One day, like a thief in the night, Jesus will return secretly to rapture Christians off of the earth just in time for God’s wrath to be poured out on the earth. Really? Actually Christians have only believed this for about 140 years. The doctrine of the Rapture is the product of a unique set of historical circumstances that began in the 19th century. J N Darby, a very creative Bible teacher, “saw” a secret teaching in the Bible: God is going to take his people out just before unleashing His awful and terrifying wrath on the earth. Although Darby was British his teaching and his theological system later called “dispensationalism” really took root in America. It spread thanks to the fact that Americans in this era were literate for the most part but not educated and because the railroad spanned the nation and brought new things and ideas coast to coast. Also, in the 19th century America was ripe for new “secret” ideas and many groups started based on unique (and often heretical) revelations. Mormonism, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Adventistism all began in this era based on exclusive ideas or revelations. (I am not saying that Seventh Day Adventists are heretics.) The point is Americans were uniquely ready for something new and exciting in their religion and Darby delivered. In 1909 C.I. Scofield published the first study Bible, the Scofield study Bible. In it he incorporated Darby’s teaching in the study notes. The Bible sold coast to coast and was widely read. Prophecy conferences sprang up and the “movement” gained steam as the fundamentalists adopted dispensationalism which led to new churches and seminaries that fully embraced the Rapture, often as a primary doctrine. But is it what the Bible teaches? In 1st Thessalonians 4.15-17 says that we will be “caught up” with deceased Christians to “meet the Lord in the air” and that we will be with him forever. According to many this is the Rapture. After this Jesus takes all of us to Heaven where we wait out the seven year Great Tribulation before returning to earth with him. However, a fair reading of the passage shows that it says absolutely nothing about Jesus turning around and going back to Heaven with or without people. You can’t even imply it. It simply is not there. Plus the word for “meet” is a term that refers to a delegation going outside a city to meet a visiting dignitary to welcome him into the city. In other words Paul is teaching in 1st Thessalonians that we will meet the Lord in the air and escort him to earth to take his rightful place as Lord of all. There is much more that can be said about what the Bible teaches in this passage and other Rapture favorites. Download the audio file for my full teaching on this subject. The bottom line is the teaching of the Rapture is not Biblical, looks silly to thinking non-Christians, and has helped too many Christians retreat from the world rather than engage it on His behalf.
Jesus delivered a dark and complex message to his disciples not long before his crucifixion. It contains allusions to beatings, trials, and family violence over the gospel, wars, earthquakes, famines, and disruptions in the spiritual world. We know the message as “the Olivet Discourse.” (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21) Most people today interpret it as either a message about the future in which Jesus is describing frightening events yet to come before his return to earth or, as a failed prediction on his part. Neither viewpoint is right. Jesus is drawing on an ancient literary genre, apocalyptic, to describe the events that happened in the wake of his death. The disciples want to know when the Temple (and Jerusalem) will be destroyed and when the current age will end and the age of Jesus’ reign begin. Jesus tells them exactly how it will happen. Then he describes what they can expect: trials, beatings, and other kinds of suffering. The world around them will seem to be in turmoil from war and natural disaster. Jesus tells them that despite all of that they are to wait, to preach and to endure. When they see the Temple being desecrated, as it was during the Greek occupation, they are to flee. At this point in the message Jesus turns to vivid apocalyptic imagery to describe the changing of the age. He quotes Joel 2 (a passage which has connections and allusions in many places in the New Testament) saying the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light.” He also talks about the Son of Man “coming in clouds.” He is figuratively (or apocalyptically) explaining that this is the ultimate end of the Temple and its system as the way to connect with God. After, the only way to connect with God is through Jesus, the Son of Man. He closes the message with a strong exhortation to his followers to be faithful, to be active in spreading the Gospel, to be enduring. The bottom line is they are not asking when he will return after “the Great Tribulation” and he is not cryptically answering it for future generations.