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The Doctrine of the Rapture: Keep it or Leave it Behind?

It is, frankly, outside the original intent of the blog to devote time to a doctrine like the Rapture.  It is certainly not directly related to worship.  And, as I note at the end, there are people on both sides of the issue who I feel honored to count as Christian brothers and sisters and dear friends.  Most importantly, when it comes to these kinds of doctrines, those who live consistent with the Lordship of Jesus in within the realm of His grace will not be left out or left behind or left anything when it comes to eternity.  Regardless of whether things ultimately unfold as you believe or in ways you either misunderstood or were simply, as part of finite and fallen humanity, to begin to image, it will not matter at the most practical level.

Still, I want to address the doctrine of the rapture.  This is part in response to some discussions on Facebook, where the article below first appeared in serial format.  It is also because I do believe, even in areas I insist are not central to our faith, doctrine and truth are nonetheless important.

Introduction: What is the Rapture Doctrine?

One shall be taken and the other left
In the long history of emerging bizarre teachings that have plagued Christianity, there are few dogmas that can match the strangeness, newness, and lack of biblical support than that of the doctrine of the so-called Rapture. That is, at some point prior to the Second Coming of Christ, the saved will be instantly and miraculously transported out of this current sphere of existence into the presence of Jesus Christ. When this happens, two people might be walking together in a field or in bed together as husband and wife, and one might be taken up in this unexpected Rapture, and the other would then be left behind. Since all this happens without prior notice, it might well mean the driver of a car or the pilot of an airplane could unexpectedly vanish, while the unsaved passengers would find themselves suddenly in a driverless car or pilotless airplane.


To many who identify themselves as Bible-believing Christians, challenging the doctrine of the Rapture is as shockingly heretical as, for example, rejecting belief in the Virgin Birth. In part, this reflects our current age when many cherished doctrines are gleaned from pop culture, best-selling novels, and celebrity preachers. Scholarship is disdained and interest in church history is happily rejected in the comforting myth that the unthinking and uninformed idealized “common man” is the only reliable teacher of scripture. Rapidly growing churches led by men (and a few women) who are far more informed on current models of corporate leadership than ancient systems of theology are not simply tolerated, they are all-but-demanded. The semblances of study and thinking replace its actuality. But, wildly marked-up Bibles, nicely designed presentations, and a full quota of the latest evangelical jargon is a pathetic substitute for genuine scholarship and reflective critical thinking. But, such is the world of popular evangelical culture in the United States.

The reality is that the doctrine of a secret rapture of the saved prior to the Parousia (appearing or Second Coming of Christ) manages to exist with a extraordinary lack of biblical support, unless a handful of scattered phrases and verses are ripped entirely out of context. One telling evidence this is true is no one can be shown to have believed or promoted this supposedly clear and important biblical doctrine prior to the nineteenth century. Even then, its popularity was largely limited to groups of British and American Protestants in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries who aligned themselves with a virtual industry of prophecy meetings, the popular Scofield Reference Bible, and the power of celebrity revivalists like D. L. Moody and Billy Sunday.

This new doctrine, as might be expected, also brought voices of opposition. Those favoring and those opposing the notion of a secret rapture were not, however, divided along established fault-lines like modernist versus fundamentalist or Calvinist versus Arminians. Throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth century, those voicing strong opposition to the doctrine of the Rapture, and its associated eschatological system called “Dispensationalism,” was led by many leading scholars of English-speaking conservative scholarship such as B.B. Warfield, William Hendriksen, R. C. Sproul, J. W. McGarvey, and Anthony Hoekema. Many of the names of those opposing the notion of the so-called secret rapture were also at the forefront of defending biblical inerrancy against the attacks of theological liberals. That is, many of the strongest scholarly voices defending the truth of the Bible were the same voices strongly opposing the doctrine of a secret rapture. So, it cannot be argued that rejecting this doctrine reflects an inadequate understanding of inspiration or a lack of commitment to biblical authority.

I know many evangelicals pay scant attention to church history. In part, this reflects a commitment to maintain the authority of scripture against the competing authorities of traditions, popes, and councils. That is understandable. On the other hand, it contradicts common sense to suppose the entire church greeted the death of the Apostle John with a decision to abandon apostolic truth and set up the Medieval Papacy. It is unconvincing to insist a doctrine is obvious and plainly in scripture that no one seems to have seen or taught before the 1830s. Are we really ready to believe that a few nineteenth century English speaking laypeople, reading the King James Bible, are destined to be the first ones to discover an important doctrine that, according to its advocates, is plainly and obviously taught in the Bible?

At the very least, I would hope you might be willing, in the light of this information, information not disputed even by its strongest advocates, to label the doctrine of the Rapture as at least suspicious. It might seem daring, in light of how often you have heard it referenced in songs, sermons, novels, and movies. But, think about it. There have been many times when widely popular beliefs and doctrines have been weighed in the balance of biblical evidence and common sense and found wanting. A majority vote, even an overwhelming majority, at a particular setting and time, is not a reliable arbiter of truth.

