Left Behind is a series of books written by Tim LaHaye and Jim Jenkins which deals with the Christian doctrine of the rapture. This account of faithful Christians simply disappearing shortly before the collapse of human civilization and the impending second coming of Christ is a work of complete fiction along the lines of Dan Brown’s DaVinci’s Code. However, the theological foundation, upon which the series’ concept rest, is indeed one of serious scholarly consideration. Furthermore, this concept is not limited to merely fringe groups and denominations within Christian fundamentalism but has spread into the culture at large. After examining the readership of the Left Behind series, Amy Johnson Frykholm notes that the rapture and dispensational theology which the series is based upon “must be understood as a fluid part of the broader culture, not as the realm of isolated believers.”
Since the doctrine has permeated such a large part of both Christian and popular culture, it is important for the lay-Christian and scholar alike to understand exactly what the doctrine is; whether or not it is biblical; and if so what does the Bible say about it. These are the questions I will attempt to answer by examining the history of the doctrine, the most prevalent of the three views of the doctrine and the biblical basis of the doctrine. Additionally, I will attempt to show that although a concept of the rapture may indeed be Biblical, the popular teaching and presentation of the doctrine as sort of escapism from the corrupt material world is not accurate based upon the witness of the early church fathers and biblical exegesis.
A Survey of the Doctrine of the Rapture
What Is the Rapture?
The term “rapture” is a designation by premillennialists to the talk about the event in which the church will be united with Christ at his second coming. The term comes from the Latin, rapio, meaning to “snatch up.” The major Biblical passage from which this teaching emerges is found in I Thessalonians 4:15-17 which states,
Let me explain. (This is the word of the Lord I’m speaking to you!) We who are alive, who remain until the Lord is present, will not find ourselves ahead of those who fell asleep. The Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shouted order, with the voice of an archangel and the sound of God’s trumpet. The Messiah’s dead will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, will be snatched up with them among the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. And in this way we shall always be with the Lord.
From the interpretation of this verse, the popular teaching of the rapture is depicted through the image of the sudden disappearance of Christians from the perspective of non-Christians; leaving non-Christians left behind to deal with the aftermath. The only real point of contention with this presentation and interpretation deals with the relationship of this “disappearing event” and the tribulation which is believed to occur at the end of the age prior to the second coming of Christ. Pretribulationlists believe the rapture is to occur before the seven-year tribulation. Mid-tribulationalists believe this event to occur after the rise of the antichrist, but before the judgements that pave the way for Christ’s return. Post-tribulationist teach that church will leave with Christ after the seven-year period. In all three views, the rapture is the escaping of the Church from the corrupt physical realm to the spiritual realm of bliss for all eternity known as Heaven. However, it is important to note as Arthur B. Whiting does, that Paul’s focus is not in the direction or the final location of the “snatching away” but rather that the church will be in the presence of Christ.
The Origins of the Doctrine
Despite attempts to demonstrate otherwise, the modern presentation of the doctrine of the rapture is a relatively new concept. It isn’t until the nineteenth century, that the doctrine of the rapture becomes influential within the world of Christian thought and teaching. This is largely due to the contribution of John Nelson Darby and his pretribulation “secret rapture” teaching.
However, since it’s proposal, Darby’s teaching of the rapture has been broiled in controversy. However, many modern scholars have begun to question its validity. As Michael J. Svigel observes, “The perception among interested exegetes and theologians appears to be that rapture theology rests not on verifiable exegesis but on inferences drawn from ambiguous biblical passages and on peculiar dispensational presuppositions.” In response to this, Svigel argues that Darby’s interpretation of the passage in first 1 Thessalonians 4 rests upon his exegesis of Revelations 12:1-6 as well as other passages. He concludes,
In sum, four elements came together for Darby to construct his Pretribulation rapture teaching. The first was a consistent futurist interpretation of the book of Revelation. Second, he held to a strong doctrine of the mystical union between Christ and the church, found stunningly exemplified in the vision of the male child in Rev 12:5. The third element was an openness to distinguishing OT Israel from the NT Church, found envisioned in the woman (Israel) giving birth to the male child (the church) —two distinct entities with separate, but intertwined, destinies both past and future. The fourth element necessary to exegetically construct toe pretribulation rapture view was a literal understanding of the chronological indicators in Rev 11-13.
