What Secret Rapture? Rethinking a ‘Modern’ Doctrine

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Warning: In case of rapture, car will be unmanned.

That’s what the bumper sticker read. I saw it a lot growing up. I see it sometimes today. Maybe you’ve seen it. It summarizes a very popular doctrine for many American Christians. If you grew up in the 80’s or 90’s evangelicalism, then this likely was your default eschatological position. The popularized idea of the secret rapture1 goes like this: one of these days, and pretty soon if Russia/European Union/China/Iraq/[insert your favorite geopolitical enemy at the time] keeps messing things up, Jesus is going to arrive and covertly snatch up Christians, personally escorting them to heaven while the earth endures the horrors of the Tribulation. Now, although there are in-house arguments as to when Christians will return with Jesus in his Second…err, technically Third Coming, at least as it concerns the rapture, it’s simply “See ya later!” Poof! We literally vanish from the earth.2

Cars suddenly unmanned, indeed.

Rapture mania generally surfaces for one of two reasons. The first is when a book about it becomes the talk of the Christian town (e.g., Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth in the 80’s or Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind in the 90’s). The second is when Americans feel things are going badly: a stuttering economy, political infighting, overseas tensions, a President they don’t like (and subsequently think is the Antichrist), and so on. As you might imagine, 2020, with its destabilizing global pandemic and woeful string of other threatening issues, has made rapture talk a frenzy among many a Christian.

            This is getting bad! I hope you all are ready for Jesus to take us off planet earth!

            What are people going to think when all they see all these Christians disappear!

            I can’t wait for Jesus to rescue us and let this place burn!

But here’s something you might want to know before posting how you and your believing friends need to be ready any minute to be unsuspectingly teleported from your Chevys and Toyotas. (Hey, at least you’ll have clothes on. Imagine what’s going to happen to all those believers taking a shower. Well, this is quite awkward. Can I you spare a fig leaf, Adam?) It’s that the doctrine of the secret rapture is relatively new in church history. It was popularized by a man named John Nelson Darby in the 1830’s. That’s the 19th century, y’all! Remember, we’re only in the start of the 21st century. That means the secret rapture theory hasn’t been the hot take in orthodox Christianity for about 9/10ths of the Historical Church’s existence! That’s a long time without Left Behind. If you would have asked ancient Christians about the secret rapture, they likely would say, “What are you talking about?”

Darby is known as the father of dispensationalism, a hermeneutical system that sought to divide biblical history into different eras or dispensations. However, there was more to his system when it came to the end times. As Christianity Today notes,

There was nothing especially radical about dividing history into periods. What separated Darby’s dispensationalism was his novel method of biblical interpretation, which consisted of a strict literalism, the absolute separation of Israel and the church into two distinct peoples of God, and the separation of the rapture (the “catching away” of the church) from Christ’s Second Coming. At the rapture, he said, Christ will come for his saints; and at the Second Coming, he will come with his saints.3

Darby’s unique view of the rapture4 was embraced by many believers, including American theologian C.I. Scofield, whose popular Scofield Reference Bible introduced dispensationalism and its secret rapture theory to American Christians.5 I own a Scofield Reference Bible. Maybe you do as well. Scofield and his Study Bible influenced a generation of Bible teachers like D.L. Moody and Lewis Sperry Chafer. The former would found Moody Bible Institute while the later would found the main theological institution for dispensationalism in America, Dallas Theological Seminary. It was schools such as these that produced popular Bible teachers such as Chuck Swindoll, David Jeremiah, John MacArthur, Hal Lindsey, and Tim LaHaye. Which brings me to a question. Could it be that if you believe in the doctrine of the secret rapture it’s only because you have listened to teachers and authors from the same, unique camp?

There are definitely alternative ways of understanding Christ’s return for his church. Indeed, there has to be at least 1800 years of alternative interpretations. For example, one of the primary texts6 is 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 which says,

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.

Far from how Dispensationalists interpret this passage, there are other exegetically faithful ways to understand Paul’s words here. In the ancient context, when a ruler was returning home, citizens would stand outside the gates of the city, meet the king, and escort him into the city as their esteemed, victorious leader (e.g., Jesus’ triumphal entry in John 12). In the same sense, 1 Thessalonians pictures the church joining Christ upon his second advent to rule and reign in a new way as heaven meets earth. There is no vanishing earth and leaving the scene until Christ returns at some later date. Our joining him and his return are one and the same.

This is why New Testament theologian N.T. Wright says of this text that,

Paul’s image of the people ‘meeting the Lord in the air’ should be read with the assumption that the people will immediately turn around and lead the Lord back to the newly remade world. Paul’s mixed metaphors of trumpets blowing and the living being snatched into heaven to meet the Lord are not to be understood as literal truth, as the Left Behind series suggests, but as a vivid and biblically allusive description of the great transformation of the present world of which he speaks elsewhere.7

According to this interpretation, we’re not going anywhere. No unmanned cars needed. On the contrary, this text and others like them show us a picture of Christ’s return where believers don’t so much jet off with Jesus for heaven as much join him in his remaking of heaven and earth.

Unfortunately, the fallout of the doctrine of the secret rapture can lead many Christians to regard the world as merely a temporary weigh station one just passes through. Who cares man, this place is going to burn anyhow! It’s almost like believing in this doctrine might give Christians a pass for treating the world as if it doesn’t matter. We can just write it off because God has, hasn’t he?

