Porch Chats

Rethinking the “Rapture”

The Apostle’s Creed briefly summarizes the Christian belief on where human history is headed: “[Jesus] will come to judge the living and the dead.” There’s little disagreement here among the billions of Christians on this point, Jesus is going to return to the earth. Only this time, his return won’t be in humility or weakness, it will be in power and justice, ridding the world of all evil and making all things new. Those who are “in Christ” (a favorite term of Paul’s to describe a Christian’s identity) will be safe from judgment, because we have trusted Jesus in taking away our well-deserved ‘guilty’ verdict. We believe, with tears, that those who reject relationship with Jesus will experience a second-death. There are all sorts of theories as to what this might look like, but the most important thing is that none of you reading  this reject Jesus’ offer for freedom and forgiveness.
Now, from this point, consensus crumbles into countless views on eschatology (eschat= the end, ology=the study of) and how everything will work out. One particularly popular doctrine (in America) is the pretribulation rapture. This view states that Jesus will return not once, but twice more. His first return will be only for his church, in what some have called a “secret rapture.” Think of the Left Behind books/movies. Then, after a literal seven year Tribulation, Jesus will return again in judgment. This doctrine is built on the theological system called Dispensationalism, which sees Israel and the church both as God’s chosen people, and tries to maintain a distinction between the two groups.
In today’s post, I want to briefly mention:
1) Three reasons why I no longer believe in pretribulation rapture of the church.
2) One thought on why this is not as important as you think, for my dismayed parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
3) And finally one thought on why this is more important than you think, for my jaded and doubtful generation.
Reason 1: Church History
One of the biggest factors in my moving away from the pretribulation rapture was the realization that this is a relatively modern doctrine. Popular views on the rapture can be traced by to the contribution of church leader and theologian John Nelson Darby (1800-1882). For over 1500 years, the church never taught anything close to the doctrine of a ‘secret’ rapture, as theologians always saw the second coming of Christ as a one-time event. It is almost indisputable that a pretribulation rapture is a modern doctrine. This doesn’t automatically disprove it, but it certainly should raise some eyebrows, especially if we value church tradition and history.
Reason 2: Theology
Much could be said about the theology that undergirds the pretribulation rapture. The biggest theological question I have about the position is this: Christians have frequently endured mountainous trials and tribulations ever since the day Stephen was executed by mob rock throwing in Acts 7. Even today, ISIS hunts down Christians all throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Why would we think that God would pull his church out of the earth during tribulation? He’s not done it before. And thankfully, none of these tribulations can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:35-39). Again, this does not disprove the pretribulation rapture, but it does undermine it.
Reason 3: Biblically
Dispensationalism in general and the pretribulation rapture in particular make logical sense. The system is built on a number of assumptions, usually starting with assumptions on how to interpret prophetic and apocalyptic literature (like Revelation). Sharing in the assumptions makes the system work flawlessly. But pull one assumption out, and (in my opinion) the system falls down like a house of cards. Let’s demonstrate this with the rapture passage itself, 1 Thess 4:17: “we who are still alive and are left will be caught up (Latin: rapiemur) together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” Some interpret this verse without any thought to the context and imagery that surrounds it. They see this verse teaching an exodus of the church from the earth. But, as N.T. Wright and other biblical scholars have argued, the image of meeting the Lord in the air is not one of escape, but rather escort. In ancient culture, when an emperor or king would visit a province, the people would go out an escort him into the city. Paul’s image here is of believers going out to meet Jesus, and then turning around to welcome him into the city. There’s also this idea of vindication and glory, particularly for believers under persecution.
Listen to what John Chrysostom, pastor and theologian (349-407AD) says about this passage: “If he is about to descend, on what account shall we be caught up? For the sake of honor. For when a king drives into a city, those who are in honor go out to meet him; but the condemned await the judge within.” Chrysostom’s image reminds me of my childhood, running down the driveway and road to meet my dad coming home from work. But if I ever got in trouble, I didn’t go out to meet him, because I was “condemned” to a spanking. I was typically hiding under my bed or something. God’s kids will meet him as he returns, but the condemned will stay put, awaiting whatever judgment looks like.
Why This Is Not Important:
“I can’t believe he hung up on me.” I had just gotten off the phone with someone who left my church after I preached on Mark 13, a complicated, apocalyptic speech of Jesus. He left after I shared some of the above-mentioned doubts I have about a pretribulation rapture. After making some off-color joke about cemeteries and seminaries, and saying that I need to get in line with all the good pastors, he hung up. For my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, I’m constantly struggling to show that there are multiple credible views on the end-times. Like this man on the phone, some emphatically assert their view is the only “conservative” or “faithful” or “logical” view and that all others are (gasp) “liberal.” It’s ignorance at best and arrogance at worst. In my view, no Christian group, community, or church should divide over a particular perspective on the end times. Other than the shared agreement that Jesus is returning, what more agreement do we need in this area to have Christian community?
Why This is Important:
My generation, frustrated by the dogmatic and domineering nature of the discussion, has far too often avoided it all together. We don’t preach, study, or write about it. I’ll confess that this is my temptation. Even writing this is a challenge, knowing that it will upset some of my friends. But we have to study this, because we love God’s Word. We love these God-breathed texts that are “useful for teaching, rebuking, correction, and training in righteousness.” Eschatology is not something we can avoid, but rather should be talked through and debated charitably, as I have had the privilege of doing with many of you. My hope is that my generation won’t be afraid to talk about Revelation and other sections of prophetic and apocalyptic literature, not afraid of ruffling feathers, and not afraid of having unanswered questions. Good study of the end-times frees us from being overly concerned by current events, but also helps ground our faith in the hope of Christ’s future return.