Evangelical Questions: The Rapture
by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about the rapture. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.
Before I get into that let me update you on the FAIR conference. Some new details for you…I will be speaking on Friday, August 4 at 10:30 Mountain time. I would be delighted to see you there in person, but you can also sign up to stream the event. It’s free to stream, but you do need to sign up. Initially, my topic was going to be the history of the relationship between Evangelicals and Latter-day Saints (spoiler: Lots of ups and downs), and I still hope to give that talk someday, but instead, I’m speaking on an area that I have a huge personal and professional interest in: Sexual Abuse in a Church Context. My plan is to talk through the 5 most common questions that come up on this subject, especially for Latter-day Saints. Some examples are, “Does our church help abusers hide from the law?”….”Is there a higher-than-average number of abuse cases in our churches compared to similar groups?” I’m also working on a huge Q/A page of about 30 questions regarding abuse. I know this is not everyone’s favorite topic, but I have some really interesting original research to present as well as some historical context to add to the whole question.
Okay, moving on. This week’s topic, the rapture, comes up in Matthew 1:23 (JST):
Behold, I speak these things unto you for the elect’s sake; and you also shall hear of wars, and rumors of wars; see that ye be not troubled, for all I have told you must come to pass; but the end is not yet.
You will notice that the word, “rapture” is not in this verse, but it’s not in the Bible at all, it’s a word Evangelicals use to describe a concept they see in the Bible. And by “rapture” they mean an event at some future point in time where all believers in Christ will be, “taken up into the air” and then will begin a 7-year period called, “The Great Tribulation” which is a time of great sorrow, and after that time, Jesus will return. This is them leaving Earth to go to Heaven without dying. God pulls their physical bodies out of our atmosphere and into Heaven. You won’t find this taught directly in the Bible. You can look for it, it’s not in there – though certain people take verses and apply them to the concept, even though they’re vague and could describe lots of things. And this belief is huge for American Evangelicals. How did this happen? Let’s start with some historical context.
If you go back in time about 250 years and asked the Christians alive at that time what they think of the rapture, they would no idea what you’re talking about. The idea of the rapture is brand new in terms of history. It’s been around for about 200 years, which in historical terms is brand new. In the 1830’s a guy named John Darby was living in London and working as a pastor for the Plymouth Brethren (they would go on to call themselves the Exclusive Brethren, but you’ve probably more likely to have heard the term Plymouth Brethren.) Latter-day Saint friends I know the thing that catches your attention here is the date, “1830’s”. If you listened to LDS historians at all in your life you’ve probably heard someone talk about the extraordinary outpouring of spirituality happening in that decade around the world, and this is an example of that. Darby is an extraordinary man, he’s given a top-rate education for the day, he comes from a family with means, and he’s set up for success really well. He produces translations of the Bible into English, French, Dutch, and German that are still used today. He initially is ordained as a Catholic priest, but he soon quits in a political protest. Right around that time he is thrown off a horse and has a long convalescence where he begins to develop his signature theology: The Rapture.
Darby travels to America several times and somewhere in the 1880’s (there are conflicting dates) he is in Missouri and makes a connection with Cyrus Scofield. Latter-day Saints, this is during the era when John Taylor was president of the church, so the Saints moved on to Utah long ago, but I know Missouri catches your attention too. And there is a “Charles Scofield” in early Utah history during this era, he was a railroad builder. I did a cursory look to see if he is related to Cyrus Scofiled, but couldn’t find proof that he was. At any rate, Darby meets Scofield who essentially takes Darby’s work and popularizes it. Scofield is in the direct line of people who influence the up-and-coming Evangelical movement. So, American Evangelicals get Darby’s theology as filtered through Scofield. And Scofield publishes what becomes the first modern Study Bible. He publishes his notes and commentary about the text right next to the actual text of the Bible. A few versions of this had been done before, but Scofield makes it take off. I mention it here because it’s an interesting slight-of-hand, and it directly impacts how the rapture theology plays out.
What Scofield did when he places his notes and commentary next to the text of the Bible does not seem very revolutionary today. You can go on Amazon and find 30 or more study Bibles, some of them quite good. And a modern reader can easily understand that there is a difference in authority between the scripture text and the comments provided by the book’s authors. It’s not hard for us to intuitively see the difference. But in Scofiled’s day, people were not used to that. If it was contained inside a bound Bible, it WAS the Bible. They took Scofield’s interpretations far more seriously simply because he embedded them right next to the actual Bible text. So when Scofield is writing about the rapture in his notes, the Christians reading his Bible at that time are roughly putting his words equal with scripture. The average Bible reader in this era is not yet sophisticated enough to easily differentiate the two. At this time, around 1909, roughly 8% of the US population ever graduate from high school. The majority of people in that era can read, but they’re not going to be sophisticated enough to see the difference between Scofield’s words, and the words of the Bible. And his Bible was huge. It sold 2 million copies by the end of WW2. This is how Darby’s rapture theology got popular in America.
Fast-forward to the 1970s and a series of films is made that dramatizes this event. There are 4 movies in the series, they’re called the “Thief in the Night” movies. You can watch them on Youtube if you want. Another series is made in the 1990s that you might be more familiar with – they’re based on the Left Behind books, but the idea is the same, they’re a dramatized version of what would happen after the rapture.
