Dispensing with Dispensationalism and Leaving Behind “Left Behind”
I had a few more people ask me some questions about the rapture so I am undertaking my most concise, clear cut effort to do away with rapture theology.
Let’s start by saying that not one church father over the last 2000 years has believed in any thing like the rapture. There are no church creeds that affirm a taking away of Christians to heaven. There are no denominations that officially uphold rapture theology that were created before 1830.
Rapture came about in the late 1700’s and find it’s foothold in the 1830’s. John Nelson Darby, considered the Father of Dispensationalism, spread his rapture theology around Plymouth Brethren circles for years. This culminated with some other false beliefs about prophecy, future, one-man anti-Christ, and so on. These ideas found there way in Matthew Henry’s Commentaries and into the Scofield Reference Bibles. The idea gained more and more popularity. Dallas Theological Seminary grabbed hold of the theology and some of their presidents wrote books supporting it. Dallas Theological Seminary has had a huge impact on very outspoken conservative evangelicals. I consider myself evangelical, but a different flavor than these folks.
In our generation, the biggest proponent of this thought has been the “Left Behind” series. This is a series of books wildly popular, especially in America. They have popularized this unbiblical/ untraditional End Times scenario to such a degree that this is where our biblically illiterate Christian culture gets its information about Jesus and His return. There are also tons and tons of dispensational preachers claiming to have all the answers.
In fact, until I went to seminary, I believed that Heaven was our ultimate destination. I believed that rapture would take us away and we would live in some spiritual existence forever. This dualism is a very common understanding of death and afterlife in many evangelical churches. Then I started reading about pastors and leaders of churches and professors who think that our rapture and heaven beliefs are ridiculous. I had to ask myself, “How has the church gotten so off base from scripture and orthodoxy? And why do those who know most about scripture, like know Greek and Hebrew fluently, consider these beliefs rubbish?” The only answer that I can come up with is that these things, the things of heaven and afterlife and even the bible in general in many respects, are vague and require years of growth and study and sitting with and chewing on over and over and still maybe not come to an answer. But people don’t want the disciple’s route; they want fast answers and everything to be in black and white.
Fast answers, even if wrong, are one of the problems with Americans. We want black and white answers, even when there aren’t any. Alexis de Tocqueville, in his ground breaking study on the birth of our nation, noted that we were very practical, very pragmatic, that we weren’t philosophizers. He said, “In America the purely practical part of science is admirably understood, and careful attention is paid to the theoretical portion which is immediately requisite to application. On this head the Americans always display a clear, free, original, and inventive power of mind. But hardly anyone in the United States devotes himself to the essentially theoretical and abstract portion of human knowledge. In this respect the Americans carry to excess…” (Democracy in America, Chapter 10). I fear he was right both 200 years ago and now. Basically he said, Americans are awesome at inventing and applying knowledge to situations. They study things for themselves and even put their discoveries in common language for all to understand. But there is a deeper, higher thought that has little practicality but is still “essential” or necessary for a society. He says, “Nothing is more necessary to the culture of the higher sciences or of the more elevated departments of science than meditation…” (ibid). Unfortunately, understanding religion, especially harder concepts of self-denial, the Kingdom of God, and Eschatology (The study of End Times) all deserve a lot of meditating, of chewing, or thinking without a lot of application. So, I believe Rapture Theology and Dispensationalism are so popular because we all have these questions in us of “what happens when we die?” “Where did my loved ones go?” “Jesus said he is coming back to make all things right and to dwell with us forever, what does that look like, why and when?” These questions are meant to drive us closer to Christ. They aren’t solvable in a day. Yet Dispensationalists will tell you point blank what they think they have interpreted correctly. They have an answer that is easy to understand and is very black and white. Unfortunately it is often wrong and more than that, it robs God and His Word of its beauty and inherent mystery that he purposely leaves. Again, my professor, world-renowned New Testament scholar Ben Witherington loves to say, “God has revealed enough about the future to give us hope, but not so much that we do not have to live by faith every day for the rest of our lives."
In fact, in the end of “The Challenge of Jesus” the great N. T. Wright says that he thinks the End is going to be a lot like the Road to Emmaus and the Two Disciples with Jesus. When Jesus had died and just after his resurrection, there were two unnamed disciples on the road to Emmaus. They were sad at the news of Jesus and his death. Jesus showed up in disguise and talked with them. After a while scripture says that Jesus showed them that all of the scriptures, the law and the prophets pointed to his death and resurrection, that this was the plan all along. Their eyes were opened and they rejoiced. Wright thinks that this is what the end will be like. Jesus will show up at the end and show us exactly what he meant and he will open our eyes, but until then, there will be a certain amount of mystery. This whole idea should be our first sign of false teaching. When someone has all the answers, and even a date for the end, then it is time to pack things up and go disciple under someone else.
