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Airplanes without pilots. Runaway trains without engineers. Automobiles suddenly without drivers crashing on the interstate.
Welcome to “the rapture,” a belief among some evangelical Protestants that Christians suddenly will disappear from the Earth and be snatched up to heaven, escaping tribulation and leaving behind a world in chaos.
“Rapture” is from the Latin word “rapto,” meaning “to seize” or “catch,” as in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 where the Apostle Paul writes that believers will be “caught up” to meet the Lord in the air at his return.
As doctrines go, the rapture teaching is a newcomer, proposed around 1830 by the Rev. John Nelson Darby, then a clergyman in the Church of Ireland.
Through the ages, the church always had believed in the return of Christ in judgment, but Darby’s new teaching was that Jesus would return twice — the first time to secretly snatch believers up to heaven, the second time to judge the world.
Darby won many converts to his rapture idea during mission trips to America between 1859 and 1877, but the real breakthrough came in 1909 with the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible, which incorporated Darby’s ideas in footnotes and sold in the millions.
It became the Bible many Americans read throughout the 20th century; as a result of its footnotes, the novel idea of Jesus returning twice became the only version of end-time events that many Protestants were familiar with.
Scripture itself, however, commands us to “test all things.” So, let us consider the “rapture” passage in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 in its biblical and cultural context.
Some in Thessalonica feared their fellow believers who already had died would miss out on the return of the Lord.
Paul assured them the dead would not miss the Lord’s return, for they will rise first, then we who are alive at the return of the Lord will be caught up with those who have been raised, and together we will meet the Lord in the air.
Darby and his followers, however, assume that Christ, having descended from heaven, will then change direction and go back into heaven with all believers — leaving the world wondering what happened to the Christians.
But there is nothing in the Thessalonians passage that suggests that Christ will change direction at his return.
Christ returns as a triumphant king, and no king in the ancient world arriving at a city or village would ever arrive alone. A large portion of the city’s population would line the roads to welcome the king and accompany him into the city.
Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday illustrates this.
The entire city goes out to meet him and to accompany him not away from the city but back to it.
This is also reflected in the parable of the wise virgins, who go out to meet the bridegroom and accompany him back to the wedding feast.
Since Christ will descend from heaven, believers will be caught up in the air, not to go away with him into heaven, but in order to accompany him back to Earth for the final judgment.
This harmonizes perfectly with numerous passages of Scripture, which describe a single return of Christ to judge the living and the dead.
Finally, nowhere does Scripture teach, as Darby imagined, that believers in Christ will escape tribulation, whether it be small or great.
Christ promises, “In the world, you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”
Although we experience distress and sorrow now, we need not fear. Through his suffering, death and resurrection for all humanity, Christ gives us new life that death cannot end nor any tribulation overcome.
The Rev. John Armstrong is pastor of Columbus’ Grace Lutheran Church and may be reached at gracecolumbus.org.
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