But that’s not the scene the Bible casts. It affirms the goodness of God’s creation by having Christ come with his saints to restore it, not obliterate it. In the Bible, the universe is not expendable, it’s redeemable. In Genesis we have paradise lost, in Revelation we have paradise regained and better than before! Far from pulling us out of our cars and, God forbid, our showers, Christ will gather his church in time (“we who are alive”) and throughout time (“the dead in Christ will rise”) in order for us to ultimately enjoy the fullness and wholeness he brings to a world broken by our prior rebellion.

This picture is arguably more biblically faithful and exegetically satisfying than the frenzied, terrifying, and frankly, sensationalistic interpretations given to us by Lindsey, LaHaye, and Co. The Bible’s picture of the end is not only one that should give us hope instead of fear but also of cherishing creation, not disregarding it. It should motivate us not to forget the issues which currently trouble the planet but prod us to work in gospel-centered ways to resolve them knowing that Christ will one day come to set the world to rights.

For while we might be asked to sing, “This World Is Not My Home,” the Bible corrects us saying the Big Blue Marble actually is our residence (God did create it for us), and that Christ will come not to deliver us from this world but to transform and remake it by joining heaven to it, including us all the while (cf., Rev. 21).8 So, as horribly as 2020 has gone, believers, far from telling others we need Christ to just get us out of here and let this place burn, should be both concerned for the world and making an impact in it because, contrary to departing this place, Jesus has kept, is keeping, and will keep us in it to display his glory now until the day he returns bringing the fullness of God’s kingdom with him.

And that vision is much better than leaving my car unmanned…and for sure my shower. 😉 9

Footnotes

  1. I say “secret rapture” because historic premillennialism uses the term rapture in a different way whereby the church is caught up with Jesus only to join him in the millennial kingdom on earth. There is no covert snatching away for a period of time decoupled from Christ’s Second Coming. In this sense, Christians over the centuries have believed in a rapture though not using the term.
  2. For the record, the Christians who over the last several decades have gotten in the news for trying and failing (of course) to confidently predict when Jesus will return are almost always from this same theological group.
  3. Emphasis mine.
  4. There is some debate about the dubious origins of Darby’s views. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_MacDonald_(visionary)
  5. Fun fact: My wife and I were married in Scofield’s church in Dallas. It is now called Scofield Memorial Church.
  6. Another text often referred to is Mt. 24 where Jesus speaks of someone “taken and the other left” to which the ESV Study Bible notes, “The description may indicate that one is taken away to final judgment (cf. v. 39) while the other remains to experience salvation at Christ’s return. Or possibly the one who is taken is among the elect that the Son of Man will “gather … from the four winds” (v. 31). This is different than a secret rapture.
  7. Wright also notes that Paul is likely referencing Moses’ descent from the mountain holding the Ten Commandments where, in addition to a trumpet sounding and a loud voice heard, Moses comes to see what’s been going on while he’s been away. Wright also see allusions to Daniel 7 where God’s people “are vindicated over their pagan enemy by being raised up to sit with God in glory. This metaphor, applied to Jesus in the Gospels, is now applied to Christians who are suffering persecution.”
  8. Christians have their citizenship in heaven because their relationship is spiritual not spatial. For all the earth is the Lord’s is it not? Ps. 24:1-3!
  9. For the record, if I’ve gotten this all wrong I’m more than happy to leave my Subaru Forester unmanned if that means joining Jesus wherever he is and doing whatever he is doing.
Yancey Arrington
Dr. Yancey C. Arrington is an eighth generation Texan, Acts 29 Network and Houston Church Planting Network fan, and Teaching Pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in the Bay Area of Houston. He is also author of Preaching That Moves People and TAP: Defeating the Sins That Defeat You, and periodically writes for Acts 29 and The Gospel Coalition.

7 thoughts on “What Secret Rapture? Rethinking a ‘Modern’ Doctrine”

  1. I fully accept your premise that “Our joining him and his return are one and the same.” Our only difference may be in some measurable distance and separation in time from our Blue Marble, but how much time and distance does that matter?

    So let me ask, If you believe that rapture focus has become a “mania” and “we’re not going anywhere” and “there is no vanishing earth” how does that interpretation fit with the passages in Luke 17 of a common deliverance for believers that “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.” Then Jesus continued, “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.”

    Jesus speaks of these women grinding and the people in bed being taken, where did they go?

  2. I have read your footnote 6. “This is different than a secret rapture.” Ok.

    I read other studies that say Luke 17… “This is a basis for rapture.” Nine verses in NT using “Harpazo: caught up”

    So to calm a current mania for Christ return, there will be no “harpazo: caught up” only just to stay put on the ground to meet Christ. How does that change the hope of his coming? There will be much tribulation and then we meet him on the ground, not the air, but then probably on our faces?

  3. Instead of referring back to things like footnote 1, I’ll make it simple. The idea of a secret “harpazo” is a newer doctrine than other views of “harpazo.” There you go. 🙂

  4. Ok simple is fine. So having this non-secret “harpazo” view will “motivate us not to forget the issues which currently trouble the planet but prod us to work in gospel-centered ways to resolve them knowing that Christ will one day come to set the world to rights.” Ok whatever as long as Christ is still coming.

  5. Can you please help me understand where and when or better yet how the Marriage Supper of the Lamb fits into this theological exegesis. Thank you.

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