But Rapture folks aren’t without scripture to give a little credence to their beliefs. Again, Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4 are the two main passages they use to back up their ideas. In fact, I don’t think I have seen any other support passages except the repeat of Matthew 24 in Mark 13 and Luke 17. Unfortunately, good bible study isn’t done by having an idea AND THEN looking up verses to support them but by reading scripture and letting it form ideas. The first way is called Eisegesis and is bad, using religion and scripture to support our ideas. The second is Exegesis and is good. Let’s look at these passages in depth:
Matthew 24 says, “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other... ‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming." (Matthew 24: 30-31 & 36-42).
- The conversation usually revolves around the last few verses: “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” This was the scenario I was presented with as a young man and many other kids and people believe that this is the rapture. There is even a Christian-ese way of just alluding to this passage and we all know what you’re talking about, “two men in a field, one will be taken…” Ask most evangelicals about just that snippet and they will say rapture. The problem is the context gives an exact opposite meaning:
- The verse immediately preceding the men in the field says, “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.” NOAH IS THE CONTEXT. Almost everyone knows that story of Noah, but if not, you can read it in Genesis 6-11. Genesis is the first book in the bible, so go to the very beginning and skip ahead to the 6th chapter. You could probably watch “Evan Almighty” to fill in the blanks :). The story goes something like: (1) Man has turned evil and rebelled towards God, (2) God is going to bring judgment on the people by destroying everyone except one righteous family to start over with (3) Noah is chosen to build the Ark therefore preserving the whole animal species and humans through all those on the ark.
- The questions are: Who is taken? Who is left behind on earth? Why did God have Noah build such a big ark? What does God say about creation?
- Who is taken?: The wicked… the evil who are being destroyed. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Literally Matthew 24 says, “and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Do you see? Those in the flood are swept away. They are the ones who depart. The flood takes them away. So it will be when Jesus comes, those taken away will be like the ones lost in the flood. The ones left are the ones who are righteous.
- Who is left behind?: Noah, his family and the rest of creation… This is God’s favored line. This is his chosen way to restart creation. It is actually good to be left behind!
- Why such a big ark?: God is saving creation too, animals and all, except unicorns, they out because they so arrogant.
- What does God say about Creation: it is good! (Genesis 1)
- What does Revelation 21 (the second to last chapter in the whole bible) say, “2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home* of God is among mortals. He will dwell* with them; they will be his peoples,* and God himself will be with them;*4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away’” (vv. 2-4, emphasis mine).
- So, all of those things comes together to show us that God loves creation, he loves the world that he created. When Noah was to start the whole thing over, he was left behind here with the pairs of animals. “…so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Jesus doesn’t want to whisk us away to heaven to live in some sort of weird spirit realm; in fact, Revelation 21 says that God’s spirit realm is coming here, to earth, so that He will dwell with us. The new heaven and new earth is Heaven and Earth combined.
- Some questions you may have:
- What is heaven? - We don’t totally know but we do know that it is the realm of God and that when we die BEFORE the End Times, we are with God in heaven. But heaven isn’t our final home, just a temporary place until the resurrection?
- What is the Resurrection? - Read 1 Corinthians 15 – we are all going to receive new, physical bodies that aren’t susceptible to disease, death, decay. Again, no endless spiritual realm, but a physical realm with new bodies that do no perish. We all get to have our own personal Easter!
- What of heaven and Earth? - They will be judged and refined like gold passing through fire. They aren’t literally going to be melted like dispensationalist’s interpretation of Peter, but refined like figuratively. All injustice will be stomped out. All hunger and disease and pollution will be forever gone. All will be fully reconciled to God and restored to original glory.
I hope all that makes sense, because now we have to move into a more philosophical passage; 1 Thessalonians 4. This passage has received a bulk of the weight for supporting Rapture Theology. It is tired of carrying all the weight they have put on it. Hopefully we can unburden it. Before we read it though, let me say, it is a mysterious verse. This whole topic is flooded with super-natural acts and insights. I am not trying to make the super-natural like the natural. I am not trying to bring the things of faith into the things of science, only provide reason in the things of faith. So yes, these things sounds weird, and are weird, but that is ok, I am not trying to explain away their weirdness, only add reason for why they are weird and let them be that way.
“For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, 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 for ever" (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
- So, let me first acknowledge the rapture ideas present in the text:
- Yes, Jesus shows up
- Yes, there is language that involves rising...
