Looking for the Rapture
Arguments tapped to counter a Pre-tribulation Rapture position often center around the assertion that the teaching was invented by John Nelson Darby in 1827 and adopted by the Plymouth Brethren in England in 1831. Some go so far as to claim that such a doctrine was never taught in the church before that time.
True enough, there has been disagreement. A brief overview of church history, however, shows that Imminent Rapture teaching is most definitely a viable doctrine.
The “Rapture” is of course a reference to that still future supernatural event when the church will be “caught up” as a unified group to meet the Lord in the air (1 Th. 4:16-18). The apostle Paul relates the Rapture concept to authentic Christianity and affirms:
“we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us” (Ti. 2:12-14).
I refer to the doctrine simply as Imminent Rapture teaching since the normal meaning of words—with no allegorical manipulation within the historical and cultural context of Scripture—indicates that no specified signs precede the Rapture of the church.
IMMINENT RAPTURE—NEW TESTAMENT
A key element of Imminent Rapture teaching is the belief that Christians are to live expectantly. The church is not looking for the Antichrist or the events of the Tribulation, but according to New Testament teaching should rather look forward to the moment when the Lord Himself will return. The apostle Paul fully expected to be alive at the Rapture when he wrote the following to the Thessalonian church:
“For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep (have died).
For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.
Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.” (1 Th. 4:15-18).
Imminent Rapture teaching employs a method of Bible interpretation that recognizes the normal meaning of words, with no allegorical manipulation within the historical and cultural context of Scripture, which is the literal approach. The following characterize Imminent Rapture teaching:
- Our Lord’s imminent return for the church fosters expectancy.
- Escaping the horrors of the Tribulation generates hope.
- The Rapture of the church and the Second Coming of Christ are distinct events.
Although not formally systematized and categorized, the doctrine of an imminent Rapture was not only taught in the early church, but had adherents well before Darby.
IMMINENT RAPTURE—EARLY CHURCH
Early church leaders document that key elements of an imminent Rapture theology were espoused during the first centuries of church history. These were formative years for the church as doctrinal details were refined and organized. The study of prophecy was no exception.
While early church leaders did not agree on every point and the understanding of prophecy was not nearly as systematized as views espoused today, they consistently taught expectancy in light of an imminent Rapture. Scholars site many cases as evidenced in solid examples of Imminent Rapture teaching.
The Didache (lit. “The Teaching,” circa. A.D. 120 – A.D. 180) is a document believed to be a record of the instruction of the apostles that includes the elements of expectancy in light of an imminent Rapture.
“16:1 Be watchful for your life;
16:2 let your lamps not be quenched and your loins not ungirded, but be ye ready;
16:3 for ye know not the hour in which our Lord cometh.” (1)
Irenaeus (A.D. 130 – A.D. 202)
Although Irenaeus limited the Tribulation to a three and one-half year period, the first century Bishop of Lugdunum in Gaul (France) taught an imminent Rapture occurring before the Tribulation. In a book entitled Against Heresies Irenaeus assured,
“And therefore, when in the end the Church shall be suddenly caught up from this, it is said, ‘There shall be tribulation such as has not been since the beginning, neither shall be.’” (2)
Ephraim the Syrian (A.D. 306 – A.D. 373)
The monk—often called Ephraim of Edessa, the Syrian—was a teacher who became one of the key leaders in the church of Syria. He is known for a large volume of Bible commentaries, sermons, poetry and hymns, was a well-respected clergyman and attended the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325 with the bishop of Nisibis, Syria.
Ephraim the Syrian is believed to have written a pamphlet entitled Sermon on the End of the World that was so popular it was translated from Syriac into Greek and Latin for wider circulation. While his authorship was disputed and later attributed to one Pseudo-Ephraim, copies in each language survive to the present.
Using words that convey the need for expectancy, readers are urged to prepare for the Lord’s return for the church:
“We ought to understand thoroughly therefore, my brothers, what is imminent or overhanging . . . For all the saints and elect of God are gathered before the tribulation, which is to come, and are taken to the Lord lest they see the confusion that is to overwhelm the world because of our sins.” (3)
Clearly, the above examples substantiate that whatever else early church leaders believed regarding prophecy, they consistently taught expectancy on the basis of an imminent Rapture during the first four centuries of church history.
