* Thanks to Jonathan Storment for teaching me about John Darby.
There was a guy named John Darby, a British (Anglo-Irish to be exact, since we are talking about history now) evangelist in the 1800’s. He did something amazing, and, in my opinion awful. He invented the Rapture. It never ceases to amaze me how little we care about history. If something “feels” right, we can accept it as truth – this is the bedrock of Western Civilization.
The reason that Darby’s rapture theology stuck is precisely because it “felt” right to so many people. And it felt right because it reinforced the Greco-Roman worldview that American culture was built on. But before we get into all that, I guess we need to go back to the foundation of Greek philosophy, and the invention of another lie – Homer’s afterlife and Plato’s paradise.
Homer invented ghosts. Cool invention! His classical literary work may be the most impressive in history (The Iliad and The Odyssey) especially considering he was blind and had it all committed to memory!
For Greek culture, the Iliad and the Odyssey were far more important than a good book. They formed the foundation of how they understood the world. These two incredible works were literally the DNA of the Greek worldview carried in story form.
Homer saw the afterlife as gloomy, shadowy, and dark. He called it Hades. It was an underworld. There is this famous scene in the Odyssey where Odysseus visits Hades – the underworld of the dead – for information. (Usually, in Homer’s stories, they went to bring someone back to life – See! Everyone longs for resurrection!) He visits his recently deceased friend. His friend is a vapor, a ghost that is hard to glimpse. He won’t sit still – he moves. The place, Hades, is frightening, there is weeping and wailing. This isn’t hell, this is where ALL people go when they die, according to Homer. And this was not just a story according to the Greeks, it was their bible!
A couple hundred years go by; Greece is growing in power and prominence and influence. And a tradition begins with one man – an incredible historical figure – Plato. Plato takes what is a largely gloomy and negative view of the afterlife, and puts a positive spin on it. Before I get into what exactly that positive spin is, let me raise another important question – why did Plato do this? The answer is important.
Plato felt that a strong belief in the afterlife gave the person a sense of stability that this world cannot provide. You hear that? The afterlife, for Plato, has nothing to do with this life. As long as a person can hope for something better in the future, we can overlook the bad things now. (Sound familiar? It is hauntingly close to what we preach as the gospel today. I hope the rest of this section explains why we preach Greek philosophical afterlife, rather than the actual gospel of resurrection).
Now Plato knew, and he was right, that Homer’s gloomy and negative view of the afterlife would not provide the sort of stable hope that a more positive view would. So Plato did something that is, for the contemporary Christian, important to understand. He invented paradise, sometimes called “heaven”. I don’t mean he invented heaven as in the heaven in Scripture (defined as “God’s realm not removed from earth but invisible) rather I mean heaven as in a distant, removed from earth, place. As if you could get in a space-ship and take a left turn at Jupiter and be there in two light years. And wherever this place was, it was serene and perfect, and your “soul” rested there in a bodiless existence for eternity. Plato says that when humans die:
“The soul takes flight from the body, to the world that is invisible but there arriving she is sure of bliss and forever dwells in paradise.”
That is just fantastic Greek Philosophy – but it’s not biblical. Plato invented it. It is the bedrock foundation of the first heresy of the church, Gnosticism. For the Gnostic, and for Plato, the people who attain a kind of spiritual, mental, psychological enlightenment, the right kinds of knowledge – they get to go to paradise when they die.
Fast forward a little ways about 300 years or so. Jesus comes to earth, the true Israelite. All Jewish hopes rest on him. He never once challenges the Jewish hope of a remade world where God is king. In fact, he reinforces it with statements like, “Truly I tell you that at the renewal of all things.” And he even teaches something radically different from Plato when he tells his followers to pray, “May your kingdom come, and your will be done, on earth just as it is in heaven.”
And so, to gloss over history in an incredibly unfair summary, two worldviews grow up beside one another. One catches on like wild-fire – the Platonic worldview. By the time Martin Luther and John Calvin come on the scene as pioneers of the Great Reformation, they just assume that the central question of scripture is “Where does your soul go after you die? Heaven or Hell?”
With the launch of the Protestant Reformation, we sort of ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ and have no use for the great catholic (not Roman Catholic) debates of the first 300 years of Christianity. Those debates settled theological disputes like Resurrection, New Heavens and New Earth. Who cares?! Right? Let’s just sing “I’ll fly away…” and “This world is not my home” and die already so we can fly off with Plato on the clouds someday!
Secular Western Culture, particularly the British and American empires, are founded on Greek worldviews. And the religion that rises within them assume some of the things that everyone knows – like “heaven is some place in the sky you go after you die.”
It works out nicely for those in power too, because God, in particular Jesus and his kingdom people, have nothing to do with this world anymore. It is only about convincing people to believe this or that so they can go somewhere after they die. Who cares if we kill the natives! Who cares if we enslave the blacks! Who cares if we rape the earth! This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through! Which is interesting to me: Those in power were upset with the earliest Christians, saying in Acts 17:6-8:
“These people who have been turning the world upside-down have now come here also! They are acting contrary to the laws of the emperor, saying the true king is Jesus.” The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this…
Interesting – in and around 35 AD, Christians were changing the world, turning it upside-down. Everything was changing to reflect the truth that Jesus now sat at the right hand of God and is the world’s true king. This was a threat to those who were benefiting from the world as it is. Fast-forward to the 1700’s and even now… Christianity is just a religion. Nothing really changes. It’s just a system of belief. At best, Christianity gives people a Platonic hope for escape from earth some day.
So, there was this guy named John Darby who came to America in the 1800’s. He was the first guy to preach this thing called “the Rapture”…. cool invention, I suppose, for a Greek Philosopher.