The Nones Bible
“Eyes on the Clouds”
Observing incoming clouds this morning, blown along by a strong wind, I found myself reflecting on the fact that those swirling wisps of vapor had probably been tornadoes not far away last night. Beautiful here, they wreaked destruction there. Soft, floating clouds of white, gray and black passing over the Blue Ridge destroyed homes in nearby states, lives were lost.
Several people who live in those areas said “Thank God!” it wasn’t their house, their life. Another said that, since it was Easter Sunday, “we will rise together.” Where does this belief come from?
There seems to be a lot of cloudy thinking in our world today. And much of it can be traced straight back to old teachings from old texts in an old book—the Bible.
A refresher for those who’ve studied the Bible (and new “revelation” for those who haven’t): Paul, in his first letter to the Thessalonians, gives specific details about where Jesus went when he ascended and how believers will ascend when The Ascender descends, again. Somehow, someway, this writer of most Christian scriptures, had some higher-insider information on the “other world,” death and the mysterious movements of God—the divine ups and downs.
“We who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself … will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air … .” (4:15-17).
Let’s try to get the picture: After walking out of the grave on Easter, Jesus flew into the sky; someday very soon, he will soar back down to escort his believers up; dead Christians will float up first; then Paul and his band of believers will float up into the clouds to meet Jesus; the whole assembly will fly off to heaven to be with the Lord for eternity. A very dramatic scene.
Paul writes these things because he doesn’t want the Thessalonians to grieve their dead or lose hope. So, he tells them this fantastic story to assure them they will soon be flying up with him. “I’ll fly away, O glory!”
As a young Evangelical, these words of assurance were on my mind every day. We cried through Christian films, concerts and endless sermons that promised: “Watch the Clouds! He’s Coming Soon!” Everyone was overwhelmed with expectancy that Jesus was returning, not only in our lifetimes, but very soon.
We were ready!
This is the so-called “Rapture”—the snatching up into the sky. What we never thought about in those heaven-minded days was that Paul believed he personally would be alive to see it. Jesus himself believed this cloud reunion would be happening right away, to those who heard his voice.
The fact that it didn’t happen as Jesus and Paul believed it would, seemed to have no effect on our youthful expectations or the propagation of the Gospel of Clouds. Jesus was gone, Paul was gone, and generations, even centuries, of Christians believed “He’s Coming Soon—in our lifetimes!”
Yet, the clouds pass over and move on. “Angel’s hair” for some, while they “block the sun” for others, clouds “rain and snow on everyone” (Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now”).
In Paul’s “sky story,” he doesn’t want the congregation to be “uninformed” about death, about what was yet to come. Today, we might question how Paul got that information and whether the people were truly informed about life and death (Saul, aka, Paul, claimed to vacation once in the “third heaven”—he didn’t want to “boast” about it, of course, but he was “caught up into paradise,” where he “heard things not to be told” … you know—see Second Corinthians 12).
Voices, visions, flights of fancy. All a little cloudy, aren’t they?
A freethinker approaches this atmospheric story with great skepticism, of course, yet also with some disappointment and sadness. For thousands of years people have pinned their hope on the clouds, looking up expectantly. They have believed the Lord is coming back, descending so they might ascend as he did into the clouds. I remember the emotion: “He’s coming for me!” Yet, even as Paul was about to have his head removed by a Roman blade, he must have had a concerned look on his face, glancing up: “This would be a good time to take me up, Lord!”
And we remember the promise of Jesus to the thief crucified near him: “Today you shall be with me in paradise.” As a chaplain for many a year, it pains me to hear such promises. According to the Gospels, Jesus did not go to paradise when he died that day. It was long afterward that he “ascended into the clouds.” They might sound comforting, or draw more converts, but these airy promises can actually be quite cruel.
Keep your eyes on the clouds. Think of what they bring to people all across the land, across the earth. Tomorrow, there’ll be other clouds. Who knows what they’ll bring?