IMMINENT RAPTURE—THE DARK AGES
At least two cultural influences, however, stifled Imminent Rapture teaching in the ensuing centuries.
Those living at the time of the apostles genuinely believed they would experience the Rapture during their lifetime. When that event did not occur as anticipated, some church leaders began looking for alternative scenarios to explain the delay resulting in collective disillusionment.
Origen heavily influenced by Clement of Alexandria and the secular philosophers of his day was one of the first to defect from the literal hermeneutic near the beginning of the third century.
A major shift in early church hermeneutics (the study of Bible interpretation) became evident when Augustine, one of the most influential Christian thinkers of his day, began promoting an allegorical versus literal interpretation of Scripture. (4)
While the allegorical hermeneutic advocated by Origen was denounced as heresy two centuries earlier, Augustine’s influence revived and propelled the method into the official approach for interpreting prophetic passages and ultimately all of Scripture. Subsequently, interpretation of the Bible was vested in the church and for more than a thousand years the common man had no personal access to the Word of God.
During the Dark Ages, teaching related to the return of Christ was buried under capricious symbolism and abstract conjecture.
IMMINENT RAPTURE—POST REFORMATION
The Protestant Reformation drastically altered the status quo when Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the Wittenberg church door in 1517. Coupled with the Reformation, the urgency to translate the Bible into the vernacular made Scripture available to the laity via the printing press.
Reading the Word of God in one’s native tongue opened the possibility for diligent study that led Christian leaders and clergymen to a literal rather than allegorical interpretation of Scripture. As a result, elements of Imminent Rapture teaching re-emerged.
The Westminster Confession of 1646 was an attempt to unify protestant churches following the Reformation. In the final section, the confession declares:
“so will He have that day unknown to men, that they may shake off all carnal security, and be always watchful, because they know not at what hour the Lord will come; and may be ever prepared to say, ‘Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly.’ Amen.” (5)
The confession includes the language of imminency and the corresponding need for expectancy.
By the turn of the 18th century, men like John Wesley and George Whitefield among others taught that the Lord’s return was imminent and that the Christian’s attitude must be one of expectancy.
John Wesley declared,
“Perhaps He will appear as the dayspring from on high, before the morning light. Oh, do not set a time — expect Him every hour. Now He is nigh, even at the doors.”(6)
Whitefield in one powerful sermon declared,
“Let that cry, ‘Behold the bridegroom cometh,’ be continually sounding in your ears; and begin now to live, as though you were assured, this night you were to ‘go forth to meet him.’”(7)
It is significant that the teaching of an imminent Rapture accompanied the Great Awakening of the 1700s.
Welsh Baptist, Morgan Edwards, published the strongest 18th century case for Imminent Rapture teaching. Graduating from Bristol University, Edwards sat under the tutelage of George Whitefield and became the founder of Rhode Island College, later known as Brown University in Providence. While a student at Bristol University, Edwards submitted an essay that would shape his understanding of Christ’s return for the church. Introducing the essay submitted to his professor, he determined to,
“. . . work by a rule you have often recommended, viz. To take the scriptures in a literal sense, except when that leads to contradiction or absurdity.” (8)
The essay described an imminent Rapture, placed it before the Tribulation, distinguished between the Rapture and Second Coming while urging an attitude of expectancy within the church.
When the updated essay was republished with the title, Two Academical Exercises, in 1788, Edwards engaged in an extensive lecture tour promoting the tenets of the imminent Rapture view. Hence, Imminent Rapture teaching was spread among the Baptists of the American Colonies before the end of the 18th century.
Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon expressed the importance of expectancy with regard to the Lord’s return. In a now famous message, he declared,
“Oh, Beloved, let us try, every morning, to get up as if that were the morning in which Christ would come! And when we go up to bed at night, may we lie down with this thought, ‘Perhaps I shall be awakened by the ringing out of the silver trumpets heralding His Coming. Before the sun arises, I may be startled from my dreams by the greatest of all cries, “The Lord is come! The Lord is come!’””(9)
Concurrently, through careful study of the Scriptures during a period of convalescence, John Nelson Darby recognized that Christ’s coming for the church was an event distinct from the Second Coming. His investigation led him to the realization that the Rapture would occur before the Tribulation and that it was an imminent event with no set signs preceding it. Darby also documented the distinction between Israel and the church debunking Supersessionism and developing what later became known as Dispensationalism.
