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
– Larry Norman, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready”
Getting left behind. It was a genuine fear of mine as a young Christian in high school. I was always about 98.99% sure I would be raptured with Jesus’ people in the end-times. Yet there was always a fear that I would wake up and all my friends and family would have been taken to heaven without me. I grew up with the Rapture as a foundational truth for understanding hope. I longed for the day Jesus would blast me off this God-forsaken rock to my heavenly home while the wicked were left behind.
But I am here to tell you, that the Rapture is the one that needs to get left behind.
The Rapture is believed to be this event where Jesus will transport the believers up to heaven during the last days. Among Rapture-adherents, there is debate on the timing of such event, but the basic idea of Jesus snatching his church from earth at a moment’s notice is widely accepted by American Christianity.
But is the Rapture a reality described by the Bible? Are we meant to look forward to a day where we suddenly get taken to heaven? Did Jesus really promise to take his Church off the earth one day?
I believe the answer to these questions is a firm “no”.
In this three-part series, I first will give a summary of the history surrounding the birth of the Rapture doctrine to show how it had been foreign to Christ-followers for centuries. Second, I will walk through the misinterpretation of the few, but common passages cited in support of the Rapture. Lastly, in part three, I will demonstrate how the Rapture fails to fit into the movement of the Bible’s forward vision of hope and show why belief in the Rapture can be toxic to our theology.
The first issue with the Rapture is the gaping absence of such thought for the majority of Church history. This idea is relatively brand new when you consider the thousands and thousands of years the church has existed without such idea. The Rapture was birthed out of historical circumstances and not from diligent biblical interpretation. So to understand this, a brief history lesson is necessary.
Welcome to church history class!
By looking at the history of how the Rapture idea came about, we can see the circumstances that influenced such thinking and how this thought lacks historical support. The discussion may seem excessively American-centric and that is because the Rapture is exactly that. Outside the U.S., our brothers and sisters across the pond look at us in utter confusion for our gripping acceptance of this doctrine. This history lesson may help explain our bewildering obsession with the Rapture.
During the Antebellum Period (the era before the American Civil War) the United States’ attitude was one of optimism. The Second Great Awakening was sweeping the nation and Christian hope of forward progress was at an all-time high. It was in the midst of this that a shift happened in popular-evangelical eschatology (“eschatology” is the term for all things relating to end-times). The view known as ‘Postmillennialism’ gained popular ground. This view believes that Christ will return after one thousand years of peaceful living. In this eschatology, the millennium is ushered in by the Church through social work, reform, and revivals. With a spirit of positive outlook on American progress during Antebellum, evangelicals believed they were nearing the time of the millennium and if each of them participated in the church’s work they could initiate this eschatological goal.
However, this hopeful vision suffered a major blow due to the American Civil War. All optimism about progress was lost and the possibility of the church bringing a thousand years of prosperity and holiness completely decreased. The world was looking less and less like the envisioned church-ruled millennium promised by post-millennialists.
Maybe the church couldn’t force Jesus back to earth through their own efforts.
After the Civil War, the evangelical pendulum had swung completely from Postmillennialism to what is often called ‘Dispensational Premillennialism’. I know, I know, theologians really need shorter terms. This view held to the classic idea that Christ could return at any moment but that it would happen prior to the thousand-year reign. With the evil realities of this world being greatly recognized once again by the church, the odds of Jesus coming after one-thousand years of peace and church prosperity felt less and less likely. Hence the switch in popular eschatology to believing that Jesus would come prior to the thousand year reign. No longer was the hope found in restoring the world through church efforts but now it was found in Jesus coming back as soon as possible to end the worldly evil.
Out of this context came the Rapture. There are different views on who actually created the Rapture idea in this era but John Nelson Darby is widely regarded as the leading voice of it. His Rapture teaching spread like wildfire in American churches. The optimistic and social reform seeking desire of the previous generation had dried up and became perfect kindling for this new doctrine to spread.
The shift went from “let’s fix our world” to “let’s ditch this world”; which created the perfect space for an earth-ditching doctrine to be born.
What followed from Darby’s rapture teaching in America was a dramatic switch not only in eschatology but in Christian living. If Jesus could rapture his people anytime and thus leave the earth for their fiery judgment, then the works and efforts on this world were rendered useless. This drastically changed the Antebellum-period view of social justice and restorative work by the church and was then replaced by the ‘soul-saving’ crusades of men like Billy Graham. No longer was the mission of the church tied to social progress but instead it was now about getting people to heaven in due time from the coming rapture.
The Rapture was later placed as a doctrine in the popular Scofield Reference Bible. This translation became incredibly popular and the Rapture along with it. Many pastors using the Schofield read and taught the Rapture theology with no regards and thus this doctrine made its way into the pews. Then in 1995, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins wrote the surprisingly successful Left Behind Series. These books gave a fictional story account of the end times through their interpretation of the book of Revelation. Their depiction of believers being zapped away in the Rapture, leaving behind neatly folded clothes and a chaotic world has become the common image American Christians envision when thinking about the end.
So as you can see, the Rapture is a rather new invention in Christian thought. Church history shows that end-time doctrines can have serious implications for how we live in the present. This is why I see it as so vital for us to examine our doctrine regarding future hope. What is bothersome is how quickly and easily this doctrine had been accepted with little critical thought. My hope is that this history lesson will start churning the gears in your brain. That you will be open to thinking critically about a doctrine you might have grown up on. That maybe this common belief of American Evangelicals is more tied to history than to Scripture. Which is exactly why in Part 2 we will look at the Scripture used to defend the Rapture and test this interpretation of such texts.
For more on the history of the formation of the Rapture idea, see Randall Balmer’s “The Making of Evangelicalism: From Revivalism to Politics and Beyond”