This will be divided into four Facebook status updates or posts (and, later, combined as a single blog post on adorate.org): First, this introductory post. Second, I need to post some limitations in what I want to address. Even then, it’s is longer and more complex than we’re used to seeing in blogs.  Third, I want to briefly survey the historic origins of the doctrine and the important roles played by John Nelson Darby and Cyrus Scofield. And lastly, I will examine the most commonly cited Bible passages used to present and/or defend the doctrine of the Rapture.

Limitations

There’s a custom in academic writing of laying out, somewhere early in the monograph, an explanation of limitations.  That is, explaining to the reader or researcher what the article will not be addressing or how the area being researched is narrowed down from a variety of subjects to the single subject being explored.  Since the doctrine of the Rapture does not exist in isolation, I think such an explanation of how and why these four Facebook posts will be limited is a good idea.

Many people interested in eschatology (the end times, Second Coming, end of the world, etc.) understand that the doctrine of the Secret Rapture exists within a complex set of ideas.  This system of understanding the End Times is generally identified as “Dispensational Premillennialism.”  Those teaching and promoting the notion of the Rapture are nearly always linking the doctrine into one or more sub-groups within Dispensational Premillennialism.   Although I cannot, in these posts, take on the complexities involved in addressing Dispensationalism (hence, my announced limitations), I do need to at least define what it is.  Like the Rapture, it is finds its origins in John Nelson Darby and Cyrus Scofield.

What is Dispensationalism?

In order to understand why I will not be exploring the broader doctrinal context of Dispensational Premillennialism, it is important to define what the term means.

Sometimes the label “Premillennialism” is used as a shortened name for Dispensational Premillennialism.  The problem with this, however, is that a general belief that Christ’s return will be prior to a literal thousand-year reign over the earth can be found in the writings of some church scholars and leaders throughout history.  But, in many key areas, these older views that might also be called Premillennial were substantially different from the scheme of End Times events proposed by Darby, Scofield, and others. 

So, from the viewpoint of church history, the term Premillennial could refer to any view of the end times that concludes the Parousia (appearing) of Christ will precede the millennium.  This can lead to a good deal of confusion.  So, the older view, to distinguish it from nineteenth century system associated with Darby, is often labeled “Historic Premillennialism.” Because of this, a better shortened label for the newer scheme of understanding is simply Dispensationalism.

So, what distinguishes Dispensationalism from older ideas that were also broadly Premillennial?  The whole system of understanding the End Times found in Dispensationalism focuses primarily on the role of the Jews (that is, ethnic or biological Israel).  Bible prophecy, the advocates of Dispensationalism insist, focuses primarily on God’s covenantal people, understood to be ethnic Jews and the nation of Israel.  All prophecy pointed toward the coming of a chosen Jewish King.  Jesus, of course, is this long anticipated Messiah.  But, when Israel rejects Jesus, her rightful Messianic King, the gospel then goes to the Gentiles, bringing about the church.  The church, in this understanding, emerges as a kind of great parenthesis or pause in God’s prophetic timetable.  The result is that, in Dispensationalism, there are two parallel but distinct groups that might be called the People of God: both the (predominately Gentile) church and the biological descendants of Abraham, ethnic Israel.

In Dispensational understanding, although those within the church are certainly saved and beloved, the primary focus of prophecy and of God’s covenant-faithfulness always rests with ethnic Israel.  The return of Jesus will be centered on the establishment of his earthly rule as the Jewish King enthroned in Jerusalem in the nation Israel.  His earthly reign will through the re-gathered nation of ethnic or biological Israel.  This is not to say that there is universal agreement on many of the details within Dispensationalism.  Over the past century and a half, various theories have arisen related to issues like the nature and location of the church (in heaven or on earth), the nature of Jesus’ kingly rule, and, of course, exactly where, within the scheme of things, the secret rapture of the saved will occur.

The Seven Great Dispensations and the Church Age

In light of all this, it is probably no surprise, since I reject the doctrine of the Rapture, that I am not a Dispensational Premillennialist.  Truth be told, Dispensationalism is a far more serious false doctrine.  Its ramifications impact everything from American politics related to the modern nation of Israel all the way to how churches understand evangelism and the Great Commission. 

Dispensationalism is linked with the view of many evangelicals that God demands political leaders must give unconditional support for the modern nation-state called Israel, even if this means turning a blind-eye to the suffering of the Palestinians (including Palestinian Christians).  Additionally, and quite ironically for a view often associated with self-identified Bible-believing conservatives, many (though not all) Dispensationalists have adopted the notion that overt evangelism of unbelieving Jews is neither required nor even desirable. 

