1 Thessalonians 4, Matthew 25
by Isaac Villegas
November 9, 2014
The apostle Paul says, in the passage we heard from 1 Thessalonians: he says, “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
What’s encouraging about these words? “Encourage one another with these words,” Paul says.
When I read these verses, I remember Timothy LaHaye, and his Left Behind series of novels about the end of the world, about the apocalypse, about the rapture, when Christians will be caught up in the clouds to meet Jesus in the air, Jesus descending from the heavens to rescue his people from the tribulation.
I’m sure you’ve seen LaHaye’s books at yard sales. I grew up with that stuff. And before there was Timothy LaHaye, we had Hal Lindsay. He wrote a book in 1970 called The Late Great Planet Earth. That was the original American rapture book. The Left Behind books are fluff in comparison to The Late Great Planet Earth.
If you haven’t read these books about the rapture, you can watch the movie — or, I should say, the movies, because 15 years ago they first turned the book into Left Behind: The Movie, and again this year, 2014, there’s remake, starring Nicholas Cage. I have no idea how that happened. I’m always baffled by Nicholas Cage’s choice of films. This one has flopped in the box office.
These visions of rapture imagine a God who will destroy the earth, but has a rescue plan for Christians, for us to escape a global apocalypse. According to Tim LaHaye and Hal Lindsay, and lots of other Christians, the end times plan is that the believers who are alive will be taken up to heaven, in an instant, the blinking of the eye, right before the end of all things: “we who are alive, who are left,” Paul says, “will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air.”
What about all the others? Those left behind? And not just the human beings, but all the trees and flowers, the oaks and coneflowers, all the bluebirds and grey foxes and salamanders. For these theologies rapture, everything is going to burn, in a kind of hell on earth. As the title of one book puts it, Apocalypse Burning: The Earth’s Last Days.
When I think about that kind of end, when I think about that kind of theology, a theology of cosmic violence, I remember a passage from James Baldwin, from his 1962 essay, “Down at the Cross.” As he listens to his friends prophesy doomsday, he responds with a question: “What will happen to all that beauty?” Baldwin writes, When we sat and talked about God’s vengeance, I wondered, What will happen to all that beauty then?[i]
After the rapture, after the apocalypse, after cosmic vengeance, what will happen to all that beauty?
Baldwin’s question helps us (or, at least, me) think about what God wants, what God desires — now and forever. If God created this world, and if God is good, and if God is love, then we know that God loves the earth, we know that God loves creatures, that God loves us. God made a world that God loves, a world full of animals and plants and ecosystems, the beauty of God’s handiwork, of divine artistry — you and me and our neighbors and leaves and rocks, all revealing traces of God’s beauty.
I don’t know what will happen at the end, and I get a little worried when Christians claim to know exactly how it will all go down.
As for Paul, in our passage from 1 Thessalonians, I’d say he’s borrowing imagery from the Old Testament, about what a glorified king looks like — for the blast of royal trumpets to call attention to Christ’s reign, full of the majesty of the clouds. Imagery of Christ’s triumph over death, the hope of resurrection — that, one day, we will share in the resurrection of Jesus, a life beyond the power of death. Paul is saying that Jesus can’t bear to live in heaven without us, that his love for us brings him back, because he wants to be with us, because his life is bound together with our lives because he can’t imagine his life without us, because eternity won’t be the same without us.
All of this is the central message of the Bible: that God wants one thing — to be with us. To be with us, as we gardened in Eden. To be with us, to share our humanity, in Jesus — to be born and to grow and to love and to die. And to be with us forever, beyond the end, beyond death — “that we will be with the Lord forever,” Paul says in our passage.
What those theologies of rapture I mentioned early miss is that God loves what has been created, and that God wants all of it forever. Those rapture theologies imagine a God who doesn’t want to be with all that beauty. Those visions of apocalyptic vengeance hope for a future without the earth, a life without our neighbors, without all the stragglers who couldn’t get their act together in time for the apocalypse, in time for the end, and therefore somehow deserve a life without God, a life without God’s presence. What matters, for them, is that they’re in, that they’ve got their ticket. Who cares who’s left behind. Who cares what’s left behind.
Those theologies of rapture look like the people in Jesus’ parable, in Matthew 25, the people who hoard their lamp oil. In the parable about the wedding party, some of the people won’t share their oil with the others, with those who didn’t have enough to keep their lamps lit. They didn’t share, and were happy to get into the party without the other guests. What mattered most, for them, was that they had their ticket, and they didn’t care about who got left behind.
At the end of Marilynne Robinson’s new book, Lila, there’s a moment when the central character imagines what it’s like to be in heaven. Lila has had a rough story, a tough life, yet a life full of people who cared for her, people never welcomed into any kind of church in all thee towns in the Midwest she passed through, but good people nonetheless, gruff yet kind, unfriendly yet good, suspicious yet unselfish.
She can’t imagine her life, her self, who she was and who she had become, without all those people, people who loved and cared for her — and if heaven is a place for her, if God would somehow welcome her, then heaven would have to be a place for all of her, a place where all the pieces of her life are drawn together, so she can be whole. And there is no way for her to be whole without being reunited with all the people whose lives made her who she was and is.
This is how she puts it: “It must always be true that there are the stragglers,” she says, “people somebody couldn’t bear to be without, no matter what they’d been up to in this life.”[ii]
For Lila, heaven is a place full of people who we can’t bear to be without — heaven as a place where she won’t be able to live a life of love, unless she has with her all the people who taught her how to love, all the people she has loved. With her comes all of her beloved stragglers.
What would it mean for you to live your life, for you to love the world, to love your neighbors, to love all this beauty, so much, for that love to be so much a part of your life, part of who you are, that God can’t imagine your life without all of them? — that God can’t welcome you without welcoming them? — that love has bound you so close to people here, that God can’t bear to love you without them, or love them without you — that our earthly loves are bound up forever in divine love, that when God love us, God loves all that we love, that we are tugged into heaven because of someone else’s love, and that we tug others into heaven because of our love. That none would be left behind, because, as James Baldwin put it, we can’t bear to live without all this beauty.
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,”Jesus says earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, “and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.”
Whatever you bind on earth will be bound into heaven.
Our hope is that all of us will be tugged into heaven by the bond of Christ’s love, even the stragglers. Because whatever is bound on earth will be bound into heaven.