Summary: Our world is in agony but we live in hope of God’s triumph. In a way we cannot yet see, even evil will be used for good. In many evangelical circles, this blessed hope has been hijacked by an apocalyptic nightmare.
Why I Left Left Behind Behind
It looks like this world will crumble beneath the weight of its own stupidity. Don’t be fooled. Christ is working in the chaos to bring about an ending that will make all creation stand and cheer. But when? How? These questions land me in the realm of eschatology. “Eschaton” means end, so “eschatology” is the study of the end. As with questions of the world’s beginning, questions about its end go beyond the scope of normal human experience. We must use stories and images to imagine it. When we describe these transcendent realities in terms of our present experience we create absurdities. The mystery of creation is reduced to seven 24 hour days. The return of Christ is misshapen into the Left Behind series.
The early believers called the triumph of Christ “the blessed hope.”1 Ours is a groaning world. The blessed hope says our pains are not death throes but labor pains. Somehow, in the midst of our suffering, a new world is being born. How do cancer and divorce and my own sinfulness play into the coming world? How could God possibly bring good from this mess? I do not know. No one does. It has not yet been born. All I know is that right now, I feel a strange mixture of pain and expectation. Paul describes the tension:
For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it. (Romans 8:22-25)
I admit the absurdity of my existence but feel hope in something I do not yet see. Against all logic, I have hope. When I try to put this hope into words, it evaporates.“Hope that is seen is not hope.” Sadly, I grew up under a theological perspective that claimed to see the end of the world in chilling detail. The blessed hope was replaced by an apocalyptic nightmare. This world was a ticking time bomb. Any second, Christ would snatch the true believers from the earth and all hell would break loose.
Where Did Rapture Theology Come From?
As a kid, I took it for granted that my branch of Christianity was “the historic Christian faith.” I knew there were other versions out there but I saw these as distortions of the real thing that I practiced. I was well into my 30s before I realized that my version of the faith was just one expression of a diverse array of beliefs and practices that stretched back for centuries. The more I saw the scope of this, the harder it was to believe I had been born in the center of the bull’s-eye.
I was even more shocked to discover that, historically speaking, my version of Christianity was just plain weird. We followed a system called Dispensationalism. I never heard it called Dispensationalism. We called it “believing the Bible.” People who didn’t see it our way didn’t believe the Bible and probably weren’t Christians. But I have learned that Dispensationalism is a long way from the center of the historic Christian faith. It is a recent belief that developed in England in the mid 1800’s, promoted by a man named John Nelson Darby. In the 1900’s it was spread in the United States by the Scofield Study Bible.
One Sunday evening in church in the late 70’s, my sister and I watched a movie called A Thief in the Night. It scared us senseless. We drove home ashen-faced, terrified that we might miss the rapture and be left to face the bloody horrors described in the book of Revelation and depicted in the movie. This was not presented as one theory of Christ’s return. It was presented as an established fact, like Jesus being born in a manger. A Thief in the Night was followed by three sequels.2 The whole thing was rebooted by the Left Behind series in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Through these books and movies, a fringe theory of Christ’s return became mainstream in many Christian circles.
What Is Rapture Theology?
One reason rapture theology found such fertile soil in American culture is that it resonates with American individualism. When Scofield wrote his study Bible, he made little effort to consider scholarly opinion. His spirit is summarized well by an oft-quoted maxim:
“When the plain sense of Scripture makes common sense, seek no other sense.”
In other words, you don’t need biblical scholarship. All you need is your Bible and some “common sense.”
Unfortunately, when you read ancient literature this way you are sure to distort it. To understand what the author meant, you must put yourself in his shoes and try to understand his context. What was going on in history? What were the cultural assumptions? What genre of writing did he choose? How should that genre be read?
For Dispensationalists, these questions are just fancy meddling by overeducated liberals who don’t believe the Bible. To take the Bible seriously means you assume that what you sees on the surface is what it means.