How can this be?  Dispensationalists are invariably identified as conservative Bible-believing Christians.  Is it fair for me to suggest Dispensationalists assume that everyone needs to be evangelized – except for the Jews?  To be honest, many will insist Dispensationalism doesn’t undermine the “Great Commission.”  They maintain all the Jews will still only be saved through faith in Jesus.  That is, the Jews will be presented with undeniable evidence of King Jesus at the End of the Age.  This divine manifestation will then foster a universal recognition of Jesus and faith in Him among the Jews.  Others insist a Holy Spirit led revival will sweep across all of Judaism just prior to the end, bringing massive numbers of conversions.  So, advocates of Dispensationalism will insist, this is still salvation sola fide (by faith alone).  This does not, however, solve the problem.  If this divine manifestation or Spirit-led revival that leads to multitudes embracing saving faith in Jesus is something granted uniquely to the Jews and no other group, this hardly avoids the conclusion that Jews are still saved based on ethnic biology.  It also, of course, reinforces the notion that current evangelism of Jews is optional, at best.

Although the ramifications of Dispensationalism are broader and, frankly, far more important than those associated with the notion of a Secret Rapture, it is beyond my available time and the nature of even extended blog posts to address the whole eschatological scheme here.  A number of books are available, including those that present materials both favoring and rejecting Dispensationalism.  The serious Bible student might want to explore books like The Bible and the Future (Hoekema); The Blessed Hope (Ladd); or The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views (Clouse).

With the basic overview of Dispensationalism behind us, however, the next two posts will be limited to narrowly focusing on the doctrine of the Rapture.  That is, I will largely disconnect it from the broader scheme of things like the Great Tribulation or the Millennium or the role of Israel or Jerusalem.  Those are important issues, to be sure.  But we will leave them for another day.

Origins of the Rapture Doctrine

 As might be expected, the details surrounding the beginning of belief in a secret rapture are hotly debated by historians from traditions committed to either affirm or deny the doctrine.  What is not disputed is that the late 1820s and 1830s was an era of great religious excitement in Ulster, southern Scotland and England, with numerous claims of prophetic visions and miraculous messages from God.  It was also an era of great apocalyptic fervor, with many people eagerly expecting the imminent return of Christ in that generation.

Edward Irving and the MacDonald Visions

A number of historians point to the influence of a radical (former Presbyterian) clergyman, Edward Irving, on the doctrine of the Rapture. Irving preached passionately and convincingly about the rapidly approaching end of the world and the dramatic resurgence of miraculous apostolic gifts sent by God to prepare for the coming end of the age.  These and other themes resulted in his being removed from the ranks of the clergy within the established church.  Of course, this did nothing to stop his preaching or to damper the enthusiasm of many of his supporters.  One woman, Margaret MacDonald, while experiencing a terrible sickness, reported having divine visions and hearing voices that revealed to her that Christ’s return would be in two stages, rather than the widely assumed single event.  In this vision-inspired divine eschatology, the first stage would involve the sudden miraculous removal of the saved from the earth, which was soon to endure the terrible cataclysms known as the Great Tribulation.

MacDonald Relates her Visions
MacDonald is often cited as “patient zero” for the doctrine of the rapture.  That is, the doctrine of rapture begins with a very sick woman in England reporting she has divine visions and hears voices giving her this new doctrine.  Historians from within Dispensational traditions strongly reject this claim.  As with most straightforward assertions, the historical picture is not entirely clear.  Evidence is inconsistent and anecdotal.  But, it is likely that MacDonald was not the first person to surface the idea of a rapture.  Like I already said, it was an era of great religious excitement and Irving seems to have, at the very least, laid out suggestions and hints of a secret rapture either at the same time or shortly before MacDonald’s reported visions.  While all of these things are ongoing, and in roughly the same areas in Britain and Ulster (Northern Ireland), we begin to encounter accounts of a zealous and passionate apocalyptic teacher, John Nelson Darby.

John Nelson Darby
John Nelson Darby:
Founder of the Plymouth Brethren

J. N. Darby was an Ulster Scot (called Scots-Irish in the United States) who was converted to Christianity while a student in Dublin.  As might be expected, he became a part of the (Protestant) Church of Ireland.  Darby was a fervent and effective evangelist, winning dozens and then hundreds of Irish Catholic peasants to Protestant Christianity.  Tensions between Darby and the protestant Bishop of Dublin would ultimately result in renouncing his membership within the established church.  Continuing to teach, Darby gathered followers who joined him in rejecting any system of ordained clergy and promoting a rigorous commitment to recover and restore apostolic Christianity.  A part of this involved Darby’s fervently preached understanding that the events of the End Times were beginning.  The recently invented telegraph, for example, was proclaimed by Darby to be an “invention of Cain” and the “harbinger of Armageddon.”   His growing numbers of followers were persuaded that the fulfillment of all the ancient prophecies of the End Times were now coming true.  They were convinced the end was upon them and that it would center on a renewal of the ancient nation of Israel and would begin with the miraculous removal of the church in a secret rapture followed by a seven-year period of Great Tribulation.

