Is the Rapture Taught in the Bible?
The running joke at my church is that I’m the “Rapture guy.” It isn’t a joke because I believe in what is commonly called “the Rapture,” rather, it is because of my unbelief in this popular doctrine. Several years ago, in a sermon on the return of Christ, I briefly mentioned that the Rapture is not taught in the Bible. I spent less than three minutes on it. This statement rocked some people’s world. We had a few families leave the church, furious. What I had forgotten is that it had taken me years to arrive at that position, and therefore, I casually annihilated it in my sermon and moved on. In lieu of the controversy surrounding the topic, I followed that Sunday with a Facebook video outlining more details as to why I didn’t hold a belief in a biblical Rapture. That video went semi-viral and caused a firestorm in our community. I had shaken the hornet’s nest and believers from churches all over our community were commenting on my video—upset. Other pastors did response videos. It was a mess. That is why I’m popularly known in my church, and by some in our community as “the Rapture guy.” It’s not a designation I want, nor ever dreamed I’d have. But here we are.
It has been several years since all of that happened, yet it is still a running joke within our church. However, one positive result of that teaching is that it has led many others to see my position more clearly, and even more positive, it has caused them to align their views more closely with the Bible. To this day, I continue to have people ask me questions about this concept of a rapture of God’s people before the Second Coming of Christ. For that reason, I figured it was time to articulate a written outline of my position and why I believe that the Rapture, as it is popularly understood and communicated, is not a biblical idea at all. I recognize that for many reading this, you already disagree with me. Trust me when I say, I was once in your shoes. I believed in a Rapture and thought Christians were waiting for Jesus to whisk us away from the world. I want to address this teaching. I’m going to outline Rapture beliefs, highlight its origins, and examine what biblical passages are used to support it. Afterwards, I will lay out a biblical case from Scripture as to what is truly taught about the fate of Christ’s Bride prior to his Second Coming.
People who believe in the Rapture believe that Christians are going to be taken away from the Earth to Heaven in a secret rapture of the Church. The reason it is called a “secret rapture” is because Christ is not going to appear, rather, Christians are going to disappear. This scenario is depicted in the popular book series Left Behind and other biblically apocalyptic movies. Following this “rapturing” of Christians away from the Earth, the remaining people on the Earth will experience great tribulations for seven years. Some of those people will become believers, even as they suffer great trials. Then, at the end of the tribulation, Jesus will return and judge the nations, bringing about the end of all things.
There may be some slight variations, but this is the general view of folks who claim to hold beliefs in the Rapture. The key point being, they believe, at any moment, Christians will be taken alive from Earth to Heaven while multitudes of unbelievers remain on Earth. Some believe this rapture will include Jesus appearing in the clouds and then taking them to Heaven, while still leaving multitudes here on Earth. Again, this is a slight variation to the same idea: believers whisked away being spared having to endure tribulation.
Where did this idea or teaching come from? Has the Church believed this doctrine for the entirety of its nearly 2,000-year history? The answer is no, it hasn’t. In fact, this is a relatively new view for Christians to hold. It emerged in the 1830’s. John Nelson Darby was the first to teach and introduce this idea to his congregation. He is the founder of the group later known as The Plymouth Brethren. They were conservative, nonconformist Protestants who broke away from the Church of Ireland. Darby taught the view of a rapture out of the world. Many people believe he piggybacked off of the comments made by a young girl named Margaret MacDonald, who had a vision in 1830 of the end times and the Church being raptured from the Earth. However, there is no way of confirming if this was an influence on Darby’s teaching.
Darby’s teaching made its way across Europe and eventually to America. It gave rise to a theological view known as Dispensationalism. This way of understanding the Bible and God’s interaction with man divides history into six dispensations. God deals with humanity differently in each dispensation. These views were picked up and popularized by C. I. Scofield in the late 1800’s. He produced a Bible with references (even though he had no formal training in theology) known as the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909. It was distributed in England and America and became the primary source for Protestants to understand the Bible. This became the almost unquestioned view by many Protestants in America. This spread the idea of rapture teaching further and further. Scofield became a pastor in Dallas, TX and helped found Dallas Theological Seminary. It was popularized and spread further by D. L. Moody and his Moody Bible Institute. Moody invited many of the Plymouth Brethren to teach in his Bible schools. From these institutions, literature, and the preaching of these men and others, this dispensational, pre-tribulation rapture theology immersed itself in American culture.
