Jesus came back on a Saturday night. Mike and I were sitting in his car after the prayer meeting, discussing the return of Christ, and had just observed that it could happen that very night. The remark had not been prompted by any singular event or sign. We said the same thing every Saturday night.
I was a new Christian at the time and had only recently learned about the return of Christ. My friends spoke of it as "the Rapture," a term that seemed more suited to a romance novel than to religion. The Rapture, they explained, was when Jesus would return to collect his church shortly before the Second Coming. They found this teaching in Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians and in the mysterious Book of Revelation. I had read Revelation but had not been able to make much sense of it. I did not doubt its truth; I simply took it at face value.
Now, it seemed, the Rapture had arrived, just as Mike started to read a verse from his Bible. He was cut off midsentence by an unearthly howl that sounded like something from beyond the grave. It began soft and low, barely registering on our consciousness, but soon built to an eerie crescendo. Mike and I looked at each other in wide-eyed amazement. This could only be one thing: the "last trump," the shout of the archangel.
The eerie call continued to sound as Mike and I sat in his car and waited to be caught up into glory in the blink of an eye. I felt an initial wave of relief that I was fully clothed and that Jesus would find us talking about the Bible. That should look pretty good on my record, I thought. I suppose my panic might have returned had I realized that Jesus probably would consider this thought evidence of pride.
Mike began to pray. I followed suit, but with less confidence. It occurred to me that we had blinked several times since the "trump" began to sound. If Jesus was coming for his saints, he had either overlooked us or decided to leave us behind. Like a driver trying to push start a stalled car, I began to bounce in my seat, hoping that one of the jumps would start me up to glory.
What had begun as a clear tone ended in a piercing howl that made the hair on the back of my head stand on end. As the sound trailed off in the night, I blushed to realize that it had not emanated from heaven or hell, but from the dog next door. We would have to wait another day for Jesus to come.
Raptured in Shortsor Less
I was disappointedand relieved. My ambivalence was partially fueled by the way this doctrine was sometimes presented. Sometimes it seemed that the prospect of the imminent return of Christ was held over my head as a threat. Those who spoke of the nearness of Christ's coming tended to do so with the grim satisfaction of a mother warning her erring child, "Wait until your father gets home!"
I noticed that Jesus, too, had spoken of his coming in terms that sounded ominous. He said that it would come upon people without warning (Matt. 24:42, 44). He warned that some would be taken and others would be left behind (Matt. 24:40-41). But his point seemed to be that it would be preferable to be caught up. Somehow the preachers I heard made both alternatives sound like a threat. They warned that it would be embarrassing to have Jesus come back while we were doing something that Christians shouldn't be doing. What if I was in the theater when Jesus returned? What if he came back before I quit smoking? How, they wanted to know, would I explain myself?
These were sobering questions, to be sure. But I was troubled by a more pragmatic concern. I was worried that I did not normally sleep in pajamas. What if Jesus came back in the middle of the night, like the bridegroom in the parable of the virgins? I did not relish the thought of suddenly appearing before the heavenly host in my shorts. Those who will be caught up in the Rapture, I had been told, take their bodies with them. Far better to be among the dead, who leave their bodies behind when they are called into the presence of God. Nervous about the possibility of embarrassment when that day came, I started wearing jeans to bed.
I soon realized that even with these measures, there were other contingencies for which I couldn't prepare. What if I happened to be taking a shower when the Rapture came? I could wear a bathing suit in the shower, but Jesus might come in that moment before I put my bathing suit on. The Bible said that those who would be taken in the Rapture would go up in the twinkling of an eye. I didn't think I could change that fast, and I wasn't sure Jesus would wait.
I knew that I was supposed to look forward to Jesus' return. But I wasn't sure I wanted him to come too quickly. I was barely out of high school and had yet to experience most of life. There were still a few things I wanted to try before leaving earth behind. As far as I could tell, God had eliminated some of the most exciting aspects of earthly life from eternity. For example, I had read that there would be no marriage in heaven and, I assumed, no sex either.
I discovered that I was not the only one who was concerned about this. With the look of a man who has been invited to a dull party and cannot decline, my best friend confided that he was worried about heaven. "I know we're supposed to look forward to being in heaven," he explained. "But when I read the Book of Revelation, it looks like all we will be doing is bowing up and down."
"Up and down," he repeated in a note of despair. "Up and down, for all eternity!"
I tried to reassure him that eternity would be more interesting than that, but I shared his reservations. It made me nervous when the pastor grumbled about people who found church boring. He wondered aloud what they thought we would be doing for all eternity. Would there be enough to hold my interest for that long?
Meanwhile joy, like the Day of the Lord, had a habit of showing up unexpectedly, as if it were a thief intent on catching me unaware. It stole upon me at inexplicable and inopportune moments, while driving in the car or making the bed, only to vanish as soon as I became aware of its presence. When I looked for it on my own, particularly in church, it eluded me. I came to understand that this is often the way of joy. A glimpse of heaven refracted through the shadows of earthly experience, joy prefers to inhabit the periphery of our spiritual vision.
