Many preachers consulted the amazingly detailed charts of teachers such as JN Darby and Thompson’s Chain Reference and discovered something wonderful: the Church would be ‘raptured’ ? taken off the planet ? seven years before the second coming. This doctrine taught that although things would get increasingly bad, Christians wouldn’t have to endure the worst times at the End. It was a powerful evangelistic message which galvanised multitudes into making a decision for Christ in case they missed the lift. The popularity of the Left Behind series shows that it is still a powerful message today.
"I STOPPED BELIEVING IN A PRE-TRIBULATION RAPTURE WHEN I DISCOVERED After The Rapture Pet Care .com"
Beliefs about the timing of the rapture created new divisions in the Church. Doctrinal statements started to include ‘pre-tribulation rapture’ among the foundational beliefs of many churches and colleges, especially in the USA. This caused other institutions to add opposing positions to their statements. Often staff and students had to sign their agreement to a particular stance ? and many still do ? as if belief about the rapture is as important as belief in the resurrection. Perhaps it became foundational because many supporters came to Christ as a result of preaching on this topic. But should we insist that everyone believe the same on this point? In the UK we now avoid this division in a very British way ? by not talking about it.
As a teenager I loved the detailed charts of end-time chronology, with their clear predictions about military deployments and political allegiances. I had a problem with Jesus’ saying that we can’t know the day or the hour of his coming, but a Bible teacher assured me that Jesus didn’t say we couldn’t know the year! Every now and then a specific prophecy was fulfilled… only to falter subsequently. In 1981 the tenth nation joined the European Union ? a thrilling match to the number of horns on Revelation’s beast (Revelation 17:12), but now there are 27 members. In 1986 the disaster at Chernobyl (which means ‘wormwood’) contaminated rainfall all over Europe (see Revelation 8:11); however, this didn’t result in multitudes dying.
While my doubts grew about trying to make detailed predictions, I also felt uneasy about the rapture, because it gives Christians a ‘get-outof-suffering-free’ card. By contrast, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Take up your cross’ and those who endure to the end will be saved (Matthew 24:13), which suggests that the faithful will not be rescued before the End.
One will be taken…
The text which encapsulated the rapture for me was the repeated phrase ‘one will be taken and the other left’. Perhaps it was so memorable because the accompanying words of the King James Version inevitably provoked a snigger from the youth group: ‘there shall be two men in one bed…Two women shall be grinding together’ (Luke 17:34-35). Of course I didn’t realise then that in Greek literature the passive verb ‘taken’ often means ‘captured’, which makes a lot of sense in the context. Jesus urges Judean believers to flee (vs 31-33) otherwise they’ll be ‘taken’ by the soldiers (21:20-21).
"WE CAN’T KNOW IN ADVANCE WHICH ASPECTS OF PROPHECIES ABOUT THE END WILL TURN OUT TO BE LITERAL OR SYMBOLIC"
In Revelation, heaven is certainly full of people who have come out of the tribulation, but they have done so by being killed (Revelation 6:11; 7:14; 13:15; 14:13). John doesn’t mention anyone who was rescued from harm. And when Paul says that believers will ‘meet the Lord in the air’, they are those ‘who are left until the coming of the Lord’ ? so they aren’t removed seven years before his coming (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17).
Purpose of prophecy
No one can fathom the meaning of prophecy before it happens. Think of the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus: they are easy to recognise in retrospect, but it was almost impossible before Jesus came. For example, Psalm 22 doesn’t say that it is describing the death of the Messiah. But with hindsight we can see amazing predictions about Jesus’ crucifixion: ‘they pierce my hands and my feet…They…cast lots for my garment’ (vs16-18). However, it also contains details such as: ‘Many bulls surround me… lions…open their mouths wide against me’ (vs12-13). It sounds like Jesus was crucified in a zoo! We can now see these details as metaphorical, but in advance it wasn’t possible to see which were literal and which were symbolic.
In the same way, we can’t know in advance which aspects of prophecies about the End will turn out to be literal or symbolic. So what’s the purpose of prophecy? Jesus told his disciples just before his death: ‘I have told you… before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe’ (John 14:29). Prophecy is mainly for those who will experience the predicted events. When the world is falling apart, they can continue to believe that God is in charge because he predicted what would happen.
Falling into place
I finally realised that I’d stopped believing in a pre-tribulation rapture when I discovered the website AfterTheRapturePetCare.com, run by kindly non-Christians who offer to collect your pets and care for them after you have disappeared. I looked at my rabbit and decided not to bother. If we are still alive when the end times come, we’ll probably find that every guess about what the prophecies mean was wrong; all the pieces will fall into place, and the meaning will be obvious. And then, because of those prophecies ? those assurances from God ? we’ll be strengthened for the coming trouble.
David Instone-Brewer is senior research fellow in Rabbinics and the New Testament at Tyndale House, Cambridge (UCCF:Research)