The Rapture: Fact or Fiction
By Dean Olson
The rapture is one of the greatest gifts that God has promised the faithful. So great in fact it is often referred to as the “blessed hope:” “Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ;” (Titus 2:13). The promise is that someday soon, at the blowing of a trumpet and the shout of an archangel, Jesus will appear in the clouds and take up believers to Heaven.
At the rapture Jesus will physically transform us in a fraction of a second from our aging, achy, disease-prone bodies to new, glorified and immortal bodies suitable for eternity. The Bible describes this transformation as occurring in “the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:52). Some sources estimate that is as fast as eleven one-hundredths of a second.
It is unclear what unbelievers will see or hear when the rapture occurs. Some scholars believe that the trumpet of the Lord, and his appearing in the sky, will only be sensed by believers being raptured. The unsaved may only see the vanishing of believers in a fraction of a second and hear a loud thunder clap, “…in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52). Jesus tells us that it will be sudden, “For just like the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so the coming of the Son of Man will be (Matthew 24:27).
The rapture is one of the most controversial topics in Christian eschatology. Much of that controversy stems from Satan’s deceit in his attempts to keep believers ignorant of God’s prophetic timeline. Satan knows Bible prophecy (Revelation 12:12). He recognizes the significance of world events as signs of the times that Jesus is coming soon. Because Satan does not want anyone else to be aware of that fact he does everything possible to discredit or obscure God’s prophetic word. That is why we are seeing a growing number of self-proclaimed experts criticizing the rapture, especially the pre-tribulation rapture. Criticism ranges from claims that the word “rapture” never appears in the Bible to it being a hoax stemming from a satanic vision.
Many criticisms of the rapture stem from legitimate disagreements over its timing. Others are part of Satan’s fog of evil designed to keep believers from understanding God’s plan. Perhaps the most common criticism is that neither the word “rapture,” nor the rapture concept appears in the Bible. By that logic, the word Bible is also missing from scripture but that doesn’t prevent people from referring to its 66 books as the Holy Bible.
In fact, the term rapture comes from a Latin word Harpazo which means to catch up, to snatch away, or to take out. It is a Biblical word that comes right out of the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible. The word is found in 1 Thessalonians 4:17: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them [dead believers] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord always.” In the New American Standard Version, the English phrase, “caught up,” is used. The same phrase is used in the King James and New International Versions.
The first clear mention of the concept of the rapture is found in the words of Jesus recorded in John 14:1-4. Jesus said, “I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” The most detailed revelation of the actual events related to the rapture is given by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. He says that when Jesus appears, the dead in Christ, also known as the Church age saints, will be resurrected and caught up first. Then, those of us who are alive in Christ will be translated “to meet the Lord in the air.” Paul then exhorts us to “comfort one another with these words.”
Paul mentions the rapture again in 1 Corinthians 15 verses 51 and 52, his famous chapter on the resurrection of the dead, “Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” Paul’s reference here to being changed is an allusion to the fact that the saints (the raptured believers in Christ) will receive glorified bodies that will be perfected, imperishable and immortal (1 Corinthians 15:42-44, and 50-55).
A second pernicious criticism is that the first appearance of a pre-tribulation rapture originated in a demonic vision by Margaret MacDonald. One of the most widely circulated attacks against its pre-trib timing is the notion that a Scottish girl named Margaret MacDonald started this theological view back in 1830. The claim is typically made that MacDonald received a demonic vision, passed it on to John Darby, who in turn popularized it.
According to R. A. Huebner, in his well-documented book, “Precious Truths Revived and Defended Through J. N. Darby, Vol. 1” (Morganville, N. J.: Present Truth Publishers, 1991), Darby developed his belief in the pre-trib rapture while convalescing from a horse riding accident during December 1826 and January 1827, at least three years before anyone, including MacDonald, could have influenced his thought.
Huebner documents that Darby’s pre-trib rapture beliefs were developed from what “he saw from Isaiah 32 that there was a different dispensation coming . . . that Israel and the Church were distinct. Darby, himself said in 1857 that he first started understanding things relating to the pre-trib Rapture “thirty years ago.” With that fixed point of reference Huebner documents that Darby “had already understood those truths upon which the pre-tribulation rapture hinges.”
Other scholars have discovered a host of rapture writings that predate Margaret MacDonald. As far back as the 4th Century AD Ephraim the Syrian, a 4th Century deacon and theologian of the Syriac Orthodox Church, wrote a wide variety of hymns, poems, sermons and biblical exegesis. He is credited with a practical style of theology that helped explain Church doctrine during troubled times. He is also considered a Saint by some branches of Christianity. A sermon written by him sometime around 374 A.D. talks about the rapture:
Why therefore do we not reject every care of earthly actions and prepare ourselves for the meeting of the Lord Christ, so that he may draw us from the confusion, which overwhelms all the world?…For all the saints and elect of God are gathered, prior to the tribulation that is to come, and are taken to the Lord lest they see the confusion that is to overwhelm the world because of our sins. (Source: Ice and Demy, 1999, pps. 55-66).