These ideas embedded themselves deeper into the culture through other media, such as books and movies. None of those were more impactful than the Left Behind series. The series sold more than 80 million copies, further cementing this teaching and theology into the hearts and minds of Christians. For many Christians, this is all they’ve ever been told. This is all they’ve known. People they know, love, and respect have taught them this idea. Their beloved grandma and the pastor who baptized them taught on the Rapture. How can they all be wrong?
The first question that every Christian should ask when examining any doctrinal idea they’ve been taught is: Does the Bible teach this? We must ground our theological and doctrinal beliefs to the Word of God. For 1,800 years of Church history, Christians had no concept of this pre-tribulation rapture that is so popular in America today. Proponents of Rapture teaching are not without their attempts to support it using Scripture. The issue is whether this idea is supported in a sound, consistent and contextually correct interpretation of the verses. So what Scriptures did Darby, Moody, Tim LaHaye, and other proponents use to support this doctrine? Let’s examine that now.
There are two primary passages where Rapture theology is purported to have emerged: Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4. Let’s look at Matthew 24:40-41 first. This is a passage people point to and say, “See, look, that’s the Rapture.” Jesus says, “Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left.”
The question that must be asked when looking at these verses is this: who is taken and who is left? Is the believer taken or left? If you hold a Rapture view in your head before reading this passage, it is easy to say, “The believer is taken.” But is that what the context of the passage leads us to conclude? Let’s look closer.
Before we get to Matthew 24:40-41, we need to read verses 36-39. Jesus says, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For 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 in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”
Notice carefully how Jesus teaches. He says nobody will know the day or hour of his return. Then in verse 37 He compares it to the days of Noah. He said the coming of the Son of Man will be like the days of Noah. That’s significant. So we should ask: “In what way?” He tells us. He says in verse 38 that in those days before the flood, people were living their lives like normal. People were eating and drinking. They were getting married. They were just living their lives and going about the course of their days. This is how we are living now. Jesus says the times will be similar when He comes. Now watch what He says in verse 39. The people were unaware of the judgment coming until the flood, and the flood came and swept them all away. Who got swept away in the days of Noah? The unbelievers. The wicked sinners. Who remained when the flood came? Noah and his family. They were left here. The wicked were swept away. Jesus says this is the way it will be when the Son of Man returns.
Okay, so return to the verses often used in support of the rapture, verses 40 and 41. “Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left.” Jesus just told us that His coming will be just like the days of Noah. The wicked were taken away, swept away. The righteous remained. Then He says that two men will be in the field, and one will be taken, one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill, and one will be taken away and one left. So I return to the question: “Who is taken and who is left?” I believe the most natural, commonsense answer from the text is the believer is left and the unbeliever is taken away. It is a picture of judgment. They are cast away from the presence of the Lord. The only reason one could read it the opposite and say the believer is taken away and the unbeliever remains, is because that person already has the internal bias of a rapture ideology in his or her head before reading the passage. The entirety of the passage itself and its full context gives no reason to interpret it in that way. Additionally, nowhere in this passage do we read that “taken away” means “disappears.” Again, this is something that has to be inferred into the text because of a preexisting bias that has been imbibed from Rapture theology. The text doesn’t say this.
In fact, when reading the parallel text from Luke of the Matthew passage, we clearly see what happens to those who are taken away. “’I tell you, in that night there will be two in bed. One will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.’ And they said to him, ‘Where, Lord?’ He said to them, ‘Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.’” (Luke 17:34-37) Luke shows that those taken away aren’t raptured to glory; they are delivered over to the death that awaits them.
