Why “Left Behind” Should Be… Left Behind

Do you strive to be “rapture ready”? Are you looking forward to Jesus’ “secret coming” for his saints? Have you ever not known where a family member or friend was, and thought maybe you had missed the rapture? Are you relieved that you won’t have to experience the wretched seven years of tribulation that will befall those left behind? Does your car have a sticker that reads, “WARNING: In case of rapture, this vehicle will be unmanned”? Are you obsessed with Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsay, and/or Kirk Cameron?

Maybe those last two ones were a joke. But, the reality is that many evangelical Christians today (especially in America) would answer yes to most of those questions. And that is because the doctrine of “the rapture” has gained so much popularity here in the last century or so. But what do we make of the rapture? Is it taught in the Bible? Or Is it a human invention?

Let me put my cards on the table early. The word “rapture” is a tricky word. It finds its roots in the Latin verb “rapio”, which means “to catch up” or “take away”. This is the root word that the Latin vulgate uses (rapiemur) to translate the Greek word ἁρπαγησόμεθα in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, which says, “After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”In one sense, therefore, I do believe in a rapture. However, I believe that the Bible teaches it in a drastically different way than popular evangelicalism has in recent days, as demonstrated in the Left Behind series.

This view of the rapture has its roots only as recent as the 1830s. John Nelson Darby, the father of dispensationalism, formulated this view of the rapture, simply in order to fit it in his sharp distinction between Israel (ethnic Jewish people) and the Church. His theory was that, seven years before Jesus’ glorious second coming, Jesus would have a “secret coming”, where he gathered his Church (and not ethnic Israel), to save them from his wrath and in order to deal with ethnic Israel. The thing about this view is that it was literally nonexistent in Church history prior to this time.

Thus, it takes one developing this idea of the rapture outside of the Bible and then bringing it in. There is no where in the New Testament that explicitly teaches a rapture that occurs prior to the Second Coming. Rather, and what I believe to be true, the rapture is a detail of Jesus’ glorious Second Coming, happening around the same time. In other words, as Jesus comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, his people, both dead and alive, will meet him in the air as he descends and then follow behind him as he comes to the earth.

Let’s look at some texts. Matthew 24:29-31:

“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, 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.”

In this passage, you have the rapture (the gathering of the saints, the elect, those in Christ to meet him in the air) and the glorious Second Coming (not a secret one) happening at the same time after the tribulation, not before.

It’s also remarkable how similar the classic “rapture” passage of 1 Thessalonians 4, used by dispensationalists to prove the “pre-tribulational rapture”, is to the account which Jesus gives of his Second Coming in Matthew 24. Note the similarities: Christ Himself returns (1 Thess. 4:16, Matt. 24:30), from heaven (4:16, 24:30), with a shout (4:16, 24:30 [in power]), accompanied by angels (4:16, 24:31), with trumpet of God (4:16, 24:31), believers gathered (4:17, 24:31,40-41), in clouds (4:17, 24:30), time unknown (5:1-2, 24:36), will come as a thief (5:2,4, 24:43), believers to watch/stay awake (5:6, 24:42), and even more.

Paul and Jesus are literally using the same language! Why do pre-trib rapture proponents insist that they are talking about two different events, separated by seven years?

Whenever the Bible talks about the coming of the Lord or the day of the Lord, it always speaks of it in the singular. It isn’t the comings (plural) or the days (also plural). However, according to the pre-tribulational theory of the rapture, Jesus does indeed come back twice, once in secret and again in power and glory. Since the glorious coming of Christ is always called the Second Coming… shouldn’t we allow it to be such? Too many times, though, it is technically made the “Third” Coming.

2 Thessalonians 2:1 says, “Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him…” Here, it clearly ties the rapture (being gathered together to him) with the coming of Jesus. Why must we separate what Scripture always ties together?

I also find it interesting that the New Testament is full of signs that Christians are to look out for before the coming of the Lord. Indeed, we are commanded to “keep awake and be sober” (1 Thess. 5:6), to “be ready” (Matthew 24:44), and given a number of things to look out for. Why would Jesus, Paul, and the other NT writers give us these commands and these signs, if we will be in heaven with him? If we won’t be even aware of anything going on directly before his second coming, then why do they make such a big deal about letting us know what, indeed, will happen then?

One more point, and a pretty important one at that. The famous verse, 1 Thessalonians 4:17, reads as such, “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.” The key term here is “in the air”. Notice, it does not say “in heaven”, as is commonly thought. We are not raptured out of this world to be with God in heaven while he nukes the planet earth and sends his wrath.

The Greek word used there is νεφέλη, which literally means “clouds”. We will not be meeting Christ in heaven. We will be meeting him up where the clouds are, as he descends to the earth to establish his kingdom in fullness. Clouds, νεφέλη, does not mean heaven. And for the pre-tribulation rapture camp to interpret it as such is to commit a grave exegetical mistake.

So, try to unsee every rapture movie you’ve ever seen. Try to unread every Left Behind book you’ve ever read. Try to deprogram the instinct to worry about missing a secret rapture. When the rapture happens, Jesus will be coming again in glory. That is the blessed hope for which look (Titus 2:13).

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