May 15, 2008

Are you "rapture ready"??

Okay, so this is admittedly a break in the flow of the Revelation study that we've been doing on here. But since this Sunday's message is sure to generate many questions, comments, or concerns, I thought it would be a good time to discuss the topic up front--The Rapture.

As you may know, we as a church reject the idea of an invisible rapture of believers from the earth before the return of Jesus. As you may not know, however, so do the vast majority of apostolic Christians throughout the world and for the entire history of the church until the 1850s. New Testament scholar Ben Witherington gives a synopsis of how this new idea began:

In 1830 in Glasgow, Scotland, a young girl named Margaret MacDonald attended a healing service. She was said to have received a vision on the occasion of a two-stage return of Christ, though it is not clear whether she envisioned a pre-tribulation or a post-tribulation rapture to coordinate with the first of these comings.
The matter might have fallen into obscurity except that a British Evangelical preacher named John Nelson Darby heard the story and spread it far and wide. Darby, who was to become the founder of the Plymouth Brethren denomination, explained more fully and clearly that Christ would definitely come twice, the first in secret to rapture the church out of the world and up to heaven. He would then return after seven years of worldwide tribulation to establish a dominion on earth based in Jerusalem. Darby coordinated this latter event with the discussion of the “glorious appearing” referred to in Titus 2:13 and distinguished it from the discussion of the “parousia” in 1 Thessalonians 4. [Witherington, "The Problem with Evangelical Theology" p.93)

So how did such an obscure idea become so widespread in North America? Witherington recounts:
Darby made numerous evangelistic trips to America between 1859 and 1877 and won many American converts to the rapture theology....Darby concluded that God had divided all of history into seven distinct Dispensations or ages. In each of these Dispensations God dealt with people differently, and according to differing rules.

Dwight L. Moody became enamored with this theology and began promulgating it on both sides of the Atlantic, furthered by the founding of the Moody Bible Institute, and eventually Moody Press and by a radio network. But by far the single most enduring tool for spreading this theology was a reference Bible, put together by one Cyrus I. Scofield and first published in 1909...The readings and notes were woven in with the text itself, which made it appear as if this teaching was self-evident and indeed arose directly from the text.

Lewis Chafer, a Presbyterian, would come along feeling the need to establish a Dispensational training center, in part to shore up the exegetical and theological liabilities of Dispensational theology. The result was Dallas Theological Seminary founded in 1924, which has produced the likes of John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, Hal Lindsey, and many names familiar to Evangelicals who have been readers of popular Evangelical theology. These leaders and their writings have impacted Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Timothy and Beverly LaHaye, and a host of Dispensational televangelists who will remain nameless. [pp.93-96]

This is the reason SO many evangelical Christians have come to believe in the idea of the rapture--some of the most successful and dynamic evangelists of the 20th century taught it. And with the rise of Christian radio and television, such teaching spread quickly around the country, and often the world. After all, if as an amazing man of God such as D.L. Moody teaches something from Scripture, it has to be right...right?
Not necessarily. This is something that we want to stress over and over and over again. The degree to which we hold a theological idea as truth should be directly proportional to the degree to which we have ourselves studied it in-depth. (This applies to everything taught by any of us on staff at GSUMC as well!) For instance, if someone hears something taught from the Bible by a Pastor or teacher, it is good for that person to hold whatever teaching they have received with "loose hands" until they have studied it more for themselves and have become convinced that it is in accordance with Scripture. [IMPORTANT NOTE: Such a study does NOT consist of only reading or listening to various others who believe and teach the same position! Rather, it comes from listening humbly to those brothers and sisters in Christ who DISAGREE the most with the idea in question and weighing their arguments equally. ALWAYS listen to different perspectives than the one you are coming from initially. Only after this is done honestly and charitably can we say we have studied an issue.]

So, back to the idea of the Rapture.

Do wonderful Christian men and women believe and teach it? Absolutely! Is it an issue upon which our salvation is based? Absolutely not! Should we let disagreements--even passionate arguments--separate and divide us as members of One Body who walk together with our Lord Jesus? Me Genoito! ["Absolutely Not!", to use a favorite phrase of Paul's]. Is it worth discussing and important to understand what Scripture actually teaches about it? Yes, extremely!

And that is why we as a church reject the doctrine of a rapture of believers before the return of Jesus--because it is not taught anywhere in Scripture! Of course, you may be thinking, "Sure it is! If it weren't, smart commited Christians wouldn't believe in it!"

But is this really true?

Ask yourself this question, honestly: "Do I believe in the rapture because I have studied the passages in Scripture which supposedly teach it in their contexts and have listened to counterarguments by those who reject it and find them unpersuasive? Or do I believe in the rapture because a Christian teacher or author who I really like and respect taught on it passionately with multiple citations of Bible verses, charts, and/or diagrams?"

I would dare say that a good 90-95% of people who believe in the rapture do so because that's the view that their main theological teachers have held. Now, of course there are those who in their theological study have listened to arguments against the rapture presented by rapture proponents. But is this really "in-depth" study? Or is it recycling arguments uncritically? Only the individual can answer this question, of course. And there are, to be fair, a number of rapture proponents who have come to believe in it after honest study of the text of Scripture (though the number of Biblical scholars and theologians who arrive at this conclusion is extremely small and arises almost exclusively among Dispensational settings).

