March 2, 2009

What’s Wrong with the Rapture?

Author’s note:  While pastor of teaching and training at a local, charismatic church (hence the emphasis on prophecy), I was troubled by the number of people who accepted the doctrine of the Rapture, so I wrote this little tract.  More recently, a friend told me that I had once expressed a view of Dispensationalism to him which showed that I didn’t know what I was talking about.  Therefore, as a part of a friendly debate, I offer this tract on the Rapture.

What is Wrong with the Rapture?
©2001 Peter W. Dunn

Introduction:   Christian books, radio, and TV are filled with a message of blessed hope: There will be a Rapture, an event in which all faithful Christians will be caught up in the air to join the Lord and spend a blessed seven years of feasting in heaven. Meanwhile, the most terrible plagues and punishments will fall upon all the faithless people left behind on earth, while the devil enforces a one-world government through an anti-Christ who will reign for seven years. Then Jesus will return to reign with his saints for 1000 years.

But not all Christians believe the teaching of the Rapture. It is a popular teaching amongst Fundamentalists and Pentecostals. But it has never gained much of a foothold amongst Catholics, Presbyterians and the Anglicans. Nor is it a doctrine of the Association of Vineyard Churches. Indeed, many faithful Christians, including Bible college and seminary professors, are skeptical about this teaching. Why is that? Let me try to explain why I cannot embrace the doctrine of the Rapture as it is represented in such famous books as Tim Lahaye’s Left Behind or Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth.

The teaching of the Rapture is a recent innovation. My late theology professor Dr. Daniel Pecota of Northwest College once told us in class that new theology is usually heretical. He insisted that there is no new truth because the essential truths of our faith were revealed in the Bible and had already been decided upon throughout the course of church history. It may come as a surprise to many Christians that the doctrine of the Rapture is not mentioned in any creeds before the nineteenth century. Indeed, historians trace the teaching of the Rapture to the founder of the Plymouth Brethren, John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), whose views called Dispensationalism, were popularized in the Scofield Bible. This edition of the King James Version of the Bible featured the notes of Cyrus I. Scofield (1843-1921), and it has been instrumental in the spread of Dispensationalism. It explains in great detail and with great confidence some of the most obscure passages of biblical prophecy. Yet none of the church fathers (e.g., Irenaeus or Justin) nor the reformers (e.g., Luther or Calvin) taught this famous doctrine of the Rapture. If Dr. Pecota was right, then the doctrine of the Rapture falls under deep suspicion because of its novelty alone.

The teaching of the Rapture has supplanted the Resurrection as the blessed hope of Christians. In fact, the word “rapture” doesn’t actually occur in the Bible. It is a doctrine created through the foreign interpretive grid of Dispensationalism. But its main proof text, 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18, really teaches the Resurrection of the dead. Paul is concerned to comfort the Thessalonians because some of them have died. As new Christians, they appear to be unaware of what happens to believers who die before Jesus comes back. Paul comforts them by saying that those alive will certainly not precede in the resurrection those who have died. Thus, the catching up of those who are alive is only an aspect of the Resurrection. The earliest creed of the church, the Apostle’s Creed, lists the resurrection of dead as an essential doctrines, it mentions no Rapture. In the second and third centuries, Irenaeus, Origen, and Tertullian mention the Rule of Faith, the earliest summary of Christian doctrine, which speaks of the Resurrection of the flesh but never of the Rapture. The great blessed hope of the early church and the NT is the Resurrection. The subject of 1 Corinthians 15 is the Resurrection. When Paul’s says that we will changed in the twinkling of the eye (1 Cor 15.52), he makes no mention of the Rapture, because his subject is the bodily resurrection of the dead.

The doctrine of the Rapture teaches Christians to misinterpret the Scriptures. Once certain teachers determine the centrality of the doctrine of the Rapture, they begin to see it all over Scripture, and they then begin to interpret the Bible using the doctrine of the Rapture as the immediate context of interpretation. Thus, many passages of the Bible begin to be interpreted out of context. This is best illustrated by example. Who can forget the famous song by Larry Norman, “I Wished they’d all been ready”? It is a song of lament; some will not be ready when Jesus returns. One line in his song goes, “Two men walking up a hill, one disappears and one’s left standing still”, and then, “Man and wife asleep in bed, she hears a sound turns her head, he’s gone, I wished they’d all been ready.” The song laments those left behind at the time of the Rapture. The scriptural basis for this song is Luke 17.34-35, which refers to the judgment which will happen to those not ready when Jesus returns: “I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together; one will be taken and the other left.” It seems like a natural interpretation of the verse, if indeed we can assume the Rapture as a basic teaching of the Bible. But the problem is that the disciples ask a simple question in the next verse: “Where, Lord?” The term in Greek used at this point can also mean “to where?” Hence, the question is not, where are those left behind left, but to where are those who are taken taken. Jesus response is not at all equivocal: “Where the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together.” This is in keeping with what Jesus has said previously, that his second coming will be like the days of Noah when certain people were taken away by the flood (Luke 17.26-27). Here, the rapture is a taking away to judgment and is not moment of hope. This is just a single example of Scriptural misinterpretation demonstrated by the Rapture theorists. Thus, those who teach the Rapture also teach people by their example to ignore the immediate context. This is a breaking of the most fundamental rule of biblical interpretation: Consider the context.