Darby was, by any measure, a deeply dedicated believer and a meticulous student of scripture.  He possessed a prodigious memory and was gifted with a mind able to pull together vast amounts of detail.  His system of understanding Bible history centered on using numerous tightly linked and often multifaceted connections between various prophetic images, individual phrases, and verses.  Although astonishingly complicated (as any quick survey of the numerous complex charts he and others have used to explain and promote dispensational timetables makes clear), Darby always insisted this was nothing more than a simple and straightforward use of scripture.  He openly boasted that his views required ignoring all the trained clergy, the so-called church fathers, and all of great theologians.  These were a major reason the purity of the ancient church had been obscured until made clear in his preaching. 

This was an ecclesiastical parallel to the political movement of the same era in the United States called Jacksonian democracy.  The most educated and elite were disdained and the plain, simple, and often uneducated “common man” was endowed as the most reliable source of true wisdom.  Ordinary people, not trained scholars, were the key to recovering right doctrine.  Unlike all famed theologians and scholars, Darby insisted, he was taking the straightforward meaning of the Bible texts.  

The irony that such a so-called simple and straightforward reading of the Bible required pulling phrases from widely separated parts of the Bible and weaving them together to created an incredibly complex progression of seven dispensations never seems to have dawned on him.  And, of course, the complete absence any single place in the Bible where such a progression or timetable is presented is either ignored or denied.   Even pointing out that no one throughout earlier church history outlines such a timetable or openly talks about a “secret rapture” years before the Second Coming, did not lessen his unbridled enthusiasm and confidence that this was not just a plausible idea, but was nothing less than THE key to understanding scripture. 

Deeply committed to the authority of Bible, Darby simply refused to reconcile perplexing and seemingly contradictory passages in biblical prophecy by allowing that any of them were wrong.  But, committed as he was to what is sometimes called Scottish Common Sense rationalism, he was equally averse to the traditional response of church leaders that the complexities of prophecy are within those areas of the mysteries of God’s will that defy complete systematic human analysis.  As one historian noted, “Too rationalist to admit that the prophetic maze defied penetration, Darby attempted a resolution of his exegetical dilemma by distinguishing between Scripture intended for the Church and Scripture intended for Israel.” (Sandeen 1970) However complex this weaving of prophetic teachings became, Darby remained utterly confident it was all there and all would be clear to anyone open to reading and believing the Bible. 

The fact that the doctrine would wait to be recovered by English-speaking dissenters in the 1830s, simply confirmed to Darby that his was the last generation before the end and God was using him to restore the pure apostolic church to pave the way for Christ’s return.

Now because Darby’s own teachings on the End Times happen within the same time period and in the same geographic areas as the work of Edward Irving, a number of historians have concluded that the source of some of Darby’s ideas, particularly regarding the rapture, were rooted in the prophecy teachings of Irving and the visions of Margaret MacDonald.  Other historians, generally from within traditions committed to Dispensational eschatology, have challenged any such connections and insisted Darby’s teachings were rooted solely in his study of scripture.  In my opinion, the evidence that Darby was surely aware of the teaching of Edward Irving, as well as the content of the MacDonald visions is convincing.  But, as with most history, a convincing case does not mean it is certain.   Those who continue to insist no connection exists between Darby’s eschatology and the so-called divine visions of Margaret MacDonald can also cite some evidence and cannot be proven wrong. 

In either case, one thing that is not disputed is that the doctrine of the secret rapture prior Second Coming cannot be found as a clearly articulated doctrine before the 1830s.  Were I to offer no other evidence, from the viewpoint of church history, that fact alone ought to put the veracity of the into serious question.  But, there is another important question we now come to:  How did this notion of a secret rapture go from a view found among a relatively small group of unaffiliated dissenters in Britain and Ireland to become a widely held belief among large numbers of American evangelicals by the mid-twentieth century?  Exploring its origin is one thing.  Explaining its widespread popularity is something else.

For this, we need to return to John Nelson Darby.  By the late 1830s, no longer a part of any official church, Darby continues to draw crowds and converts to his grand vision of the End Times.  The religious world, he insists, has been distorted not only by Popes and church Councils, but even the Protestant world shares in this distortion by the continued use of ordained bishops and clergy.  Before the Second Coming, Christ will bring about a restoration of the pure apostolic church.  This purified church will be free not only from the Vatican, but from Canterbury, Westminster, and from all man-made things like clergy, synods, and presbyteries.   

The growing numbers of believers persuaded by his preaching will be one of the ways God accomplishes this.  And so, Darby and those aligned with his teaching will form a new religious group in England known as a Plymouth Brethren.  Although not a household name to many evangelicals today, Darby and the Plymouth Brethren are important in church history.  What is really surprising, however, is that the greatest impact both Darby and the Plymouth Brethren will have will not be in Ireland or Great Britain, but among revivalistic Protestants in the United States.

