It kind of bugs me that the press is paying so much attention to Harold Camping. He's the California preacher who has predicted (for the second time–he was wrong in 1994) that the "rapture" will occur tomorrow. Which is to say, he's predicted that a group of chosen people will be whisked away, swooped into heaven, and the rest of humanity will be left "behind," which is to say, here on earth. Oh, and we'll be left behind to suffer. It kind of bugs me that the New York Times has a front page story about Camper's predictions and that Google search brings up stories from every other reputable (and many non-reputable, I should add) news source. Aren't there more important things for Christians (and non-Christians) to be talking about?
But then I started thinking about the hype. And I remembered that a month ago, Rob Bell made it to the cover of Time Magazine because he raised questions about our eternal destiny. It made me that Americans are interested in what happens after we die (or, in Camping's case, in what happens when we skip death and go straight to heaven). Moreover, it made me realize the conversation actually matters because of the theology at stake. Let me explain. Brenda Peterson wrote an essay for the Huffington Post describing her encounters with a neighbor who is preparing for the rapture. She expresses sympathy:
It struck me that being "raptured" out of this world trumps the insecurity of living and the surrender of dying or staying on. No bodily indignity. No suffering. One will simply be whisked off with the fellowship of the believers – the Rapture gang – to a heavenly reward.
But she concludes, in an exchange with her neighbor:
"Listen," I said softly, "I want to be left behind."
Left Behind to figure out a way to fit more humbly into this abiding Earth, this living and breathing planet we happily call home, we call holy.
My neighbor looked at me, startled, then fell very quiet as we watched a harlequin float past, his bright beak dripping a tiny fish. Happy, so happy in this moment. The Great Blue cawed hoarsely and stood on one leg in a fishing meditation. Wave after bright wave lapped our beach and the spring sunshine warmed our open faces.
Brenda Peterson's theology (although she wouldn't call it that–at least, from what I can tell, she isn't an adherent to any religion) is closer to Biblical theology than that of her raputurous neighbor. Though I would question her assertion that we call the earth holy, Biblical writers affirm her sense that the physical world matters to God and matters eternally. Most "left behind" theology comes from the book of Revelation, and yet even that book concludes with an image of heaven coming to earth:
Then I saw "a new heaven and a new earth," for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Look! God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death' or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" Then he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true."
The Biblical picture of "heaven" is that of God's restoration of this earth. It includes salvation for individual people (and who knows whether that includes everyone or not... all I know is that God is both just and merciful and will work it out accordingly). But it also includes "making everything new." It includes repairing the fault lines that cracked creation as sin marred the world. So when Peterson wants to stay here and watch the Great Blue Heron instead of zipping up to heaven with her neighbor, she is making a theological statement that accords with Revelation itself.
I'm with Brenda Peterson on this one. Engaging in the messy work of the Spirit's redemption of our world, waiting for the day when it will be made right, living with God day by day in the beauty and the muck of this planet earth. I'd rather be left behind.