There is also the discovery that Morgan Edwards wrote about his pre-tribulation rapture beliefs in 1744 and later published them in 1788. Edwards taught the following:
The distance between the first and second resurrection will be somewhat more than a thousand years. I say, somewhat more- , because the dead saints will be raised, and the living changed at Christ’s “appearing in the air” (I Thessalonians. IV:17); and this will be about three years and a half before the millennium, as we shall see hereafter: but will he and they abide in the air all that time? No: they will ascend to paradise, or to some one of those many “mansions in the father’s house” (John xiv. 2), and disappear during the foresaid period of time. The design of this retreat and disappearing will be to judge the risen and changed saints; for “now the time is come that judgment must begin,” and that will be “at the house of God” (I Peter IV:17) . . . (The spelling of all Edwards quotes have been modernized for clarity.)
Edwards clearly separates the rapture from the Second Coming of Christ by three and a half years. He uses modern pre-trib rapture verses, including 1 Thessalonians 4:17 and John 14:2, to describe the rapture.
A more recent refutation of this criticism occurred during a recent meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in late 2001 in Colorado Springs. At that conference, Francis X. Gumerlock presented a paper entitled “Before Darby: Expanding the Historical Boundaries of Pretribulationism.” Gumerlock argues that Brother Dolcino and his sect, called the Apostolic Brethren, taught a pretribulation rapture around 1304 A.D.
Gumerlock’s research led him to conclude that the fourteenth-century text, “The History of Brother Dolcino,” demonstrates that some Christians in the Middle Ages held a view of the rapture that had basic elements of its pre-tribulation timing. These include a significant gap of time between the rapture of the saints – believing Christians – and their subsequent descent to earth during Christ’s Second Coming and the purpose of the rapture related to escaping end-time tribulation.
The most controversial aspect of the rapture is its timing. Some place it at the end of the tribulation making it concurrent with the Second Coming. Others place it in the middle of the tribulation. Still others believe that it will occur at the beginning of the tribulation. The reason for these differing viewpoints is that the exact time of the rapture is not precisely revealed in scripture. It is only inferred.
I believe the best inference of Scripture is that the rapture will occur before the beginning of the Tribulation. The most important reason has to do with the issue of imminence. Over and over in Scripture we are told to watch for the appearing of the Lord. We are told “to be ready” (Matt. 24:44), “to be on the alert” (Matt. 24:42), “to be dressed in readiness” (Luke 12:35), and to “keep your lamps alight” (Luke 12:35). The clear force of these persistent warnings is that Jesus can appear at any moment. Only the pre-Tribulation concept of the rapture allows for the imminence of the Lord’s appearing for His Church.
When the rapture is placed at any other point in time the imminence of the Lord’s appearing is destroyed because other prophetic events must happen first. For example, if the rapture is going to occur in mid-tribulation, then why should I live looking for the Lord’s appearing at any moment? I would be looking instead for an Israeli peace treaty, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the revelation of the Antichrist. Based on Biblical prophecy, then and only then can the Lord appear.
A key argument in behalf of a pre-trib rapture has to do with the promises of God to protect the Church from His wrath. The book of Revelation shows that the wrath of God will be poured out during the entire period of the tribulation. The Bible promises over and over that the Church will be delivered from God’s wrath. Romans 5:9 says that “we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him [Jesus].” 1 Thessalonians 1:10 states that we are waiting “for His Son from heaven…who will deliver us from the wrath to come.” The promise is repeated in 1 Thessalonians 5:9 – “God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In addition, there are several prophetic types in Scripture that seem to affirm the concept of deliverance from the tribulation. Enoch is a prominent example. He was a prophet to the Gentiles who was raptured out of the world before God poured out His wrath in the great flood of Noah’s time. Enoch appears to be an archetype of the Gentile Church that will be taken out of the world before God pours out His wrath again. If so, then Noah and his family are a prototype for the Jewish remnant that will be protected through the Tribulation.
Another Old Testament symbolic type which points toward a pre-trib rapture is the experience of Lot and his family. They were delivered out of Sodom and Gomorrah before those cities were destroyed. The Apostle Peter alludes to both of these examples in his second epistle. He states that if God spared Noah and Lot, then He surely “knows how to rescue the godly from trial and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment” (2 Peter 4-9).
I believe that we should be looking for two future comings of the Lord, one near the beginning of the tribulation, the other at the end. The first is the rapture that will occur when the Lord appears in the clouds for His Church. He doesn’t step foot on earth at that time. The second is the Second Coming. It occurs on Christ’s return to the earth to “judge and wage war” against the enemies of God (Revelation 19:11).
His appearance at that time will be so powerful that in addition to destroying the massive armies arrayed against him “with the breath of his mouth” (2 Thessalonians 2:8) that at the moment His foot touches down the Mount of Olives outside of Jerusalem will be “split in two from east to west forming a great valley with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south (Zechariah 14:4).
Many skeptics and unbelievers wallow in ignorance and misjudge God by His unfinished work. However haphazard or mysterious God’s dealings with men may appear, those who believe the Bible must acknowledge that His original and unalterable plan has been, and still is progressing systematically to completion. Believers are able to discern God’s purpose because of spiritual discernment via the Holy Spirit. The view of the rest is obscured by the fog of evil leaving them to grope in darkness while awaiting the surprise unfolding of God’s plan. “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
I am not a prophet, but I believe that the signs of the times point to the fact that Jesus is at the very gates of Heaven waiting for His Father’s command to appear for His Church. And just as prophesied, the growing number of scoffers is a key prophetic sign that the end time is near (2 Peter 3:3 and Jude 1:18). And that means the rapture is even nearer.
Dean T. Olson, Omaha