Cyrus Scofield

Apocalyptic fervor swept across America, particularly in the mid-nineteenth century.  The “Millerites,” thousands of whom sold all their goods and gathered in caves and other place in 1842 to await the end of the world, are just one example.  The Dispensationalism of the Plymouth Brethren and John Nelson Darby found fertile soil in the sawdust trail of American revivalism.  Dwight Lyman Moody was just the best known of many self-taught and often self-appointed revivalists who adopted and incorporated Dispensationalism into their fiery sermons.  But, the real spread of Dispensationalism will occur most powerful not from the pulpit, but from the printing press, with the appearing of the Scofield Reference Bible.

Cyrus Scofield
As John Walvoord, a former president of America’s leading Dispensational seminary, Dallas Theological Seminary, observed in 1959: “This edition of the Bible, which has had unprecedented circulation, has popularized premillennial teachings and provided ready helps of interpretation. It has probably done more to extend premillennialism in the last half century than any other volume. This accounts for the many attempts to discredit this work…The reputation of the Scofield Bible is curious because each succeeding writer apparently believes that his predecessors have not succeeded in disposing of this work once and for all. This belief apparently is well-founded, for the Scofield Bible continues to be issued year after year in greater numbers than any of its refuters.” (Walvoord, The Millennial Kingdom).

Scofield is a controversial figure.  His divorce and romantic relationship with his second wife before the divorce was finalized (and marriage only a few months later), along with charges of failure to provide child support and charges of financial forgeries that landed him in jail in St. Louis, are just part of the picture.  He was an effective preacher, as his years growing the First Congregational Church of Dallas from 14 to more than 500 members demonstrates.  He was passionately committed to defending the Bible against the theological liberalism sweeping across Protestant schools and seminaries.  He was also heavily involved in promoting world missions and became a friend and advisor to D. L. Moody, serving for a time at Moody Trinitarian Congregational Church of East Northfield, Massachusetts.  He became increasingly focused on bringing together the teachings of the Bible, particularly those related to the End Times, in a helpful system of linked Bible references and notes so that any layperson could be led to, as Scofield put it, “rightly divide the word of truth.”  That phrase, “rightly divide,” is understood to mean recognizing the seven Great Dispensations which, quite literally, divide all of salvation history.

Title Page from the 1909
Scofield Reference Bible
In 1909 these efforts culminating in the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible.  Although it was marketed and sold as the “King James Version,” the reality was that in a number of key places, Scofield’s notes guide the reader to wording changes introduced in the Revised Version produced in England based on the works of Wescott and Hort.  The points where this is most obvious are places where the wording of the Revised Version is more generally supportive of a Dispensational reading of a text.  Published by Oxford Press, the new reference Bible became widely popular among American Protestants, particularly among theological conservatives.  By the 1930s, supported by national revivalists like Billy Sunday and the Scofield Reference Bible, the label “Fundamentalist” and “Dispensationalist” will be synonymous to many Americans.  George Marsden in his landmark work, Fundamentalism in American Culture, lists Dispensational Eschatology, along with Calvinistic Soteriology (doctrines related to salvation), as the defining hallmarks of Fundamentalism in much of the twentieth century.
Scofield Reference Bible Sample (Daniel 6)

New names and celebrities, like C. C. Ryrie, Hal Lindsey, or Jack Van Impe, will appear later in the twentieth century.  Each promotes subtle, but often strongely defended, variations in the complex scheme Dispensationalism gives for the End Times.  At the same time, ongoing serious scholarship within Dispensational traditions such as Dallas Theological Seminary have acknowledged many of the excesses and theological contradictions in the system.  Also, a minority within the American Reformed tradition have steadfastly remained outside the Dispensationalist camp, providing a steady stream of strongly anti-Dispensationalist books and commentaries over the past five or six decades.  At the same time, theological conservatives from outside Reformed Protestant traditions, such as those of the Stone-Campbell Movement or evangelical Methodists associated with schools like Asbury Theological Seminary, have joined with Reformed scholars like Hendriksen and Hoekema in challenging Dispensationalism in general and rejecting the idea of a Secret Rapture in particular.

Finally, this is a doctrinal squabble almost entirely limited to English-speaking (and largely American) Protestants or those directly influenced by them.  Among broader streams of Christianity, both in North America and worldwide, such notions as a Secret Rapture or the centrality of a re-constituted Israel as the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant are rare to nonexistent.  This is one reason why many Christians in other parts of the world are baffled and frustrated by what they see as many American Christians lack of concern for the sufferings of Palestinians or the undeniable instances of brutality carried out by Israeli police or units of the military.  From their side, it looks like a calloused lack of compassion for the suffering.  From the side of many American believers, of course, any serious criticism of Israel or expressions of support for Palestinian concerns is tantamount to rejecting the plan and purpose of God in re-gathering the “Chosen People” to the “Holy Land” in preparation for coming Millennial reign of Christ.

