Scholars tell us that Jesus was born in 4 BC. Assuming–and this is an admittedly HUGE assumption–they and all post-AD calendars are correct, yesterday was the 1,990th anniversary of Easter.
Today we all await the fulfillment of the last big prophecy—the end of the world.
Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins wrote an entertaining and popular fictional series about the biblical apocalypse. I read all twelve books of the Left Behind series as they were published, and I enjoyed most of them. They begin with the Rapture, a doctrine that states the last generation of Christians on Earth will be “beamed up” to heaven before the Tribulation. The rest of the series details the authors’ interpretations of the Tribulation and ends with the Second Coming of the Christ. When I read the novels I believed this tradition of Rapture, so the books made me think I had a solid grasp of Scripture and understood what the Apocalypse will look like.
The danger of highly entertaining books with biblical inspirations such as the Left Behind series and The DaVinci Code is that they seem to be more fact than fiction. The characters are all made up, sure, but it is easy to believe that the books’ settings and events are based in reality. My favorite genre of escapist literature is historical fiction, so this is a tempting trap I know very well.
Once the idea of the Rapture came up in a conversation, and others were surprised to hear that I don’t wholly accept this doctrine. I realized pretty quickly that they (and a lot of other people, it turns out) associated the Rapture with the Second Coming of Christ. The two should not be conflated. Rapture is a tradition (the word never appears in the Bible); the Second Coming, or Parousia, is Scripture. I absolutely believe Jesus will return.
The Pre-Tribulation Rapture doctrine is a relatively new one. It was developed in the late 1800s by British theologian John Nelson Darby and then popularized in America in 1907 when C. I. Scofield’s Reference Bible was printed. It takes disparate verses of the New Testament and combines them to form the doctrine. The doctrine isn’t exactly a product of proof-texting, but it is close.
The theory begins with 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, where Paul is answering the questions of church members who are wondering what will happen to their Christian friends and family who have died prior to Jesus’ Second Coming:
But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep [in death], lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.
The Thessalonians were part of the Greek culture that believed there was no returning from death. Greek Christians were, at that time, unique in their beliefs in the completed resurrection of the Christ, and they were trusting in Jesus’ words (Matthew 24) that they would be resurrected as well. It seems their faiths were eroding as they lived among the Greek pagans, watched Jesus-following church members die, and waited for His return. Paul is setting their minds at ease here by reminding them of what they already know. At the Second Coming of Christ—not before—the dead will rise and the living will follow them. According to Paul, Jesus returns before anyone living or dead rises.
I always assumed the Rapture was detailed in Revelation. It is not. The only people who ascend to heaven in that book are John of Patmos (to see this vision), the two witnesses (11:12), and the “Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron” (12:5). To connect John’s vision of Revelation to Jesus’ description of the Tribulation and Paul’s assurance that the dead and living will rise when He returns, you have to get pretty creative.
Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.
If you read Revelation 3:10 outside of its context as I have it here, then you might guess that Christians will be kept “from the hour of trial” by way of a Pre-Tribulation Rapture, but that certainly is not stated and nothing else in Revelation would support that idea. Also, this promise was made only to the Church in Philadelphia, so most of us better pack up and move!
All of this to say, Christians need to read the rest of what Paul says about the end times:
But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him (1 Thessalonians 5:1-10).
We don’t need to try to predict the end of the world or worry that we might suffer prior to His return. We are here, as children of God, to be used by God to reconcile all of humanity to Him. After Easter, may we focus on His present will and not the world’s future end.