The teaching of the Rapture causes Christians to stop relying on the living voice of prophecy in the church. The Book of Revelation has an important refrain in its teaching about the end times: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” This Spirit is still active in the church today. But when crises happen, where do people turn. Do they seek God’s face through fasting and prayer? Do they seek out prophets who may have insight into God’s plan? No, they turn to the latest Bible prophecy book, fresh off the press interpreting the Bible as though it were a crystal ball explaining events happening today. The Bible then is no more valuable to Christians than Nostradamus is to occultists. It is bent and molded to speak to the present times, instead of being understood in its historical context. During the Gulf War, Christians bought millions of copies of these prophecy books. Yet today nobody reads these books anymore. Now with events of Sept. 11, we can expect prophecy teachers to create new books, showing how the Bible predicted the burning of the Twin Towers and the new war against terrorism. Yet these interpreters rarely fail to get it wrong and are always having to revise their interpretations in light of new events. Wouldn’t it be better to seek God and listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches today. The Spirit is the one who inspired the prophets of the Bible and He is still active today.

But Dispensationalism, the theology from which the doctrine of the Rapture originates, teaches that prophecy has ceased based on 1 Corinthians 13.8-10: “Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away.” Dispensationalists argue that the perfect which Paul says is to come is the New Testament; prophecy was necessary because there was no New Testament to guide Christians. But now that the New Testament exists, there is no need for prophecy. But it is next to impossible that Paul could have meant the New Testament, since this collection of the earliest Christian writings came into existence only after his death. Paul penned his last letter in the Bible, 2 Timothy, somewhere around AD 64-67, yet the Book of Revelation, which ends the New Testament, was written after AD 95. Thus, Paul could not have intentionally referred to the New Testament. Indeed the context suggests that Paul refers to the return of Jesus: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” When we see Jesus face to face, we will no longer need prophecy, for Jesus is the perfect revelation of God who makes known to us the Father and makes prophecy redundant. Until his return, Jesus continues to speak to the church through prophecies.

So if the Dispensationalists do not rely on the Spirit of prophecy to understand the most mysterious passages of Bible, how do they come up with their interpretations? Simply, they use human methodology; they start with the system devised by Darby and perfected by Scofield, two Christians who said that prophecy had ceased. 2 Peter warns against such man-made systems: “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” The Spirit who inspired prophecy is its only adequate interpreter. If we rely on man-made interpretations, we will be like the generation of Jews who failed to understand that Jesus was the Messiah because they were expecting a different sort of messiah based on their human understanding of the promises of Old Testament prophecy.

What do we do if we seek God’s face, and his Spirit says nothing to us? Well we don’t resort to reading the Bible like a crystal ball. We seek patiently.

The teaching of the Rapture promotes easy escapism by Christians. This is perhaps the most obvious of all the problems with the Rapture. While the Bible teaches us to rejoice in our sufferings, the doctrine of the Rapture tells Christians that when the bad stuff hits they don’t have to worry because all faithful Christians will be taken out of the world. Yet this contradicts the prayer of Jesus (John 17.15): “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.” We are to endure hardship and persecution as Christians. Tribulation will happen in the world, but Jesus overcomes the world. In North America (Canada and the US) we are Christians who rarely fast, who are prayerless and depend on our bank accounts and our full refrigerators. We have no capacity for suffering as it is. The doctrine of the Rapture reinforces what is already a problem in our culture. We are impatient and we do not know how to suffer. Today, Christians elsewhere in the world experience persecution, slavery, oppression and slaughter. What makes us think we are any different? We must prepare ourselves to be salt and light in a world full of suffering and tribulation. The doctrine of the Rapture teaches us that when the going gets tough, Christians are going to fly away. This is a fundamentally unbiblical view of suffering. Christians, after the example of Jesus, must prepare for a moment of testing and trial, for inevitably, all who wish to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Tim 3.12).

©2001 Peter W. Dunn
Peter W. Dunn has his PhD from the University of Cambridge and is a specialist in Early Christianity.

External Links:

Farewell to the Rapture, N. T. Wright

Beam me up Theology, John Dart



  1. […] See also, “What’s wrong with the Rapture“. […]

    Pingback by Rapture, not « Palabre — April 11, 2009 @ 8:25 am | Reply

  2. You said: “It may come as a surprise to many Christians that the doctrine of the Rapture is not mentioned in any creeds before the nineteenth century.”

