During each of the last four Friday afternoons, I've been at the state fair.
The great Texas State Fair, that is. Home to everything that anybody's ever thought of deep-frying, from fried tres leches cake to fried jambalaya. The State Fair of Texas has also been home to a 50-foot tall metal-and-fabric cowboy, Big Tex, who himself burned up in a sizzling fire this past Friday morning. His demise came just hours before my shift at an evangelical booth in a pavilion right next door to where the talking statue has anchored the midway's north entrance for six decades.
But not to worry: Big Tex will be back next year, fair officials promise, after a complete overhaul including all-new electronics, the culprit behind last Friday's fire. Pity the same can't be said for the arteries of fairgoers who insist on sampling all of those deep-fried specialties every year.
It's easy to guarantee the future when we think it's within our power to do so, isn't it? We do it all the time. Yes, all things considered, the State Fair will re-open next September like it always does, crowds will return to its Art Deco corner of impoverished south Dallas, and some bizarre new deep-fried delicacy will be added to the menu. And the lining of fairgoers' internal organs.
A lot could happen between now and then, however. Even Jesus Christ's return. What some evangelicals call the "Rapture." Others of us call it the "Second Coming." Time as we know it may have ended by next September.
Dispensing with Sensational Dispensationalism
Whoa! Did this Rapture thing come out of left field for you? Or did your heart skip a beat out of joyous anticipation at the thought? Maybe you recoiled in horror, aghast that I lumped "second coming," "Christ's return," and "Rapture" in the same interchangeable context.
Thanks to my diverse history in various churches, I'm fully aware that my ambivalence regarding the names of events comprising the Rapture amounts to some sort of heresy for some folks. But I'm sorry: all of the pre-millennial, post-tribulation theological arguments fall flat to me, not just because they're man-made terms, and despite the illusion that they're debatable within scripture itself. It's not like any of us have a say in how God decides to wrap things up for this present world. Suffice it to say that since He hasn't laid out "end times" doctrine in explicit detail for us, we people of faith probably should spend less time bickering over how we think future events may play out, and more time serving God by serving others here, today.
True religion that honors God is that which cares for widows and orphans, not that which stakes inflexible claims on eschatology. And we're supposed to be wise about the topics we allow ourselves to debate. End-times prophecies like those found in Daniel and Revelation are indeed profitable, since everything in the Bible is, but their value probably lies more in their descriptions of the sovereignty and holiness of God, not ambiguous theories over which we're to argue.
Regardless of how what happens when, then, at some point, Christ will return and call His Church home to Eternity in Heaven. We should all be able to agree on that, even those of us who believe part of Heaven involves a new Earth, or who bristle at lumping the Rapture in with Christ's Second Coming. But again, let's not dawdle over hypothetical semantics. At the mention of "Eternity in Heaven," even if your brain flickered with a brief awareness of how nice Heaven will be, did it just as quickly frown in disagreement?
Or worse still, fade into a "not yet, God" type of hesitancy? Do you still have stuff you want to accomplish or experience here on Earth before Christ's second coming?
It's natural to desire a full, long life. And it's unnatural - unhealthy, even - to want to end it early so we can go to Heaven sooner than God's prescribed duration for our physical bodies. Our culture certainly places a premium on living long enough to cram as much fun into our days before it's all over. As if Heaven, for the redeemed, is going to be one long bore. So maybe it's a combination of pop culture and misguided theology that makes some believers equate the Rapture of Christ's saints with death - something that should be put off for as long as possible.
Granted, there's quite a bit of difference between how we mentally process the lead-up to our own death, and the Biblical promise of the Rapture. For one thing, the Bible does talk about long life as being a sort of reward, and death is mostly presented in a negative light. With the Rapture, however, all of us who are saved will be forever with our Lord together. While death involves a certain measure of pain, Christ's Second Coming should be sheer glory, right? Doesn't that mean we should look forward with great anticipation to the Rapture?
Then why do so many professing believers seem to want the Rapture to be deferred?
Shouldn't Heaven Be the One Thing For Which We Can Be Anxious?
Working at this evangelism booth at the Texas State Fair, one of the questions we ask people who stop by is whether they're ready to spend eternity with Christ. Frankly, it's come to bother me that so many people who say that they're saved also say they aren't in any hurry to be raptured. Nobody's in any real hurry for death, obviously - except those that eat all that fried food - but I can't understand why believers in Christ should want God to delay our eternity in paradise.
Might it be because although people may profess that they're ready for Heaven, they may really not be ready?
Might their faith be so woefully immature that they've never learned about what Heaven truly is, and Who lives there? Might the Devil have deluded them into thinking life here on Earth is worth putting Heaven on hold? Doesn't it often seem as though many believers seem quite deluded and satisfied with the lives they've made for themselves here on Earth? "Heaven can wait," as they say.
They may know the end-times lingo, and whether they're Dispensationalist or Reformed, they know the words used to describe Christ's Second Coming, or Rapture, or whatever theological terminology their denomination uses to describe the event in which Christ claims His Bride, the Church.
But quite frankly, if the prospect of instantaneously being in Heaven with Christ and our God with all of the Church Triumphant from every corner of the globe doesn't at least put a smile on our face, shouldn't we be wondering why?
There is nothing here on Earth that will be better than what awaits us in Eternity Future. Nothing. Nothing! Not the World Series, not a college football game, not getting married, not the birth of your next child, not a promotion at work, not moving into your town's most exclusive neighborhood, not seeing the "resurrected" Big Tex next fall.
Granted, none of us can really put Heaven into its rightful perspective, since it's far more glorious that we can comprehend. Do you get dizzy when trying to imagine what eternity is? I do. I also blow a mental fuse trying to figure out how we'll spend all that time.
But that's me trying to contextualize eternity in Heaven based on my mortal experience. And I have to admit: I don't get all giddy when thinking that Christ could return before I finish typing this sentence. I'm not sure I fully trust Christ, not am I fully confident that what He thinks "paradise" is will match my expectations of it. Sometimes I think we Americans, with our Puritanical work ethic, have a screwed-up notion of what work, grace, and glory really are. I suspect many of us get embarrassed if we admit that it would be nice to leave behind all of our problems and woes for eternity with Christ. We joke about it all the time, but we don't want to be defined as the type of person who spends their life dreaming of easy ways out of hard things. That sounds lazy, irresponsible, and unAmerican, doesn't it?
But if we really can identify something that we'd rather experience here on Earth before the Rapture, haven't we just identified an idol in our life?
And maybe even the fact that we're really not ready for Eternity after all.
Not yet, anyway!