Rapture Fever May Be Injurious To Your Spiritual Health
The dubious origins and unwelcome effects of a popular religious idea
© 2004 by Paul Thigpen
Imagine the scene: Millions of people around the world, from every nation, suddenly dissolve without leaving a trace, leaving the rest of humanity in disbelieving horror. Who or what is behind it all? Has some powerful international terrorist organization coordinated an attack? Has some bizarre plague swept the globe? Have malicious extraterrestrials invaded the planet?
No, say millions of fundamentalist Christians. The mastermind behind this bizarre event is none other than Jesus Christ.
Sadly enough, a mistaken and rather novel idea about Christ's return is making the rounds in the United States these days through best-selling religious fiction and countless fiery "end times" sermons. The idea is this: Jesus is coming back, not once more, but twice.
On one of His returns, He will invisibly snatch true believers and innocent children, both living and dead, up into heaven. The event has thus been dubbed the "rapture," or "secret rapture." (1) This divine abduction will cause massive, worldwide turmoil, and once the Christians are gone, the Devil will be free to take control of the world through his human puppet, the Antichrist.
Gross horrors will accompany this diabolical man's wicked reign. But the rapture will have taken place because, according to this teaching, God has promised to spare true believers from the evil by snatching them off the planet before the "great tribulation" begins. Later, after the tribulation has reached its climax, Christ will come back yet once more, this time publicly in "a glorious appearing," to defeat the forces of evil and bring history to a close.
In this scenario Christ comes to earth a total of three times: once at His birth in Bethlehem two thousand years ago; once at the secret rapture; and once in glory at the close of the age.
Many of the preachers target Catholics, warning them to be careful. They claim that Catholics who fail to renounce some of the essential beliefs of the Catholic Church are not true Christians and will be left behind.
Catholics and the Rapture Teaching
Millions of Christians find this notion mystifying and disturbing. They know that Christ has come and Christ will come again; that He has both a first and a second coming. But this idea of an invisible "third" coming between the other two makes little sense.
On the other hand, some Catholics are themselves catching rapture fever these days. Their evangelical Protestant friends and relatives may have lent them rapture-promoting books and tapes or given them complimentary tickets for rapture-themed movies. Perhaps they have attended a "revival meeting" with an evangelical acquaintance, where they heard stirring preaching on the "end times."
When Catholics encounter these presentations, they may be able to recognize and affirm in them certain basic elements of biblical prophecies about the close of history: the unprecedented suffering that awaits the world, the second advent of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment. Yet they may not know the traditional Catholic interpretation of the relevant scriptural passages well enough to discern the errors, the speculative and often contradictory ideas, that have grown up in the tangled thicket of fundamentalist "Bible prophecy teaching." In fact, if they are like many Catholics in contemporary America, they have had minimal religious training about what the Church teaches even on the basics of this subject.
In that kind of spiritual vacuum, Catholics who hear the secret rapture teaching for the first time may find it seductive. Who would want to refuse a divine promise that heaven will provide a miraculous escape from horrifying diabolical attack? In this way, an increasing number of Catholics today have fallen into this theological trap, with unpleasant consequences for their spiritual health.
A Weakening of Social Concern
You may object: Why should we consider this teaching a threat to Christians' spiritual health? Does it really make much difference what people believe about the end of the world?
The first problem with the rapture doctrine is its typical affects on social concern. If you are convinced that one day soon you will joyfully slip away to heaven and escape the worst this world has to offer, you may dismiss most efforts to fight against evil here and now. What good is a struggle against poverty, hunger, and homelessness, against the culture of death, against the propaganda of immorality's champions, if we are soon to be snatched away? Why bother, if the fate of the world we will leave behind has already been sealed?
Of course, not every believer in the rapture shuns social and political activism. Nevertheless, anyone who has heard many fundamentalist sermons has likely found that frequent attention given to rapture doctrine rarely spurs preaching about why Christians should volunteer at soup kitchens or lobby elected officials for more just laws. The temptation to retreat is certainly sharpened by the conviction that God's plans for the "troops" call for escape rather than engagement.
An Unbiblical View of Suffering
The secret rapture idea is spiritually risky in a second way: It can foster an unbiblical view of suffering. The teaching is often understood to imply that ultimately God wants to shield contemporary Christians completely from the injuries of those who oppose them for taking their stand with Him. Of course, the shallowness of this conclusion is exposed by the life of Jesus Christ and the lives of His saints throughout history, which amply demonstrate otherwise.
