Questioning the Left Behind Rapture

DAVID BRISTOW

Many Christians today are falling into the rapture mindset due to the continued presence of the Left Behind series.

Co-authored by Tim Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, these books portray a certain fundamental belief that Christians will be taken up to heaven before the chaos of the "end times" begins. The theory is known as rapture, which literally means to be "caught up" (see 1 Thes. 4:17) and suggests that faithful supporters of Christ will not have to suffer during the final days of the deceptive Antichrist (1 John 2:18-22). The Left Behind series has produced millions of devoted followers and fans, but Christians in particular should refrain from blindly adhering to its rapture or end time mentality. Instead, the entire Christian faithful should carefully research this eschatological topic, and subsequently ask themselves if the rapture teaching was truly handed down by Christ. Listed below are four questions to consider before proclaiming the "rapture belief," and why Christians everywhere should be cautious in accepting it.


1. What is the real meaning of being "caught up?"

"For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep. Indeed, we tell you this, on the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord." - 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17

Many Christians who believe in the rapture teaching point to 1 Thessalonians 4: 14-17 to state their case. They claim this verse logically proves rapture with its wording of "caught up together" located in verse 17. However, as Dr. Paul Thigpen2 and many others have noted, when this verse is taken in context to the books of Thessalonians, a completely different meaning arises. First off, the books have several references to Christ's coming (see 2 Thes. 1:7-8, 2 Thes. 2:1-2, 1 Thes. 3:13), which all refer to the coming of the Lord, the resurrection of the dead, and the judgment of the world as a single event. In other words, the framework of these Biblical passages does not divide the "resurrection of the dead" or a "snatching of believers" from the judgment of the world as the rapture teaching declares. Rather, they imply one event where Christ will come, take up His believers, and then immediately judge the world and conquer evil.

Secondly, the Scriptural verses referring to Christ's return (including 1 Thes. 4:14-17) describe images of trumpets, the destruction of evil, blinding and penetrating lights, enormous clouds, and with a legion of angels and saints. Our Lord makes it clear on numerous occasions (see Matt. 24: 27, 30-31, Mark 14:62, Luke 21:23-24, Acts 1:9, Daniel 7:13-14, etc.) that His second return would be unmistakable, undeniable, and known to everyone. How does this contradict the interpretation of the Left Behind rapture? According to the Left Behind series, the rapture will be a silent and secret taking of believers to heaven. The problem with this theory, however, is that all the Biblical passages referring to the end times have nothing to do with anything secret, silent, or hidden! Why wouldn't Christ, who knew so much about His return, make some clear reference to a secret rapture, especially in light of the tremendous suffering going on during Jesus' day? It would have been the perfect opportunity for Jesus to pass this teaching on to His followers, yet neither the disciples nor the Gospel writers mention anything remotely "silent" about the events in the last days. Finally, 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4,8 shows how these events will take place after, and not before, the reign of the Antichrist and his barbaric attacks on the Church. This implies that all people including Christians will witness the immense suffering associated with the end of the world (Thigpen, 110-112).

If 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 is not talking about the secret rapture, then what is it referring to? What does the "caught up together" mean? In St. Paul's time, it was customary for citizens of a city to welcome military leaders or other important people before they entered the city gates. In doing so, they showed their support and honored that particular person by entering the city with him. This happens to be the same treatment Jesus received upon entering Jerusalem during Palm Sunday (see Matt. 21: 1-17). Now, when Christ does come again, the believers on earth will be "caught up together" to meet with Christ as He approaches the world in triumph. They will be joined with all the angels and saints who have been with Christ in heaven (Rev. 6: 9-11), which is a similar analogy to citizens meeting a great military leader outside their city. Therefore, we will be "caught up" in God's glory by actually being with Christ as He approaches His earthly kingdom (Thigpen, 112-114).


2. Jesus' Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24:37-41 who is really "Left Behind?"

"As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left." - Matthew 24:37-41
Throughout the years, the passage of Matthew 24:37-41 (commonly referred to as the "Olivet Discourse") has been cited to preach the rapture belief. The obvious reason for this lies in the words, "Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left." Rapture believers often say this verse provides significant and conclusive evidence for their views. But does it? When examining the verses carefully, who are the ones that really get "Left Behind?" It wasn't the unrighteous, but rather the righteous who remained "Left Behind" and safe within the ark. Conversely, it was the unrighteous in the "days of Noah" that were "swept away" not by God's grace and angels, but by the floodwaters. For Christians to use this verse to "prove rapture" is to say the opposite of what the Biblical verse actually teaches (Thigpen, 124-125).

In fact, even if we were to give the rapture believer the benefit of the doubt about their interpretation of Matthew 24:37-41 (the righteous are taken, the unrighteous are Left Behind), it still wouldn't prove their belief in rapture. Christians who oppose rapture do not deny that true believers will be taken up to Christ when He returns (see above); they only disagree on when and how it is Christians will be taken. Many rapture believers think all the suffering and anguish affiliated with the end times will be taken away from the true believers, while those who disagree with the teaching believe everyone both Christian and non-Christian alike will have to suffer during the final days before Christ's return.

Actually, within the history of Christianity, that is exactly what Christians have had to do suffer. A belief in rapture basically cheapens all those who have ever had to suffer in the name of Christ, because it says only true believers during the last days alone will be spared from tremendous suffering. But what about the hundreds of first century martyrs in Rome, or the numerous missionary casualties in China or Iran? What about the Christian prisoners of war, or those Christians who have died in school shootings? Did they get a free pass to heaven with no pain or suffering? The point is suffering is both a good and necessary thing, because it draws us nearer to God and helps us to appreciate the heavenly kingdom that much more (see. Matt.10: 22-23, John 16:33). Christ tells us to take up the cross and worship Him, and that is exactly what we'll have to do both now and until the end of time (Col. 1:24, Phil. 3:10).