Key Passages related to the Rapture

The truth is that, particularly as it is connected with the broader system of eschatology present in Dispensational Premillennialism, scriptures used to more or less support the Rapture doctrine are difficult to unravel.  Many relate to showing how the rapture must precede the last seven-year literal Great Tribulation inherent in Premillennial eschatology.  It simply exceeds the space and time constraints of either Facebook posts or my blog (adorate.org) to address these passages individually.

Instead, I will focus on two key portions of scripture that are, in both popular media and in providing biblical evidence of support for the believe that: There will be a sudden removal of all Christians from earth several years before the actual Second Coming of Christ.  These are the places in scripture where we read about one person being taken while the other is left behind and believers being suddenly caught up to “meet the Lord in the air.” Combine these two ideas: believers taken up into the air to meet the Lord and some people suddenly finding they are “left behind,” are you have the most popular and widely used Bible phrases and images of the rapture.  These are also the two Bible references that inevitably seem to come up when someone discovers I do not believe the Rapture doctrine:  “But what abut where the Bible says…?”

I am certainly not out to discredit the Bible or dismiss biblical doctrines.  My purpose, in fact, is to honor scripture by insisting we read passages in context.  In this case, it is our familiarity with some of the phrases in these passages that actually gets in the way.  It’s one of those times when hearing dozens or hundreds of sermons puts us in such a different place than those first readers and hearers.  When we hear these phrases or ideas, we just can’t get past our own deeply embedded assumptions. So, my challenge is this: can you put yourself in the place of those first hearers?  That is, I would pray for what Eugene Peterson once referred to as “fresh ears.”

PASSAGE ONE: 1 Thessalonians 4

In First Thessalonians, Paul addresses the End Times in the second half of chapter four and the first half of chapter five.  Not all this extended passage is related to the Rapture, of course.  This contains the best-known description of the rapture.  Believers will be suddenly caught up in from the early to meet the Lord in the air.

MEETING THE LORD IN THE AIR

“…caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” (4:17)

We begin with what is assumed to be the single clearest and most unambiguous Bible verse describing the Rapture.  In some sense, this is unquestionably true.  It cannot be doubted the passage depicts believers being miraculously taken up from the earth to meet Christ “in the air.”  In the broad definition of the word, this is, indeed, some kind of rapture.  But, before putting checking this verse off as undeniable evidence of the Rapture Doctrine, let’s listen to what leads up to this verse and see what Paul is actually saying in 4:17.

1 Thessalonians 4:13–17
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”

You may want to re-read the passage (although this is the ESV, any good translation is fine) as I outline some points below.  If you do, here are what I think you will discover in this broader context:


  1. Why even bring up the subject of the Second Coming?   The main issue Paul is addressing is centers on some anxiety among the Thessalonians about Christians who have died (“fallen asleep” was just a polite way to say “died” in that culture – like we might say a person “passed away”).  At least in a general sense, it’s clear what those concerns are.  There was confusion and angst because at least some in the church thought those who had died, even if they were Christians, would then miss out on the Second Coming.  This the theme he returns to repeatedly in 4:13-17 and then adds (4:18) that the believers should “encourage one another” with what he has written.
  2. So, following on this main purpose, the primary group Paul centers on in 4:13-18 is actually believers who have died.  Paul’s point is that, even though they are dead, people in this group will not miss the Second Coming.  In fact, they will be first to be transformed and we (the living) will join them in meeting the Lord’s return.  This emphasis remains true even in the familiar passage in 4:17.  While Paul begins the sentence with “we who are alive,” he then returns the focus to the dead in Christ by noting his readers (those alive) “…will be caught up together WITH THEM in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”  Follow his thinking and then read 4:17.  It is the “with them,” not the “caught up,” that is the focus of what Paul assumes will be encouraging words he mentions in 4:18.
  3. The event described in verse 17 begins in verse 16 with a loud cry of command, the voice of an archangel, the trumpet of God, and the resurrection of the dead.  By any reasonable thinking, this bears no resemblance to some kind of secret rapture of the saved in which everyone else is left wondering what just happened.  In fact, as everyone dealing with this passage prior to the 1830s demonstrates, 4:17 is describing nothing less than the actual Second Coming of Christ.  That is, the Second Coming of Christ will be announced by angels, trumpets, and recognized by all the living, and will be accompanied by both the resurrection of the dead and the transformation of the living. 

To help make this even clearer, look at another well-known passage about the Second Coming and notice how Paul says virtually the same things about the same event (First Corinthians 15:51-53):

“Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” 

On a side note: I’ve run into a few people who will insist the word “mystery” in 15:51 points toward a mysterious secret, and therefore proves there will be a secret rapture.  Not only does it not fit the context of First Corinthians any better than that of Thessalonians, it also reflects the assumption any word in the Bible must mean exactly what that same word means in popular American English today. 