- Yes, there is even this tricky passage about being caught up in the clouds together in the air and then being with the Lord forever.
- I kind of feel like Houdini, locked in a straight jacket, getting plunged into some water and then having to appear on the other side unscathed. This passage seems to support rapture if any ever did. But the experts agree, there is no rapture hiding underneath here.
- But first, before we explain away the rapture here, the experts want you to read another passage; Psalm 24, “Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. 8Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle. 9Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory. Selah” (vv. 7 – 10).
- This is a scene of a King returning. This scene happened all over the world for millennia. Kings would return from battle or diplomacy and the gates would be lifted. There would even be a committee that would go out of the city and usher him back into town.
- Both Ben Witherington and N. T. Wright have the same interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18. They both think that those being caught up into the air in the clouds are the welcoming committee of the King, going out (or up) to usher Him back to town. This certainly makes the most sense when we re-read Revelation 21 (above). They both say:
- “What is envisioned here was a rather common scene. A king has been away, perhaps away in a far country fighting battles. He, his entourage, and his army return to is own capital city” (Witherington, Referring to Psalm 24 in his book “Revelation and the End Times,” pp. 17-18) He connects this to 1 Thessalonians 4, “The difference, of course, was that Christ is envisioned as returning from heaven, trailing clouds of glory, not kicking up clouds of dust on a war charger. But still the imagery used is that of a returning triumphant king, adopted and adapted to the circumstances New Testament writers believed would occur when Christ returned. Here is how Paul describes that great and fearsome Day of the Lord in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18… [see above for verse]… First of all, notice what Paul says about the Lord coming down from heaven with a loud cry of command – in the entrance liturgy [Psalm 24] this would be a cry for the gates to open. In this version of the entrance liturgy, it is the cry for the gates of the land of the dead to open and the command for the dead in Christ to arise and come forth to the Lord. Second, there is clarification that the person doing the heralding is, in fact, the archangel who descends with Christ blowing a trumpet loud enough to wake the dead! Hark the herald angels, indeed! Thus, in this scenario, first the dead in Christ will arise, then those Christians alive at the time will rise up to meet Christ in the air with the departed saints. This is the traditional greeting committee going out to welcome the king back into his realm or dominion. Everyone listening to these words would know what comes next – the King with the greeting party descends back to the earthly realm, where they will be together evermore and Christ will reign on earth forever.” (p. 21, emphasis mine).
- The brilliant Bishop, N. T. Wright, says basically the same thing in his paper “Farewell to Rapture.” He says, “Paul conjures up images of an emperor visiting a colony or province. The citizens go out to meet him in open country and then escort him into the city. 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” (http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_BR_Farewell_Rapture.htm, emphasis mine, everyone should read the whole thing, sooooo good).
- For my more reformed friends:
- Here is R. C. Sproul on this passage, “Though passages like the one for today’s study are sometimes appealed to as proof of a secret rapture, the Bible is quite clear that there is but one return of Jesus and that all will see it. On that glorious day, as Paul tells us, the dead in Christ will rise and the faithful still living will join them ‘in the air’ to meet the Savior as He returns to earth to bring His kingdom to consummation (1 Thess. 4:16–17). Our hope in the return of Christ is not a hope that we will escape great persecution and suffering. Rather, it is a hope that on the glorious day of Jesus’ return all of our suffering will be reversed and that we will be vindicated as the people of God. We will meet Christ in the air and share visibly in His triumphal reign over all” (http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/rapture/, emphasis mine)
- So, 1 Thessalonians 4 is an interesting passage. I am not claiming that the case is solved on that pericope, but I think Witherington’s and Wright’s interpretation fits best with the overall ideas of the End Times.
- Also, if we look at the passage, yes there is a meeting of the Lord in the air, but some key rapture pieces are missing:
- First, the passage says air and clouds, not heaven… this is the earthly realm.
- Second, it is not a secret rapture as there are trumpets and loud commands with clouds being swirled about.
The Rapture is a new idea and its biblical support is lacking. The support it does have is from ambiguous, mysterious verses that I would be leery about establishing any doctrine on. I think it is time to do away with dispensationalism and rapture. The church has been plagued by it for too long. It provides easy answers for complex situations. At best, it over-simplifies God’s word in a wrong direction and at worst it is heresy, providing an escapism from this world that Christ died to redeem. At worst, it causes Christians to take delight in the injustices of the world because it means “Jesus is that much closer.” At worst, it causes us to miss the Kingdom gospel of Jesus restoring all creation with the ending being a reconciliation of Earth and Heaven when Heaven comes to earth.