The second passage often used to support rapture theology is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Paul writes, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. 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, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
Where do they get Rapture theology from this passage? It comes from verse 17 when Paul says believers “will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” The Greek word harpazó is the word for “will be caught up.” The Vulgate translation of the Bible, which is the Latin version, uses the word rapiemur from the Latin verb rapio. This is where people get the word “rapture.”
There is much that needs to be said here to sort this out. Let’s begin with the context of the passage. Paul is writing to the church in Thessalonica to comfort them. Some of their loved ones had died (he calls it “fallen asleep”) and he wants them to have hope. He wants to anchor them to the hope of Christ’s return and the resurrection of the dead. In verse 16 he says, “the Lord will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.” This is describing the announcing of the king’s return. Paul says “the dead in Christ will rise first.” Thus, the resurrection of the dead is going to happen when Jesus returns. This is when the great white throne of judgment will occur (Revelation 20), and sheep will be separated from the goats (Matthew 25). But notice Paul then pivots to those who are still alive in verse 17. He says they “will be caught up together with them.” Who is the them? The dead in Christ. The dead in Christ will rise from the dead and meet the Lord in the air, and then those alive will meet him in the air. Then what? Will we whisk away to Heaven and leave the unbelievers behind? No. It doesn’t say that at all. So what happens once we meet him in the air?
We usher the King back into the city as the glorious victor over the enemies of Satan, sin, and death. Paul is utilizing the imagery here of ancient Roman practice. When kings went out to war with their armies for months and years, nobody knew how long they would be gone. They could write letters and send couriers, but the hour was unknown. However, when they won the victory and made their way back to the city, the trumpet would sound when the king and his armies appeared on the horizon. The announcement would go out into the city that the king had returned. Then, everyone would rush out to meet him and usher the victorious king and armies back into the city. Paul is communicating that when the trumpet sounds, and Christ appears, those who belong to him and love him, will meet him in the air. The reason we’re meeting him in the air is because that’s how he’s returning. In the same way He ascended, He will descend again (Acts 2).
It is important to note that when people who hold Rapture theology communicate about the Rapture, they never include the dead being raised and whisked away while tribulation occurs. It is only those alive. But that doesn’t follow what 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 teaches. Paul says those alive will join them (the dead in Christ) in the air. And then together we will usher the King back to Earth as the victorious Savior and defeater of His enemies. He comes in glory. He comes to judge. Nobody knows the day or the hour. The unbeliever will be swept away in the righteous judgment of the Lord and told, “depart from me, I never knew you.” But the righteous will remain and hear those words, “Come, enter into the joy of your master.”
So do I believe in the Rapture? Yes, but not in the way most probably mean by the word. I believe believers will be caught up in the air with the Lord when He returns. In that sense, I believe in the rapiemur. I don’t think we’re taking off to Heaven while unbelievers endure tribulations on Earth. That goes against so many passages of Scripture where believers are told to expect trials and tribulations. We are not promised escape from it. Ideas to the contrary are rooted in wishful thinking, not careful interpretation of the Bible.
Friends, the teaching of a pretribulation rapture is not a doctrine you can anchor to Scripture. It is a tradition of men that makes a feeble attempt to use the Bible to validate it. Yet, ultimately, when read in full context and using the proper hermeneutics, it fails. Instead, we need to see and long for what the Scriptures actually teach. Christ will return. The trumpet will sound. The dead in Christ will be raised, those alive will join with them to meet Christ in the air. This is the only “rapture” the Bible teaches. And collectively, we will descend back to the Earth with our victorious King. He will establish the New Heavens and New Earth, making all things new for eternity (Revelation 21). This is what the Bible teaches, and it is far more glorious than disappearing from the Earth and leaving behind a pile of clothes.
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Erik is the Lead Pastor of The Journey Church in Lebanon. He also founded Knowing Jesus Ministries, a non-profit organization which exists to proclaim timeless truth for everyday life. He is married to Katrina, and has three children: Kaleb (who went to be with the Lord), Kaleigh Grace, and Kyra Piper.