Rapture: The Great Escape
The Rapture is a teaching invented in the 1830’s by John Darby, possibly with precursors among Puritan writers in the previous century. The Rapture is the belief that at some point during the great tribulation and persecution of God’s people in the End Times, all God’s people would be pulled up into heaven to be with Jesus while the final judgments on the world are carried out. This is linked to a literal interpretation of the 1,000-year reign of Christ in Revelation 20 and a seven-year period of Tribulation, though different groups argue over the precise timing of the Rapture (before, during, or after the Tribulation). The underlying idea is that the world at large is to be judged and God’s people will be rescued from that destruction at some point in the process.
Despite its lack of historical precedent, this Rapture teaching has become very popular among certain brands of American Evangelicalism and many of its missionary offshoots around the world. This is probably due to the fact that one of the first “Study Bibles” ever produced was put together by a pro-Rapture theologian – as if to shore up its theological credibility given its lack of historical credibility.
As is probably apparent, I consider the Rapture to be a false teaching that has no place in Christ’s Church. As if its lack of existence before the 19th century wasn’t enough to discredit it as a novel modernist twist of Scripture, it also flatly contradicts the overwhelming tide of prophetic teaching in the Old and New Testaments concerning the destiny of God’s people. There is language of “removal” in the Bible, but there is also “restoration” language, and the Rapture utterly confuses the dynamic between the two that exists in the Bible.
Our recent foray into the book of Haggai, and its corresponding echoes of God’s covenant promises in other prophetic books, provides a helpful clarification against Rapture theology towards what a Christian really should receive from the biblical witness concerning the future and the End Times.
Removal: Shaking the Heavens
Haggai says “Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts” (2:6-7). He says a similar thing in his final sermon: “I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms. I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders. And the horses and their riders shall go down, every one by the sword of his brother” (2:21-22). A Rapture theologian might interpret this to say that this “shaking” could point to the Rapture, as the wealth of the nations (that is, God’s people) is taken out of the world and brought to the Temple (that is, heaven). But this is not quite right.
The book of Hebrews elaborates (12:26-29):
At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.
Haggai’s words of the world being “shaken” is taken up here in the New Testament and further explained to show that when the world is “shaken,” what comes out is not God’s people, but the wicked. The “removal of things that are shaken” is a picture of judgment, and in this final judgment the only stable place to stand is on “the things that cannot be shaken.” A Rapture theologian might argue that the unshakeable kingdom on which we will stand is the Kingdom of Heaven – thus we must be raptured first to get there. But that is not what this verse implies. Rather, “the things that cannot be shaken may remain.” The shaking of the world is a removal of the wicked; God’s people will remain unshaken. If we’re going to talk about anyone being taken out of the world and other being left behind, it is the wicked who leave and the faithful who are left.
Restoration: Gathering them home
Alongside the language of shaking and removal is also found language of restoration and homecoming. Much of what is written in my previous post deals with this dynamic, so I’ll only repeat the relevant highlights here.
Isaiah spoke of the wealth of the nations being gathered in to Jerusalem, which includes promises that Jesus declared were fulfilled in his ministry. Thus when we look at promises of the gathering of wealth (be it earthly treasures or Gentile converts to the faith) we are invited to see that as the evangelical mission of God – bringing people into Christ’s fold, the Church. A Rapture theologian might argue that it is to heaven when the people are most truly “gathered in”, but this misses the use of symbolism. In the Old Testament, the image used is gathering people into the Temple, or into Jerusalem, which are both earthly locations and heavenly locations. They are both of physical and spiritual import. Reinforced by statements like “my Spirit remains in your midst,” the lesson we ought to learn is that when God and man are truly together, it is because God has come to man, not because man has come (or even been brought) to God.
Jeremiah and Ezekiel also pick up similar lines of thought. “They will be my people and I will be their God” is in both Jeremiah 32:38 and Ezekiel 37:27. The closeness and togetherness of God’s people is emphasized, and in both cases this promise is in a context that highlights the coming of God to be with his people, rather than the taking away of God’s people from the world. For Jeremiah, the context is one of undoing the damage that the sin of God’s people brought upon themselves. For Ezekiel, the context is one of God coming in to breathe new life into his spiritually dead people, like a dry bones in a valley.
And lastly, as if to seal the deal against the idea of God’s people being “raptured” into heaven away from the earth, the book of Revelation culminates in a marriage between Christ and the Church, accompanied by pictures of a heavenly city descending to earth and the declaration of a New Heavens and a New Earth. There is no dichotomy between spiritual and physical reality; they both coexist. Belief in the Gospel and entrance into the Church brings our spiritual and physical lives closer together, and the return of Christ at the end of the age will perfect that union. To teach a rapture from earth to heaven is to emphasize a division between the two that the Gospel is precisely moving to undo. Sometimes it is prudent earthly wisdom to say that “to take a step forward one must sometimes first take a step backwards,” but if we truly believe that God knows what he’s doing and does not make mistakes, then He has no need to take a step back. The Gospel advances. The Rapture is an unnecessary set-back that has no place in the Bible nor in the course of the theological narrative of the Church.