I would like to make a Disclaimer at this point, because I can practically hear the protests of those readers who believe strongly in the rapture right now and I would like to clarify what I'm NOT saying. What I'm NOT saying is that if you have concluded that the rapture is true, as taught by popular Dispensationalist authors and teachers, then you are simply ignorant or haven't studied it hard enough. That attitude would be condescending, prideful, and...well...really annoying! That's what turns so many faithful Christians off to theological discussion and argumentation in the first place. No, that attitude is not allowed in the Dojo! :)

What I AM saying is that it is my firm belief (and the belief of GSUMC's Pastoral leaders) that the Bible does not teach anything at all resembling the "rapture", as taught by various Dispensationalists and presented in books and movies such as "Left Behind." More than that, it has NEVER been the belief of the vast majority of orthodox, apostolic Christians throughout history up until the last century and a half. Therefore, if we are to accept something as theologically counter-intuitive and bizarre as an invisible rapture of believers before the Return of Christ in victory and judgment (not that something being counter-intuitive or bizarre is any reason to reject it!), then it should be 1.) grounded in the historic faith of the apostolic Christian community and 2.) taught clearly in Scripture without having to take various passages from their contexts, "decode" them, and/or fit them into complicated charts or maps of preconceived "end times" events. This is where the Dispensational doctrine of the Rapture fails. This is why the Christian church as a whole, even the post-Darby Christian church as a whole, has rejected this doctrine as unbiblical.

There is also a pastoral reason we reject the doctrine of the rapture--it doesn't prepare Christians to go through the worst because it teaches that when things get really bad in the world, the Church won't be around to suffer:
Unless by rapture one merely means being taken up into the air to welcome Christ and return with him to earth, there is no theology of the rapture to be found in the New Testament anywhere, never mind the term itself. But if this is so, what then are the implications?
...For one thing it means that the church of the last generation will go through the fire, just as every other generation of Christians has had to do. This is why Jesus’ word of comfort in Mark 13 is not that we will be spared the tribulation, but that God has shortened the time of it for the sake of the elect people of God, which clearly refers to the followers of Jesus (Mark 13:20). Notice for example when Revelation 12:1-6 in fact promises. The woman who represents the people of God in this chapter is not raptured out of the world when the Devil pursues her; rather she is protected from any spiritual harm while remaining in the world. Such is the lot of the people of God in every generation until the Lord returns. There will be no “beam me up Scotty” effect for the last generation of Christians. Rather there will be suffering and martyrdom, just as there was in the time when John wrote Revelation. What was true then will also be true in the end. [Witherington, p.130]

And finally, contrary to what many rapture adherents may believe, this is not a "Liberal" theological claim. Even popular conservative Christians such as Hank Hanegraff, "The Bible Answer Man", and others reject the idea of the rapture. But in the spirit of honest debate, I encourage people to read defenses of the rapture by some of its strongest proponents, such as Lewis Chafer, John Walvoord, and Charles Ryrie.

Okay, that's all for now. I look forward to many fruitful discussions on this and other issues here in the Dojo! Please feel free to comment if you disagree or if you have follow-up questions. This is what the Discipleship Dojo is for--theological sparring!

Be passionate.

Be honest.

But be charitable.

Walking together...



Lem and Anna said...

I have to agree with you, my friend. My dispensational friends have this one wrong.


JMS said...

Yes, I want my Dispensational friends to see this and realize the unbiblical nature of it so that their passion and zeal can be freed from error in regards to this idea of a rapture.

I'm encouraged by Progressive Dispensationalism in that it is starting to reject many of the eccentricities of the system and come back toward orthodoxy.

BTW, have you read "Surprised By Hope", by NT Wright? It's excellent and I think you'd really enjoy it.

Later bro,

Anonymous said...

Google "Pretrib Rapture Diehards," "Famous Rapture Watchers," and "Pretrib Rapture Desperados" if you don't faint easily. Same author has written THE RAPTURE PLOT (see Armageddon Books online) which is a veritable "encyclopedia" of the pretribulation rapture - how and when it really began and by whom. Google "Scholars Weigh My Research" to see candid reactions to his research. Jon

aashup said...

JM - I was wondering what your studies have shown regarding 1 & 2 Thessalonians? Paul talks about the second coming in chapter 4 as a comfort to the church. The Thessalonian church thought that only those who were alive at the time of the coming of Christ would share in the resurrection (or I guess this is also called the rapture) Paul talks about this as a comfort to the people. He tells the church that Christians that have died will be raised first and go before the living to the meet God in the sky. Verse 17 says "Then those who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them int he clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words." Just wondering your thoughts on this?


JMS said...

Hey Autumn,
Good question. If you haven't had a chance to listen to Sunday's sermon, I'd recommend it. Talbot spoke about this very verse. You can hear the message at

The key is what you said in your post--this is describing the Resurrection of the body that will happen at the Return of Christ when He comes in Judgment "of the quick and the dead" (Apostle's creed, also see Dan.12).

The "meeting the Lord in the air" is patterned after the Roman practice of a Triumphal Entry procession by the Emperor. When an Emperor would return to his city in triumph, all the people would go out into the countryside to welcome him home as rightful king. They would meet him and then follow him back into the city for the celebrations. Paul is using this metaphor, but applying it not to the king of Rome, but the King of the Universe, Jesus the Messiah, as He one day returns in ultimate victory, raises the dead, judges the world, and sets up the New Creation where God will live with humanity forever.

Notice Paul doesn't say where we'll go once we meet Him in the air. He says we'll be with Him forever. And according to Revelation 21, what happens at the return of Christ and final judgment? "And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband." (Rev.21:2)

We don't go off to be with Jesus in Heaven forever--much less for 1007 years!--we will rise to meet our returning King and follow Him in triumphal procession as He brings "up there" to "down here".

Hope that helps.


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