Tim LaHaye was recognised as one of the top 25 Christian leaders during the 70s, 80s and 90s. He was best known as one of the modern pioneers of the revival of dispensationalism, also known as rapture theology.
Dispensationalism first appeared in the 1830s and is characterised by a theology that talks of a secret rapture of the Church at any moment, followed by seven years of tribulation. Then comes Armageddon, the return of Jesus and his 1,000-year reign on the earth, followed by eternity.
Talk of the rapture became very popular in the late 70s. However, the expansion of dispensationalism experienced a lull in the 80s as a rediscovered kingdom emphasis took hold. Then, in 1995, LaHaye published the first book in his Left Behind series. This was probably the biggest boost to the dispensationalist movement since the arrival of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909.
I was a dispensationalist from the age of 13 to 27. I had my own end-times charts and commentary on Revelation. I even thought I’d missed the rapture at one point! (It’s a long story.)
LaHaye’s 1972 book, The Beginning of the End predicted that people who had been alive since 1914 would experience the rapture. The book didn’t do well and was quietly forgotten. The 1914 prediction never reappeared in his writing or speaking.
Matthew 24:36-41 is often quoted in the Left Behind films and books as a proof text for the rapture. The passage says: “One will be taken and the other left.” LaHaye believed this referred to the Church being snatched away to heaven. However, since Jesus links this event with the days of Noah, those taken away are actually taken away in judgement. Those who remained were the righteous.
Another central passage is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, which talks about believers being “caught up” to meet Jesus “in the air”. The interpretation of this passage is that this rapture is a silent, stealthy affair as Jesus comes to collect his people and returns to heaven. But far from being silent, this passage is probably the noisiest in the Bible! There are trumpets and shouting archangels, and there is absolutely no mention of us returning with Jesus to heaven.
Rapture theology says that Jesus is coming back, not to redeem the earth but to take us away and destroy it. Thankfully, in Surprised by Hope (SPCK), Tom Wright points out how God wants to redeem the earth, not vacate it to destruction. His ideas have gained prominence among many evangelicals in recent years.
Once you start to read the work of biblical scholars you soon discover that an awful lot of people don’t believe in all this rapture stuff. Discovering in my late teens that some of my heroes, such as Michael Green, John Stott and FF Bruce, opposed rapture theology was a revelation.
With the passing of LaHaye, perhaps it’s time for the Church to move on from an unhelpful and untenable view of the end times. Instead, we must look forward to the day of God and speed its coming’ (2 Peter 3:12).
JOHN TANCOCK was once dubbed “the Welsh apologist” by Premier Christian Radio. He has led and planted a number of churches and has worked in apologetics since his teens.
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