Any good reading, even an English Bible, of how the word “mystery” is used in the New Testament demonstrates the Greek word “musterion” as used in the New Testament does not mean what the popular notion of a “mystery” means today.  Any fundamental knowledge of New Testament Greek, or even some basic research on the New Testament uses of “mystery” will make it clear it does not mean mysterious or spooky.  A “mystery” something once hidden or known only in scattered parts but later explained and revealed.  The most common context, in fact, for “mystery” in the New Testament refers to the inclusion of Gentiles within the People of God, something hinted out throughout the Old Testament, but not revealed clearly until the coming of Christ and the apostolic church.

Returning to First Thessalonians 4:17, the verses does, in the broad sense of the word, describe what could be called a rapture, even if that word (as critics are quick to point out) is nowhere in the Bible.  Believers are, indeed, caught up to meet the Lord in the air. 

But, this verse cannot be referring to a sudden and (to those left out) baffling disappearance of believers separated from the Second Coming of Christ, itself.  What Paul describes is the great universally announced with angelic shouts and trumpets rapture.  It is the rapture that includes the final resurrection of the dead (there is some debate over whether this includes all of the dead or only the saints).  It is the twinkling-of-an-eye transformation of the living Christians in which the mortal is clothed with immortality.  The notion of two people standing together and one suddenly vanishing, leaving the other both confused and “left behind,” cannot fit what Paul is actually saying in Thessalonians.

This naturally leads us to the second portion of scripture.  Here we find the actual source of the common idea, in the Rapture, one will be taken and the other “left behind.”

PASSAGE TWO: Luke 17:34-35 [and parallel passages in Matthew 24]

The picture of scenarios where one person is suddenly snatched away to God, while the other is left standing there, seems rooted directly in the teachings of Jesus.  In an extended discourse about the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the age, Jesus presents us with the following paragraph.  I’ve capitalized the last few sentences, which will certainly be familiar.

Luke 17:22-35
     And he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. And they will say to you, ‘Look, there!’ or ‘Look, here!’ Do not go out or follow them. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.”

Of course, those last sentences are the backdrop of the whole “Left Behind” series of best-selling novels and movies.  Many years ago, contemporary Christian music pioneer Larry Norman typified the same idea when he wrote:

“Life was filled with guns and war
And all of us got trampled on the floor
I wish we'd all been ready
Children died the days grew cold
A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold
I wish we'd all been ready

A man and wife asleep in bed
She hears a noise and turns her head he's gone
I wish we'd all been ready
Two men walking up a hill
One disappears and one's left standing still
I wish we'd all been ready

There's no time to change your mind
The Son has come and you've been left behind”

Here we need to be challenged, once again, to step back, consider the context, and hear the teachings of Jesus with fresh ears.  That is, we ought to engage our imaginations to the task of hearing Jesus as if we were standing there in the crowd and had never sat in a prophecy lecture or read an engaging novel about the end times.  If we didn’t have all that background and framework, and were hearing Jesus words for the first time, what would we hear Him saying?

As I mentioned above, feel free to read and re-read the passage in whatever translations you like.  I will still propose that the following observations are clear enough to be certainties.


  1. The whole point of bringing up the time of Noah and of Lot focuses not on the evil going on at the time of judgment (a common idea we get by just hearing a few choice phrases from the passage), but on the fact that people were just going about their normal day-to-day activities.  That is, the people of Noah’s generation or of Sodom had no idea judgment was about to come upon them.  While Jesus could certainly have pointed out they were sinful and wicked cultures, instead He says picks out ordinary day-to-day living kinds of things.  He notes they were eating, drinking (this did not imply anything bad like drunken parties), marrying, giving away children in marriage, buying and selling.  So, why bring up Noah and Lot?  Jesus uses them as two biblical examples when God poured out judgment on people and it came, without warning, while people were just going about whatever they would normally be doing – it just happened.  Yes, this is very similar to the point Paul makes to the Thessalonians.
  2. The sudden nature of this judgment means that no preparation will be given.  It just happened.   And, it means that it did not matter where you might be standing or who you might be standing next.  Those things had no relevance related to this judgment.
  3. Most surprisingly, if you are standing there listening to Jesus, think about the images He has just brought into your mind.  Judgment came in the days of Noah and destroyed the world, leaving only Noah and his family.  Judgment came and destroyed Sodom, leaving only Lot and his daughters.  The ones left are the ones protected from the judgment.  And then, Jesus pictures two people in a field or in bed with one being taken and the other left.  In both biblical stories just mentioned by Jesus, the taken are those judged and the left are ones saved from judgment.  Ironically, then, if someone had asked, “So, you wanna be taken or left?” – there’s no doubt which group you’d have picked.

The truth is this section of Jesus’ teaching says nothing about a secret rapture or a great tribulation or even the world growing ever more wicked.  The point made through both biblical references and Jesus’ own analogies is that the children of the Kingdom should remember that the  Final Judgment will come in the middle of day-to-day living and without warning.  Whatever you happen to be doing at that moment, or where you are standing, or who you might be with, have no direct bearing on how you will fare in that judgment.  So, living with that full knowledge means you need to be ready, day in and day out, for it.  This is how you will not be caught unprepared.