Three Views of the Rapture
The pretribulation view of the rapture is the one adhered to buy most of mainstream Christianity. This view holds that the church will be “snatched up” to Heaven before the seven years of tribulation supposedly described in the biblical books of Daniel and Revelations. Clouse notes the spreading of this view through the mainstream scholarship from its origins by John Darby in the nineteenth century. There are several features which are key to this view.
The foremostfeature of the pretribulation view is that of immanency. Holders of this view believe that the rapture is immanent, in so far as there are no prerequisite events which need to occur before the rapture, itself. It can and will occur without warning or notice. The notion of immanency is seen to be evidenced by the repeated biblical refrain of “no one knows the day or the hour.” These words, spoken by Jesus, can be found in three key scriptures. These scriptures are themselves responses to questions asked by Jesus’ disciples on aspects of his teaching. Pretribulationists assert that these questions are referring to the last days, a known point of Jewish emphasis.
The second key feature is the two-stage return of Jesus. The two stages being the coming to “snatch away” the church before seven-year tribulation; the second stage being the coming for the millennial reign. The church, it is believed, will escape the entirety of the tribulation.This feature is a result of the other key features of the view, namely, the literal interpretation of Revelations and Daniel’s prophecies concerning the tribulation and the millennial reign of Christ. Pretribulationalism is the almost uncontested view of those who hold to dispensationalism.
The Midtribulation is very similar to the pretribulation. Both views take a literal view of the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. Both view see the second coming of Christ as two-stage process. The main difference is that proponents of this view move the timing of the first stage to about halfway through the seven-year tribulation. This means that the Church will experience the beginning of the tribulation but escape the last three and half years of the tribulation.
The proponents of the midtribulation have three main points of disagreements with pretribulationist. First, they disagree with the secret nature of the rapture, the revival to be experienced during the tribulation, and the repeated mention of three and half years in both the books of Daniel and Revelation. These they argue are scriptural inaccuracy which require a reworking of the pretribulationalist’s view. The major critique against this view is that there is very little direct Biblical support.
The final view of posttribulation rapture will not be discussed much in this paper, however it is beneficial to briefly note it. This view came out of the direct response to the problems of the two-stage coming of Christ. The major objection of those who champion this view are the various scriptures which suggest that the rapture will be and subsequently the second coming of Christ will be very public and visible. Additionally, there is a lot of flexibility within this line of thought. Clouse notes there are at least four schools of interpretation that are recognized by scholars within this view.
The Rapture and the Resurrection of the Dead
One of the major problems with the modern presentation of the rapture within evangelical circles is its relationship to another central Christian doctrine, namely, the bodily resurrection of the dead. Michael Williams highlights the issue when he writes, “When we understand the future via the rapture doctrine, we must say that the ultimate purpose of redemption is to take Christians to heaven.” It argues against the idea of a physical, bodily resurrection by suggesting that the “good” of creation declared by God in Genesis 1 has become corrupted to the point that it is now worthless and needs to be escaped. This is made clear from the escapist teaching that heaven is the final goal and destination of the redeemed.
However, the Apostle Paul, seems to be squarely against this idea when writes to the Roman Church, “Creation, you see, was subjected to pointless futility, not of its own volition, but because of the one who placed it in this subjection, in the hope that creation itself would be freed from its slavery to decay, to enjoy the freedom that comes when God’s children are glorified” (Rom 8:20-21). Therefore, according to Paul, the present physical creation which is corrupt will be redeemed. This would seem to indicate then, that our own redemption will include our own physical nature. Indeed, Jesus, speaking of his own resurrection, said to his disciples, ““Why are you so disturbed?” he said. “Why do these questionings come up in your hearts? Look at my hands and feet; it really is me, myself. Touch me and see! Ghosts don’t have flesh and bones like you can see I have” (Lk 24:38-39). Furthermore, the Apostle John writes, “Beloved ones, we are now, already, God’s children; it hasn’t yet been revealed what we are going to be. We know that when he is revealed we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2). In other words, if Jesus’s resurrection was some sort of physical bodily resurrection then ours will be also. If our redemption is physical and the physical cosmos is to be redeemed as Paul claims, then it seems that the escapism that the modern presentation of the rapture teaches seems to be in error because the corrupt created universe will once again become a “good” creation.
This brings up a very important question: What about the scriptures that seem to indicate that people go to heaven when they die such as Jesus’ statement to the brigand on the cross (Lk 23:43). In his book on the resurrection, noted scholar, N. T. Wright argues for a two-stage post-mortem resurrection. He argues that Jesus and the brigand did go to heaven. Jesus returns to Earth in his new physical body, while the brigand awaits his physical body at the second coming of Christ. Wright suggests that when people die they go to Heaven and await Jesus second coming. It is only at the second coming that the believers receive their resurrection bodies. This then would lend support to the “good” creation argument previously expounded as well as deny Heaven as the final destination. As Wright is fond of saying, “Heaven is important, but not the end of the world.”