3. Where did the "rapture belief" come from?

When one honestly looks back at the history of the rapture teaching, he or she will quickly realize its beginnings are mentioned nowhere in the first seventeen hundred years of Christianity. It was seemingly unheard of during the time periods of the Middle Ages and Reformation, as both Martin Luther and John Calvin believed Christians would experience the end times here on earth (see Martin Luther's Preface to the Revelation of St. John , and Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion , IV, vii, 25: III, xx). The Nicene Creed (325 AD), which has its roots in the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, proclaims the basic beliefs of the Christian faith, and has been recited by millions of Christians throughout history. Oddly enough, this creed mentions nothing about a secret rapture of believers before the end of the world, nor is there any creed that does within the early Church. Like the Nicene Creed, the early Church Fathers make no mention whatsoever of a literal "taking up of believers"(Thigpen, 130). St. Justin Martyr (100-165), St. Irenaeus (125-203), St. Hippolytus (died 235), and St. Augustine (354-430) are only a few of the many who write about Christian suffering in the final tribulation.

It wasn't until the early part of the nineteenth century when John Nelson Darby, an ex-Anglican priest, began to heavily promote his idea of "dispensationalism3," which included the idea of a secret rapture. With the help of The Scofield Reference Bible translated by Darby follower C.I. Scofield, the "rapture belief" began to spread widely among various Protestant circles. Over time, people everywhere were turning to find "divine relief" from the dispensationalist viewpoint, especially in light of the "political, social, and cultural" distractions of the decades following the reestablishment of Israel in 1948 (Thigpen, 147). Hal Lindsey initiated another wave of "Bible prophecy" and rapture believers with his book The Late Great Planet Earth in the 1970's. The book describes the end times by means of dramatic language and frightening images, using everything from the turmoil in news headlines to man made disasters in order to spark a relationship with Christ. Consequently, like Hal Lindsey, many other preachers continue to speak about the rapture belief today, implementing many of the same techniques as The Late Great Planet Earth to scare the public into a change of heart for Jesus.

In certain cases, this logically leads people to question if this is how Christ originally wanted His message to be made known. Did Jesus really want us to fear every moment about the end times and the events leading up to the final days? Does Christ, who perfectly illustrates the most beautiful and sacrificial love for humanity, truly want us to use constant scare tactics to get others to believe in Him? Is that the language of Christ in the Gospels? Christians should be more concerned about sharing God's love to others through their faithfulness, service, and joy, and not waste time predicting when the "last days" are going to be.


4. Is this the clear and straightforward interpretation of the "end times?"

Is the interpretation of the rapture as clear and straightforward as the authors of the Left Behind series say it is? There are literally hundreds of Christian denominations in the world today, which, interestingly enough, take a multitude of different views about the final days and rapture. Obviously, taking the "plain sense of Scripture" about these matters as LaHaye and Jenkins suggest is not as easy a task as they make it out to be. If the Bible is so clear on the rapture, why not, as Dr. Paul Thigpen points out, do all the Christian denominations believe in it as they do the resurrection or divinity of Christ (Thigpen, 150)? Taking it a step further, one would expect the Apostles, or early Church Fathers to proclaim such a doctrine, being that they were the direct descendants of Christ, however there is no such mention. Have Christians for the previous eighteen hundred years, including the Reformers, simply not read Scripture clearly enough to acknowledge the so-called truth of the rapture belief?

Perhaps the idea of the rapture is not as obvious and prevalent throughout Scripture as many think it is. Christians everywhere should fully examine this theological concept and ask themselves if it possesses enough evidence to support its claims. We should not be sidetracked, misled, or believe in something strictly because it makes for an entertaining and lucrative story; rather, we should research and study the Scriptures from both a historical and spiritual perspective for the true meaning of the Bible's words. Let us pray that all Christians, both now and in the future, will receive God's gift of grace to find His truth through the appropriate and necessary sources.


Endnotes:

  1. The belief in rapture suggests that true believers will be taken up in a "secret and silent" manner to be with Christ. They will be snatched immediately from their cars, jobs, daily routines, or whatever else they may be doing to be with God, while leaving behind those who are less fortunate without a Christian faith. The Left Behind books do an excellent job illustrating how airplanes will crash, and cars will get into accidents, simply because the Christian pilots or drivers were "caught up," thus leaving their vehicles unmanned. This makes for an interesting story, but questionable theology. When examining Christ's descriptions about the end times to His followers, an exceptionally different picture is presented than the one in the Left Behind series.

  2. See Paul Thigpen, The Rapture Trap (West Chester PA.: Ascension Press, 2001). For an in depth look on the Catholic's response to the end times and rapture, I recommend reading Paul Thigpen's The Rapture Trap (2001). The majority of this article is based on his research.

  3. Dispensationalism A system of theology that sees God testing man in different ways during different ages. Dispensationalists believe that in each age of testing (better known as dispensations), man has utterly failed to live up to God's standards.



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

David M. Bristow. "Questioning the "Left Behind" Rapture." Catholic Educator's Resource Center (August, 2003).

This article reprinted with permission from David M. Bristow.

THE AUTHOR

David Bristow serves as the Youth Minister at St. Joseph Church in Herndon, Virginia. He is a member of the Youth Apostles Institute, an organization of priests, laymen, and consecrated men who devote themselves to strengthening our young people's Catholic faith. David converted to Catholicism in the spring of 2001, and enjoys reading theology and philosophy in his spare time.

Copyright 2003 David M. Bristow