Will there be a time when all Christians suddenly disappear from Earth?
“Warning! In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned!” the bumper sticker on the car in front of you proclaims. What’s that supposed to mean? you wonder.
Perhaps you’ve seen the trailer for the movie Left Behind. In the film, the world is plunged into chaos after the Rapture takes all Christian believers from Earth. They simply vanish—right in the middle of whatever they were doing.
The whole idea that millions of people could suddenly disappear without a trace may seem a bit . . . well, creepy. So what exactly do Christians believe about the Rapture?
Dispensationalism and the Rapture
The idea of the Rapture developed as part of a larger movement in nineteenth-century England called “dispensationalism.” Led by John Nelson Darby, a former priest in the Church of Ireland, a group known as the Plymouth Brethren began to study the Bible in an attempt to map out the future of the world. They divided history into seven “dispensations” or ages.
Darby endeavored to read the Bible as literally as possible and believed that Jesus Christ would soon physically return to the world.1 However, in his study, he found several seeming contradictions within the Bible. This was particularly true in regard to the promises made by God to Israel through the Old Testament prophets, such as a rebuilt temple of immense proportions.2
To help reconcile such instances, Darby formed some theological conclusions that influenced his teachings. For example, Darby believed that there are two “peoples of God”—Israel and the Church—and God has separate plans for each of them. In order for God to fulfill all his promises to the nation of Israel, there must be a time in the future when the Church is no longer present and the Jewish temple in Jerusalem can be rebuilt.
According to Darby, the Church Age (the time in which we are now living) is a kind of parenthesis in God’s plan. At the end of the Church Age, the Church will be taken out of this world. God will then continue with his plans and promises to Israel.
The Rapture is not to be confused with the Second Coming of Christ; rather, it is a secret coming for the Church.3 Darby taught that Jesus’ actual return would occur approximately seven years later, following a period called the Great Tribulation, which Christians will escape. During the Great Tribulation, a series of plagues will be sent to the earth, as understood from a literal reading of Revelation chapters 6–9 and 16–18.
The Spread of Dispensationalism
During one of his visits to England in the 1870s, American evangelist Dwight L. Moody met some of the Plymouth Brethren.4 Impressed by their piety, he invited some of them to America to teach in his Bible schools. As conferences in Bible prophecy grew in popularity, the Moody Bible Institute was founded and began training Christian leaders in this way of thinking.
In fact, Darby himself visited the US more than once. Through his influence, the Sixteenth and Walnut Avenue Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, pastored by James H. Brooks, became a center for dispensationalism in the United States.
In St. Louis, a Presbyterian layman named Cyrus I. Scofield adopted Darby’s beliefs. He then became the pastor of a church in Dallas, Texas, and eventually helped found Dallas Theological Seminary.
In 1909, Scofield published a Bible with annotations explaining the dispensational interpretation of Scripture. The notes provide a schematization of complex biblical materials by relating each passage to Darby’s teachings. Known as the Scofield Reference Bible, the work became quite popular and did much to spread dispensationalist views among the Bible-reading public.5
As dispensationalism grew, passionate preachers and writers—such as R. A. Torrey, J. W. Chapman, A. C. Dixon, A. J. Gordon, and A. T. Pierson—drove home Darby’s teachings from the pulpit with their evangelistic fervor.
The Second Coming of Christ or the Rapture of the Saints?
However, throughout history, other Christians have thought differently about these matters. They believe that there is only one “people of God,” comprised of both Jews and non-Jews who place their faith in Jesus as the Messiah. They believe that Jesus himself will one day return to complete the kingdom he launched with his life, death, and resurrection.6
The first followers of Jesus believed that Jesus might be back even within their lifetime.7 The Apostles’ Creed, an early declaration of Christian faith that dates back to the second or third century, states, “I believe in Jesus Christ . . . and he will come to judge the living and the dead.”8 That is, early Christians believed that Jesus would return to the earth personally, would raise all the dead to life, and that each person would give an account of their life to him.9
Those who hold this traditional understanding do not believe that God will snatch up believers from the world and then go on with other things on Earth. Rather, they believe that Jesus will come a second time to set the world right. He will renew heaven and earth, raising the dead to live forever in a world in which God’s reign of love and peace is complete.
Is the Rapture in the Bible?
But what does the Bible say about all this? Well, dispensationalists point to several biblical passages as evidence of the Rapture, while non-dispensationalists interpret these verses differently.
For example, 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17 reads:
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.
The expression “caught up together” is understood by dispensationalists to refer to the Rapture. In fact, in the Latin version of the text, the word translated as “caught up” is rapiemur, from which the word “rapture” comes.
However, non-dispensationalists have traditionally understood this text as a promise that when Jesus returns and raises the dead, the living will join them in the new life he brings.
Sometimes dispensationalists refer to a statement Jesus' made regarding his return: “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.”10
They view those “taken” as the followers of Jesus and those “left behind” as the nonbelievers. Others object that reading the passage in its context shows the opposite.
Let’s tack on the previous three verses:
As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.11
Jesus says that just as those in Noah’s day were “taken away” by the flood, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In this context, it appears that those “taken away” are nonbelievers who are taken away to judgment. Those “left behind” are believers.
Living in Frightening Times
Unquestionably, we live in a difficult and frightening period of history. The threat of nuclear destruction has been hanging over our heads for seventy years. Human carelessness, consumption, and waste threaten life on the entire planet. War never ceases and terrorism spreads. Violence is intense and held before our eyes in daily doses. Racial tensions are high and economic fears loom large. A rapidly changing society has unleashed crises of morality and faith. These are difficult days.
It’s no wonder that in times like these people—both dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists—look for hope in a different future. And they pray this future will come quickly.
In fact, the promise of Jesus’ return to earth is described in early Christian writings as “the blessed hope” of his followers.12 Although the Bible encourages believers to live with perseverance in the face of difficulties, they are to do so with the hope and faith that God’s future for the earth is one worth waiting for.13