The rapture has come and gone. Harold Camping and his Family Radio franchise predicted a massive earthquake that would roll across the planet corresponding to exactly 6:00 PM in every time zone on May 21. At the same time Christians were to be raptured up into the air, finally being delivered from the evils of the world and ushered into the presence of God in heaven.
Such a disappointment.
Not that the rapture didn’t happen—that’s not the disappointment. The disillusionment comes from watching the whole farcical, tragic mess unfold. The heartbreaking reality is that Christians, fueled by a media that almost solely looks for sensationalism in a story, often miss the meaning and purpose of the church and God’s kingdom for this not-so-late-great-planet Earth.
As a kid I lived through the 1970s and was influenced by the hysteria of end times doctrine. I read Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye and other popular authors who created a new genre of Christian horror/sci-fi/fantasy. I went to a camp where the speaker explained all of the mystical peoples, signs and places of the Bible by careful isolating and then linking individual verses, with the end result of teaching us who Gog and Magog were, what the antichrist and the beast would do and other concepts like tribulation, millennium and rapture. I saw my share of scare-the-hell-out-of-you plays, skits and movies. All of us Evangelicals thought the end was at hand.
And then, a few years later I realized that this whole convoluted scheme for understanding Christ’s return was actually less than 200 years old. It was only introduced and then popularized by people like John Darby (considered the father of dispensationalism) in the mid-nineteenth century and C.I. Scofield (author of the Scofield Reference Bible which emphasized dispensationalism) in the early twentieth century. This type of systematic teaching was further formalized by Lewis Chafer, the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, in the mid-twentieth century, and teachings on the rapture and the millennium gained wild popularity in the seventies through Lindsey’s and LaHaye’s writings (even though the terms are never even found in the Bible). None of this was even thought of for the first 1800 years of the Christian Church.
Such a disappointment.
Because of our modern focus on leaving Earth (yes, I said “our” focus), Evangelicals have missed out on one of the greatest truths of scripture: the Kingdom of God is among us. It’s not here or there, Jesus said, it’s in your midst and it continues to come. The “eternal life” of John 3:16 is something that starts in the here-and-now. He prayed, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus illustrated the kingdom with metaphors of a tiny seed growing into a huge tree and yeast that permeates the rising dough. When he left this world his disciples were deeply concerned about knowing when he would return. His answer? “That’s none of your business, you belong here so get busy doing the work of my kingdom.” In seeking to evacuate this planet we forget that the church is a beautiful sign, testimony and witness of God’s great kingdom. Well... it's supposed to be.
Such a disappointment.
May 21, 2011 was not just an epic fail for the rapture, it also marked the return of U2 to the United States. Those who follow the theological threads of U2’s work know that one of the more consistent themes found in their songs is that of eschatology, or in other words, a theology of end times (see "My U2 Rapture Playlist" here).
As a quick illustration, check out the title and album cover for their most recent project No Line on the Horizon. Undoubtedly, the title represents a view of the kingdom suggested by Jesus’ prayer, “on earth as it is in heaven.” The cover art is a beautiful black and white photo of the ocean meeting sky with the horizon running perfectly through the middle. Superimposed on the clear wrapper of the CD is an equal sign arranged in such a way that one bar of the sign straddles heaven and the other rests on earth. It's a beautiful representation of a holistic biblical concept of heaven and earth. One is not evil and the other good; both are avenues through which God brings his kingdom.
During the concert (remember, it’s the night of the supposed rapture), the band played the song “Until the End of the World,” a marvelous apocalyptic tune in which they retell Judas’s story of betrayal and ask the hypothetical question of whether God’s love and grace are big enough to redeem Judas (their answer is unequivocally, “Yes!”). But, on this night, Bono had a variety of comments to make about the hype and hysteria of the day. Here are some of his remarks.
In the intro to the song Bono announces, “This is for the reverend Harold Camping” and then a bit later, “Such a disappointment.”
Such a disappointment.
Why? Because the rapture didn’t happen? No, that’s not the reason. The disappointment lies in that so many have misunderstood what the kingdom of God is and have been shifting the focus to some kind of earth-equals-hell-and-I’m-outta-here plan. The disappointment is that we have, all of us, including the non-Christian media outlets, turned a beautiful truth into a horror story. The disappointment comes from being unable to recognize that God is at work in his wonderful creation and that we have the opportunity (the responsibility?) to join him.
In the middle of the instrumental bridge of UTEOTW Bono brings it home. “God is in the house,” he says/admits/admonishes. He is here! He has come, he is coming and he will continue to come!
During the grand chaotic cacophony of the song’s final few strains, Bono screams with the conviction of a man that knows heaven is not just some distant ethereal place, “Somewhere! Somewhere! It is… it’s heaven!” And then in a beautiful poignant act of symbolism he reaches down, picks up some roses and one-by-one throws them to the impassioned crowd, shouting, “We bring peace! We bring peace!” The peace that Bono references is not some kind of fleeting 70s-style flower power, nor is it the forceful coercion of law and order, or even the absence of violence. It is the shalom of God’s kingdom, the entire story of the gospel including salvation, rescue, redemption, righteousness, justice, freedom and restoration. This is the stuff of heaven!
But the drama isn't over, and in a twist of irony so common at a U2 concert the band leave us with one more image. In the last moment of the song, in a scene played out on two bridges above the screaming crowd, Bono stretches across the chasm between he and The Edge and offers his fellow band member a rose. The trusses they stand on move closer and closer together but just inches away and unable to reach far enough, Bono drops the flower to the audience below. Is the peace of God's kingdom at hand? Yes. Is it here in its perfect and fullest form? Not yet. There will be days when we will recognize God's kingdom and reign over his beautiful creation and we will celebrate. But there will be other days when we acknowledge its incompleteness and continue to run, crawl, scale, climb and search for any glimpse of its glory. That is the tension in which we live.
The whole scene during UTEOTW is a cathartic, moving, grace-filled corrective to the escapist mentality of a rapture-centric American population. The kingdom of God is here, but not yet. It is now, but still to come. It is among us, but not completed. And U2, once again, masterfully and artistically have reminded us so.
Check out a couple of videos of "Until the End of the World" from the May 21 show.
Here is the whole song from a distance.
Here is a close-up of the stage. The footage of Bono is very impactful, particularly starting at 3:40. Highly recommended viewing!
Lyrics to the song here at the @U2 website.
(Here is another postI did on Bono's use of C.S. Lewis in which I mention the song "Until the End of the World.")