Rapture

By Heather Abraham aka Religion Nerd  

While lunching with a friend last week our conversation turned to, what else, religion.  My friend related to me an encounter she had with the Left Behind Series which a neighbor had given her in a book exchange.  Having heard about the series but not really knowing what they were about she “grabbed the first one and headed for a long soak in the tub.”  After finishing the first book she had a conversation with the neighbor about the series and was surprised to find that the neighbor understood the books, not as religious fiction but as a prophetic look into the near future.  As a Catholic, my friend had never been exposed to the concept of the rapture and was curious about its origins.  She posed the following questions:  Which branch of Christianity believes in the rapture and where did this teaching come from?   

These are interesting but complex questions that will require a bit of unpacking.  To answer the first part of the question which branch of Christianity believes in the Rapture, we will look at the two primary Christian understandings of the nature of Christ’s return.   

The dispensationalist premillennialists, primarily made up of Evangelicals, believe that Christ will return in two phases, once to resurrect the dead and rapture the living and a second physical return before the inauguration of the millennium.  In contrast, the majority of Christians (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Luther, Calvinist, Anglican, and other non-Evangelical branches) embrace an amillennialist understanding of Christ’s return as one event in which the thousand year reign of Jesus Christ a spiritual one.  Amillennialist understand Christ’s physical return to occur after the millennium and for the Last Judgment during which he will establish his kingdom.     

 The Rapture concept, as held by dispensationalist premillennialists such as Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, authors of the Left Behind series, emerged in the mid 19th century in the teachings of John Nelson Darby.  Darby, a 19th century evangelist and co-founder of the Plymouth Brethren, grounded his rapture theory in New Testament

J.N. Darby

scripture, most specifically, in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 in which Paul writes “and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”  Darby’s rapturist theory, contrary to the teachings of the majority of Christian churches, asserts that Jesus will return secretly, before the period of tribulations and physically remove or “take up” his faithful in the rapture and then return again to physically and publicly inaugurate and rule earth in a one-thousand year reign.  

Darby is also known as the father of dispensationalsim which is a belief that God’s relationship with humanity is divided up into seven historical eras or dispensations.  Each era is governed by a specific covenantal relationship between God and humanity.    These seven dispensations are often understood as:  Innocence, Conscience, Human Government, Promise, Law, Church, and the Millennial Kingdom.  According to Darby and the many who embrace his religious worldview, we are currently in the 6th dispensation which will end with the second coming of Christ and inauguration of a golden age on earth.   

Darby’s rapturist and dispensationalist theories were first introduced to American Christians during his six lecture tours of the United States from 1859-1877 but became popularly embraced by Evangelicals after they were promoted in the 1909 Scofield Reference Bible.             

After the Rapture

Although foreign to the teachings and beliefs of the majority of Christian traditions, the rapture has become popularized in the United States mainly through the writings of Evangelical authors such as Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, and Ernest Angley.   To those who embrace the rapture event as a historical and religious certainty, the origin, evolution and relative newness of the theory is unimportant.  The believers eagerly await the coming of the end times and their pre-tribulation rescue and in the interim; they continue to make many doom eager authors immensely wealthy.

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