Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Why I'm Not Down with "the Rapture"

In a nutshell, the rapture is a belief that says Jesus will instantaneously transport (rapture) believers from earth to Heaven just prior to the final antichrist’s rise to power.  Christians will not have to endure the horrible suffering of the final days (known as the Great Tribulation).  That is reserved for those left on earth, some of whom will finally recognize the signs of the times and come to a belief in Jesus prior to His return in glory.

Although proponents of the rapture appeal to Scripture (and I admit, I use to count myself among them), no one – and I mean no one - in the first eighteen hundred years of Christianity saw it there. The two key verses appealed to by its proponents are 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 and Matthew 24:37-41. Allow me to address them each in turn.

I will start my quotation from 1 Thessalonians before, and end it after, the verses alleged to concern a rapture prior to the time of tribulation:

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, 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, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall be with the Lord. Therefore, comfort one another with these words. But as to the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night (1 Thess.4:15-5:2).

Note the words I have italicized. Paul is talking about the great Day of the Lord, the Day of Judgment. He is talking about the glorious, triumphant manifestation of Jesus and His Body when He returns in glory. Paul says nothing about the Church being raptured away so as to escape persecution. Instead, those translated directly from earthly existence to glory are those who are “alive,” who are “left.”

Read within its historical context, Paul is probably likening the Lord’s return to that of a victorious general. As the conqueror returned to Rome, he would stop outside the city, and wait for his family to be brought to him. Once his entourage was fully assembled they would enter the city together, amidst fanfare and celebration.[1]

Lets turn now to Matthew’s Gospel. After just employing apocalyptic imagery to describe the fall of Jerusalem, Jesus tells the Apostles:

But of the day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. 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 did not know 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 is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken, and one is left. Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect (Matt.24:36-44).

Like Thessalonians, we have that image of the Lord coming like a thief in the night. It was a common motif for talking about the Second Coming; that is what both of these passages are dealing with. In Thessalonians we saw the Lord sweeping up His beloved. Not so in this passage. Who is taken? In this passage it is the unrighteous! “As [in] the days of Noah,…the flood came and swept them all away.” Much to the chagrin of Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins, in Jesus’ example it is the righteous who are “left behind.” Jesus gave a similar description earlier in Matthew:

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire, there men will weep and gnash their teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear…

So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth (Matt.13:41-43,49-50).

This idea that the Church will not suffer the great tribulation is completely unbiblical, and at odds with historic Christianity. Jesus, the Master, suffered. Eleven of the twelve Apostles died as martyrs; there have been martyrs throughout Jewish and Christian history. To believe in a rapture of the Church, so as to save it from suffering, flies in the face of this.

So how did belief in the rapture begin? With a man named John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), a former Anglican priest and founder of the Plymouth Brethren.[2] The teaching made its way to the United States and was disseminated through the study notes of the incredibly popular Scofield Refernce Bible. Dallas Theological Seminary, Moody Bible Institute, and Talbot Seminary then incorporated it into the training of future pastors. Hal Lindsey, whom I have read for example, was a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. His first blockbuster, the 1970 The Late Great Planet Earth brought the idea to the masses.[1] As we have seen, however; this belief has no ground in Scripture and runs counter to almost two thousand years of Christian belief.

[1] Thigpen, Paul, The Rapture Trap (West Chester, Pennsylvania: Ascension Press, 2001).

[2] There is conjecture that the rapture was seen in a vision by a fifteen year-old Scottish girl, Margaret McDonald, and that this private revelation then found its way into the teaching of Darby.

[3] See Currie, David,. The Rapture (Manchester New Hampshire: Sophia Institute Press, 2003), p.14-17.

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