The larger issue here, of course, is the possibility of redemptive suffering in general. Rapture teachers often imply or even state explicitly that Christians are exempt from suffering God's just punishments in this life. They fail to understand that suffering can become a channel of cleansing grace; that many times we suffer because of our sin; and that even when we're innocent, our suffering at the hands of evildoers can be joined to Christ's own suffering, thus cooperating with God's redemptive work in the world.
For all these reasons, God has no plan to snatch us out of the world when the going gets tough. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, at the close of the age, the Church must pass through a "final trial" of persecution by the Antichrist, a "final Passover" of suffering in imitation of Christ (CCC 675, 677).
Ties to Anti-Catholic Teaching
The rapture doctrine is spiritually dangerous in yet a third way: It is often tied to a larger, complex body of religious teachings that are explicitly anti-Catholic. The fundamentalist authors of the current best-selling, rapture-promoting Left Behind novels, for example, have argued in nonfiction books that the Catholic Church is a creation of the Devil and will be a tool of the Antichrist. They go so far as to associate the Vatican with the bloodthirsty "whore of Babylon" pictured in the Book of Revelation, who drinks the blood of the Christian martyrs in the last days of the world (see Revelation 17:1-18:24).
Not every Christian who believes in the secret rapture also believes that the Catholic Church is demonic. Yet many of the preachers who promote this doctrine work hard to persuade Catholics to leave the Church and join their own congregations instead. They warn that those who remain Catholic could well be left behind at Christ's secret coming, become pawns of God's enemies, and be damned to hell for eternity.
Catholics who encounter rapture-promoting literature are thus at risk of being convinced that they somehow belong to a counterfeit church. Drawn into reading books or attending religious meetings that use these spiritual scare tactics, they may not be prepared with an adequate defense against such high-pressure fundamentalist proselytizing. For all these reasons, we must counter the rapture notion with a basic understanding of its origins and an appreciation of the Church's teaching about the end of the world.
Is It in the Bible?
So where exactly does the idea of a "secret rapture" come from? If you ask most fundamentalist Protestants why they believe in the rapture, they will quickly tell you that it's in the Bible. They will usually be able to cite several verses from Scripture that they offer as "proof" of this doctrine, some from St. Paul's epistles and some from our Lord's statements in the Gospels.
Once they begin to lay out their notions of the end times, they will soon reveal that the secret rapture is only one item in a much longer spreadsheet of ideas — ideas they claim can map out events soon to bring human history on earth to a close. You will likely hear vivid descriptions of the Antichrist and predictions of specific political events in the Middle East, tossed about with a number of mysterious terms mined from the Book of Revelation: "the four horsemen," "the mark of the beast," "the false prophet," "the whore of Babylon," and that most infamous of numbers, "666."
Strangely enough, that same Bible, when read or heard by more than a billion other Christians — mainline Protestants, as well as Catholics and Eastern Orthodox — tells no such story. Though the rapture teachers typically insist they are only interpreting "the plain sense" of Scripture, they are in fact reading it through a peculiar theological lens. They already have in place a certain set of assumptions about what they will find there, often ingrained in them since childhood through repeated sermons.
Which Bible verses are used by rapture believers to try to defend their belief? The single scriptural detail that most excites them is found in a passage about the second coming of Christ in St. Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians:
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel's call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
For most fundamentalist interpreters, when St. Paul says we shall be "caught up … to meet the Lord in the air," the plain sense of the passage is that it refers to a secret rapture. In fact, ironically enough, this is where the doctrine of the "rapture" gets its name: In the Vulgate — for centuries the official Scripture version of the Catholic Church — the Latin verb rapiemur was used in this verse with the meaning "caught up." (2)
Christian interpreters of this text since ancient times, however, have concluded that it simply refers to the second coming of Christ as expressed in the creeds. The apostle uses imagery parallel to that of other biblical passages traditionally assumed to describe Christ's return at the end of the age (for example, Matthew 24:31; Luke 21:27; 1 Corinthians 15:51-53). Such imagery hardly implies some kind of secret rapture, but announces instead a magnificent and public event: Christ's brilliant descent from heaven amid clouds of glory, angels, a trumpet blast, and the resurrection of the dead.
It's important to note that this isn't really a Catholic-Protestant disagreement. The majority of Protestants throughout history and even the majority of those alive today don't believe in a "secret rapture." None of the major leaders of the Protestant Reformation — Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox — nor even later leaders such as John and Charles Wesley ever taught such a doctrine. All these Protestant teachers would find the idea as unbiblical as the Catholic Church does. And many Protestant teachers today loudly denounce the doctrine.
