When I was about 10 years old one of my best friends left our local elementary school and started attending a Christian school at the local Nazarene church. Not long after, while we were playing Earthbound on the good ol’ SNES, my friend asked me a simple question: “Do you think you’ll be left behind when the Rapture happens?” I think I just blinked a couple of times and then asked him what in the world he was talking about. He proceeded to tell me all about how Jesus was going to secretly snatch away all of the Christians one day and leave all of the bad people to endure hell on earth under the rule of the Antichrist for seven years. Then my friend went on to tell me all sorts of horrifying End Times things that he’d been learning. Needless to say, I had trouble sleeping for a while, and when I did sleep, I dreamed about finding piles of empty clothes and crashed cars everywhere.
What really bothered me at the time was that I’d never heard any of it before. My friend and his family had only been going to the Nazarene church for a year or so but I’d been going to Sunday School all my life. How could I have not been told such important things! Poor little 10 year old me had no idea what the words “denominations” and “doctrines” meant and I just felt like my pastor and Sunday School teachers were keeping things from me.
Prior to the 1990s, the popular Rapture teaching we know today circulated mostly in the Charismatic circles of America. Fast forward a couple of decades and the concept of the Rapture has invaded Evangelical Protestantism and has become a staple of pop-culture, having been spoofed on shows like Family Guy, American Dad, and the like. There is even an HBO series that has the Rapture in mind called the Leftovers. The idea’s rise in popularity is no doubt due in large part to the Left Behind series of books and movies. Heck, even I read them all in high school.
So where does this teaching come from? What exactly is the Rapture and where in the Bible can we read about it?
The Coming of the Lord
The main passage on the Rapture is 1 Thessalonians 4:17,
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. (ESV)
In the context of the letter, Paul is clearly talking about the great Day of the Lord—when Christ will return in glory to pour out the wrath of God on the unrighteous and establish his eternal kingdom on the earth. The language Paul uses points directly to Jesus’ own teachings on his Second Coming (Matthew 24-25, Mark 13, Luke 21), and no passage of Scripture whatsoever, be it OT, NT, or Apocryphal, describes Jesus’ Second Coming as silent, secret, or in two parts. In fact, it will clearly be the opposite—the entire world will know Jesus has returned. Just one verse before, in 4:16, Paul uses the imagery of trumpet calls and the loud voice of the archangel.
This isn’t the time to dive into a full blown study of the End Times, so I’m just going to talk a bit about how Christians in the first century understood Christ’s return. One of the most common Greek terms used for this event in the Bible is Parousia (“arrival” or “coming”) and it is used four times in 1 Thessalonians (2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23). Parousia was often used in the Roman period to describe special visits to the colonies by the Emperor himself. When these visits occurred they were no small affairs. In fact, the entire city needed to prepare for the Emperor’s visit, and if he caught them unprepared, there would be hell to pay. In ancient times there was no way of knowing for sure when someone was going to show up. There were no cell phones or GPS to tell you how long a journey was going to take; you could only make educated guesses based on previous experience. So when the city officials got a message saying “the Emperor is coming for a visit” they had no idea when he was going to show up, only that it would be “soon.” And from that point on, people had to always be watching for the coming of the Emperor. Sound familiar?
When the Emperor finally showed up, the celebrations and ceremonies began. And they didn’t begin at the city gates, either. As soon as the Emperor was spotted coming on the horizon, the Watchman sounded the trumpet and everyone in the city rushed out to meet the imperial retinue and escort the ruler into the city in a great a parade. (A similar celebration met Jesus at his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the imagery would not have been lost on the Roman officials at the time.)
According to Paul, the King of Kings will not be riding in a litter or a chariot at his Parousia, but will come in glory on the clouds. And when his herald sounds the trumpet call, his people will be gathered by his attendants from the four winds to meet him in the clouds. And together, along with the newly resurrected righteous dead, we will all escort our glorious ruler to his throne in victorious celebration, and be at the Lord’s side forevermore.
Amen to that.
The Secret Rapture
The popular “secret” Rapture idea—of a pre-Tribulation snatching away of the righteous—isn’t only wrong, it’s completely unbiblical. Even if you read all of the various End Times prophecies literally, completely free of their allegory, symbolism, and intended meanings, nothing whatsoever indicates that Christians are going to escape the Tribulation. In fact, Jesus stressed the exact opposite when he talked about it with his disciples (e.g., Matthew 24) and no amount of charts, graphs, and creative reasoning can change that fact. The main justification for the pre-Tribulation Rapture is drawn from 2 Thessalonians chapter 2, where Paul explains that the Day of the Lord will not come until after the coming of the Man of Lawlessness—the great enemy who Christ will destroy at his Parousia. According to Paul, the Man won’t appear until the entity that is currently restraining him is out of the way. Pre-Tribulation people believe the entity in question is the Holy Spirit, and therefore, that the Church must be taken away before the Man can appear. If this is the case, then why didn’t Paul just tell them that? The whole reason Paul was even writing the letter in the first place was because the Christians at Thessalonica were worried the Parousia had already occurred. Why would he tell them to watch for the coming of the Man of Lawlessness if he believed the Church needed to be Raptured beforehand? The Apostle wasn’t usually one to hide what he really meant behind veiled words and phrases. The idea that evil entities are currently being restrained until the End of Days was a common one among the Jews of Paul’s day. It appears in all sorts of contemporary extra-biblical Apocalyptic writings, like the Enoch corpus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and is even found in the Book of Revelation (9:1-6, 13-15; 20:1-3).
So where exactly did this teaching come from? Like most of today’s popular End Times beliefs, the teaching has its origins with a man named John Nelson Darby (1800 – 1882), the father of what is known today as Dispensationalism—a particular theological outlook that separates history into neat “Covenant” eras. Darby was a leader in an early Charismatic group in Ireland called the Plymouth Brethren and began preaching his views publicly around 1830. People have tried to argue that the pre-Tribulation Rapture idea existed prior to Darby, and it very well might have, but Darby is certainly responsible for it in modern times. Even if the idea did exist prior to Darby, the majority of Christendom from Jesus to 1830 knew nothings about it. In his time, Darby would go on to influence the well-known evangelist Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899) and Cyrus I. Scofield (1843-1921), who integrated Darby’s belief structure into his famous Reference Bible—one of the first modern Study Bibles and certainly one of the most popular of the 20th century.
The rest might be history, but as we’ve seen, the popular idea of the Rapture is not a historical one. No matter what modern preachers might say—and how much they pull bits and pieces of various parts of the Bible and splice them together to fit their ideas—the Christians of first century Thessalonica understood the truth of Paul’s words. The Rapture is about victory and celebration—the Second Triumphal Entry—not an escape from the evils of the world.
I, for one, will always be looking to the skies, hoping for that long awaited day of victory.