I became a Christian in the mid-1980s and, together with my parents and sister, joined an old-fashioned Pentecostal church. Looking back, there was a rich culture of traditions into which I was initiated. We sang praise choruses and prayed in a certain way, people gave messages in tongues and waited for their interpretation, you were only a Christian if you openly confessed to having been born again, and the idea of spending money on the Sabbath was anathema. And there was one thing that everyone believed without question: that we were living at the very end of the “end times”, that a great tribulation was coming, and that all true Christians would be stolen away in the blink of an eye before it began. If you’ve been anywhere near this kind of Pentecostal/charismatic culture, you’ll know what I’m talking about: the doctrine of the rapture.

Belief in the rapture was so deeply ingrained in Pentecostal circles that I never questioned it for years. All Pentecostal preachers taught it with such authority that to question its accuracy was to doubt the very truth of the Bible. Its hold was further reinforced by a string of popular films and books (well, popular in the Pentecostal world, anyway) exemplified by the 1972 film A Thief In The Night and Hal Lindsey’s 1970 bestseller The Late, Great Planet Earth. Even today, the rapture pop culture train has not slowed down: Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ 16-book Left Behind series, the first instalment of which was published in 1995, is estimated to have sold more than 63 million copies worldwide. A film adaptation is forthcoming in 2014, starring Nicholas Cage. Whatever else you might say about rapture theology, there’s plenty of money in it.

But where does this idea of all Christians being miraculously snatched away from the world before a final great tribulation come from? Rapture theology is based on a particular interpretation of one short passage of scripture:

According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 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.
(1 Thessalonians 4:15-17)

If you ignore the context (i.e. who the original text was written for and why), it’s easy to see how this text could be taken to refer to a rapture-type event. But what’s really interesting is that, when you take time to look into the history of rapture theology, it quickly becomes apparent that the idea of a pre-tribulation rapture is a relatively new one – in fact, it was developed as recently as the 1830s by an Anglo-Irish evangelist named John Nelson Darby. Its subsequent dramatic spread owes much to the advent of the Schofield Reference Bible, an American study Bible first published in the early 20th century that emphasised the dispensationalist view (a framework under which God is thought to have related to people in different ways – or dispensations – throughout history, with a heavy emphasis on end times prophecy).

Any responsible reader of the Apostle Paul’s writings must conclude that Paul believed in a second coming of Jesus. I have no argument with that. My argument is with the particular interpretation of how Jesus’ return will take place. In his seminal work Surprised by Hope, Former Bishop of Durham Tom Wright, arguably the pre-eminent New Testament theologian alive today, argues that the above passage in 1 Thessalonians in fact refers to something quite different from the invasion-of-the-body-snatchers type rapture doctrine that has become so prevalent (emphasis added):

When Paul speaks of ‘meeting’ the Lord ‘in the air’, the point is precisely not — as in the popular rapture theology — that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from. Even when we realize that this is highly charged metaphor, not literal description, the meaning is the same as in the parallel in Philippians 3:20. Being citizens of heaven, as the Philippians would know, doesn’t mean that one is expecting to go back to the mother city, but rather that one is expecting the emperor to come from the mother city to give the colony its full dignity, to rescue it if need be, to subdue local enemies and put everything to rights.

(For completeness, here is the text from Philippians 3:20 referred to in the above excerpt: “But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Saviour.”)

According to Wright, the particular metaphor Paul is using in the 1 Thessalonians passage is that of the citizens of a colony or province going out to meet a visiting emperor some distance from the city before escorting him royally back into the city. To understand why this makes so much more sense of Paul’s writings and the rest of the New Testament than dispensationalist teaching, you’ll have to read Wright’s book for yourself. While it’s a substantial read, it’s also very accessible; it would without doubt be in my top ten recommended theological books, and I don’t say that lightly.

However, the main purpose of this post is not to provide an in-depth survey of biblical interpretation as it pertains to end times teaching. Rather, it is to show how one narrow interpretation that is taken as sacrosanct by a large segment of evangelical believers is, in fact, of recent invention and, at best, highly questionable.