    Response: The Resurrection and catching away go together, that is, as soon as the dead in Christ have been resurrected, then immediately following that event, those who are still alive will be changed, in a moment to be caught up in the clouds with those who were just resurrected and will meet the Lord in the air. One major fact is that, the church is not appointed unto the wrath of God and since the wrath of God occurs prior to the return of Christ in the form of seven seals, trumpets and bowls, the resurrection must take place prior to this wrath. Also, Jesus said to the church of Philidelphia, “Because you have kept the patience of My word, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that going to come upon the whole world to test those who dwell upon the face of the earth. He said, I will keep you from it, not in it or through it, but from it, meaning that we will not even enter it.

    Another issue regarding this subject is that, if you have the resurrection and catching taking place at the return of the Lord to set up His millennial kindom, then there would be no mortal humans to enter into the millennial kingdom to repopulate it and therefore, no one to rule over with an iron septer.

    I have studied the word of God for over 35 years and I have never read anything by Darby. My conclusion as to when the resurrection and catching away takes place is based on the word of God itself. In Pauls teching, he calls the resurrection and the catching away the “day of the Lord”, which is then followed by the wrath of God, which is why the Thessalonians wrote to him because there were some who saying that the day of the Lord had already taken place and they were concerned because they were still on the earth and the next event to follow is the wrath of God. I have a whole study on my site regarding this event complete with the verses to back everything.

    Comment by dmcal52 — November 3, 2009 @ 8:47 am | Reply

  3. You wrote: The doctrine of the Rapture teaches us that when the going gets tough, Christians are going to fly away. This is a fundamentally unbiblical view of suffering. Christians, after the example of Jesus, must prepare for a moment of testing and trial, for inevitably, all who wish to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Tim 3.12).

    The problem with your statement above is that you are confusing the persecution that is perpetrated by men and the spiritual wickeness behind them, with the wrath of God. As Christians we are to have tribulation and persecution, but we are not to come under the wrath of God, which is exactly what will be going on during the tribulation period leading up to the end of age. God is not going to pour out His wrath on His church. Don’t confuse the persecution that comes from the world with the wrath of God!

    Comment by dmcal52 — November 3, 2009 @ 9:03 am | Reply

  4. Thanks dmcal52 very much for you comments.

    Your first paragraph: “Response” cannot be really be countered because it is a case of begging the question: i.e., it assumes the conclusion that Rapture is a true doctrine. More importantly, you have made the very error that I mention in the main text: you misinterpret Rev 3.7f. because you assume that it is referring to the Rapture without at all taking into consideration the context of Revelation, its message and occasion of writing.

    Not knowing anything about Darby is inconsequential to the novelty of his doctrine. But you don’t claim to know nothing about Scofield. Is that also the case? Nevertheless, today the doctrine of the Rapture is taught on a popular level in many church denominations and has been promoted by “Left Behind” series of books and the movie, and when I was a youth, the now corny (and then too) “Thief in the Night” series. Darby is nevertheless the creator of the doctrine. It was not taught by the apostles or by the early church (I am a specialist of the early church).

    Finally, I don’t confuse anything (wrath vs. persecution). I say merely that the doctrine of the Rapture teaches escapism to Christians, particularly in the West, who do not know anything about suffering. It is really a cultural critique. So you have attacked a straw man.

    Comment by P. W. Dunn — November 3, 2009 @ 9:34 am | Reply

  5. Jesus said that the last days would be like the days of Noah. Noah and his family were literally lifted above God’s wrath.
    Why should we be spared? Because Jesus said so, as was quoted in a comment above. Also because we have always stood by Israel. However we have kept telling Israel to divide the land, which is forbidden in Joel. God help us for pushing that!
    Also, in Revelation 3, John goes to heaven and although seven churches were mentioned in the first three chapters, the church is not mentioned at all after John goes through that door.
    So, all that adds up to tell me we will be lifted away before God’s wrath is poured out on the earth.

    Comment by Margo Carmichael — April 24, 2012 @ 8:40 pm | Reply

  6. That Christians will not suffer is hokey.

    Many have and many will. Even if Rapture is true, it doesn’t mean we are gonna fly. People assume everything good happens to them.

    Now when the suffering comes, you will be like squishy white bread and unprepared.

    Not you, Mr Dunn. All the spoiled rotten soft Christians who lived in prosperity and felt it was owed them.

    Jesus said the ones on his left and right hands would suffer as he did. To be ‘one’ or ‘hen’ in Christ is to be prepared to suffer the suffering of Jesus. I am not a suffer-monger but there are certain aspects which are either a test or for the glory of YHWH.

    This is the gospel or the Way itself.

    Comment by Sola Yeshua — May 24, 2012 @ 8:23 pm | Reply

  7. It might be as well to point out that Dispensationalism as promulgated by JNDarby does not link the rapture to the two in a field in the Gospels etc. That scripture was and still is seen amongst both open and exclusive brethren as referring to judgement of the Jewish nation.

    Comment by Gregory Morris — November 26, 2014 @ 5:45 pm | Reply

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