Rapture theology was invented around 170 years ago. No one until that time even thought in those terms. Belief in the Rapture has its origins in the vision of a fifteen-year-old girl named Margaret MacDonald. In 1830, while attending a healing service in Port Glasgow, Scotland, this girl claimed she saw a vision depicting a two-stage return of Jesus. John Nelson Darby, a British evangelical preacher and founder of the Plymouth Brethren, adopted and amplified her vision.
Although Christians everywhere believed in the Second Coming of Jesus, no one claimed he would physically return to earth twice. But Darby’s new scheme proposed just that. The first return would be in secret so that Jesus could “rapture” his church out of the world and up to heaven before the world would undergo a seven-year tribulation. After the “rapture” and the seven-year global tribulation, Jesus would return a second time to establish a Jerusalem–based kingdom on earth. Darby and his followers searched the scriptures for support for this two-stage version of Christ’s return. In all their searching they found only a handful of passages which they claimed supported their theory. No reputable biblical scholar today agrees that these passages support anything remotely resembling the Rapture. But when you start with a premise, it’s easy to find something somewhere to back it up if you are determined to find that support, no matter how twisted and convoluted your logic must be to back up your case. And that’s exactly what happened with Darby, his followers, and all subsequent proponents of rapture theology like Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye with his popular “Left Behind” series.
We should point out that the word “rapture” comes from the Latin word raptio, a translation of the original Greek for the word “caught up” as it is used in Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will be with the Lord forever.” (I Thess. 4:17)
Darby made a number of mission trips to the United States between 1859 and 1877 and won many converts to the Rapture idea. Darby would not predict a precise date for Christ’s return. Instead, he invented “dispensations”—intervals of time ordering God’s grand timetable for world events. From this word dispensation came the term “dispensationalism,” which is a particular way of thinking about the end-times guided by Darby’s premise. Darby taught that God has divided all of human history into seven distinct dispensations or ages. During each age God deals with people according to a different set of rules. Such a way of looking at the world lays out a rigid master plan for all of history.
Darby’s system became popular through the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible. This Bible was published in 1909 by Cyrus I. Scofield, a thief and a scoundrel. He embezzled money, served 6 months in jail for forgery after his conversion to Christianity, and abandoned his wife and daughters. But he struck gold with the new Bible edition. Scofield added dispensationalist headings and notes in the margin of the pages of the Bible commenting on each prophetic passage in light of Darby’s system. The Bible sold by the millions. Countless people read the Bible guided by the headings and footnotes Scofield provided. By the early and middle 20th century, nearly every home in the South and Midwest had a copy of Scofield’s version and assumed that his notes and headings were as authoritative as the Bible itself. In fact, many a simple soul thought these headings and notes were actually a part of the Bible.
Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute took up and elaborated on Darby’s system. The Dallas Theological Seminary, founded in 1924, was established as a dispensationalists’ training center. Graduates of that “seminary” include Hal Lindsey and some of the television evangelists some of you may watch, even though by now, I would hope you know better. Hal Lindsey’s “Late Great Planet Earth” came out when I was in seminary. Back then, with the Cold War and the threat of nuclear weapons, Lindsey identified the antichrist as the Soviet Union. Guess what? He was wrong. So, who do you think he identifies as the antichrist today? Islam. And people, like rats hypnotized by a cobra, get all excited, buy his books, and “oo” and “ah” totally overlooking that once again they have been duped. Of course, Lindsey and others don’t care. They are laughing all the way to the bank. Tim LaHaye’s books over the past thirty years also follow Darby’s system.
This dispensationalist system going back to Darby is based on a peculiar, fanciful, and absurd interpretation of three verses in Daniel 9. We don’t have the time today to do a proper and thorough study of the Book of Daniel. And besides, this particular sermon is specifically focused on the Rapture. However, I do want to point out that every biblical scholar who is reputable, who has studied this book in depth, who is free to speak his or her mind, and who knows all the options—every biblical scholar in the world who fits this description rejects the dispensationalist interpretation of the Book of Daniel. The idea of the Rapture depends on this dispensationalist interpretation of Daniel. Mainline Christians—and by that I mean Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Disciples, UCC, and most evangelicals reject this interpretation as ridiculous, fanciful, and historically wrong. But enough of that.
What do these people mean by the Rapture? They mean that at some time in history, Jesus will come back to earth. He will be seen only by those who are faithful to him and, by the way, interpret the Bible the same way these misinformed dispensationalists interpret the Bible. They will be snatched up from the earth by Christ. In other words, they shall disappear from this earth and leave behind all those who are not true believers. That is where the idea of “left behind” comes from in Tim LaHaye’s books. All this will happen in the minds of most who believe this way immediately before the final Tribulation before Jesus’ Second Coming.
Now, most people who naively believe in the Rapture think it is another way of talking about the Second Coming. It’s not. The Rapture, as meant by a group of people over the last 170 years, refers to a silent, secret, sudden return of Jesus to rescue his church from the final Tribulation. In their minds, the Second Coming happens later. So, they believe in two future comings of Jesus to earth. The only way they can argue their case for the dispensationalist system and the Rapture is through fanciful, convoluted, complex ways of relating passages in the Bible to other passages which are ridiculously silly and totally unfounded. If you go anyway from here with nothing else today, I want you to realize that the idea of Rapture was entirely fabricated by a few so-called Bible scholars whom no reputable scholar today accepts. Why did they do all this? And by “they” I don’t mean the millions who believe this way but don’t know any better. I mean those who should know better. Many of them have been to seminary. Many of them know the careful study of biblical scholars over the world who provide a much truer interpretation of Scripture. So why do these people continue this fabrication—this falsehood—this lie? There are several reasons: the masses love it; it brings in millions of dollars; and it serves the purposes of right-wing Christians.
