Every so often, an end-times debate explodes in theological circles. The ubiquity of the Internet and social media has only exacerbated this. It is virtually impossible, at least if you wander digitally in Christian circles, to avoid being exposed to the debate.
Gary North called this fascination with the end times “rapture fever,”1, while Gary Demar has labelled it “last days madness.”2. In recent days, rapture fever has again struck, first with John Hagee’s obsession with the four blood moons, and more recently with the release of the rebooted Left Behind film starring Nicholas Cage.
I haven’t watched Left Behind, and given its terrible reviews, I’m fairly certain that I won’t. But even though I have not seen the film, I have been exposed sufficiently to the debate that it has aroused.
Now, I believe in the rapture. I think most conservative Christians believe in the rapture, even if they won’t say it. But perhaps some explanation is in order.
Zack Hunt, writing for the Huffington Post, recently weighed in on rapture fever. A former dispensationalist, Hunt asserts that “there is no such thing as the rapture.” Recalling his dispensational days in high school, Hunt says that he was “head over heals [sic] in love with biblical prophecy. Nothing else mattered. I was utterly convinced that the book of Revelation was a road map to the future and Jack Van Impe was the prophet who could unlock the apocalyptic map for me.”
It was only when he entered college that he began doubting his dispensational theology. A New Testament professor challenged him to rethink his eschatological framework. “Here’s my problem with Jack Van Impe and guys like him,” said the professor. “They are trying to pinpoint places on prophetic map that simply doesn’t [sic] exist.” Hunt was initially indignant, but he came to realise through investigation that he had been wrong. “It hurt to admit it and to be honest it kinda still does. But there was no way around it—the rapture was never, ever going to happen.”
Hunt came to realise that dispensationalism is a new theological kid on the block. “No one in the church has ever even believed in the rapture until the last 200 years or so.” He observes that “the very idea of the rapture is antithetical to the narrative of scripture.” The biblical story, he explains, is “about a God who journeys with His people through hard times even when it is God who has unleashed the judgment.” To insist that God will rapture the church just before he unleashes hell on earth is “endemic of an American Christianity that is more focused on the self than the needs of other, more gnostic (concerned with right ideas) than actually Christian, and hyper-focused on the hereafter to the detriment of the here and now.”
I appreciate Hunt’s article, and I think he makes some very important observations. For example, he is right about the relative infancy of dispensationalism as a theological framework (though he focuses on the rapture, which is only part of that system). He is correct that the focus of the Bible is less on God removing his people from tribulation and more on sustaining them through it. Though it is not entirely out of character for God to completely protect his people from judgement, it seems that believers ordinarily have no reason to expect complete deliverance during times of judgement.
Hunt further nails it when he notes that this deliverance mentality is “endemic of an American Christianity.” I think it would probably be fair to say that this type of theology is characteristic of western Christianity as a whole. In countries where freedom of religion exists, there is little notion of real Christian suffering. Because we are privileged to have relative freedom of worship, we think that this is the way it has always been for Christians. The truth is, the peace to which we are accustomed is the exception; Christians throughout history (and even today) have experienced (and experience) more turmoil than tranquillity.
Hunt is also right when he says that dispensationalism is “hyper-focused on the hereafter to the detriment of the here and now.” God has given the church great promises of conquest in this world, and rather than looking for escape, we would do far better to actually engage culture with the gospel and pray for God to do a great work.
But one element of Hunt’s argument bothers me: “There is no such thing as the rapture.” Formerly a dispensationalist, he came to believe that “the rapture was never, ever going to happen.” He explains in a little more detail further in the article:
The term “rapture” appears no where [sic] in the Bible. Of course, neither does the word “trinity.” But the concept of a triune God does appear throughout the New Testament. While the idea of believers being “caught up in the air” is mentioned, it is metaphorically describing the Second Coming. Paul is not claiming, nor even implying that Christians will disappear before all hell breaks loose on earth.
This paragraph displays Hunt’s basic bias. He appears so eager to refute one particular school of dispensationalism—namely, the pretribulation rapture—that he ignores the bigger picture. I absolutely agree that the Bible nowhere teaches, or even implies, a pretribulational rapture, but to argue that the rapture will not happen before a future tribulation is not the same as denying that it will ever happen.
Without citing the text, Hunt notes that the Bible does speak of believers being caught up in the air, but he argues that this is “metaphorically describing the Second Coming.” Here, I think, he has gone awry. I know nothing outside of this particular article of Hunt’s eschatology, but he appears to affirm the reality of the second coming as an event in our future. The text he is referencing is 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, which is, as he notes, a prophecy of the second coming. This return of the Lord, yet in our future, will be bodily and visible (Acts 1:9–11). I assume that Hunt believes in a visible, bodily second coming, but I find it curious that he thinks the “catching up” of believers to meet the Lord in the air is a metaphorical description of the second coming. If the second coming is a literal, bodily event, and if the resurrection of the dead is a literal, bodily event—and if both of those events are described in 1 Thessalonians 4—why should the “catching up” be a metaphorical description?
The word “rapture” comes from the Greek word translated “caught up” in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. Paul speaks of a catching up—a “rapture” of believers to meet the Lord in the air—that will coincide with his second coming. I see no good reason to deny that this will happen.
I understand that most rapture detractors are arguing against the dispensational idea of a two-stage return of Jesus Christ—and I agree. As I said, I think most conservative theologians probably affirm the rapture, even if they don’t want to call it that. But the Bible certainly appears to teach that, at the second coming, dead saints will be resurrected, and living saints will be raptured, to meet the Lord in the air. You may choose to avoid the language of “rapture,” but for lack of a better term, I am personally happy to affirm the biblical teaching of the rapture, which will one day coincide with the visible, bodily return of Jesus Christ to earth, and which will be followed by the general resurrection, the final judgement, and then eternity in God’s presence on the new earth.