On November 1 and 2, in many traditions at least, Christians celebrate the twin feasts of All Saints and All Souls. Among other things, this is a time to remember those who have departed, both from our faith communities and from our families. And for many, this includes prayer for the dead.
For much of my Christian life, I assumed that prayer for the dead was basically off limits (at best pointless; at worst, pagan). Why pray for the dead? Their eternal destiny has already been determined by their response to God in this life; so… what is left to pray for now that they have passed on? But as Moltmann reminds us in the clip below from the 2009 Emergent Village Conversation, throughout the history of the church, most Christians have not thought this way. Here Tony Jones asks Moltmann some questions about the nature of prayer, leading Moltmann to make two profound observations:
The initiative in God’s blessing on us is always God’s (not ours). The hearing of God precedes our praying.
The dead died; but they are not “dead” in the modern sense of gone and annihilated. They are present because Christ is Lord of the living and the dead.
About 15 years ago a megachurch in a nearby city had some sort of “Rapture Ready” event (I can’t remember what they called it exactly). It’s goal was to make sure that we all knew that we were “ready” when the pretribulational Rapture came; that we would be “taken” and not “left behind” to endure the terrible events that would follow. Since the Rapture could come at any time, participants were encouraged to buy tape recordings of the event, so that their loved ones who didn’t make the cut would find the tape, listen to it, and have that post-Rapture “aha” moment where they could realize what was going on (after all, while they would have to endure the tribulation regardless, if they repented they could still escape the flames of eternal torment!).
I was a teenager at the time, and invited some friends to come over to my parents’ house to watch this event on TV (don’t worry – I made sure to get a tape recording too!). Afterwards, one girl remarked to me that it seemed that the preacher was trying to “scare the hell out of people.” At the time I shrugged this off. Don’t some of us need this in order to turn to Christ? Besides, while I thought that maybe the “timing” of the Rapture was debatable, it didn’t occur to me to call into question the truth of the general narrative…
Most of us who were raised in American Evangelicalism have had some exposure to this brand of end-times doctrine. Even when I didn’t feel particularly strongly about it, I remember sensing that this approach was helpful because it motivated Christians to do evangelism and resulted in some unbelievers converting. It was explicitly taught at the Christian high school I attended, and seemed to be the assumed belief among many of the Pentecostals and other conservative Evangelicals I knew.
It’s been a widespread approach for a number of years, but the Left Behind franchise – with its books, movies (and now, of course, the movie reboot starring Nicolas Cage) – has further brought this dystopian story of the end into the forefront of popular apocayptic imagination. All based on a speculative, relatively recent, and hotly contested, interpretation of the Bible.
There are plenty of biblical, historical, and theological reasons to reject Left Behind’s Rapture theology (maybe I’ll dive into that in a future post). What I want to focus on here is the general thrust of its message: The misguided theology informing Left Behind spreads fear and is about escaping this world; the Gospel of Jesus brings hope and is about redeeming this world.