Anyone who has had any encounter with the evangelical movement in America in the past couple of decades has almost certainly heard about “the rapture”. This allegedly futuristic event involves Jesus Christ coming back for His followers (the Church) and rapturing them to heaven in an instant (or like a thief in the night). Various preachers have pounded their pulpits and offered vivid illustrations of what this event might look like in our world. We can use our imaginations: unmanned cars would careen into yards, pilot-less planes would fall out of the sky, people attendant at board room meetings would vanish, and presumably, there would be piles of clothes all around our society (I think people are raptured naked, aren’t they?). According to this belief, which involves lots of charts, more charts, and still more charts, the rapture is related to the tribulation (meaning a cause of great trouble or suffering) which spans a period of 7 years before the 2nd coming of Jesus.
The rapture has now entered a rather interesting place in pop culture (is “pop” the right word?). Academy Award winning actor Nicholas Cage is starring in “Left Behind”, a reboot film based on the best-selling novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. No mention of Nicholas Cage should be without one of his most “entertaining” scenes: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1GadTfGFvU
Anyways, back to LaHaye and Jenkins. They hit a nerve with their book “Left Behind” which was published in 1995. The initial book spawned a series of 16 novels (by my count) although there have also been several spin-offs. The “Left Behind” website (http://www.leftbehind.com/06_help_and_info/faq_general.asp) boasts over 63 million copies of the book series have been sold.
This publishing success led to three films starring Kirk Cameron. I watched the first one: Left Behind- The Movie (2000) shortly after it appeared on DVD. The film is pretty bad so I skipped watching the others in the series: Left Behind II: Tribulation Force and Left Behind: World at War.
In my view, LaHaye and Jenkins successfully tapped into an idea that started coalescing around the conservative evangelical camp in the 1960s and especially gained steam in the 1970s and beyond. The theology had been around for a little while before this time (more on that in a minute) but the rapture had captivated a subset of the Evangelical pop subculture.
Larry Norman was a product of the Jesus Movement and folk rock scene of the 1960s. He wrote a song that was later covered by popular CCM trio dc Talk about the rapture:
“A man and wife asleep in bed
She hears a noise and turns her head he’s gone
I wish we’d all been ready
Two men walking up a hill
One disappears and one’s left standing still
I wish we’d all been ready
There’s no time to change your mind
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind” (I Wish We’d All Been Ready- 1969)
In the 1970s and 80s, a series of low budget films were making their rounds in churches. Commonly referred to as the “Rapture” or “Thief” series, they were incredibly low budget including the titles: “A Thief in the Night”; “A Distant Thunder”; “Image of the Beast”; “The Prodigal Planet”.
Along with the music and films of the Evangelical subculture, the rapture appeared in sermons around the country where preachers would warn of the imminent coming of Jesus and proselytize aggressively around the apocalyptic warning that judgment and the end were at hand. The rapture could happen at any second.
Where did this idea of the rapture come from? A Bible teacher, John Nelson Darby, taught the concept. (see more on Darby here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Nelson_Darby) There is debate about whether or not he was the first to proclaim the rapture but the facts seem fairly clear: no one in church history prior to the 1800s taught anything remotely like the rapture.
In order to understand why some Christians believe in the rapture and why there is a certain amount of hoopla in the evangelical subculture over the idea, a person has to understand the philosophy of Dispensationalism. Darby, who lived from 1800-1882, is considered the father of modern day Dispensationalism. Darby’s ideas would eventually gain significant traction when they appeared in the Scofield Reference Bible as footnotes. The Reference Bible became popular in the United States and lead to the propagation of Dispensationalism that at the end of the 20th century would radically explode out of the Evangelical subculture into the wider world courtesy of LaHaye and Jenkins.
There are many diverse tangents and elements of dispensationalism that one could explore but I will try to boil down the idea for this blog. Probably one of the central tenants that Dispensationalism is built around is the idea that Israel in the Old Testament and the church in the New Testament are fundamentally different. In some forms of Dispensationalism, soteriology for Israel and the church are distinctly separate (in contrast to what the author of Hebrews tells us in chapter 11 that salvation has always been by faith in the True God).
Going further, a dispensation is the unfolding of God’s revelation and that humanity is accountable to that specific revelation during different epochs of time. Basically, Israel would be accountable for God’s Word unveiled in the pages of the Old Testament. The church (Gentiles and Jewish believers) in this present age are held to the message delivered in the New Testament.
As one can imagine, there is certainly more complexity to Darby’s idea than there being a distinction between Israel and the church. Many Dispensationalists will divide up Biblical, human history into 8 epochs or schemes that are usually centered around Biblical covenants. I became a Christian in a church that loosely taught this philosophy of Darby and here is what I personally heard from my instructors regarding the different segments of time:
Epoch 1: Innocence (Genesis 1-3). Adam and Eve directly communicated with God in an Edenic paradise before the Fall of humanity.
Epoch 2: Conscience (Genesis 3-8). From the Fall of humanity through Noah’s flood, people could not enjoy the presence of God in the same way they did prior to the Fall. Although God still spoke audibly (to Noah for example) at varying points, this was not the same as the relationship in the garden of Eden because of the sin nature. Also, there were not many sophisticated governments in this ancient period so Dispensationalists will hold that people were accountable to what God revealed in their consciences. If one believes in the doctrine of Total Depravity, this epoch could become problematic very quickly. This period is also called Antediluvian.