The Witness of the Early Fathers
As previously stated, the doctrine of the rapture is a relatively new idea. It isn’t until the Darby’s “secret rapture” teaching of the nineteenth century that any great consideration was given. As Clouse notes, “It is obvious that throughout most of the history of the church those that taught premillennialism did not have such a detailed interpretation of the endtimes.” However, despite this lack of endtime interpretations, there are still clues as to what the early church fathers were thinking concerning the second coming and the events which surround it.
One such clue is to be found in the writing of Tertullian. He states,
He teaches them that they must “not sorrow concerning them that are asleep,” and at the same time explains to them the times of the resurrection, saying, For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus shall God bring with Him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of our Lord, shall not prevent them that are asleep. For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we be ever with the Lord.”
Tertullian does not seem to think of the second-coming of Christ as two stage process. In the passage quoted above, the church father implies that the resurrection and the being caught up in the air happen simultaneously with Christ’s return to Earth with the saints. In other words, for Tertullian there is not one coming in which Christ gathers the saints to escape and another in which Christ returns to Earth accompanied by the saints. There is simply one second coming in which the saints meet Christ in the air and accompany him to Earth.
Another such clue is given by Cyprian. On first glance it appears that Cyprian advocates an escapist reality of the rapture. Cyprian is, in reality, dealing with his present situation of Roman persecution. He writes,
We who see that terrible things have begun, and know that still more terrible things are imminent, may regard it as the greatest advantage to depart from it as quickly as possible. Do you not give God thanks, do you not congratulate yourself, that by an early departure you are taken away, and delivered from the shipwrecks and disasters that are imminent? Let us greet the day which assigns each of us to his own home, which snatches us hence, and sets us free from the snares of the world and restores us to paradise and the kingdom.
In the last line of the quoted passage Cyprian speaks of a restoration. Certainly, he knows that believers will be “snatched up” as Paul describes. However, his point is not that Christians are snatched away to escape a corrupt physical cosmos, but rather that they are saved from intense persecution. When this salvation occurs, according to Cyprian, the kingdom and paradise of the Garden will be restored. This does not speak of two-stage coming, rather it speaks of a single event. At Christ coming, the paradise and the kingdom of God will be consummated in a very real and physical sense.
The crux of any theological proposition must be that it is supported by scriptural evidence. Does the scriptural evidence support the idea? Svigel argues that Darby’s exegetical treatment, which was the basis of his argument, of Revelations 12:5 and in conjunction with Daniel 7, Revelation 3 and 1 Thessalonians 4 certainly do. However, there are several problems with Darby’s exegesis which need to be addressed.
1 Thessalonians 4:16 states, “The Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shouted order, with the voice of an archangel and the sound of God’s trumpet.” The Greek word for “come” is Parousia. Parousia has the meaning of a visit by a royal dignitary. This means that Paul’s intention was not to speak of some escapism from the world, but talk about the escorting of the true king into his sovereignty. St. John Chrysostom confirms this, writing,
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. And upon the coming of an affectionate father, his children indeed, and those who are worthy to be his children, are taken out in a chariot, that they may see and kiss him; but those of the domestics who have offended remain within. We are carried upon the chariot of our Father. For He received Him up in the clouds, and we shall be caught up in the clouds. Acts 1:9 Do you see how great is the honor? And as He descends, we go forth to meet Him, and, what is more blessed than all, so we shall be with Him.
This presents serious problems for Darby’s two-stage advent. Chrysostom is saying that the purpose of the “snatching up” is not to escape the tribulation and then return with Christ at some later time, but rather to escort Christ to his sovereign land.
Revelations 3 and 12
The key component to Darby’s “secret rapture” interpretation of scripture is the immanency of the “snatching away.” This comes primarily from the interpretation of Revelations 3:3 which states, “So remember how you received the message, how you heard it and kept it—and repent! So if you don’t keep awake, I will come like a thief, and you won’t know what time I’m coming to you.” Darby and others point to the phrase “like a thief” as support for their immanent rapture. However, this completely ignores the point that the scripture is making by it’s inherent caveat. The church at Sardis is told to repent, then the warning is issued. The implications are if you are not focused on Christ, then he will come unexpectedly. The unexpectedness is for those not focused on Christ; not believers.
