Caught Up in the Rapture: How Bad Theology Hit the Big Screen

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Caught Up in the Rapture: How Bad Theology Hit the Big Screen

Here we go again. Just when we thought the Left Behind series had finally been…well…left behind, we are greeted with a remake of the movie version. Did we need a remake? For fans of the novels, probably—the first movies were abysmal. For popular preachers seeking converts, definitely. Rapture theology has become as effective as hell in terms of exciting, and scaring, people into the pews and baptisteries.

Now let me just say that I think the idea of disappearing before things get ugly on Planet Earth is a fun idea. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have it occur just as you lose your job, or get rejected while asking someone out on a date, or mess up a speech in front of hundreds of people?

Poof! Gone.

As delightful as it is to imagine vanishing out of awkward moments, the rapture doctrine raises a number of problems for Bible students wanting more truth than fiction in their theological worldview. When this idea got some firepower under the creative pens of Pentecostal authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, people assumed its biblical basis and preached it from pulpits far and wide.

However, as we’ve gained some distance from the novels, scholars of every tradition have weighed in on the teaching of the “secret rapture” and found it extremely wanting…and even dangerous.

So where did this idea come from? Well, it didn’t begin in a series of novels, that’s for sure. In a weird way, it began in the Bible…even though it wasn’t biblical. What follows is an incredibly quick overview.

The Antichrist Disappearing Act

When Martin Luther turned up the heat on the papacy by calling it the antichrist, the church commissioned a torrent of scholarship to recast Luther’s (as well as John Calvin’s) application of Bible prophecy, which singled out the pope as the sum of all evil. One of the theories, created by a Jesuit named Francisco Ribera in his 1585 commentary, Sacrum Beati Ioannis Apostoli, & Evangelistiae Apocalypsin Commentarij, suggested that every prophecy pertaining to the antichrist would be fulfilled in the future.

According to this view, a gap of time should be inserted into the 70-week prophecy described in Daniel 9. By inserting this gap, Ribera stopped the historical unfolding of the prophecy and catapulted it to some distant time in the future. Instead of the 70th week pointing to Jesus’ earthly ministry and the early church’s efforts to reach the Jewish people, it pointed to the final seven years of tribulation that would occur after Jesus rescued the church.

So you see (the thought went), since God’s people haven’t been rescued yet, we can’t possibly be witnessing the antichrist. Ribera’s theory made an impact but didn’t topple the biblical view that prophecy moves in a straight, continuous line into the future.

Then came Darby.

John Darby’s Prophetic Time Warp

John Nelson Darby was an Irish Anglican clergyman in the nineteenth century who became familiar with Ribera’s work. He developed it further, using an extreme literalist interpretation of the Bible. He believed all Scripture is “inerrant” (basically dictated by God) and should be interpreted literally at every point.

While that might sound like a good idea, it fails to consider the literary genres of the Bible. Scripture is full of poetry, history, parables, proverbs, and, of course, prophecy. While we view them all as inspired, we know to interpret them differently based on their intent.

Darby’s rigid reading of the Bible led him to the idea that God had several “dispensations”—ways He dealt with humans. There were seven total, and they go as follows:

  • Innocence (Gen 1:1–3:7),
  • Conscience (Gen 3:8–8:22),
  • Government (Gen 9:1–11:32),
  • Patriarchal Rule (Gen 12:1–Exod 19:25),
  • Mosaic Law (Exod 20:1–Acts 2:4),
  • Grace (Acts 2:4–Rev 20:3),
  • Church/Earthly Millennial Rule (Rev 20:4–20:6).

In addition to these dispensations, Darby’s literalistic and legalistic interpretive method led him to believe that God had two plans of salvation: one for Israel and the other for the church. In his mind, the church was a kind of “parenthesis” (during the gap between the 69th and 70th week of prophecy) in the plan of salvation, never meant to replace the nation of Israel. The church, in one scholar’s words, existed in a “mysterious prophetic time warp” (Timothy P. Weber, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming, p. 20).

Darby also came up with the concept and coined the phrase “secret rapture” to describe what would happen to the church before Daniel’s final week of prophecy (a literal seven years) was carried out on earth. During this time Israel, the Jews, would repent, and then Jesus would come.

Darby and his followers presented their ideas in Europe. They held that most of Revelation, save its first few chapters, contained events that had not yet come to pass—earning their theology the name “futurism.” This was in stark contrast to the majority of Christians, who believed basically the opposite.

Those who disagreed with Darby’s secret rapture idea were thrown out of his group and considered “deceivers.” Once he had his allegiances intact by 1840, he turned his sights on North America, which was ablaze with prophetic fever. Interestingly enough, scholars note that no one taught the secret rapture theory prior to 1830 (Matthew K. Thompson, Kingdom Come, p. 41).

Through various Bible and prophecy conferences, strong personalities like James H. Brookes and evangelist D.L. Moody began to popularize Darby’s dispensationalism. Baptists and Presbyterians were particularly drawn to their ideas. But these men’s efforts paled in comparison with the ultimate champion of Darby’s doctrines—a man named Cyrus Scofield.

Scofield’s Notes Eclipse Scripture

Converted in 1879, mentored by Brookes, and having no formal theological training to teach him otherwise, Cyrus Scofield was grafted into the dispensationalist family. As he grew under his mentor’s influence, Scofield became a popular lecturer. In 1909 he completed his magnum opus—The Scofield Reference Bible.

At this time “liberal” theology (which denied the inspiration of the Bible, or at least its inerrancy) had caused panic among the faithful. As a reaction against this encroaching threat, they began to look at Scofield’s Bible as completely inerrant, including the notes he had put in the margins offering his dispensationalist interpretation of prophecy.