Epoch 3: Civil Government (Genesis 9-11) is based around the Noahic Covenant. Genesis 9:8-11 says: “Then God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying: ‘And as for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you and with your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you: the birds, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you, of all that go out of the ark, every beast of the earth. Thus I establish My covenant with you: Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood; never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.'” The account takes us from post-flood earth to the tower of Babel in Genesis 11.
Epoch 4: Patriarchal or Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 12-Exodus 19) This scheme is based around God’s promise to Abraham. Genesis 12 has the call of Abram (who would become Abraham). The promise is in Genesis 13:14-17, “The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, ‘Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.’” As one can see, this spans quite a length of time going into the accounts of Moses, Pharoah and the Israelite slaves in Egypt through the beginning of the book of Exodus.
Epoch 5: Mosaic Law (Exodus 20-until the birth of the church). The Israelites were wandering in the desert and Moses went up Mt. Sinai. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. After that, the Mosaic law including Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy with all of the various commands were written.
Epoch 6: The Church Age (Acts 2 until the rapture). According to Dispensationalists, this is our current state. Once the church was established in Acts 2 after the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have entered an age that has lasted for almost 2,000 years. The rapture (secretive coming of Jesus for his church) would signify the end of this scheme and an entrance into the tribulation. (As a side note: theologically interested minds in conservative churches have debated whether the rapture would happen pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation, or post-tribulation. One guy, Martin Rosenthal, wrote a book called: “The Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church” . There are varying views on when the rapture will happen in the Tribulation.)
Epoch 7: The Millennial Kingdom (Revelation 20:4-6). This is the thousand year reign of Christ that Dispensationalists see as foretold in Revelation 20. The true Second Coming of Christ, according to this view, would happen at the end of the tribulation and usher in the millennium.
Epoch 8: The Eternal State (Revelation 20-22). This is where heaven and earth meet and God’s Kingdom is usher in. Satan and his minions as well as the names in the book of the dead are thrown into the Lake of Fire.
The above periods are the presuppositional theology that surround a belief in the rapture. As sophisticated and intellectual as some of these discussions and debates on Darby’s ideas can get, one is hard pressed to find many of these ideas in Scripture. The covenants certainly exist and are extremely significant to people of faith however, the Bible does not divide up into nice, little epochs. If anything, Dispensationalism is guilty of creating a grand systematic theology and trying to impose the schematic on the Word of God. In my view, this is a misguided attempt at hermeneutics. People should approach the Bible and consider (as much as we possibly can) the history, culture and language that it was recorded in. There is no way that the Biblical authors and/or communities that produced Scripture had a theory in mind that originated in the 1800s by Darby, was furthered by Evangelical subculture and rigorously defended by faculty/students in institutions like Dallas Theological Seminary.
Coming back to the latest incarnation of the rapture, Cage’s “Left Behind” is getting skewered by critics. I have not seen the film but probably will eventually do to a morbid curiousity. (Current Rotten Tomatoes meter is 2%: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/left_behind_2014/?adid=home_list2a)
The rapture may be losing traction, that is, if the idea ever had a lot of traction to begin with. Author Preston Sprinkle writes in Relevant Magazine: “Along with being cultural, I’ve noticed that belief in the rapture is largely a generational phenomenon. Thirty years ago, Bible college students loved to argue about different views of the last days. But today, interest is waning. Every now and then I try to stir the classroom by introducing different views on the end times. The reaction I often get is, ‘Can we get back to the Bible?’ Even if I press the matter and show them some texts that Christians use to debate the end times, I still can’t generate much interest.” (http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/worldview/when-will-rapture-be-left-behind)
The appeal of the rapture to adherents may be enlightening to some questionable aspects of contemporary Evangelicalism. My pastor, Brent Rood (the Seed Church), wrote the following in a Facebook group recently in response to the Relevant article about other suffering cultures not being at all engaged in rapture belief: “I love how he says people in countries where their loved ones have contracted Ebola aren’t arguing over when they will be Raptured. In other words, Rapture theology is prevalent among people who suffer little and want a God who will eject them from suffering in the end.”
A means of escape rather than an engagement with a broken world may be one of the sad conscious reasons why there is so much hype about the rapture. The “take-me-to-heaven-immediately-Jesus” may very well distract from looking after orphans and widows (James 1:27), trying to comfort the sick and dying as well as taking a stand against forces attempting to oppress and degrade other image bearers of God. The idea may also distract from being a good steward of creation as well. If true believers are going to be pulled out of the world while the tribulation brings hell, why should those believers care about the impact of pollution and other environmental issues upon God’s world that He has given to us for our caretaking? One of the first commands given to Adam and Eve was to look after the garden.
Once, I believed in the rapture as I was tutored in Dispensationalism after I became a Christian. Upon taking a class on Revelation back in my college days, I abandoned the rapture and Dispensationalism because I became utterly unconvinced that the Bible taught such things. Whether someone believes in the rapture or not, it may be best for all of us to primarily focus on more important matters.