The man who fully expects his house to be robbed may not know how or when or even who will rob it.  But, if he absolutely believes it will eventually happen and it could happen at any time, that man will always order things in his house or make whatever preparations might be needed to stop or even catch the thief.  That, in a few words, is the whole point.  Go back and listen to the whole passage and it will be clear that this is the point Jesus wants to make.

Other Passages

Other defenses of the rapture doctrine (and I have read many) delve into such strange and esoteric approaches to End Times events that it would exceed all reasonableness to address them here.  Let me just pre-emptively bring up an analogous example of the thinking you will encounter.  Much of it depend maintaining confidence that all time in linear, that we can discern interplays between the spiritual realm and our world in literal and entirely logical terms, and that every detail in a vision or parable or narrative can be, when convenient to prove a doctrine, pushed to its most literal extreme.

Here’s an example of the problems with approaching such issues with unbridled confidence in linear rational systems of explanation:  It's not directly related to the rapture but will suffice to prepare you for the kinds of thinking you will encounter.  The Bible teaches is it appointed to people once to die, and then the judgment.  At some point, beyond the Parousia, the living and the dead will be judged, separating the sheep from the goats.  However, in the story of the rich man and poor Lazarus, the rich man suffering in what sounds like hell can both see the blessed realm of Abraham’s bosom, and is aware his brothers are still living back on earth.  So, when was his judgment?  Is he in hell?  What about poor Lazarus?  Is he in heaven?  How can you have heaven and hell before the end of the age?  And can Paul say “once to die and then the judgment.”  The story of Lazarus puts a lot of stuff between “die” and the end-of-the-world final judgment.

One answer is to use a smattering of obscure passages to postulate multiple after-stage realms ranging from Tartarus to Paradise to Abraham’s Bosom to whatever.  Although it valiantly tries to logically (to us) reconcile a bunch of different passages, it ends up with an approach that is as complex as it is unconvincing. 

For example, if you go to paradise or suffering instantly, anyway, the great final judgment is hardly needed.  It would be like putting a murderer in prison for life as a convicted murdered, and then later announcing it was time have his trial.  All of this, of course, assumes we can map the whole thing out on a time chart that makes perfectly good sense to us. To overlay linear (one thing must follow another) assumptions about time into anything that touches on eternity is never going to work.

One lesson many evangelicals need to learn is the humility to acknowledge that, like there’s no way in the world to explain to a three-year old why going to the doctor and getting shots is a really good idea, there’s no way for us to provide neat tidy logical schemes to pull together the Bible’s multifaceted glimpses into eternity.  One theologian friend of mine steadfastly insists God must exist in some kind of “divine time” because logic requires that one thought must follow another.  Such a silly notion is not so much a failure of the intellect as it is an utter failure of both humility and imagination.

Summary and Conclusion

 The doctrine of a miraculous removal of the saved from earth several years before the second coming is, plain and simply, not taught in scripture.  That’s why no one saw it for eighteen hundred years.  It did not sit there, hiding in plain sight, century after century, until a lawyer-turned-prophecy-guru named John Nelson Darby rediscovered this lost treasure of apostolic truth. 

The tenuous biblical support offered either ignores context or strings together passages linked with doctrinal assumptions to weave a pattern so complex that page after page of detailed charts are required to teach it.  So complex that, in the decades since Darby, major rifts and splits have continued to occur related to significant details.

A good source for additional information related to the doctrine of the rapture and dispensationalism, I would recommend a book by fellow Ozark Christian College professor, Dr. Larry Pechawer: Leaving the Rapture Behind.  

Finally, this is hardly an issue around which we should draw our lines of Christian recognition and fellowship.  It is not a litmus test of orthodoxy.  The ancients were more wise than many today in electing not to include complex theories about the Second Coming or details explanations of the Afterlife into the major Creeds.  They understood the obvious complexity of the issues meant that Christians might differ and still be Christians. 

Ultimately, I reject the Rapture Doctrine because I do not believe is supported by scripture and I believe the history of the doctrine serves to confirm this.



2 comments:

Terry Bowland said...

Amen.

Anonymous said...

Great article and I agree with you. You are probably aware of certain items on Google dealing with the pretrib view such as "Famous Rapture Watchers," "Pretrib Rapture Diehards," "Pretrib Rapture Pride," "Pretrib Rapture Stealth," "Prof. Wm. L. Craig Leaves Tim LaHaye Behind," "Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty," and a You Tube video "Left Behind or Led Astray?" The best work I've found on the earliest beginnings of the pretrib view is journalist Dave MacPherson's 300-page nonfiction book entitled "The Rapture Plot" - available by calling 800.643.4645. God bless you!
(submitted by Lou)