There are several passages in the New Testament that are the favorite texts of those who believe in the Rapture. I Thessalonians 4:13-18 is the favorite Rapture proof-text for dispensationalists. If you look at this passage in the overall context of the letter, you realize that it is not about the Rapture at all. This passage is about the resurrection from the dead at Christ’s Parousia (what many call “the Second Coming”). Those Christians in Thessalonica apparently feared that their loved ones who had already died would be left behind in their graves when he returned. And naturally the Christians in Thessalonica were grieving this expected separation. Paul wrote to reassure them that those who died in the Lord will be raised to meet Christ and “so we shall always be with the Lord.” In other words, Paul wrote this letter to comfort Christians. Their loved ones who were already dead would also participate in the resurrection. They would not be forgotten by God.
So, this passage is not saying that some will be left behind. In no way is this passage talking about the Rapture. Paul is talking about the Second Coming when we shall all be resurrected and transformed and be with Christ together forever.
Now remember what those who believe in the Rapture claim. They maintain Christ will come secretly and be recognized only by the faithful. He will snatch up these faithful and leave behind everyone else. The faithful will be taken to heaven with Christ for seven years after which Jesus will return and begin his 1000-year reign. But this passage says nothing about 7 years in heaven. It says nothing about Jesus coming down to earth and then reversing directions and going back to heaven with the faithful. Again, what this passage is describing is Jesus’ “Second Coming” to earth and the resurrection from the dead which will happen when he returns.
But what about this meeting the Lord in the air? The Greek word Paul uses for “meet” is a very specific word for greeting a visiting dignitary in ancient times. The word is apantesis and refers to the practice by which people went outside the city to greet the dignitary and then escort him into the city. The same word is used in Matthew 25:6 to describe the bridesmaids going out to meet the bridegroom and then accompanying him into the feast. It is also used in Acts 28:15 to describe the Romans who go out to meet Paul as he arrives in their city. The use of this word never means to meet and then change directions and go back where the person came from after the people come out to meet him. In Matthew the bridegroom doesn’t kidnap the bridesmaids and take them away with him after they go out to meet him! No, the bridegroom goes to the wedding feast. Paul does not meet the Roman Christians and then turn around and return home taking them with him. He goes with them back into the city.
Following the custom of going out to meet important persons and dignitaries as a courtesy, Paul is saying that both those who are alive and those who have died will go up to “meet” Christ in the air on his way back to earth, and then they escort him the rest of the way back to earth as he descends. At that point Paul says the resurrection will occur. This passage has nothing to do with the Rapture. It is about the “Second Coming” and the resurrection of all those faithful to Jesus.
What we have said today represents the first half of what I want to say about the Rapture. In the next sermon we will look at part two. But I want to conclude with three thoughts.
First, when it comes to the Bible, what we don’t know can hurt us. It can lead us into all kinds of misinterpretations and applications of Scripture. If you did not know that belief is the Rapture began in 1830 with a “vision” supposedly experienced by a Scottish teenage girl named Margaret MacDonald –if you did not know that this rapture belief had been taken over and expanded by a minister (John Darby) in a reactionary religious group and then popularized by an unscrupulous crook named Cyrus Schofield– if you did not know that not a single biblical scholar today who has studied the Bible in depth, who is free do speak his or her mind (and that leaves out a lot of people who want to keep their jobs), and who knows all the options and rejects the idea of the Rapture as well as the dispensationalist interpretation of the Book of Daniel on which belief in the Rapture rests—if you did not know all this, you could be tricked into believing something that is totally false, misleading and dangerous.
Secondly, the idea of the Rapture contradicts the Good News of Jesus Christ. The Good News is that God loves the whole world and desires every part of creation to be redeemed, made whole, healed, saved. The Rapture is not good news for the world. It’s good news only for a select few Christians who happen to believe this rapture nonsense. I learned a long time ago that I should run away as fast as I can from any presentation of the gospel which does not present and focus on the universal love of God. In Rapture theology God does not love the world—God abandons the world and saves a few misguided “Christians” while leaving behind all the rest of creation to chaos and suffering.
And thirdly, this whole mistaken idea of the Rapture gives us a splendid example of the principle I mentioned in our first sermon on the Last Things. Jesus always trumps the Bible. If what we read in the Bible is not consistent with who Jesus was, what he did, and what he taught, then it is to be rejected. Can anyone who has read the Gospels see Jesus coming back to earth and taking a few people to heaven while leaving the bulk of humankind (not to mention all creation) to destruction, evil, and suffering? Jesus came into the world to save the lost. He associated with outcasts and sinners. He gave his life for the whole world and as the Risen Christ is committed to reconciling the whole world–all creation–the entire universe to God. The Jesus of the Rapture is not the Jesus of the Gospels. Rapture thinking is the exact opposite of Gospel thinking. It is not of God. In fact, we could argue that it is of the devil.