’s book, Eyes of the Tailless Animals: Prison Memoirs of a North Korean Woman, about life in North Korea—one of the most oppressive regimes in the world. Political prisoners and Christians are routinely abused or incarcerated in the infamous labor factories where cruelty and torture are the daily norm. Workers are so terrified of making mistakes in their duties that they learn never to admit to causing a production slowdown. Agonizing death awaits those responsible. But often it’s the Christians, not fearing death, who come forward and admit to the mistakes of others to save their friends from death.

When the world sees real faith in action, believers are no longer accused, as they are so often in our culture, of being judgmental, bigoted, self-righteous, or irrelevant.

In the experience of ancient Israel, people such as Daniel, Jeremiah, Nehemiah, and others discovered God’s blessing, character training, and effective witness to the world in their captivity. It’s easy to forget that we are here on this earth not to build our own personal empires and popularity clubs, or to make ourselves more prosperous and comfortable, but to serve and help build God’s kingdom by demonstrating his power to an unbelieving world. And if in our prosperity and freedom we can’t find the time to live as faithful and radical disciples before a pagan culture, alternate circumstances can easily be arranged.

So let’s face the big question: Are we really poised to be snatched away at any moment, to avoid pain and trial (as well as Christian witness), or are we once again so wedded to all the values, ideas, and practices of the world that if Jesus really did come for his bride he would probably just turn around and go back without her?

If history is any indication, and if current events are any barometer of what’s coming, it seems much more likely that we are on the verge of experiencing what so many of our believing ancestors went through. If we are paying close attention, the early warnings of captivity can already be seen: a growing hostility to the Gospel and the church; contempt for, and avoidance of, the name of Jesus Christ (even in our preaching); an erosion of biblical ethics and values in both church and society; movements to criminalize Christian preaching and teaching; a rising intolerance of free speech, a leveling and embracing of all religions, and the like.

If there’s some good news here, it’s this: If it’s to be captivity for us instead of easy escape, it will have a redemptive end. It will be pain with a purpose. It isn’t God’s intent to abandon his people to endless and meaningless suffering, but to purify and perfect them. If Jesus’ bride isn’t fit for his arrival, then he knows well how to do the work of preparing her.

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