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What to do with the rapture? 

Question: In the last days before Jesus comes back, will all the Christian’s be taken away to be with God? i.e raptured.

The rapture view is explained well by the Left Behind series of books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. There’s been a couple of film adaptations as well. The idea is Christ comes back secretly and snatches away all the true believers, leaving behind all the ungodly. Some people think this event happens prior to the seven year tribulation (pre-tribulationist rapture), and others in the middle before the 3 1/2 year Great Tribulation (mid-tribulationist rapture). Still others at the end (post-tribulationist rapture), and others not at all. 

Two Left Behind movie posters, with Kirk Cameron (left) and Nicholas Cage (right).

What should we make of this doctrine?

One argument against the view is that it’s not popular in scholarly arena. However, this argument obviously commits the fallacy argumentum ad populum (an argument from what’s popular), a form of argument from authority. Things can obviously be true despite the majority, so this a bad argument. It doesn’t establish the doctrine false. There needs to be another—non-fallacious—argument for that. What this note does indicate is there is another argument for the doctrine’s falsehood.

Critics also point to the dubious origins of the rapture doctrine. John Nelson Darby, the British evangelical preacher and founder of the Plymouth Brethren, propagated the view in his preaching in the early nineteenth century, which was subsequently lent credibility by Cyrus I. Scofield’s interpretive notes in his popular Schofield Reference Bible. The counter is typically that there are antecedents of these eighteenth and nineteenth century figures who believed the rapture view, including isolated individuals Morgan Edwards’s 1744 essay, and church fathers Irenaeus, Ephraim the Syrian, and Cyprian. However, this again commits an informal fallacy. The genetic fallacy this time, which purports to prove something true or false by its origins. Because something can have dubious origins and still be true, (or originate from a generally trust-worthy authority and still be false) we need another—better—argument.

In Christian theology, if the view has an origin in scripture, and the scripture is rightly interpreted, we should accept it. So does this dramatic end-time scenario come from the scriptures?

One scripture used to justify the rapture doctrine is Matthew 24:36-41. “One will be taken and the other left.” However, since Jesus links this event with the days of Noah, those taken away are actually taken away in judgement. Those who remained were the righteous. The opposite of the rapture view. 

The main scripture used to justify the doctrine is 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. 

“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God. The dead in Christ will rise first; then we, who are left alive, will be snatched up with them on clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord”

1 Thessalonians 4:16-17

To modern ears, the rapture view would seem like a straightforward reading of “meet the Lord in the air.” On the other hand, the loud noise—the shout and trumpet of the archangel—doesn’t exactly fit the description of a secretive return of Christ. According to custom a groom will play the thief by snatching away his bride in the night, just as Christ will snatch away the church. Not so in this verse, as the event being described here seems very public.

What N. T. Wright points out is this verse is a rehash of what Paul is saying in 1 Cor 15:51-54 and Phil 3:20-21, which speak of the transformation of the body in the resurrection. Paul is using Old Testament imagery and ideas readily known in his time to dramatically describe the return of Christ. 

  1. Paul is echoing the story of Moses coming down the mountain with the Torah. The trumpet sounds, a loud voice is heard, and after a long wait Moses comes to see what’s been going on in his absence.
  2. Paul is echoing Daniel 7. “the people of the saints of the Most High” (that is, the “one like a son of man”) are vindicated over their pagan enemy by being raised up to sit with God in glory. This metaphor, applied to Jesus in the Gospels, is now applied to Christians who are suffering persecution.
  3. Paul conjures up the image of an emperor visiting a colony or province. The citizens go out to meet him in open country and then escort him into the city. Paul’s image of the people “meeting the Lord in the air” should be read with the assumption that the people will immediately turn around and lead the Lord back to the newly remade world. Not scamper off with the remaining elect. 

These references are the only verses that could potentially justify the rapture view. And as we see, they don’t do the job. As confirmation, Hal Lindsey, the principle proponent of the rapture view today, says the following. 

“The truth of the matter is that neither a post-, mid-, or pre-Tribulationist can point to any single verse that clearly says the Rapture will occur before, in the middle of, or after the Tribulation,”

Hal Lindsey, The Rapture: Truth or Consequences

Given this analysis, if the message of the rapture is in the scriptures, then one has to read a significant amount of important details between the lines. The idea of typology tentatively may be a fruitful direction, but more work on this needs to be done. Until it is done, I choose to disbelieve the rapture doctrine but be open to revising that conclusion if a good case can be made. So my conclusion is this… I’ll be surprised on the way up.

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