A handful of other biblical texts are commonly used as proof texts by rapture believers. (3) But in these arguments, as in the one based on 1 Thessalonians, the rapture promoters are simply reading into the passages their preconceived idea. Examining such arguments only makes it clear why none of the great biblical commentators or theologians throughout Church history, whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, has ever concluded that the rapture idea is taught in the Bible.
The Emergence of the Rapture Doctrine
When and how did the secret rapture notion first come about? The doctrine as it is currently taught in fundamentalist circles seems to have evolved in the nineteenth century. Although similar notions cropped up occasionally in colonial America. In the early part of the eighteenth century, for example, Increase Mather (1639-1723), a Puritan minister in Boston, wrote of Christians being "caught up in the air" before the world was consumed by the fire of divine judgment. In 1788, a Baptist pastor and educator of Philadelphia, Morgan Edwards, published an essay promoting a similar idea, teaching that Christians would be taken to heaven three and a half years before Christ judged the world. Edwards admitted in his essay that his ideas were uncommon among his peers.
The next hint of such a doctrine appears, surprisingly enough, in the writing of a Chilean Jesuit named Manuel Lacunza. His book The Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty was published in Spanish in 1812. In this massive volume, Lacunza concluded that toward the end of the world, Jesus would snatch up from earth the faithful believers who regularly received the Eucharist. Then the Lord would keep them safe for forty-five days while terrible judgments chastised the world. Finally, He would appear with them on earth to judge the human race. (Rome eventually condemned the work as doctrinally unsound and placed it on the Index of Forbidden Books. Ironically, however, because of Lacunza's speculations, some Protestants today who denounce both the rapture idea and the Catholic Church actually label the teaching as a "Jesuitical papist heresy"!)
Lacunza's book was translated into English in 1827 by Edward Irving, a minister of the Protestant Church of Scotland who was later excommunicated from his denomination for teaching that Christ's human nature was sinful. After being removed from his local congregation, he helped to organize a new denomination called the "Catholic Apostolic Church," which was in some ways a forerunner of the modern Pentecostal movement. Apparently under Lacunza's influence, Irving began preaching the secret rapture, though he, unlike Lacunza, thought it would happen three and a half years before Christ's final coming.
About the same time, a secret coming of Christ was being preached by John Nelson Darby, a leader of the British sectarian group called the Plymouth Brethren. This group experienced numerous conflicts and schisms, some resulting from disagreements over the secret rapture teaching. Historians debate the extent to which Irving may have influenced Darby, but in any case, both "Irvingites" and "Darbyites" came to adopt the secret rapture teaching.
In time, Darby traveled extensively preaching his ideas about the end times, making seven trips to Canada and the United States alone between 1859 and 1874. His ideas began to gain acceptance at the influential "Bible prophecy" conferences of the time, which in turn shaped the beliefs of tens of thousands of American Protestants. As a result, several popular evangelical Protestant leaders in America came under his influence, including the famous revivalist Dwight L. Moody, the shoe-salesman-turned-preacher who captivated enormous crowds of listeners on both sides of the Atlantic.
Sharply disenchanted with all organized forms of religion, Darby was hostile toward the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations as well — a hostility that deeply shaped a new system of scriptural interpretation he developed. Dispensationalism, as his ideas came to be called, spread quickly throughout hundreds of British and American congregations of his day and became a standard feature in much of what was then emerging as Protestant fundamentalism. The popularity of the new system, which included the secret rapture idea, was aided significantly by the publication in 1909 of The Scofield Reference Bible, at that time the best-selling Bible in American history. That book sold nearly two million copies in the first thirty years after its publication.
A King James Version of the Scripture, this volume included extensive notes on nearly every page of the scriptural text by C. I. Scofield, an enthusiastic convert to Darby's dispensational beliefs. Scofield was a Kansas City lawyer with no theological training. But his legal training compensated in persuasiveness for what his background lacked as a biblical scholar. In time, millions of Americans were studying Scofield's marginal notes as eagerly as if they were part of the divinely inspired biblical text.
Dispensationalism is so called because it divides all history into seven "dispensations," or progressive stages in God's unfolding revelation to humanity. In each of these time periods, God reveals some specific aspect of His will and commands obedience to it to test humanity's faithfulness. In each period, however, the human race utterly fails the test. So each period must end in God's judgment, and a new period must follow, in which God makes a new set of arrangements in dealing with the human race to put it once more on trial. For that reason, the promises and commands God issues under one dispensation may be different from those under other dispensations.