This brings the discussion to Revelations 12:5. This is the Crux of Darby’s argument. It is his corporate understanding of the image of the child who is snatched away in this verse. As Svigel explains that Darby understands the verse as the “vision of the woman in heaven refers to the positional reality of the church, whose subject is Jesus Christ, while the later actions of being pursued and fleeing refer to the actual historical experiences of God’s people.” Darby even has support in this view from Methodius in the fourth century
This does not seem to take into account the historical context from which John’s audience would have understood the image. Radamacher et al, understand this verse to be an echo of Psalm 2:9 and therefore the snatching away as they ascension of Christ. This seems to be more in line with historical context. Commenting on this verse, Keener writes,
Virgil and other Roman also extolled the birth of a divine boy who would bring deliverance to the world, glorifying the first emperor, Augustine…In the various forms of the Greco-Roman and Near Eastern myth, the divine child was sheltered until he returned to slay the dragon. Here he is kept at God’s side until he comes to destroy the dragon. In the light of Psalm 2:6-9, Isaiah 9-6-7, and Micah 5:3, the “birth” probably indicates Jesus death, resurrection and messianic enthronement, not his literal birth.
The first century audience to who John was writing would have understood this to represent Jesus. They simply would not have applied it to the corporate church as Darby and his later followers had. This again presents a huge problem as it is this passage which allows Darby to place the timing of the “Secret Rapture” as pretribulation.
Darby’s whole idea of a “secret rapture” hinges on the idea that certain passages within the Gospel accounts are meant for the church and others for the Jews. It has as its foundation the theology of dispensationalism. Darby argues that Matthew 24 is not intended for Christians, rather it is solely addressed to the Jews. In this manner, Darby dismisses passages such as Matthew 24:29-34 which seeming contradict his immanency and secret rapture theories.
However, Brock Bingaman highlights four deficiencies within the concept of dispensationalism. First, it sees scripture as compilation of facts rather than a narrative moving towards a specific conclusion. Wright supports this view insisting that we have misunderstood the Gospel as compilation of facts rather than a narrative and thereby diminished the significance of the resurrection. The second deficiency given by Bingaman is that it is hermeneutically faulty by committing too strongly to literalism. Third, he suggests that by seeing scripture as a compilation of facts, the interpreter does not give proper emphasis to the historical context. Two examples of this is Paul’s reference to the last trump and Jesus’s “no man knows the hour” references. These are probably references to the Jewish festival of Rosh Hashanah. This feast is determined by the new moon which in biblical times meant no one knew when it would come. Furthermore, it was celebrated by blowing trumpets and the last blast was known as the last trump. Finally, he states it is deficient in their approach to central tenets and particular texts which are must be imposed upon the text itself.
In sum, the rapture has it has been presented by Darby and most of main stream evangelicalism is simply deficient. The exegesis used to support the claim simply does not pass muster once a close examination of the relevant passages has been completed. Additionally, the underlying dispensational theology which underlies the doctrine is also deficient in several areas. As Benjamin Willis Newton, a contemporary of Darby, pointed out, if one were to accept the Darby’s teaching on the rapture that person would also have to accept that many of the Gospel passages as “not rightfully ours.” This means that many of the promises of hope that Christians cling to do not rightfully apply to us either.
This dilemma begs the question that was asked at the beginning; is the rapture a biblical concept or not? The answer: It certainly is if one means that at the second advent of Christ the church will be “snatched up” to meet Jesus somewhere in the physical atmosphere and escort the King of Kings back to the Earth. However, if you mean the secret rapture of Darby’s imagination then the answer is unequivocally no. Jesus and Paul’s use of Jewish metaphors simply does not allow for the dispensationalism that Darby and others have expressed. There is simply too many deficiencies within the doctrine to conclude that the modern expression of the rapture is biblically valid.
“General Faq.” Tyndale House Publisher. Last modified 2008. Accessed May 11th, 2018. http://leftbehind.com/06_help_and_info/faq_general.asp.
The Sacred Writings of Saint Methodius (Annotated Edition). Jazzybee Verlag, 2012.
Allen, Joel. “Yom Teruah the Feast of Trumpets Bible Teaching.” Messianic Family Fellowship. Last modified 2015. Accessed May 1, 2018. http://messianicfamilyfellowship.com/yom-teruah-the-feast-of-trumpets-bible-teaching/.