I’ll tell you this story. A very dear friend in my first Ward texted me one day and asked, “What is the rapture?” I gave her a brief explanation and she said: My school-age daughter checked out a book from the library called, “Left Behind” because the cover looked cool, but she’s reading it now and we have no idea what they’re talking about. Evangelical friends, you may or may not know this, but Latter-day Saints have no idea what you’re talking about if you’re talking to them about the rapture. It’s not a thing for us. Incidentally, it’s not a thing for most Christians in the world. The idea is rejected by Anglicans, Orthodox, Catholics, and most branches of Protestants. But it’s got firm footing with Evangelicals and over the last 60 years many Evangelical leaders have made predictions of when this event would happen, only to have those dates come and go. The most memorable one to me was in 1988 when a book came out called, “88 Reasons Jesus Will Return in 1988,” and it gave a specific date for the rapture, which obviously didn’t happen. But some people read that book and sold their homes, thinking they would not need them anymore. Or they ran up huge debt thinking they wouldn’t need to pay it back because they’d be raptured. But there were some significant ones in the 70’s too. I remember being about 10 years old and given a giant button to wear at church that said, “You better get right – before you get left”….meaning you should get right with God before the rapture happens because then your chance will be over.
Now, I’m sure my skepticism of the rapture theology is coming through. I certainly don’t think it’s true, and I will admit my bias to you on that. But, I want to acknowledge that this is an important doctrine to Evangelicals. Yes, it sounds crazy to our Latter-day Saint ears, but some of our doctrine and historical events sound crazy to their ears too. So is there anything in this rapture idea where we can find a good inroad for conversation? I’m so glad you asked.
Which brings up another really interesting issue here. We’ll use the rapture issue to illustrate. So, the main verse that gets used for supporting the idea of the rapture is in 1 Thes 4. This is Paul writing to the church there because they’re worried. They believed that Jesus Christ would come back in their lifetimes. But, enough time has passed since Jesus’ resurrection and the time of this letter, that some members in their church have died. They’re feeling confused and worried because Jesus has not actually come back yet. So they’ve written to Paul to help sort them out with the question, “How can some of our friends have died if Jesus was supposed to come back before any of us died?” Paul, in his wordy kind of way, responds like this…
13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
In context, you can see that Paul is helping them understand that their dead still matter and that Jesus has not abandoned them or forgotten the plan. He also has not turned his back on their own suffering. Paul is encouraging them to endure the suffering they have now, and the potential future suffering of the tribulation. The entire point of this letter is for Paul to tell them – in this beautiful figurative metaphor of being “caught up in the air” with their dead – is for Paul to reassure them that they will be reunited with their dead, and all of them – living and dead – are in the hands of Christ. People who believe in the rapture take the “in the air,” the Greek word here is just the word that means “the Heavens” or more literally, “The clouds of the Heavens” and make it literally mean the space of atmosphere above your head. They’re taking what it figurative and making it very, very literal.
There is an entire area of study called Hermeneutics that is concerned with this. Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation – or how do we get the correct meaning out of a text. One of the rules of hermeneutics says that is you take a figurative word, but apply a literal meaning to it, things are going to go weird. The best example of this is that Jesus gives us the metaphor that he is like a mother hen stretching her wings out to cover her chicks. This is a metaphor – but if we commit a hermeneutical error here, we take the metaphor as literal and start to believe Jesus is a giant cosmic chicken.
Now, Latter-day Saints, before you get too comfortable, we do this too. It’s not just Evangelicals. We take vague metaphors from scripture and turn them into concrete proof of something literal. One of the best examples of this is when we say there is proof for the Book of Mormon found in the Bible. There isn’t. Not that anyone else would accept anyway. Ezekiel 37 is a great example of this. We Latter-day Saints read in there about the sticks of Judah and Joseph and apply them to the Bible and the Book of Mormon. And it’s a lovely application of those verses. I can certainly look at those verses and interpret them that way with a lot of gladness. But it’s not actually what they say. It’s an application, but not a literal meaning. We have to bring outside knowledge/belief into that verse to pull out the meaning we’re getting. For your own use, for your own spiritual edification, that’s a great way to apply a metaphor to something it didn’t originally refer to. In the original chapter of Ezekiel, read in context, the 2 “sticks” are the Nothern and Southern kingdoms. That is the literal meaning of the text. It’s a little more complicated for us because we believe in ongoing revelation outside of the Bible, so we can apply the metaphor with some certainty to the Book of Mormon. This is the difference between exegesis (figuring out the actual meaning of a text by only looking at the text itself) and eisegesis (bringing your own ideas and sort of reading them into the text.) It’s totally correct to say, “we read about the 2 sticks and apply that idea to the Bible and the Book of Mormon”….but its going to far to say, “This verse in Ezekiel is literally about the Book of Mormon.” It might be a subtle difference, but we have to be able to hold both, “here is what the text is actually talking about” and “here is how we’re applying it.”
I say all of this – and we’ve gone way over on time this week – because this is how a lot of misunderstanding happens between Latter-day Saints and Evangelicals. Both groups tend to think that our application of a verse is identical to what the verse actually says, and it’s just not. The argument goes back and forth, “this is what it means”…“no, this is what it means”…when a more profitable path is something like: there is a difference between the meaning of a text, and the ways in which it can be reasonably applied, we have very different applications of some verses, let’s get curious about why.
Well, enough of that. Please join me next week where we’ll have more fun stuff to talk about.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.