The Rapture: The History and Impact of a Strange Idea

Posted: February 19, 2010 in Uncategorized

I’ve been preparing for an 11-week sermon series on the Book of Revelation and, having taught the book twice before, I know that I will have to deal with the doctrine of the rapture. 

If you don’t know what the rapture is, it is a belief held by many evangelicals (i.e., conservative Christians) that Jesus will secretly appear and take his people to heaven with him while the earth suffers seven years of hell or “a great tribulation.”  When Jesus takes his people it will happen quickly; so quickly that in a blink of an eye all Christians will simply disappear. 

The rapture is an incredibly pervasive idea in evangelical Christianity.  Yet, if you conduct a thorough study of this doctrine you will find that the belief does not even appear until a few hundred years ago.  One would assume that if  such an idea is Scriptural then it would pop up in the writings of Christians throughout the ages but it doesn’t.  Why?

According to a number of sources, including scholar Barbara R. Rossing’s book The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation, the doctrine of the rapture was invented by an Englishman named John Nelson Darby who begin preaching it in the 1830’s.  It was picked up by an American businessman, with a less than stellar reputation, named Cyrus Scofield who financed the publication of The Scofield Bible complete with Darby’s notes.  The Bible sold well and the idea quickly infiltrated evangelical belief.

Darby and his followers point to a number of texts to support the idea of a rapture and I do not have the time to cover all of them but one of their favorites is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, which reads:

 13But 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. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him  those who have fallen asleep. 15For 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. 16For  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. 17Then 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. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Now, few would argue that in order to understand any ancient text, including Scripture, one must read the text as those who first read it for, as scholars Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart state in How To Read The Bible For All It’s Worth (which you should pick up! Zondevan, 2003), “a text cannot mean what it never meant.”  In other words, If your interpretation of the passage would not make sense to the original readers then your interpretation is wrong. 

This is common sense really.  If someone sends you a text or email asking you if “that is how you roll?” and 2000 years later someone studying you because of your pure historical awesomeness argued that you may have had the strange desire to roll around on the ground then this person would be mistaken because they did not understand the language/culture of the day, right?

Here is how this fits in with 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.  The letter to the Thessalonians was written by Paul, a Roman citizen, to a church within the Roman Empire. According to scholar N.T. Wright, in his book Surprised by Hope,  when a Roman dignitary would visit a city he would travel to the outskirts of the city and then a herald and/or trumpeters would announce the arrival of the royal party. The citizens of the city would then walk out to meet the dignitary and escort him back into the city. 

Now, ask yourself how the Thessalonians would interpret 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18? Would they read this text as announcing a secret rapture? Notice that the text does not say that Jesus takes his people to heaven!

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 teaches that all Christians, alive and dead, will meet our King and escort him back here where he will reign forever!

Rossing argues in her book that an unfortunate entailment of belief in the rapture is the idea that all of Christianity is about getting out of this trailer park we call earth.  Thus, missional engagement with our culture is secondary if not wholly unimportant.  Rossing, a liberal, curiously argues that belief in the rapture fuels right-wing disinterest in social justice. 

Actually, as someone who has spent considerable time on the “right-wing”, I have found that not to be the case.  While there are many who believe in the rapture who support conservative causes almost wholly because conservatives tend to support Israel, I have found that there are just as many who refuse to engage in any cultural engagement, right or left, because what difference does caring for the earth or protecting unborn children make when it is all going to hell in a handbasket anyway. 

Thus, as is pretty evident by now, I not do not believe that Scripture teaches a rapture but also assert that such a belief may actually damper the desire of Christians to fulfill their King’s command to make disciples including doing what is best for their neighbors.

We are destined to live here with physical bodies like our resurrected Lord had when he emerged from the tomb.  Let us engage it with everything we have whether that is by feeding the hungry or fighting to protect the unborn but always while proclaiming the good news of Jesus.

Grace and peace.

