For many of us raised in evangelical Christianity since childhood, an expectation for the rapture is deeply ingrained in our understanding of the end times. It is simply assumed that there will come a time when God snatches all the believers away from the earth and into heaven. The only discussion usually involves just how much tribulation believers will have to endure before that happens. Rarely, if ever, do we question the basic assumption that God wants us to anchor our hope in escaping the material world.
Because many of us have been exposed to rapture theology our entire lives, we then assume that this must be a very traditional belief about our future in God. If we’ve been taught this all our lives, then it must have been taught throughout the history of the Church. But that is incorrect. Rapture theology actually doesn’t really appear in church history until John Darby began popularizing it in 1830 and it didn’t take deep root in American religious thought until the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible early in the 20th century. The Scofield Reference Bible had tons of notes in the margins about Darby’s end times view that emphasized the rapture. The Scofield Reference Bible was hugely popular in America, and because people were reading Darby’s views “in the Bible,” they assumed they must represent right doctrine, that they must be “scriptural.”
The early church Fathers didn’t expect a rapture. Roman Catholics don’t expect a rapture. The various Eastern Orthodox groups don’t expect a rapture. Anglicans don’t expect a rapture. Believers in most other parts of the world don’t expect a rapture (unless heavily influenced to do so by American missionaries). Really only Bible belt Americans do thanks to Darby and Scofield and lately because of the Left Behind series.
This isn’t mere doctrinal nit-picking. Your view of the end times has great bearing on how you live your life. Where you think the story is headed greatly shapes the way you engage in your part of the story now. If you think the point of the gospel is to live forever in a non-material reality called heaven rather than in the new heavens and new earth described in Rev 21, then that escapist mentality will produce very little engagement with the task of bringing heaven to earth, of stewarding this earth, of working prayerfully to transform culture. If our expectation is to escape this planet, then this planet and it’s stuff doesn’t matter much. If the goal is non-bodily existence, then we replace our hope for the resurrection of the dead for a pie-in-the-sky-in-the-bye-and-bye-I’ll-fly-away-oh-Lordy hope, and an evangelism anchored in leveraging fear to produce decisions.
The doctrine of “the rapture” is based upon a passage Paul wrote to the Thessalonians.
“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 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.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17, ESV)
There are several things that can and should be affirmed from this passage.
Jesus will return.
Jesus will return to the earth from heaven. He is coming back as promised.
Christ’s return will be triumphant and very public.
Language like cry of command, voice of an archangel, sound of the trumpet of God all indicates that Jesus’ return will be a worldwide event of his return as the King of Kings.
The dead will rise.
When Jesus returns as King of Kings, the dead in Christ will rise. Tombs and graves will empty and these saints will be caught up into the air to meet the returning King as he descends to earth. See 1 Cor 15 for a more detailed description of the resurrection of the dead.
The living will also be caught up.
Believers who are still living when Christ returns will, along with those who have just been raised from the dead, be caught up to meet Jesus as he descends from heaven in triumph.
We will always be with the Lord.
Once this event occurs, there will never again be a separation. For all eternity we will enjoy the presence of Jesus with us.
The rapture doctrine teaches that once we are caught up to meet Jesus in the air, that he doesn’t actually return to the earth at that time. Rather, he snatches us all away to heaven. I would like to point out that the passage doesn’t say that or even hint at it. This must be “read in” to the text. It’s not there on its own.
In Roman times, a conquering general would return home in triumph, having defeated his foes in battle and won territory for his empire, thus increasing the scope of his kingdom’s rule. As he returned and neared the city, the citizens would leave the city and meet him outside the city wall. The purpose of this wasn’t to then leave with him and vacate the city, but rather to celebrate his victorious return in triumphal procession. This is the imagery Paul is borrowing in this passage. It has nothing to do with our escape from the earth and everything to do with Jesus’ triumphant return to the earth. The immediate hearers of Paul’s letter would have been very familiar with this imagery and would have understood it accordingly.
There is an additional passage that is used to support the Rapture doctrine.
““But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Matthew 24:36–42, ESV)
If you bring rapture lenses to this passage, it appears to provide a proof text for the rapture. When the rapture occurs, one will be taken and one left. From this perspective, the one taken has been raptured to heaven. The only difficulty with this interpretation is context. Jesus is talking about an event that will take place within one generation of the time of his speaking, which proved to be the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The reference to the coming of the Son of Man isn’t a reference to the future return of Christ, but rather to his vindication as Messiah, which the fulfillment of his prophecy of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem will demonstrate.
Those being taken in this passage are not to be understood as being raptured to heaven, but instead as being killed or taken captive when Jerusalem is sacked. The point of the passage is to be watchful and faithful because the exact time of such events are unknown. The very next parable of the wise and wicked slaves fits this understanding well.
You can’t find the doctrine of the rapture in the Bible. You have to find it in Darby and Scofield (and, more recently, Hal Lindsey, Edgar Whisenant, Tim LaHaye, etc.) and then bring it to the text to find it there, forcing the text itself out of its contextual meaning to prove the point.
Taking the scripture as a whole, it appears to me that our hope as believers is anchored in the future return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the establishing of a new heavens and new earth. As new creation people, our desire is not to escape earth and go to heaven, but rather to see God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven. As new creation people, our longing is for old things to pass away and all things to become new. So in the present we see the resurrected and exalted Christ doing in and through us by the Spirit what we know he will one day do in all the earth – making all things new.
If our experience of signs in the heavens like the recent blood moons points us that direction, I’m glad for it.