by David Brewer
Belief in the rapture arose from a couple of ambiguous prophecies to become a necessary article of faith for many. Perhaps we can’t work out what prophecy means in advance, but then, what is its purpose?
It was the 1960s—and many Christians felt that the world was spiraling out of control. The sexual revolution and an imminent war of mutual assured destruction made it feel like the end was coming soon. Eschatology—the study of the second coming and the end times—became a hot Christian topic.
As a teenager during that time, I loved the detailed charts of end-time chronology, with their clear predictions about military deployments and political allegiances. I had a problem with Jesus’ saying that we can’t know the day or the hour of his coming (Matt 24:36), but a Bible teacher assured me that Jesus didn’t say we couldn’t know the year! Every now and then over the years a specific prophecy seemed to have been fulfilled—only to falter subsequently. In 1981, for example, the tenth nation joined the European Union—a thrilling match to the number of horns on Revelation’s beast (Rev 17:12). Now, however, there are many more member nations (but perhaps the UK has started a countdown back to ten!). Likewise, in 1986 the disaster at Chernobyl (which means “wormwood” in Ukrainian) contaminated rainfall all over Europe (see Rev 8:11); however, this didn’t result in multitudes dying.
In that time of uncertainty, many preachers consulted the works of teachers such as J. N. Darby, C. I. Scofield, and Charles Ryrie and discovered something wonderful: the church would be “raptured”—taken off the planet—seven years before the second coming. This doctrine taught that although things would get increasingly bad, Christians wouldn’t have to endure the worst times at the end. It was a powerful evangelistic message that galvanized multitudes into making a decision for Christ in case they missed the lift. The popularity of the book series Left Behind—later made into a TV series and a movie—shows that it is still a powerful message.
But beliefs about the timing of the rapture created new divisions in the church. Doctrinal statements started to include “pretribulation rapture” among the foundational beliefs of many churches and colleges, especially in the US. This caused other institutions to add opposing positions to their statements. Often staff and students had to sign their agreement to a particular stance—and many still do—as if belief about the rapture is as important as belief in the resurrection. Perhaps it became foundational because many supporters came to Christ as a result of preaching on this topic. But should we insist that everyone believe the same on this point? In the UK we now avoid this division in a very British way—by not talking about it.
So will Christians have to suffer the terrible times that precede Christ’s second coming, or will they be raptured?
Signs of the end
If you are looking for signs of the end, you will find that virtually every news bulletin seems to include at least one war, famine, or earthquake. Jesus lists these three signs in his answer to the question “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt 24:3). However, when you read the text, you find that these signs are merely “the beginning of birth pains,” so Jesus adds, “see to it that you are not alarmed.” Instead of getting ready for an imminent end when these signs appear, Jesus tells his disciples that “such things must happen, but the end is still to come” (24:6).
Much of what Jesus said in these prophecies was in answer to the other question that the disciples asked at the same time. Jesus had just told them about the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, so they asked him two questions, “When will this happen?” and “What signs will there be?” That is, they asked him about two completely separate sets of events, which they understandably thought were the same: the destruction of the Temple and the “end,” when Jesus will return. So part of Jesus’ answer relates to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in AD 70, and part to his return in the future, and it can be tricky deciding which is which.
There is only one sign in Matthew 24 that is unquestionably a sign of the end, because it is immediately followed by the words “and then the end will come.” It is “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations” (Matt 24:14). That’s a news headline we haven’t seen yet, but many people are working toward that aim. This helps to explain why Christians are left on the earth after they are saved: they are supposed to share their discovery with others.
This realization about Jesus’ teaching makes me very uneasy about the pretribulation rapture, because it leaves the earth without any Christian witness. In the Left Behind series, many do recognize God’s action behind the disappearance of so many people and turn to him as a result, but that’s just a nice story. I am also uneasy about the rapture because it gives Christians a “get-out-of-suffering-free” card. By contrast, Jesus said that his disciples must “take up their cross” (Matt 10:38 = Luke 9:23) and that “the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt 24:13), which suggests that the faithful will not be rescued before the end.
The text that encapsulated the rapture for me and many others was the repeated phrase “one will be taken and the other left” in Luke 17:34-35. Perhaps it was so memorable because the accompanying words of the King James Version inevitably provoked a snigger from the youth group: “There shall be two men in one bed … two women shall be grinding together.” At that time I didn’t realize that in Greek literature the passive verb “taken” can mean “captured,”1 which makes a lot of sense in the context. Jesus urges Judean believers to flee to the hills (17:31-33); otherwise they will be “taken” by the soldiers (Luke 21:20-21).
In Revelation, heaven is certainly full of people who have come out of the tribulation, but they have done so by being killed (Rev 6:11; 7:14; 13:15; 14:13). John doesn’t mention anyone who was rescued from harm. And when Paul says that believers will “meet the Lord in the air,” they are those “who are left until the coming of the Lord”—so they aren’t saved from suffering before his coming (1 Thess 4:15-17).
The meaning of prophecy
I finally realized that I’d stopped believing in a pretribulation rapture when I came across AfterTheRapturePetCare.com2 and I was able to laugh about it. This service is provided by kindly non-Christians who offer to collect your pets and care for them after you have disappeared—for a small up-front fee.
I’ve also now given up trying to predict the future from Scripture. No one can fathom the meaning of prophecy before it happens. Think of the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus: they are easy to recognize in retrospect, but it was almost impossible before Jesus came. For example, Psalm 22 doesn’t say that it is describing the death of the Messiah, but with hindsight we can see amazing predictions about Jesus’ crucifixion: “They pierce my hands and my feet. … They … cast lots for my garment” (vv. 16, 18). However, it also contains details such as: “Many bulls surround me. … Lions … open their mouths at me” (vv. 12-13)—which make it sound as if Jesus was killed in an arena by wild animals! We can now recognize these details as metaphorical, but in advance it wasn’t possible to see which details were literal and which were symbolic. In the same way, we can’t know in advance which aspects of prophecies about the end will turn out to be literal or symbolic. Will Jerusalem be surrounded by literal armies or metaphorical ones? Will Jesus arrive on a literal horse? We can make guesses about things like this, but should recognize that we are likely to get things wrong.
So what’s the purpose of prophecy? Jesus told his disciples just before his death: “I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe” (John 14:29). Predictions in prophecy are mainly for those who will experience the predicted events. If we are still alive when the end times come, we may even find that every interpretive guess about these prophecies was wrong! All the pieces will fall into place, and the meaning will become obvious, but it won’t be what we thought. Even though the world will be falling apart around us, we will recognize that the details were already in God’s word. And, because of those prophecies, we’ll be strengthened for the coming trouble, knowing that the end is ultimately in God’s hands.
This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine