WILL THE CHURCH BE RAPTURED?
By Jim Gerrish
Today millions of Christians, particularly in the western world, are certain they will someday escape the earth in a so-called “rapture.” This event supposedly will take place just prior to the coming of the Beast or Antichrist and the ensuing Great Tribulation.
Let us clarify first of all, that while “rapture” is a non-biblical term, there certainly will be a “catching up” of the saints to meet the Lord in the air on that last day. This is found in 1 Thessalonians 4:17: “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.”
Obviously though, the idea of being caught up to meet the Lord as he is coming to reign triumphantly on earth, is a far different concept than being snatched out of a world before the difficult days of battle and testing arrive. The intent of Jesus’ appearing is clear, since he is bringing all his saints with him to earth (1 Thess. 4:14).
We might ask, where did the idea of a rapture originate, seeing that the term is not in the Bible? Did the earliest Christians believe in such a rapture? Also, what is entailed in the idea? Let us look into this doctrine briefly.
HOW DID THE RAPTURE GET STARTED?
When we take a look at church history we learn that the pre-tribulation rapture teaching began in Scotland in 1830. The idea was apparently unknown in the church before this date, and it was unknown to the early Christians, as we will later illustrate. It is likely that the teaching began in Port Glasgow with a prophecy from a young woman by the name of Margaret Macdonald. She apparently had some connections with Edward Irving’s movement, and it was this group that first began to circulate her revelation.
The idea was soon picked up, publicized and greatly developed by John Nelson Darby, founder of the Plymouth Brethren. Later the whole scheme of the rapture was incorporated into the notes of the popular Schofield Bible. From there the teaching was spread worldwide. Today it has probably become one of the most accepted and fervently held eschatological beliefs of western evangelical Christians.
This whole emphasis, however, seems contrary to the Hebraic and biblical idea of the righteous remaining on the earth (Psa.115:16). We see this clearly in many scriptures like Psalm 37:9, 11, where we read that those who hope in the Lord and those who are meek will inherit the land. The Lord himself even repeats this promise in Matthew 5:5. In Psalm 37:29 it is affirmed with these words: “the righteous will inherit the land and dwell in it forever.” In Proverbs 2:21-22 the author states: “For the upright will live in the land, and the blameless will remain in it; but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the unfaithful will be torn from it.”
In Proverbs 10:30 it is stated bluntly: “The righteous will never be uprooted, but the wicked will not remain in the land.” These scriptures are underscored in the parables of Jesus. They tell us it is the wicked that will be removed from the earth. This conclusion is also supported by a careful study of the book of Revelation.
Many fanciful schemes of interpretation have developed around the idea of the rapture as an escape from earth. Obviously, this whole concept has provided abundant material for today’s writers. One of these schemes deals with the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. This supper with Jesus and his raptured church supposedly takes place during the time of the Great Tribulation, when the Jews who are left behind are experiencing a terrible holocaust under the Antichrist.
This scenario not only seems non-biblical and non-Hebraic, but also even appears anti-biblical and even anti-Semitic. How could the Messiah of Israel rejoice at a festival supper at the exact time the people of Israel, his own chosen people, are burning in the flames, and even while his beloved Jerusalem is being threatened? The Bible says of Israel, “In all their distress he too was distressed” (Isa. 63:9).
Along with this idea also comes the scenario concerning Petra. This is a concept that has become extremely popular in the last few years as it has been widely publicized by certain modern preachers and writers. The scenario goes like this: After Christians “fly away” in the rapture and the Antichrist makes his debut, the Jews will escape to Petra where they will be sheltered. This whole idea seems flawed on many counts. It even seems a bit preposterous.
Petra like the rapture also does not appear in the Bible. There are no promises concerning Petra made by Israel’s prophets. The city is possibly connected to Sela in Edom, but even that could be questionable since Petra existed in much later Nabataean times.
Petra, the famous rose city, is in the ancient territory of Edom. We should note that this land is under an eternal curse from God because of its long-standing hatred of the Jews. Edom, of course, was the nation founded by Esau, the brother of Israel. The nation was located in the southern area of present day Jordan, and was initially blessed by God. However, because they kept alive an ancient hatred of Israel, God finally cut them off. So, saying that the Jews would escape and hide in Edom is a lot like saying they would escape and hide at Auschwitz.
The prophets, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos and Obadiah, all elaborate on the Edom theme. Isaiah’s prophecies are quite severe. He says, “For the LORD has a day of vengeance, a year of retribution, to uphold Zion's cause. Edom's streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulfur; her land will become blazing pitch! It will not be quenched night and day; its smoke will rise forever. From generation to generation it will lie desolate; no one will ever pass through it again” (Isa. 34:8-10). Isaiah even mentions that the Messiah at his coming will appear from Edom, after having worked terrible vengeance upon those who hate his people (Isa. 63:1-6). The little book of Obadiah is also particularly severe in its prophecies against Edom.
One question concerning the Petra scenario begs to be answered. Why would God publish his plan of hiding Israel so that millions of violently anti-Semitic Moslems in the Middle East could know exactly where the Israelis would be located? This would appear to be setting up his people for certain genocide. Although it may be extremely painful for us, we need to examine and judge these current teachings in light of the Bible. In the future we need to relate end-time studies to Israel, which stands at the very heart of all Bible prophecy.