Since school was expensive, and graduate school was suspect in people’s minds due to liberalism in higher education, Scofield’s Bible with commentary became for many an infallible, portable seminary. And woe to you should you question his interpretations—after all, they are in the Bible.

See the problem?

Israel Returns

The upheavals of two world wars brought a colorful cast of characters to the forefront of prophetic prognostications. Candidates for antichrist came and went, and the constant shifting of geopolitical boundaries seemed to indicate that the time of Jesus’ return was near.

But when Israel regained sovereignty in 1948, dispensationalists went bananas. After all, they believed God would restore and save Israel during the last seven years of prophecy. Prophetic predictions ran rampant across the theological landscape—and still do whenever anything significant happens to Israel. A large portion of the evangelical world looks to Israel as the locus of prophecy as much as Adventists look to the papacy.

From Lindsey to Left Behind

Moving into the contemporary arena of pop theology, the greatest kick in the pants to the secret rapture doctrine, outside of the Scofield Bible, was administered by Pentecostal author Hal Lindsey and his book The Late Great Planet Earth. Published in 1970, it is a condensed version of classical dispensationalism that manages to squeeze current events into its very readable prophetic schema.

By 1990, 28 million copies had been sold.

It’s a lesson to those writing in the area of eschatology that the more understandable, and practical, you can make even the most difficult of subjects, the greater the impact.

The huge success of Lindsey’s little book sent tremors through the evangelical world and eventually inspired Pentecostal theologians Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins to craft their bestselling Left Behind novels. The books’ popularity provides another illustration to dry academics that the prize of people’s hearts goes to the one who can tell the best story, not necessarily the one holding onto dry facts…true as they may be.

Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, would reiterate that lesson for the church again in 2003.

Disappearing Disciples: The Biblical Evidence

So what texts are typically used to support the secret rapture? What verses have dispensationalists found to fit into their arsenal of proof texts? I submit to you a few favorites.

The typical go-to verse in favor of vanishing disciples is found in Matthew 24. The portion people use as proof reads as follows: “Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left” (Matt 24:40-41, ESV). Well—there you have it. Looks as if we do, in fact, have a disappearing act at the return of the Lord.

But, if we are honest, these two verses don’t tell us much other than that not everyone will experience the same fate at the end of time. And, when couched in their context, they paint the opposite picture that rapture enthusiasts would like you to believe. The section begins like this:

But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For 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 were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man (Matt 24:36-39, ESV).

Notice who gets “swept away” in the Flood (in some translations it reads “took them away”)—it isn’t the good guys.

As the verses unfold, we see a parallel between the wicked in Noah’s day and the wicked in the days before Jesus comes. Luke’s version even adds a little bonus. After Jesus describes how some will be taken and others left, someone asks where the people are “taken.” Jesus replies, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather” (Luke 17:37, ESV). In other words, they’re taken to the “great supper” described in Revelation 19:17-18, where birds of prey feast on the bodies of the wicked.

This means that being “left behind” is a good thing—unless you like to feed the birds.

Another image that rapturists enjoy latching onto is that of a thief.

In Peter’s second epistle, he writes, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:10, ESV). Aside from the obviously explosive second part of the verse, indicating the visible nature of Jesus’ return, a quick comparison with Matthew 24 reveals the nature of the thief metaphor.

Jesus says, “But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into” (Matt 24:43, ESV). In other words, Jesus’ coming as a thief isn’t so much about snatching people away secretly as it is about arriving at a time not expected by those who aren’t looking for Him.

Not only does the term “rapture” not occur in the Bible, but those verses people claim allude to it fall apart upon closer inspection. And Christians have been inspecting.

Critiques of the Rapture

As popular as this doctrine has become in the pews, scholars of various backgrounds have been quick to refute it as unscriptural.

Pentecostal scholar Matthew K. Thompson comments, “Many (if not most) contemporary Pentecostal academics lament the Pentecostal acceptance of classical dispensationalism. It is the selling of a birthright for evangelical respectability” (Kingdom Come, p. 51). His words are surprising given the popularity of the rapture among Pentecostals.

Lending his voice to a growing number of academics disinclined toward Left Behind’s theology, preeminent New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says, “I believe some future event will result in the personal presence of Jesus within God’s new creation. This is taught throughout the New Testament outside the Gospels. But this event won’t in any way resemble the Left Behind account” (“Farewell to the Rapture,” Bible Review, August 2001).

Many scholars demonstrate the danger of embracing what is now known as “Scofieldian Dispensationalism.” Numerous voices have pointed out the problems of God essentially having two different plans of salvation (for Jews and Gentiles), the church being a sort of afterthought, the carving up of Scripture so not all parts apply to all people, the implication given by dispensations that God’s plan has been constantly shifting instead of naturally unfolding, the arbitrary throwing of the 70th week into the future, and finally, the minimizing of the doctrine of the new earth (see Rev 21) that calls us to be stewards of our “great planet earth” instead of simply looking for a way out with “escapist fiction” theology.

Paul Has the Final Word

The Bible paints the best picture of what will actually happen when Jesus returns. And it does involve a rapture of sorts.

The Apostle Paul, speaking of the hope Christians have, and making the only biblical reference to being “caught up” (which is what “rapture” means), says:

We who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, 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, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thes 4:15-18, ESV, italics supplied).

For Paul—and more importantly, Jesus—the return of the Savior is a literal, visible event. No secret about it.

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Seth Pierce pastors the Puyallup SDA Church in Washington State and is currently pursuing a PhD in Communication.