Dispensationalists read the Bible this way and came across a serious problem.The promises made to Israel in the Old Testament have not been fulfilled. God said he would bless the whole world through Israel but at the time Dispensationalism was gaining popularity, the nation of Israel didn’t even exist. God said that Jerusalem would be the most important city on earth with a king in the line of David on the throne. Instead, a Mosque sat on the temple mount. God said that all nations would give praise to God in Jerusalem. None of this happened.
In 70 A.D. Israel was completely destroyed by Rome. Of course, this is also when the church began to explode, but God’s promises were to Israel, not the church. There is not a word about the church in the Old Testament. In order for God’s promises to come true, Israel would have to be reconstituted. How and when would this happen?
The answer was found in the book of Revelation. Revelation was read in a “common sense” way, as a linear description of coming events. By reading it like this, the answer to the problem of God failing to fulfill his promise to Israel was found. Here is their solution:
Revelation 1-3: The Church Age
The church age was unforeseen and unexpected. It has nothing to do with God’s promise to the nation of Israel. It is God’s surprising way of opening the door for non-Jews to be saved.
Revelation 4:1: The Rapture
In an event called “the rapture,” the church will be snatched from this earth and Israel will again take center stage. Evidence was found for this event in Revelation 4:1.
After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven, and the first voice which I had heard, like the sound of a trumpet speaking with me, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things.” (Revelation 4:1)
The words, “Come up here” are directed to John, not the church. This verse is a slim foundation on which to build. But other verses were used to strengthen the idea. We’ll look at these in a moment.
Revelation 5-19: The Tribulation
With the church out of the picture, God will again focus on the nation of Israel. It will begin with seven years of unprecedented suffering called the tribulation. Everyone who misses the rapture will go through this. Few will survive. Nearly everyone will wind up in hell.
Revelation 20: The Millennium
Following the tribulation, Jesus will return to reign in Jerusalem for 1000 years, a period of time called the millennium. During the millennium the promises to Israel will be fulfilled. The temple will be rebuilt and animal sacrifice will resume.3 A king from the line of David (Jesus) will rule on a throne in Jerusalem. The world will be blessed. All the nations will come to worship and bow down.
Revelation 21-22: Last Battle and Final Judgment
After the thousand year reign of Christ, the Devil will be let loose again (Revelation 20:7) and there will be a final battle—Armageddon. After this, people will receive their permanent assignment in either heaven or hell.
A Few Quick Observations
I can’t resist making a few observations about this scheme.
1. Rapture Theology Is a Perfect Fit With the Lifeboat Gospel
Any second now, Jesus will rapture the church. Get on on board now or face the horrors of the tribulation.
2. Rapture Theology Leaves No Purpose for Environmentalism
The destruction of the planet described in Revelation left no reason for environmentalism. The earth is toast.
3. Rapture Theology Was Fanned to a Frenzy When Israel Becoming a Nation in 1948
The end of the 20th century was a time of intense apocalyptic fever. Here’s why: For nineteen centuries there was no nation of Israel. Suddenly, following World War II, Israel was reborn. Now that there was a nation of Israel, the promises to Israel could come true. God was on the move! In Luke 21:32, Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all things take place.” This verse was taken to mean that the rapture would occur within one generation of 1948. The clock was running out. Hal Lindsay’s best-selling book, The Late Great Planet Earth made the case for the imminent end of the world. I grew up expecting this. If you had told me that I would be alive in 2017 I would not have said you were crazy.
4. Rapture Theology Has Affected American Foreign Policy
In this system of thought, Israel is not just another nation. It is the apple of God’s eye and must be treated accordingly. Being pro-Israel is not optional. It is a requirement of Christian faith.
Why I Left Left Behind Behind
As the clock kept ticking, the assumptions of Dispensationalism were called into question. It has taken me a lifetime to sort this out. Today, I am an amillennialist. If you want to know what that means, I highly recommend a series of lectures by Chris Hand.4In a nutshell it means that I believe Revelation should be read as a vivid allegorical description of the battle between good and evil taking place right now along with the blessed hope of Christ’s return. In other words, I think its message is much the same as the rest of the New Testament. I’m not sure that I’m right about amillennialism but I am sure rapture theology is wrong. Here are three reasons why.
