I’ve had it in mind to address some of the wrong-headed, yet widely-held doctrines that have a negative effect on Christians, there’s no better day to start this than a few days after a predicted “end-of-the-world” rapture has passed unfulfilled. Although I’m disturbed by how the prediction of such a small Christian group has received so much media attention, I do give them kudos for putting their money where their mouth is. The organization invested millions of dollars in propagating their message. Some quit their jobs. Some sold their belongings. Some hired atheist companies that guaranteed the care of their pets after their owners were raptured. But, at the end of the day, this event shows us how important theology is – even bad theology – and how it affects our lives and society.
There are some nuances on the idea of the rapture, but basically it is the belief that Jesus will come back and true believers will be taken from the earth to meet Jesus in heaven.
Here I just want to outline some of the major reasons by which the church should name the doctrine of the “rapture” as heresy and denounce it.
Although this heresy has become part of the mainstream evangelical understanding about the return of Christ, the doctrine is relatively new. You can find it in some 18th century Puritan writings, but it was developed and popularized by Mathew Henry and John Darby in the 19th century and by Hal Lindsey in the 20th century. That means that although the church has had different understandings about the Second Coming since the beginning of the church, the idea of the rapture was not held by any of them. For the church, the concept of the rapture is new.
The book in the Bible that speaks about the future of the world more than any other is Revelation. Revelation has no mention of the rapture.
The idea of the rapture is read into Jesus’ statements about the end in Matthew 24. Jesus says that as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the coming of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking and marrying until the flood came and swept them away. Likewise, when the Son of Man comes, two will be in a field; one will be taken and one will be left behind. Those that promote the rapture heresy believe that the true believers will be taken and the condemned will be left behind. However, the text says that those taken away, as in the flood, are destroyed; those left behind, like Noah, are “saved” and enjoy life. The rapture heresy is completely backwards.
The main text that causes interpreters to believe that Christians will be raptured is 1 Thessalonians 4:15–7, which says that the dead in Christ and then the living will be caught up in the air at the coming of Jesus. Read outside of its cultural context, one can understand why so many would think that they will be raptured from the world. However, in its cultural context, the text speaks of the consummation of the kingdom of God. When a king, in the ancient world, would come to a city, he was announcing the reign of his kingdom over the city. If the leaders of the city, accepted the king’s authority, they would come out of the city to meet the king and bring him to the city to establish or affirm his kingship. This is the image from 1 Thessalonians. The direction of Jesus’ coming is not from earth to heaven but rather from heaven to earth. The believers go out to meet their King so they can be part of the triumphant procession in the full coming of the kingdom.
This heresy of Christ coming to rapture his church also implies that there will be a “third coming” when Jesus comes to judge and establish the new heaven and new earth. But a third coming has never been held by the church.
The problems with the rapture heresy are not only the ridicule coming from unbelievers or the despair of those who put their trust in false prophecies. Here are a few real world implications that are justified by this heresy:
If God will save an elect (which is us) from the creation, then we are enabled to exploit the earth and enjoy its plunder without consideration for others (which are not us). Practically, that means we can burn so much fossil fuel that we heat up the globe and make hurricanes, typhoons and flooding more likely and more deadly. Rapture proponents believe that when the real tribulation comes, God will take us out of it.
If God will save an elect (which is us) from tribulation, then we are less likely to be involved when others (the non-elect) suffer tribulations. If God is not involved in the tribulation, and His people are not involved in the tribulation in the future, then we (the elect) have no place in tribulation in the present because it is for the damned.
If God will secure an elect (which is us) from tribulation, then we too should secure an elect (which is us) from tribulation. The amount that America spends on “defense” could wipe out global hunger (from which 24,000 people die every day).
If God will save an elect (which is us) from tribulation, then we do not need to consider the affects of our decisions on future generations (which are not us). Economists continue to promote consumption in order to grow economies. The message transmitted is consume the benefits now without worrying about the costs in the future.
If God will save an elect (which is us) from tribulation, then we are enabled to project our view of the end times onto a political agenda. Already in the 19th century, when pre-millennial dispensationalism was being formulated, George Eliot said, “Advertising the pre-millennial Advent is simply the transportation of political passions on to a so-called religious platform; it is the anticipation of the triumph of ‘our party,’ accomplished by our principal men being ‘sent for’ into the clouds.” We see this today when apocalyptic imagery is written into our party politics. But we must ask ourselves, “How are we to be a people of the cross as a prophetic, suffering witness that seeks redemption in the midst of tribulation?”