With some Christians claiming recently that the rapture will occur this Saturday, I'm reminded again of a richer, more transformative alternative to premillennial dispensationalism.
Premillennials' interpretation of the book of Revelation holds that a rapture (as in the carrying of Christians to heaven) could occur at any moment, say May 21. Afterward, a leader dubbed "the Anti-Christ" will rise to power. I'm radically oversimplifying this, but after much bloody battle and other events, eventually Jesus will return and all of God's promises will be fulfilled. We will finally experience complete redemption at this time. As a Southern Baptist, I used to believe that this sequence of events would literally happen.
After I learned an alternative viewpoint, I'll admit that any talk of eschatology and prophecy previously weirded me out. What a shame, though, because the church's living in the already/not yet, of considering ourselves to be in the "end times" -- maybe an N.T. Wright-esque "fifth act? -- can be such a powerful idea.
Eschatology literally means "final matters," and in the sense that St. Paul understood it, it provides a great context for ethics. The cross and the resurrection were, to Paul, apocalyptic events, creating a rupture in time that ushered in the new order. Paul is constantly keeping this in mind as he outlines his ethic, because to him, the church can only find its appropriate role in light of its eschatological significance. Ushering in new creation is the church’s role. New creation entails reconciliation and living out the subversive, prophetic, anti-violent gospel. The church is located at the juncture between the old order and the new.
But a powerful thing about this type of eschatology, that premillennial dispensationalism sadly misses out on, is the idea that this new creation is now. Paul’s focus on eschatology does not devalue the present, and does not provide for an ethic that ignores what we are dealing with now, such as environmental or social justice issues. It does not fixate on a date on the calendar, for which we simply wait because Jesus won't establish new creation until after a certain sequence of events has occurred.
The church’s living out of the apocalyptic gospel leads to activity rather than passivity (much of this I'm drawing from Richard Hays, by the way). Also, the church is supposed to be a sneak preview of God’s final redemption of the world.
It's true that in Revelation the church is encouraged to remain steadfast and hold on to the hope that Christ will come soon, but Revelation is still a subversive, political text. The church's allegiance should be to God’s kingdom first and foremost. Revelation encourages political resistance, because Christians are only to acknowledge God as their ruler.
The ethic of the kingdom is a subversion of the current-day political rule, because Christ-followers are not to coerce or rule by force, but to submit and to suffer. So the church, if it were to actually live this out now instead of waiting for the next era, is living with the tension of already/not yet.
I found this on the Open Source Theology website, which is a much better articulation of what I'm trying to say. This article discusses the church's prophetic role, and draws from John Howard Yoder:
When incarnation moves out of the simple historic arena and into a properly construed communal context it requires that serious attention be given to a hermeneutic of peoplehood. It is within this setting, particularly, that the “one who prophesies” (1 Cor. 14:3, 29) serves as anagent of direction for both the community’s singular moral/ethical stance and as a motivator for the world at large. Ecclesia that conforms to this rendering of peoplehood happily embraces its own identity in terms of theo-political categories, preferring in fact to situate itself in the very midst of worldly concerns with communally prophetic intentions. Furthermore, when ecclesial life is so conceived, Pauline and Johannine contrasts (Romans 13 and Revelation 13) turn out to be less about differing states and more a reflection of the enduring ambiguous reality of any state. It compels the church to be a community of prophetic dissent, not apolitical but hyperpolitical, offering more original, creative and intensive ways of realizing a healthy polis.
The eschatological orientation of missional community of this sort, therefore, is both affirmed and intentional. It reasserts an ardent Christology by articulating what James McClendon (assessing Yoder’s contribution) refers to as a “politics of resurrection." It interprets the work of God in such a way that juxtaposes hope in the cumulative results of human achievement with hope in Yahweh who raises the dead. In this manner, Yoder situates the prophetic purpose of missional community within an eschatological framework that is deliberately anticipatory in nature. If communities of this kind have recourse only to their primitive origins, their social engagement cannot help but be severely limited and temporal. Far more resourceful are those that envision themselves as collectively progressing toward the future of Jesus Christ. “The people of God,” according to Yoder, “is called to be today what the world is called to be ultimately.” [bold emphasis added]