Darby's dispensational scheme sharply divides between two divine plans for history, one for an "earthly people" (the Jews) and one for a "heavenly people" (the Church). He makes such a radical distinction between the two that Israel and the Church become utterly isolated from each other, with Israel under "law" and the Church under "grace." All continuity between God's dealings with the Jews and His dealings with the Church disappears.
According to the Dispensational view, for example, the Bible must be divided up between those passages intended for Israel and those for the Church. Some Dispensationalists insist that Old Testament prophecies apply exclusively to Israel — none to the Church. Some may even go so far as to claim that Jesus did not preach the Sermon on the Mount for Christians; it is actually for Jews who will live in Christ's future earthly kingdom.
God's plan for the Jewish people, Dispensationalism teaches, was revealed through a series of covenants, or agreements, which pointed to the establishment of an earthly kingdom by the Messiah (the Christ, the "Anointed One"). But Israel rejected the Messiah — Jesus Christ — when He came. So God had to postpone the founding of the kingdom. He turned away from Israel and created a new people, the Church, out of the Gentile nations (non-Jewish peoples).
According to this "postponement" theory, Israel's "prophetic clock" stopped ticking when Christ died. But it will start ticking again when the Antichrist arrives on the scene and the secret rapture takes place. With the Christians out of the way, the great tribulation will proceed, with Israel at center stage once more in God's dealing with the world. Once Christ returns to earth a final time, He will reign for a thousand years as Ruler of an earthly kingdom of Israel, with its capital at Jerusalem.
With its anti-organizational bias, the Dispensational scheme appealed to isolated Protestant congregations in America that were unaffiliated with any denomination. It also made inroads into denominations that view local congregations as independent of larger structures, such as the various Baptist associations. But the best-selling Scofield Bible and America's perennial love affair with emotional revival meetings helped to spread the rapture idea even into some of the more highly structured Protestant denominations as well. Especially influenced were Methodists and their spiritual heirs, Christians in the Holiness and Pentecostal movements.
After Scofield died in 1921, other fundamentalist Protestant leaders continued to spread Dispensational teaching. Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas and Moody Bible Institute in Chicago embraced the new ideas enthusiastically and trained thousands of young men to promote their views in the congregations where they were called to preach. Meanwhile, two world wars made countless Christians world-weary and eager for divine relief.
After the reestablishment of Israel as an independent nation in 1948 — an event many fundamentalists see as a sign of the end times — interest in biblical prophecy intensified. The tensions of the Cold War and the political, social, and cultural disruptions of the 1960s further prepared many evangelical Protestants to focus on the "promise" of escape from a seemingly hell-bent world. By the 1970s, the time was ripe for an array of best-selling books on the end times written from a Dispensational, secret rapture view.
Most notable among these was the best-selling American book of the 1970s, The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), and its sequels, which together have sold more than thirty-five million copies. Author Hal Lindsey's sensationalist style presented a heady mix of highly selective Bible quotes; news clips of world events that he claimed were "fulfilling biblical prophecy"; frightening "scientific" predictions of natural and man-made catastrophes; and a print version of the old revivalist "altar call," an appeal to readers to get "saved" so they would not be left behind at the rapture. With tantalizing chapter titles such as "The Yellow Peril," "The Future Fuehrer," "World War III," and "Polishing the Crystal Ball," Lindsey found a ready audience, especially among young people, for the Dispensational doctrine he had learned so well as a student at Dallas Theological Seminary.
Lindsey has had countless imitators, not just in print, but also in radio, television, film, and video. Not all of them are Dispensationalists, but they have all gotten great mileage out of the same message. It's attention-grabbing, it's titillating, it's comforting, and it sells.
The "snatched out of tribulation" story line so popular today is thus only the latest incarnation of an old — but not very old — idea. Since most Catholics are unaware of its dubious origins, they need a more careful catechesis in eschatology to help them avoid the problems of the rapture trap. In that way, instead of focusing, as the rapture doctrine does, on themes of destruction, separation, and vengeance, they can embrace a more Catholic vision of renewal, reconciliation, and hope.
+ + +
1. In Catholic tradition, "rapture" is associated with an elevated kind of mystical experience that comes without warning and in which one is completely entranced by the divine Presence. The paradigm for this mystical rapture is St. Paul's description of how he was "caught up into Paradise and heard ineffable things which no one may utter" 2 Corinthians 12:4). See M. Frohlich in The New Catholic Encyclopedia (2202), s.v. "Rapture."
2. See the marginal note for 1 Thessalonians 4:17 in The New American Bible.
3. For more details, see my book The Rapture Trap: A Catholic Response to "End Times" Fever (West Chester, Penn.: Ascension, 2001).