“Very interesting”, you may think, “but what does it matter?” I contend that what we believe about the end times matters greatly, for a number of reasons. In particular, I am convinced that the continuing widespread belief in a pre-tribulation rapture is damaging to Christian theology and Kingdom living, for the following reasons:

1. Rapture theology perpetuates the thoroughly unbiblical belief that heaven is the place where we go to spend eternity after we die. A single blog post is no place to expound in detail on the theology of death, resurrection and the eternal future; suffice it to say that the New Testament speaks of a new heaven and a new earth, strongly suggesting that all of creation will be restored to its original intended state, and that this is where God’s people will dwell with Him for all eternity. While most Christians recognise the silliness of seeing heaven as a place where people and angels sit around on clouds playing harps, many have yet to realise that it is just such a fantastic and unbiblical view of life after death that is fuelled and perpetuated by rapture theology.

2. Rapture theology encourages Christians to detach from the world rather than to engage with it. Again, Tom Wright puts it better than I could in Surprised by Hope:

Note, though, something else of great significance about the whole Christian theology of resurrection, ascension, second coming and hope. This theology was born out of confrontation with the political authorities, out of the conviction that Jesus was already the true Lord of the world who would one day be manifested as such. The ‘rapture’ theology avoids this confrontation, because it suggests that Christians will miraculously be removed from this wicked world. Perhaps that is why such theology is often gnostic in its tendency towards a private dualistic spirituality, and towards a political laissez-faire quietism. And perhaps that is partly why such theology, with its dreams of Armageddon, has quietly supported the political status quo in a way that Paul would never have done.

Put simply, if you believe that earth is nothing more than a temporary holding pen that will ultimately be burned up and thrown in the cosmic trash can, you have little incentive to engage with and care for the world and its occupants.

3. Rapture theology encourages Christians to use the Bible as a kind of divine fortune telling manual. Yes, the Bible contains prophecy about the future, but this must always be interpreted with great care, for various reasons. For one thing, we do great damage to scripture when we automatically assume that all prophetic writing is addressed to us in our twenty-first century western world; in many cases, it is far more reasonable to assume that the primary prophetic time frame being addressed is that of the original audience (that is, in the case of the New Testament, first century Christians living in the Middle East). For another thing, biblical prophecy is rarely literal and clear-cut. To quote one final time from Tom Wright:

We must remind ourselves yet once more that all Christian language about the future is a set of signposts pointing into a mist. Signposts don’t normally provide you with advance photographs of what you’ll find at the end of the road, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t pointing in the right direction. They are telling you the truth, the particular sort of truth that can be told about the future.

I’ve met so many Christians who use the Bible, and the apocalyptic literature of Daniel, Matthew 24 and Revelation in particular (which requires even greater care than “standard” prophetic texts), as a kind of end times checklist against which to spot and check off current and future world events. In fact, I used to do it myself. I now see that this is a fundamental misuse of these texts, and that it encourages Christians to look for conspiracy theories and antichrists all over the place. I’m tired of looking at my Facebook news feed and seeing so-called prophets confidently claim that such-and-such an event is a clear fulfilment of such-and-such a verse in Revelation. To my mind, all this kind of scriptural literalism does is foster a “Christians against the world” mentality that is extremely off-putting to non-Christians.

If you’ve unquestioningly believed in the rapture for years, as I did, then I hope this post has at least given you some food for thought. Letting go of long-held convictions is rarely easy or comfortable, but I believe God wants us to use our brains and to think critically about what we believe, why we believe it and what implications this has for our understanding of Kingdom living. And ultimately, I believe rapture theology is antithetical to the vision of the present and future Kingdom that Jesus came to paint and to inaugurate.

(For further reading on rapture theology, in additional to Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope excerpted above, I recommend Hank Hanegraaff’s The Apocalypse Code. It’s not a scholarly work like Wright’s, and is far less extensive in its scope, but nonetheless sets out the main arguments against dispensationalism. Finally, US blogger David D. Flowers has posted a number of helpful articles on rapture theology: this article is a useful starting point and contains links to a number of other posts.)