Spoiler alert: there is no rapture.
Hopefully you’ve heard this somewhere before. Astute readers of Scripture or serious theologians will note it is totally absent from both the canon and leading Christian thinkers of this or any age.
And yet, like a cockroach in a slum, this patently false teaching seems determined to pop up in all kinds of places. Why should you care? Because this is not just a matter of one interpretation versus another; something serious is at stake in this teaching (more on that at the end).
In the liturgical calendar, followed by all Christian churches, this is the season of Advent (or, for those of the Eastern persuasion, the Nativity Fast). During Advent, we look back to first coming or “advent” of Christ and also ahead to his glorious return. But that return has nothing to with a “rapture.” Everywhere in Scripture God’s people are called to endure suffering and care for all of God’s creation; nowhere are we promised an escape from the travails of this fragile existence while the heathen and all of creation suffer in agony. It is anti-gospel. It is a false doctrine. Here’s why, in 5 easy steps (and a tip of the hat to Talbot Davis for letting me borrow the “Top 5” idea).
- Rapture teaching is new. Rapture teaching mostly originated in the 1800’s with John Nelson Darby, a Plymouth Brethren preacher. He in turn influenced Cyrus Scofield, who edited an infamous, early study Bible named after himself. It spread across the Atlantic and through folks like Dwight L. Moody and institutions like Dallas Theological Seminary. Later popularizations included Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth (see both parts of my review of this classic dumpster fire here and here) and the best-selling-novels-ever-written-for-adults-at-a-third-grade-reading-level known as the Left Behind series. The short version: until the 19th century, there was no mass of Christians anywhere who taught that Jesus was going to return (halfway) and give all the living Christians jetpacks to heaven while the world goes to hell.
- The rapture is exclusively Protestant and almost exclusively American. Catholics and Orthodox don’t remotely take dispensationalism seriously, and certainly not the rapture. Add to that what NT Wright and others have pointed out – that it is pretty much only Americans who care about rapture teaching – and you have a recipe for a suspect doctrine.
- Oddly, the rapture requires a two-stage return of Jesus. The return of Christ and “day of the Lord” traditions in the Bible are always singular events that comprise a variety of occurrences in close succession. Passages like, “Watch ye, therefore, for you know not when the master approaches,” never posit a multi-stage return. (Mark 13:35) The Nicene Creed, the most authoritative of the ancient summaries of Christian doctrine, says simply of Jesus, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.” He does not return, take a few with him, and come back later. He comes in glory to judge all and establish his kingdom. That’s it.
- The rapture is not remotely biblical. Not even remotely. The main passages used to defend a teaching of the rapture, Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4, can only do so if taken horrifically out of context and misinterpreted. In Matthew 24, the language about “one being left behind” is a reference to Noah and the flood, such that any attentive reader can tell the logic of the passage is that one should want to be “left behind” as Noah and his family were. In 1 Thessalonians 4, the word translated “caught up” (harpazo in Greek) appears elsewhere in the New Testament and means nothing like escaping to heaven. Moreover, 1 Thessalonians 4 speaks of the dead in Christ rising first, a fact most versions of the rapture overlook completely. Ben Witherington does an excellent job explaining all this in more detail in a Seedbed video here.
- The logic of the rapture is Gnostic, not Christian. Fleeing a flawed and decaying physical world for the purity and joy of a spiritual realm sounds much like that prolific heresy – perhaps more prominent today than in ancient times – known as Gnosticism. Gnostics believed that a secret knowledge had been revealed to them (“gnosis” means “knowledge”) and they held a very low view of physicality. Everything physical was evil and corrupt, while the spiritual was pure and noble. Gnostics varied greatly, but all versions united in a vision that desired to escape the world of matter to a realm of pure spirit. Many heretical forms of ancient Christianity were gnostic and gnostic-influenced, and despite the ink spilled by skilled hacks like Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, these psuedo-Christianities were quite properly rejected by the church in her wisdom (which is exactly what we should do today with the gnostic eschatology of the rapture).
What’s at stake is nothing less than Christian discipleship and ecclesiology (what you believe about the church). That’s because what we believe about the last chapter of the story impacts how we live out the preceding chapters. If God’s grand finale involves removing all the Christians while the world goes to hell (as most versions of premillenial dispensationalism espouse), then it is okay for us to let the world go to hell now. If the destiny of the world is to burn up while Christians escape, then our only job now is to save (disembodied) souls and ignore the work of justice, reconciliation, community, and creation care.
But if, on the other hand, God has promised to renew the whole earth and all of creation, we are given a vocation of care and concern that invites us to share in and witness to God’s kingdom coming “on earth, as it is in heaven” (as Jesus taught us to pray in the Sermon on the Mount).
The bottom line:
- The rapture invites Christians to be spectators while the world goes to hell.
- A classic understanding of the kingdom calls Jesus-followers to live into the new shalom that is breaking in even now.
What are other reasons the rapture is a false doctrine? What ways have you found effective in challenging this teaching? Leave a comment below!