Millions of people around the world believe that Jesus Christ will return in their lifetime. Principal among these are born-again Christians, who live their daily lives in anticipation of an imminent rapture.
The basis of the rapture is the belief that Christ will spirit the saints off to heaven before various apocalyptic terrors engulf the earth in what’s referred to as “the tribulation” (see Matthew 24:21). Understanding varies as to the timing of the rapture. Some believe it takes place seven years before Christ’s return, while others believe it precedes that event by only three and a half years. Still others see the rapture occurring after the tribulation, at the time of Christ’s return.
With this degree of confusion, can the Bible shed any light on the matter?
Getting Caught Up
The word rapture comes from the Latin verb rapere, which means “to seize,” “to snatch” or “to carry away.” The word is actually not found in either the Greek or the English Bible, though it was used in the 4th-century Latin Vulgate to translate 1 Thessalonians 4:17: “Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up [in Latin, rapiemur] together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.”
This passage describes what will happen to Christ’s followers at the time of His return to the earth—an event other scriptures make clear will take place after the tribulation (Matthew 24:29–31).
Ideas about a pre-tribulation rapture actually took hold only in the 19th century. Records indicate that Edward Irving, founder of the Catholic Apostolic Church, and John Nelson Darby, an English evangelical and founder of the Plymouth Brethren, were the first to promote the teaching, though some proponents claim that a fourth-century Syrian deacon also taught a pre-tribulation rapture.
Still others claim that the first person to have proposed that Christ’s return would occur in two stages (i.e., first the rapture and then the return of Christ) was Margaret Macdonald, a charismatically inclined Scottish teenager. She supposedly received knowledge about end-time events in a vision during the spring of 1830. An account of her revelation is recorded in an appendix to The Great Rapture Hoax (1983) by Dave MacPherson, an investigative reporter who has undertaken extensive research on the subject.
In September 1830, an Irvingite paper, The Morning Watch, distinguished between the two phases of Christ’s return in an article titled, “On the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Gathering of His Elect.” The evidence seems to indicate that both Darby and Irving borrowed from Macdonald’s revelation. Whether or not that is the case, this view of the rapture gained acceptance because of its emotional appeal. Understandably, people wanted to believe they could be taken up to heaven before the tribulation enveloped the world.
When Cyrus I. Scofield published his reference Bible in 1909, he included notes that supported the idea of a rapture. This popular volume became a highly influential instrument in promoting the theory. But even among Bible scholars, the timing of the rapture is very much in question, and a growing number challenge the theory altogether. While most of them believe in the rapture, each has his own ideas about it.
Of greater importance than the timing, however, is whether the Scriptures support the rapture theory at all. A careful study shows that the concept, as popularly believed, is not found in the Bible. There are scriptures that at first might seem to indicate that the theory is biblical, but its origins, together with all the scriptures concerning Christ’s return to earth, need to be examined thoroughly and harmonized.
Such an examination reveals that the concept of the rapture is actually misleading.
Pre-tribulationists cite no direct scriptural proof for their position, instead focusing primarily on the teachings of Darby, Irving and others.
Post-tribulationists base their belief on such scriptures as 1 Thessalonians 4:17. In order to properly understand what that verse says, however, we need to study other passages as well.
The primary question concerns where Christ and His followers will be: Will they be in heaven or on earth? Several scriptures state that Christ will return to Jerusalem as a conquering king (Zechariah 14:1–5, 9; Revelation 5:10; 11:15; 19:11–16; 20:4–6). When these and other relevant passages are put together, it becomes clear that the future of the resurrected saints is not to be whisked off to heaven, but to join Christ in the air as He descends to this earth to establish His eternal kingdom.