There’s a new Nicholas Cage movie coming your way and it’s called Left Behind. If you don’t know about it yet, I think you soon will. Even the normally cool Relevant magazine is getting excited about it. The movie is based on the first book of Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ Left Behind multi-volume series. Strictly speaking it’s a reboot since there have already been a few movies made of this series. But this one has a much bigger budget and, well, Nicholas Cage:
With trepidation I followed the link to watch the trailer on You Tube. Not having read the books I cannot comment on how faithful the new movie will be compared with the series. But one line in the trailer really struck me: a young woman says, “The God my father talked about would never do something like this!” I am guessing that she is referring to the disappearance of all Christians in a secret rapture.
I would like to take this opportunity to publicly agree: I do not believe there will be a secret rapture.
The doctrine of a secret rapture is by no means new: there have been other books (Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth to name one among many), movies (A Thief In The Night) and even songs (Larry Norman’s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready…”) that describe such a thing. But the effect of this teaching is often one of engendering fear, and not even a fear of going to hell so much as a fear of having to live through something called ‘the Great Tribulation’.
It should be noted at the outset that the rapture – secret or otherwise – is not in the Creeds or the 39 Articles. Instead, the Creeds simply state the fact of Jesus’ return in an event that will involve both the resurrection of those who have already died followed by a great judgment. So basically this is not a doctrine of first importance. It is a ‘non-essential’, as in the phrase usually attributed to Augustine: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”
So where does the concept come from? The doctrine of a secret rapture of Christians comes from bringing together a few different passages of the Bible and arguing that these different passages are actually all speaking about the same thing. I call this jigsaw hermeneutics: different bits of Scripture are treated like jigsaw pieces and are fitted together (actually, forced would be a better way of describing it) into a big picture that owes more to the interpreter’s presuppositions than it does to the individual pieces themselves.
Regarding a secret rapture, there are two main passages: 1 Thess. 4:15-17 and Matt. 24:30-31, 36-41. Then there are quite a few secondary verses used to support the basic teaching: for example, John 14:2-3, Ezek 20:34 and 2 Thess. 2:7, among others. However, a discussion of the rapture is rarely separated from a discussion of the Great Tribulation, so all of Matt 24 – 25 (as well as the parallel passages Mark 13 and Luke 21) come into play, as do many other passages, not least the entire book of Revelation!
The end result is this doctrine of a secret rapture of Christians, secret in that those not involved (non-Christians) only become aware of it after the fact, rather than during the event itself. This is further complicated by the discussion as to when this rapture will occur with respect to the Great Tribulation, resulting in pre-tribulation, post-tribulation, and mid-tribulation raptures.
An Important Principle of Biblical Interpretation
I would like to argue, however, that such a doctrine must be treated with great caution. For one thing, a derived doctrine should not contradict a direct doctrine, that is, one that is explicitly taught in Scripture. Consequently, doctrines that are based on harmonisations need to be examined in the light of an extremely important principle of Biblical interpretation. Put simply, each passage should be interpreted within the literary and historical context in which it is found. What this usually means in practice is that passages must primarily be dealt with within the book in which they are found.
As a good example, how many people know that the Antichrist does not appear anywhere in the book of Revelation? Instead, the references to “antichrist” in 1 John 2:18 – and neglecting the reference to many “antichrists” in 2 John – are harmonised with the beast from the land in Rev. 13:11-18 who is also referred to as the false prophet (Rev. 16:13; 19:20; 20:10). Paul’s references to “the man of lawlessness” (2 Thess 2:3-12) are usually also thrown in for good measure! The end result of this conglomeration is to blur what the separate passages are actually teaching or describing in favour of constructing some sort of hybrid ‘bigger picture’ of the End Times. Against this particular harmonisation, in 1 and 2 John the author is talking about false teachers within the church, not some End Times satanic ruler. And for anyone wanting to explore the book of Revelation in its first century context, I would recommend reading my novel, The Ephesus Scroll.
Similarly, if we allow the passages that are used to support a secret rapture of Christians to be interpreted within their contexts, we are actually being faithful to the Bible, albeit at the expense of losing sight of this bigger picture of the rapture. However, I would contend that this is actually no loss since this secret rapture of Christians is actually unbiblical in that it is explicitly contradicted by the very passages used to support it.
1 Thess. 4:15-17
There is no denying that 1 Thess. 4:15-17 is dealing with what has since become known as the rapture. Paul here does explicitly state that when Jesus returns Christians will join with Him in the clouds and be with Him forever from that time on. However, this is not the main point of the passage. Paul writes to the Thessalonians to encourage them about the ultimate fate of their fellow Christian brothers and sisters who had already died. They had somehow reached the conclusion that those who had died would miss out on being with Jesus forever. Paul then teaches them about the resurrection of the dead that is to immediately precede the rapture.
Now, if this was all that people taught about the rapture then I would be happy to be included and there would be no need for a blog post such as this. However, Paul says nothing in this passage about this event being secret, an event that would only become apparent to non-Christians by them finding clothes, glasses, and false teeth on empty seats previously occupied by Christians!
In addition to this, Paul uses a word that was used to describe a delegation of people who would go out from a city to welcome a visiting dignitary. But then they would accompany the dignitary back into the city. So by analogy, even when Christians join Jesus in the clouds – Acts 1:11 tells us that he will return the same way he departed – they will then return to earth and be with Jesus forever here.
This brings us to the passage that is most often used to support the element of secrecy. Actually, you would think that such a thing would be impossible given the way this passage starts:
At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. (v30-31)
This is explicitly said to be a world-wide public event. Then, only a few verses later, Jesus says, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (As an aside, if only Christians had taken that verse seriously, there would have been a lot less End Times speculation – and shame on those who say that this verse doesn’t rule out knowing the year or even the month!) Jesus then provides some illustrative material to support his statement, illustrations that all have something in common: suddenness and unexpectedness.
It is here that we find the classic “Left Behind” verses:
Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. (v40-41)
Now those pushing for a rapture harmonisation argue that those being taken here are the same as those being gathered in verse 31. But this is not necessarily so. After all, the verses immediately preceding are concerned with the time of Noah and the Flood:
For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. (v38-39)
This is what is being discussed: judgment upon those not ready. When Jesus goes on to describe two men working in the field and one is taken, he means one was not prepared for the return of Jesus and is thereby taken in judgment. Similarly, with the two women grinding away at their hand-mills: one is prepared for Jesus’ return, the other is taken in judgment. This is why Jesus concludes this passage with the following words:
Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him. (v42-44)
So, if this is what it means to be “Left Behind” then leave me behind! I don’t want to be taken in judgment. Rather, I want to be prepared for Jesus’ return, a return that will not happen in secret but will be witnessed by the whole world. I want to join with Him and all Christians – both those who are alive at the time and those who will be resurrected – in that great ingathering that will then occur. So, really, if anything should be left behind please let it be this unbiblical notion of a secret rapture of Christians.