Still here? Me too. As everyone knows, the end of the world came and went on the 21st of May. Harold Camping, a television minister who preaches a numerological based form of end time prophesy, had predicted that at 6 p.m., in each consecutive time zone, God’s judgment would begin with earthquakes and the righteous being “raptured” to meet the Lord. In the thirty years since I’ve become a Christian I’ve run into these ideas before, though never one that generated as much media interest, and never one that has generated as much contempt—not just within the groups that you’d expect, but within the Christian community as well.
But for all the attention Camping drew to the idea the God was going to ‘rapture’ His people away, there was little discussion of what exactly is meant by the concept. There was even less discussion of how it is actually a new teaching—one unheard of before the mid-nineteenth century, when it was promoted by an Irish clergyman named John Nelson Darby. Darby’s teaching, collectively called Dispensationalism, would later form the basis of the Schofield Study Bible (1909), which would promote it throughout the US and UK. A distinctive feature of Dispensationalist eschatology, the study of the end times, is the idea that the Church will ascend to meet Jesus in the air before His actual return to set up an earthly kingdom. A lot of terrible things will precede Christ’s return, but Darby taught that the Church would not have to suffer through them. Christ would take His people safely out first. In spite of efforts by its advocates to prove otherwise, no one taught this doctrine before the rise of Dispensationalism.
Eschatology has always been an important part of Christianity. Arguably Christianity itself grew out of Jewish eschatology and the expectation that the Messiah was coming and that he would bring justice for his people and peace on earth. When the Messiah did come (hey, I am a Christian after all), things didn’t quite meet their expectations. He came, sure, but instead of setting up an earthly kingdom He set up a spiritual one. He was crucified, buried, resurrected, and ascended into Heaven, promising to come again and bring about the sort of triumphant new world the Jews had been expecting in the first place. The first generation of Christians fully expected to see this happen in their lifetime. When some of them died without seeing it, others began to worry. Paul wrote to believers in Thessalonica:
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.And in the next chapter he wrote:
1 Thessalonians 4:13-17
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, "There is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.While they often cite of verses as well, these two passages are the hooks on which the Dispensational idea of a separate “rapture” of the Church hang. Verse seventeen of chapter four, highlighted in the first quote, describes the Church rising to meet Jesus on His return. But what Paul is writing about is not the escape of the Church. He is addressing a concern that members of the Thessalonian church had regarding those who had died waiting for the Second Coming. Paul assures them that all of Jesus’ followers will rise to meet Him, not just those still living when it happens, and that’s how it was understood for almost the entirety of Christian history.
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Verse nine of chapter five, highlighted in the second quote, is quoted to prove that the Church will not have to suffer the wrath God will pour out on the Earth before He returns, but the point Paul is making here is that the Church is meant to walk uprightly and that we should do exactly that. We were not meant for Hell, the “wrath,” but for Heaven. And, again, that’s how it was understood through most of Christian history.
When I say these interpretations were held for most of Christian history, I mean universally held. They are still held by the majority of Churches. One of the interesting things about Dispensationalism and being ‘rapture ready’ is their dominance over Christian media, particularly in the US. It’s a dominance that tends to overshadow other positions. Historically, most Americans followed the Calvinist teaching of the Puritan forefathers and were Postmillenialists, believing that the coming of the Lord would be ushered in by the evangelical work of the Church, which would create a universally Christian world and only then would Jesus come.
Being a Pentecostal, pre-tribulation Dispensationalism was one of the first things I was taught. Almost immediately I saw that the idea of the Church escaping the Great Tribulation, as its called, was inconsistent with many scriptures and I adopted what is called the “post-trib” position. This accepts the historic—and, yes, scriptural—teaching regarding the Church and the tribulation, but retains the Dispensationalist understanding of the Bible and the Church. Over time, however, due to the inconsistencies of Dispensationalism, I studied the matter out and rejected it altogether. (This was one of the first things I blogged about.) Ultimately I decided that what was more important than any of the ‘isms’ was that I be ready. That I walk as a Christian each day, living the values I profess, so that I will be ready whenever He comes. Whenever that happens.