From Rapture Back to Earth: A Meditation on Mark 13

by | Dec 12, 2023 | 3 Meek

(Suggestion: Read Mark 13)

Growing up in the rural South, rapture was in the air.

Not the blissful rapture of lovers, but the gravity-defying rapture of fundamentalists and readers of Hal Lindsey’s mega-bestselling book, The Late, Great Planet Earth. This vision of Christian hope amid sufferings looks to a cataclysmic moment in the future when civilization reaches such a nadir of depravity that Christ intervenes from above and sends angels to “gather his elect” (Mark 13:26-27) to lift them into the clouds to meet their Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18). The Christian hope in this vision despairs of this world as a lost cause and looks forward to a place in which those who profess proper belief in Christ with all the moral trimmings cannot go wrong as in Eden. Furthermore, this implies fire insurance for those who believe and say, “tsk, tsk,” of nonbelievers condemned to eternal flames.

This vision sells, as the later success of the Left Behind series of books and movies confirms. And I was sold as a boy. Like the news, this vision hooks us by frightening us, giving us intermittent signs of impending relief, but keeping us worried with doubts and threats of catastrophe. This is not the stuff of good news. As I reflect on my growth in faith, unlearning and displacing this interpretation marks steps along the way.

How did I unlearn it?

A youth pastor pointed out that this apocalyptic imagery is the stuff of poetry, not historical description, and I need to dig deeper than a literal reading to find the truth it conveys. As for history, the dark events of which Jesus warns in Mark 13 have been happening throughout history. To seal this, in my college new testament studies I learned that Mark was likely written shortly after the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 A.D., a scene that Jesus seems to describe with the crumbling of buildings amid wars and rumors of wars.

The take-away for me moved from placing hope in a day of rapture to something happening now amid the sufferings and threats of mortal life. Jesus says when you hear of these things, he is near (v. 29). Experience bore this out. As the suffering of life visited me along the way, Jesus was always only a prayer away and often arrived before I thought to pray. Moreover, in supporting others as a therapist or friend, Christ seemed present often enough, as promised in Matthew 25:40, among “the least of these.” This seems more like good news to me than the rapture narrative.

“Be alert. Keep Awake.”

The refrain in the little apocalypse of Mark 13 is not, “You better claim Christ as your savior now before it’s too late!” Rather, it is, “Be alert” (vv. 23 and 33) and, “Keep awake” (vv. 35 and 37). As I came more and more to see Jesus as a practical spiritual guide rather than a theologian constructing elegant systematic belief systems, I saw the irony that Jesus’s talk about a coming day of reckoning was a way of cajoling us into living today in awareness that the risen Christ, Emmanuel, is indeed with us, that the Holy Spirit does indeed give us words to say in our trials. What good news!

While I still hold to this interpretation, concerns for social justice bring me back to the future. Upon listening to oppressed people of faith, I hear emphases on confronting present injustice and hope for God’s deliverance in the future. As a privileged white man, I rightly emphasize alertness to Christ here and now, but I can too easily dismiss the hope for God’s intervention in the future. Jesus, like the prophets before him, calls my attention to both. 

Faith in him is a yet-but-not-yet, paradox.

He is present yet, calling and blessing us now. But he is yet to deliver us once-and-for-all from the sin and injustice that overwhelm us.

If future hope is not leaving the world behind as the reprobates burn with it, where is the Christian hope amid all the dark images of Mark 13? Let us revisit the image of the angels gathering the elect in verse 27. If the point is a lift off into the clouds, the elect are gathered like fish in a net, each flailing for its own survival while transported, no time for each other. But we can see “gathering” in a different way, a social way. Unlike 1 Thessalonians, Mark 13 may speak of the Son of Man in the clouds but says nothing of the elect levitating. Rather, Jesus simply speaks of them gathering, forming beloved community, right here on earth amid the ruins. 

Whether one emphasizes a future rapture or present communion with Christ, the Christian hope is to unite with Christ. Call me impatient, but I prefer to go ahead and join him now. I prefer to begin eternal life now, not wait until death or a day of rapture. The resolution of history’s dissonant notes will come, and we must learn the spiritual practice of waiting. But waiting need not be hard. In our love for one another and our prayerful attention to the Spirit of Christ in our everyday lives, we can enjoy companionship with Christ and participation in God’s peacemaking work now.

Related Post

A Wakeful Faith: Expecting Christ Every Day

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5).

Photo by Dave Hoefler on Unsplash



  1. Michael Parnell

    Thanks for the reflection. I want to say that the use of language like elect allows us to declare winners and losers in the faith game. I do not like that. Being Baptist, I hold tightly to the atonement for the whole of the earth and not just to a select group.

    • J. Marshall Jenkins

      While I am not Baptist, I agree that God’s purpose is the atonement of the whole world. To me the term, “elect,” emphasizes two things, (1) that atonement is based on God’s choice and initiative, and (2) God redeems the world through chosen groups (e.g., Israel, the church) and individuals (like you), however flawed (e.g., Israel, the church, me). Augustine, for all his brilliance, drove the term, “elect,” in an exclusive direction, and everyone blames Calvin. But “elect” does not necessarily mean that.


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