Edwards and Darby each developed their views of an imminent Rapture using a literal hermeneutic.
IMMINENT RAPTURE—20th CENTURY
In modern times, widely acknowledged Christian leaders like Clarence Larkin, C.I. Scofield, Charles Ryrie, John Walvoord and others devoted considerable time and effort systematizing a cohesive Bible doctrine and categorizing the key elements of Imminent Rapture teaching.
The Scofield Reference Bible published in 1907 and revised in 1917 propelled Imminent Rapture teaching along with the dispensational view of Scripture into the mainstream. By the end of World War 2, a significant number of evangelical Christians held to the imminent Rapture position. Tim La Haye and Jerry Jenkin’s Left Behind books are based on Imminent Rapture teaching and remain the New York Times number one best-selling series.
The imminent Rapture position, however, does not hang on how widely or how long the doctrine was taught in the early church, when it resurfaced after the Reformation or even how popular the teaching was at any point in history.
IMMINENT RAPTURE—21th CENTURY
At the heart of the discussion, we must turn to the Scripture where Jesus introduced the concept of the Rapture in the upper room as He and the disciples gathered for His final Passover with them. Likening His return to a groom claiming his bride, our Lord underscored the imminency of His return for the church:
“if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (Jn. 14:3-4).
An imminent Rapture was referenced by the apostles Peter, James and John, taught by Paul and accepted by the churches of the apostolic era. (10) The imminent Rapture position was so ingrained in the expression of the apostle’s faith, Christians in the first century expectantly greeted one another with Maranatha, “Our Lord Come!”
The argument—that its re-emergence in recent times automatically disqualifies Imminent Rapture teaching as a viable doctrine—is inconsistent with reality. Doctrines have been rediscovered and developed since the Reformation—many in the last century alone. And, existing doctrines continue to be developed through further serious study of the Scriptures. Imminent Rapture teaching is one such doctrine.
Here’s the bottom line. The imminent return of our Lord for the church clearly is a sustainable doctrine. Imminent Rapture teaching is the appropriate response to Scripture and essential to our life of faith as biblically authentic Christians living in the 21st century.
Are you looking for the Rapture? According to the apostle Paul, as a follower of Christ you can have the assurance that you’ll be snatched away to be with the Lord forever when it happens. And, with that assurance, you can be comforted and comfort others in the day-to-day realities of life.
1) “The Didache: The Lords teaching to the heathen by the Twelve Apostles,” The Didache website.
2) Irenaeus, “Against Heresies Book V,” Early Christian Writings website archives.
3) Ephraim the Syrian, “On the Last Times, the Antichrist and the End of the World,” Pravoslavie.RU (Russian Orthodox) website.
4) Allegorical interpretation assumes more than one level of meaning in a passage and seeks a symbolic, spiritual or moral interpretation. The literal historical-grammatical method relies on the plain meaning of words and phrases in a given context.
5) The Westminster Confession of Faith 1646, Blue Letter Bible.
6) Wesley, John, “The Righteousness of Faith,” Global Ministries United Methodist Church website.
7) Selected Sermons of George Whitefield, Christian Classics Ethereal Library website archives.
8) Edwards, Morgan, “Two Academic Exercises”, Pre-Trib Research Center Archives.
9) Spurgeon, Charles H., “Watching for Christ’s Coming,” Christian Classics Ethereal Library website.
10) For further study, refer to: 1 Cor. 15:51-58 cf. 1 Th. 1:9-10; 4:13-18; 2 Th. 2:1-12; Titus 2:13; James 5:7-9; 1 Pet. 4:7; 1 Jn. 2:28; 3:2.
1) The Didache – The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. [Public domain]
2) Gutenberg Bible, Yale University. [Public domain]
3) Detail: Jesus Christ Returns for the Church. Background image, Lehava Activity 2012/Pikiwiki Israel/Wikimedia Commons. Foreground image, [Public domain]. Digital composition, MKM Portfolios
© 2018 Charles E. McCracken, commentary only. Repost/Reprint with permission. Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.