1. Rapture Theology Misses the Main Point of the New Testament
The writers of the New Testament (all Jews except for Luke) begin with the same problem as Dispensationalists: It looked like God’s promises to Israel had failed. Israel was a forgotten nation living beneath the iron boot of Rome. There was a longing for an against-all-odds revolt, like in the days of Judas Maccabaeus (2nd century B.C.). People were looking for a Messiah to lead this revolt. Many stepped up to do so. They wound up on Roman crosses. Jesus’ death looked like just one more sad instance of this.
The whole point of the New Testament is to show that Jesus’ death was not what it looked like. The audacious claim of his followers was that by his death and resurrection, Jesus fulfilled the promise to Abraham. Of course, this sounded like nonsense to Jews and Greeks alike. Only failed Messiahs wound up on Roman crosses.
The claim of the followers of Jesus was that the cross was God’s way of radically identifying with this hurting world and suffering for its sins. But it did not end there. God raised his Messiah from the dead, exalted him to his right hand, and crowned him King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The promises to Abraham had come true in a most unexpected way: through a crucified, resurrected Messiah. The new age had dawned with the resurrection of Jesus.
The primary point of the New Testament is to show how the promises to Israel were fulfilled by Jesus. The book of Acts is one example.
- God promised a King in the line of David on a throne in Jerusalem. The resurrection of Jesus was proclaimed as the enthronement of this King (Acts 2:29-36).
- God promised that the exile would end and that Jews would gather from all over the world to worship their Messiah. This is described by the long list of nations from which the pilgrims had gathered for Pentecost (Acts 2:9-11).
- God promised to pour out his Spirit on all people and begin a new age. This happened with the coming of God’s Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:16-28). This new life, called the “Kingdom of God,” was spread all the way to Rome and beyond (Acts 28:28-31).
- An important aspect of the fulfillment of God’s promise is the way that Gentiles (non-Jews) were welcomed to become children of Abraham simply by trusting in Christ. There was no more Jew or Greek (Galatians 3:28). The wall dividing Jews from the rest of the world was torn down (Ephesians 2:14). There was now one family of God under one King: the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter was told to eat unclean (non-kosher) food in a dream (Acts 10:13-16). A council in Jerusalem agreed that Gentiles do not have to practice Jewish customs to circumcision be part of God’s Kingdom (Acts 15).
These are not proof texts. They are samples of what the New Testament is: a description of how the promises to Israel were fulfilled by the death and resurrection of Jesus.
To say that the promise to Israel has not yet been fulfilled and that the nation of Israel must be separated from the Gentiles and reconstituted is not a minor miscalculation. It misses the whole point of the New Testament. The church is not a diversion from God’s promise to Israel. It is the fulfillment of it. The church (made of Jews and Gentiles) is the fulfillment of God’s promise.
2. Rapture Theology Takes Verses out of Context
As an example of this, here are three passages used to prove the rapture.
After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven, and the first voice which I had heard, like the sound of a trumpet speaking with me, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things.”
We have already seen that this verse is not addressed to the church but to John.
1 Thessalonians 4:14-17
This is the main passage used to defend the idea of a rapture.
For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.
If you go looking for a rapture5 you can find it here. It appears that people are snatched up with the Lord in the clouds and whisked off to heaven. But wait. The verse does not say where the saints go after they meet the Lord. The idea that they ascend to heaven is a wrong assumption.
Paul is describing the return of a King. It is common for people to go out to meet victorious soldiers when they return from battle. We go to the airport with television cameras, banners and a brass band. Ancient people went out of the city and lined the roadways, cheering as the conquering heroes returned. Obviously, the King didn’t seize the celebrants and haul them off to somewhere else. He and the celebrants entered the city.
In the same way, this passage describes Christ’s triumphant return to this world, not a fly-by to extract some of its inhabitants. Clouds are a common feature in visitations of God. A similar description occurs on the Mount of transfiguration (Matthew 17:5) and at Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:9).
For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one will be left.
Jesus is describing the coming judgment of evil people. They are taken away. The righteous are left behind. This is the exact opposite way that the verse is read by dispensationalists. In this verse, you want to be left behind!