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Comments
  1. Robyn says:

    (Congrats on your excellent blog. I just spotted the following article on the web. Lord bless. Robyn)

    PRETRIB RAPTURE SECRECY

    by Dave MacPherson

    The word “secrecy” when applied to Christ’s return can refer to two different things: time and visibility. Before 1830 the only coming Christians looked for was the “every eye shall see him” second advent to earth – secret only in point of time.
    Enter Margaret Macdonald in 1830. She saw “the one taken and the other left” before “THE WICKED” [Antichrist] will “be revealed” – and added that her pretrib rapture would not be “seen by the natural eye” but only by “those who have the light of God within.” Her rapture was doubly secret: at an unknown day and hour and also invisible to “outsiders.”
    Desperate to eliminate Margaret as the pretrib originator and the Irvingites as the first public teachers of pretrib, Darby defender Thomas Ice foolishly claims that they taught a secret POSTTRIB coming even though he knows that when Hal Lindsey teaches “one taken” etc. before the Antichrist “is revealed” Lindsey is expressing the kernel of the pretrib view – what MM and the Irvingites clearly taught before Darby did! Google “X-Raying Margaret” and “Edward Irving is Unnerving” to see why they are properly labeled “pretrib.”)
    As early as June 1832, Irving’s journal taught that only “to those who are watching and praying…will Christ be manifested…as the morning star. To the rest of the church, and to the world, this first appearance will be…unintelligible.” (“Present State of Prophetic Knowledge” etc., p. 374)
    Always trailing and “borrowing” quietly from the Irvingites who in turn had “borrowed” from Margaret, Darby in 1845 finally sounded like them when he wrote that “the bright and morning Star…is the sweet and blessed sign to them that watch…And such is Christ before He appears [at the final advent to earth]. The Sun will arise on the world….The star is before the [Sun], the joy of those who watch. The unwakeful world, who sleep in the night, see it not.” (“Thoughts on the Apocalypse,” p. 167)
    And Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth,” p. 143, says that “the second coming is said to be visible to the whole earth (Revelation 1:7). However, in the Rapture. only the Christians see Him – it’s a mystery, a secret.”
    My bestselling book “The Rapture Plot” (available at online stores including Armageddon Books) has 300 pages of such documentation and proves that Margaret was the first to “see” a secret, pretrib rapture, that the Irvingites soon echoed her in their journal (which Darby admitted he avidly read), and that Darby was last on all of the crucial aspects of dispensationalism.
    Shockingly, all of the earliest pretrib development rested solely on unclear OT and NT types and symbols and NOT on clear Biblical statements. Margaret’s rapture was inspired by Rev. 11’s “two witnesses.” And her “secret visibility” rested on the “types” of Stephen, Paul, and John – all of whom saw or heard what others couldn’t see or hear.
    For 30 years Darby’s pretrib basis was the rapture of Rev. 12’s “man child” – actually his plagiarism of Irving’s usage of this “pretrib” symbol eight years earlier!
    As I said at the start, the “second advent to earth” is secret in point of time with its unknown “day and hour,” as Christ stated. Pretribs assert that if Christ returns for the church after the tribulation, we could count down the days and figure out the actual date of His return – which would contradict Christ’s words.
    But pretribs deliberately ignore the fact that Christ said that the tribulation days will be shortened – and He didn’t reveal the length of the shortening!
    Our opponents also assume that the “watch” verses prove the “any-moment imminence” of Christ’s return. But do they? II Peter 3:12 says we are to be “looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God” which all premills claim is at least 1000 years ahead of us and therefore hardly “imminent”! What’s the difference between “watching for” and “looking for”?
    You have just learned a few of the many secrets that the Secret Rapture Gang has hidden for a long time. Evidently they have forgotten Luke 12:2’s warning that “there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed”!
    PS – For the ultimate in uncovered secrets, see engines like Google and type in “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty.”

  2. Angella says:

    Hmmm. You thought you were on the edge…fringe…black list…whatever, before, just wait until this gets out to those that find Revolution unorthodoxed. 😀
    Some are just not willing to examine the history of the concept of a rapture. Thanks! I have been saved 11 years today and though this idea was preached to me since the beginning, it did not make much sense to pull out God’s people when we were needed most. It seems to go against Jesus’s desire to love them and set them on the right path-kinda against that desire that none should perish…when more would they need a light in the darkness than in a period of tribulation?

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