Rethinking the Rapture

When I was a newbie believer back in 1988 and just beginning to read the Bible, a little book called 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988 was making the rounds in the Christian evangelical community. Its author purported to demonstrate from Scripture, and calculations based on questionable dating, that during Rosh Hashanah in September of that year Christians would be suddenly removed from the earth and whisked into the presence of God in what is known as the Rapture, leaving behind a stunned and clueless world population of unbelievers.

I remember relaying what I had learned from this book to my Catholic parents. Though I wasn’t completely convinced, the author’s argument seemed believable and he had me concerned enough to want to warn them of this possibly impending, major cataclysmic event. Mom and Dad became concerned as well, but not about the Rapture. They were worried about their daughter believing something that their church taught was false, on top of everything else I had recently ascribed to, like sola Scriptura and salvation by faith alone.

Obviously, the author was mistaken, at least about the timing of the Rapture…even after recalculating and predicting a new date several times. But I now believe that he was also mistaken, as are many evangelicals today, about the Rapture itself. What I had previously uncritically accepted as scriptural I have now come to seriously doubt after studying the relevant Bible passages for myself and reading what my go-to Christian apologists have to say about it.

One of the first things to signal that something was amiss in my Rapture theology was my discovery that the doctrine as commonly understood today is less than 200 years old. Prior to the early 1800s orthodox Christianity knew nothing of a sudden snatching away of the church preceding Christ’s visible second coming. The popularization of this prediction is commonly traced to a British Bible teacher named John Nelson Darby, and its propagation in the United States by C.I. Scofield, editor of the Scofield Reference Bible, as well as by various other Christian leaders including the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary where it is still taught. Thought it’s possible for a God-inspired, revealed truth to have been overlooked or denied by the church for 1800 years since its inception, it’s highly unlikely.

Carrying over this skepticism to an examination of the relevant scriptural texts is what finally persuaded me that the Rapture should not be embraced and taught. When you look at them apart from a preconceived notion of this monumental, worldwide event, they read more plainly as referring to Jesus’s visible second coming and the end of the age…an even more monumental event.

So here are some observations from my research that led me to conclude that the Rapture is an intriguing concept full of dramatic potential which should be considered strictly fictional.

Believers will experience the Tribulation
A key element in Rapture teaching is the belief that the saints (i.e. all believers in Christ) will not experience the tribulation period that Jesus spoke of in his Olivet Discourse recorded in Mark 13 and Matthew 24, and which seems to be foretold in the book of Daniel. But Jesus said that the whole earth will see him “coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great gloryafter the tribulation period, and before his angels “gather his elect.”

A number of passages do say that believers will be spared from the “wrath” to come, like 1 Thessalonians 1:10 and 5:9, which supporters of the Rapture claim refer to the tribulation period. But there are quite a few expressions of God’s wrath in Scripture and they refer to different situations and events. In context, the passages cited as referring to a Rapture more likely are speaking of God’s final judgment on unbelieving, unrighteous mankind as the “wrath” from which believers will be saved.

And in Revelation 3:10 when Jesus instructs the Apostle John to tell the church in Philadelphia that he will “keep” them “from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world,” he is saying he will protect them through it, or guard them, which is what the Greek word translated “keep” means.

Of course, being rescued and removed out of a period of “great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now…and never will be” is an extremely attractive and desirable prospect. This certainly fuels the widespread acceptance of the Rapture among many evangelicals, along with the popular Left Behind book series and film which dramatized the event. Exactly what will make it such an awful time to be alive is not clear, but surely none of us are curious enough to want to be here to find out. This makes us more susceptible to embracing the idea that God will assure that we’re not.

So that’s my first observation from my study of the Rapture – the Bible does not appear to teach that believers will be removed from the earth before the great tribulation. I’ll save my others for next time.