3. Rapture Theology Ignores Apocalyptic Genre
The apocalyptic style of writing is full of bombastic language and over-the-top metaphors. We sometimes do the same thing. We use the word “earth-shattering” to describe something of major importance. We don’t literally mean the earth is shattered. A biblical example of this kind of language is found in Acts 2 where Peter quotes the prophet Joel:
‘And I will grant wonders in the sky above
And signs on the earth below,
Blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke.
‘The sun will be turned into darkness
And the moon into blood,
Before the great and glorious day of the Lord shall come.
Peter told the crowd that these things were happening now. Obviously there was not literal blood and fire and smoke. The sun did not stop shining. The moon did not turn to blood. Peter used apocalyptic language to say that something earth-shattering was happening. The world would never be the same. Revelation is filled with the same kind of language and must be read in the same way.
Also, apocalyptic writing is not meant to be taken as a linear description of history. It describes the same thing repeatedly, using different images. It’s like a triptych, offering multiple perspectives on a theme.
An example of this is Revelation 19-20. If you read these chapters as a linear description of history it looks like Christ returns on a white horse and wins a decisive battle in chapter 19. Then, he refights the battle in chapter 20. If you read these with appreciation for apocalyptic genre you don’t see two events. You see two pictures of one event—the triumph of Christ over evil.
Read as apocalyptic literature, Revelation accurately describes our world as it is. Is there a city that behaves as a great harlot in our world (Babylon)? Yes! Is there a spirit in opposition to Christ (the Antichrist)? Yes! Are there people who claim to speak for God but lie (the False Prophet)? Yes! Are there ecological disasters that make the planet groan? Yes! Is there any hope against such malevolent forces? Yes! In Revelation, God is in total control, even over evil. In the midst of the chaos, God is working for good. The saints give praise to God and worship the Lamb. God’s Spirit moves in the world to fill his servants with hope and breathe life.
Read this way, Revelation is not terrifying. It is one of the most vivid and comforting descriptions of God with us in all the Bible. It is filled with the blessed hope. The first words of the book of Revelation are:
“The revelation6 of Jesus Christ” (Revelation 1:1)
It is not a revelation of a chronology. It is a revelation of the blessed hope: Jesus with us in the chaos, working for good.
The Blessed Hope
It is impossible to assemble the various passages that describe the triumph of Christ into a precise description, complete with a chronology. When we do it, we wind up with ridiculous questions like:
- If God resurrects everyone and everything, how it all fit on the planet?
- If there is no more death, how can there be seasons?
- Will there be mosquitos?
- Does God resurrect pets? Which ones? How does he decide?
- Will I be able to fly?
- If everything achieves its perfect state, how can there be any growth or adventure. How can this not be boring?
It is interesting to speculate about these things but it is fruitless. Returning to Romans 8,
In hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it. (Romans 8:24-25)
We get a preview of New Creation in the resurrection of Jesus. We feel New Creation as God’s Spirit in our hearts, breathing hope into our hopelessness, giving us the courage to forge ahead for reasons we cannot explain. The world is not coming to an end. It is in labor. A new day will dawn. Until then, we live in hope.
In many places, Jesus’ final triumph is not described as a “return” but an “appearance” or “unveiling” The assumption is that Christ is already in our midst. We do not see the future of the Kingdom but we feel the presence of the King. He walks with us in our valley of the shadow of death. We fear no evil because we know that just as Jesus’ cross was transformed into a great glory, ours will be as well.
- Titus 2:13
- A Distant Thunder (1978), Image of the Beast (1981), The Prodigal Planet (1983)
- The writer of Hebrews would have considered this unthinkable. His point is that Christ was the final sacrifice. There is no need for more animal sacrifice. Now that the substance has come, why go back to the shadows?
- I have a web page with links to these lectures and some other resources on Revelation. Check it out here: http://ntwithmaury.com/revelation-resources/
- The Latin translation of “caught up” (rapturo) is the basis of our word “rapture.”
- In Greek the word for “revelation” is “apocalypse” (apokalupsis, ἀποκάλυψις).