Bingaman, Brock. “Learning from Left Behind?: A Call for Coherent Accounts of Scripture.” Anglican Theological Review 91, no. 2 (Spr 2009): 255-72. http://www.anglicantheologicalreview.org/
Brindle, Wayne A. “Biblical Evidence for the Imminence of the Rapture.” Bibliotheca sacra 158, no. 630 (2001): 138-51. http://www.dts.edu/.
Chrysostom, St. John. “Homily 8 on First Thessalonians.” Last modified Accessed April 30, 2018. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/230408.htm.
Clouse, R.G. Rapture of the Church. Second ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.
Frykholm, Amy Johnson. Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Keener, C.S. and InterVarsity Press. The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. InterVarsity Press, 1993.
Newton, B.W. and S.P. Tregelles. Five Letters on Events Predicted in Scripture as Antecedent to the Coming of the Lord: With Preface By … S.P. Tregelles. Houlston and Sons, 1877.
Publishers, Hendrickson. The Holy Bible: King James Version. Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.
Radmacher, D., R.B. Allen, and H.W. House. Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary: Spreading the Light of God’s Word into Your Life. Thomas Nelson, 1999.
Schaff, P. Anf05. Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius, Novatian, Appendix. Ccel.
Schaff, P., A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A. Coxe. Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume 3: Latin Christianity – Its Founder, Tertullian. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018.
Svigel, Michael J. “‘What Child Is This?’: Darby’s Early Exegetical Argument for the Pretribulation Rapture of the Church.” Trinity Journal 35, no. 2 (Fall 2014): 225-51. http://trinj.com/
Whiting, Arthur B. “The Rapture of the Church.” Bibliotheca sacra 102, no. 407 (1945): 360-72. http://www.dts.edu/
Williams, Michael D. “Rapture of Resurrection.” Presbyterion 24, no. 1 (Spr 1998): 9-37. http://www.covenantseminary.edu/
Wright, N. T., “How God Became King: Why We’ve All Misunderstood the Gospels.” January Series, Calvin College, 2012.
Wright, N. T., “Cruciformed: Living in the Light of the Jesus Story.” Pepperdine Bible Lectures, Malibu, California, 2016.
Wright, N.T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Fortress Press, 2003.
Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. HarperCollins, 2008.
Wright, N.T. The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation. HarperCollins, 2011.
 Amy Johnson Frykholm, Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 4.
 According to the official website, Left Behind has sold over 63 million and the first book has been turned into a major motion picture staring Nicolas Cage. “General Faq,” Tyndale House Publisher, accessed May 11th, 2018. http://leftbehind.com/06_help_and_info/faq_general.asp.
 R.G. Clouse, Rapture of the Church, Second ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001).
 Unless otherwise noted, all New Testament scripture references are N.T. Wright, The Kingdom New Testament: A Contemporary Translation (HarperCollins, 2011).
 Ibid., 234.
 Unless otherwise noted, all Old Testament scripture references are Hendrickson Publishers, The Holy Bible: King James Version (Hendrickson Publishers, 2004).
 Whiting, 497.
 N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress Press, 2003).
 N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperCollins, 2008).
 N. T. Wright, “Cruciformed: Living in the Light of the Jesus Story” (paper presented at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures, Malibu, California2016).
 P. Schaff et al., Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume 3: Latin Christianity – Its Founder, Tertullian (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2018).
 P. Schaff, Anf05. Fathers of the Third Century: Hippolytus, Cyprian, Caius, Novatian, Appendix (Ccel).
 Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, 128.
 The Sacred Writings of Saint Methodius (Annotated Edition) (Jazzybee Verlag, 2012).
 D. Radmacher, R.B. Allen, and H.W. House, Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary: Spreading the Light of God’s Word into Your Life (Thomas Nelson, 1999), 1751.
 C.S. Keener and InterVarsity Press, The Ivp Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (InterVarsity Press, 1993).
 N. T. Wright, “How God Became King: Why We’ve All Misunderstood the Gospels” (paper presented at the January Series, Calvin College2012).
 Joel Allen, “Yom Teruah the Feast of Trumpets Bible Teaching,” Messianic Family Fellowship, accessed May 1, 2018. http://messianicfamilyfellowship.com/yom-teruah-the-feast-of-trumpets-bible-teaching/.
 Bingaman, 264-65.
 B.W. Newton and S.P. Tregelles, Five Letters on Events Predicted in Scripture as Antecedent to the Coming of the Lord: With Preface By … S.P. Tregelles (Houlston and Sons, 1877), 73.