My anxiety about heaven diminished as I continued to read the Bible. I began to understand that the images the Scriptures used of heaven were intentionally earthly, employing the language of the ordinary to describe the eternal. The angelic beings that surround the throne of God combine elements that are common to earthly creatures, making them terrifying in their familiarity (Rev. 4:7; cf. Ezek. 1:10). The architecture of heaven, according to Scripture, is rife with beautiful gems and precious metals (Rev. 21:18-21).
C. S. Lewis explains the necessity for this language: "Heaven is, by definition, outside our experience, but all intelligible descriptions must be of things within our experience." Earthly experience is the only experience we know and must be our starting point when speaking of heaven.
The earthly images that God has embedded in human experience and Scripture speak to us of heaven but cannot take us there. They carry the fragrance of heaven with them but that is all. Still, these biblical images, coupled with our own earthly experiences, can help us anticipate what is to come. The Bible draws on our experience to paint a picture that mirrors the true reality of heaven, but only in broad strokes. We do not see its towers and spires with clarity. Rather, we see "through a glass darkly," a poor reflection in a dim mirror (1 Cor. 13:12). Those who seek heaven in the images eventually find only dust and ashes.
The fault may lie with human language. Perhaps it is too narrow a palette to hold all the colors of heaven. We who have not experienced heaven cannot know what it is truly like. If it is true that language must use human experience as its point of reference, then the images of the Bible and our experience can move only in one direction, arguing from the lesser to the greater.
But ultimately the problem lies elsewhere. Jesus' criticism of Nicodemus in John 3:12 is equally true of us: "I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?" There is a high likelihood that we would not believe, even if the language could be found to tell us.
Heaven and Earth
When my oldest son Drew was just a small child, my wife, Jane, found him playing with a plastic bag. When he put it over his head, my wife reprimanded him, explaining that what he had done was dangerous. Drew, of course, wanted to know why. The answer was that he might suffocate and die. This was the first time Drew had encountered the notion of death.
As Jane considered what to say next, I thought back to my own childhood and the moment when I first learned about death. Joe, one of my father's coworkers, had suffered a fatal heart attack. As my father was about to leave for the funeral home, I asked if I could ride along. My parents didn't think it was a good idea. I had never been in a funeral home before or seen a corpse. Up until that point, death was a stranger to me. Their reticence only intrigued me, and I began to ask questions about what happened to my father's friend and what his fate would be.
"He'll come back to work after the funeral, right?" I asked.
"No, Johnny, he won't."
I found this hard to accept. I was even more disturbed when I learned that Joe would be buried in the ground.
"He won't be back at all? Ever?" I asked, incredulous that such a thing could take place.
"Nope," my father replied, in a cavalier tone. "When you're dead, you're dead. That's it."
Without the hope of the gospel, there was little else he could say. His simple statement shook me to my core and changed the way I looked at the world. Like a patient who has just been told that his condition is terminal, I realized that he had just pronounced my death sentence. What was true of my father's friend must also be true of me. One day I would die. They would lay my body out in a funeral home and then place it in the ground. I sobbed when I realized this, consumed with grief, not for Joe but for myself.
Just as Adam died when he ate the forbidden fruit, something died in me when I realized my father was telling the truth. From that moment on, the prospect of death dogged my heels, as relentless as any predator in pursuit of its prey. I became conscious of time's passage, any enjoyment now tempered by the knowledge that it was only fleeting. The passing of each event signaled the approaching end like the tolling of a bell. The end of the game gave way to the end of the party. The end of summer gave way to the end of the year. The end of the year would, in time, give way to the end of my life.
Jane did not want Drew to bear such a burden, so she tried to explain the concept of death coupled with the hope of heaven, but in language a small child could understand. She told him that she did not want him to die but that he did not have to fear death.
"When you die," she gently explained, "you will go to be with Jesus in heaven."
Drew thought about this for a moment, then began to sob inconsolably.
"Who will take care of me in heaven?" he wailed.
"God will," she saidbut those were not the words he wanted to hear.
This is the dilemma we face when it comes to being heavenly minded. It is hard to think of heaven without thinking of earth. Our earthly reality seems so much more tangible; we barely know what awaits us in heaven, and can't really know what we are missing. "No eye has seen," the apostle Paul assures us, "no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Cor. 2:9).
It is hard to wait for what we cannot see; harder yet to long for what we do not know. Fortunately for us, the apostle goes on to say that God has revealed these things to us by his Spirit. Like a bride so eager for her wedding night that the faded picture of her lover will kindle the fire of desire, we too are surrounded by images designed to ignite our longing for heaven. They are only shadows and not the reality of the life that is to come. But for now, they are enough.
John Koessler serves as chair and professor of pastoral studies at Moody Bible Institute. His most recent book is True Discipleship: The Art of Following Jesus (Moody, 2003).
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