THE RAPTURE TEACHING IN LIGHT OF REVELATION
It is a strange fact that the book of Revelation is highly prized by those who teach the pre-tribulation rapture. They often point out that the church is not mentioned after Revelation 3:22, and only appears again in 22:16. They assume by this that the church will have been taken out in the rapture by the beginning of chapter four. Obviously this is an argument from silence.
When we closely examine Revelation we see a far different picture emerging. Rather than seeing a separation of the church and Israel we immediately see a great unity between the two. The menorah, a very ancient symbol of Israel is used to include the churches (Rev. 1:12-13). We have an immediate emphasis upon the coming kingdom of God and the idea of the saints reigning with him on earth (1:6). We soon learn that these saints are both Jewish and Gentile.
Next we have urgent messages sent from heaven by the risen Christ to his churches. All these messages are uniform. They all urge the churches to get ready to endure difficult times and to begin overcoming for Christ (2:7; 2:11; 2:17; 2:26-27; 3:5; 3:12; 3:21). The churches are sternly warned of a dreadful, world-wide hour of trial that is approaching (3:10).
We then are given a brief preview of the Great Tribulation and realize that God’s saints must be prepared to overcome and reign with Christ upon this earth (5:10). We also see in this brief preview that there will be Christian martyrs, many of them (6:9). Still, we learn that God’s saints will be spiritually sealed for this tribulation period (7:3). This sealing will no doubt protect their minds and hearts, lest they fall away, but still many will be chosen as martyrs for the Lord. We see in this chapter numerous saints coming out of the midst of the Great Tribulation (7:14). The Greek verb used indicates a continuous action; that they are still coming out of this tribulation and not just merely escaping from it.
There are many more interesting things in Revelation. In chapter seven and again in chapter fourteen we see an overcoming remnant arise. From these two chapters we realize that this remnant is made up of believing Jews and believing Gentiles (7:4, 9; 14:3-4). This seems to be the new man spoken of in Ephesians 2:11-22; 3:6 (cf. Rom. 8:19).
In light of these passages in Ephesians and Revelation, we should view with great suspicion any doctrine that tends to separate Jewish and Gentile believers in the last day. After all, the Lord Jesus is not likely to undo the graft that he has made, placing Gentile Christians into the olive tree of Israel (Rom. 11: 17-18). There is much more for us to consider in Revelation. Chapter twelve seems to be the heart of the book, and in it we see this mystery hidden in the man-child, or the overcoming remnant. Unfortunately, we do not have space to deal with this here.
RAPTURE, THE REST OF THE BIBLE AND THE EARLY CHRISTIANS
When we look at the remainder of the Bible we realize that there are deep problems with the idea of a pre-tribulation rapture of the church. For instance, it is very plain in scripture that Christ’s coming and the gathering together of his people (2 Thess. 2:1) will not happen until after the Antichrist is revealed. Paul warns the church with these words in 2 Thessalonians 2:3, “Don't let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction.” This tells us that the church must still be around as late as chapter thirteen of Revelation when the Antichrist is made known.
Paul, talking to Gentile Christians, speaks in this wise in Ephesians 6:13-14: “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then.” Again, the scripture speaks specifically of “the day of evil,” and not “a day of evil” or “some day of evil.” Several commentators feel this is surely a reference to the final evil day. Paul thus places Gentile Christians right in the middle of the last day’s satanic conflict and encourages them to be ready for battle. He does the same thing in 2 Timothy 3:1-5. As he speaks of last day abuses and abusers he warns the Gentile Christians: “Have nothing to do with them” (v. 5). Thus he once more places the church right in the middle of the tribulation.
We remember that Noah did not leave the world. He was preserved through much tribulation. Noah’s ark was sealed without and within (Gen. 6:14). He and his family survived while the world was completely destroyed around them. The Hebrew children did the same. While Egypt was judged and destroyed, they were kept safe in the land of Goshen. While the firstborn of Egypt died, Israel’s sons lived because they were sealed with the blood of the lamb. We must remember that these events are all biblical types for the last days (Matt. 24:37).
Early Christians uniformly were seeking to be prepared that they might meet the Lord in victory, without spot, blemish or compromise, on that day (1 Thess. 5:23; 1 Jo. 3:3; 1 Jo. 2:28; 1 Pet. 1:7). It is obvious that this victory would come through suffering (1 Pet. 1:7).
In short, early Christians were looking to endure to the end (Mt. 24:13), through much tribulation (Acts 14:22) and to meet the Lord in victory. We might wonder if modern Christians are looking to escape from what appears to them to be a certain defeat. We see everywhere in scripture that Christ will not be defeated. This earth is the Lords and so are we (Psa. 24:1). He will not abandon his earth or his saints to the Antichrist. He will protect them, cover them and seal them until the wrath is passed over. Then he will remake his earth in righteousness and his saints will reign on the earth with him.
There is one last consideration. Had the early church really taught a pre-tribulation rapture we would certainly expect the earliest Christian writers to be aware of it and to speak of it. Such is not the case. In fact, several of the earliest church fathers actually comment upon the awful time of tribulation coming upon the church at the end of the age.* Hermas (c. AD 150) says: “Happy are you who endure the great tribulation that is coming. And happy are they who will not deny their own life.” Hippolytus (c. AD 200) speaks of the tyrant who will “…reign and persecute the church, which flees from city to city, and seeks concealment in the wilderness among the mountains.” Irenaeus (c. AD 180) says: “For this is the last contest of the righteous, in which they are crowned with incorruption – when they overcome.”
In closing, let us remember that genuine love rejoices in the truth (1 Cor. 13:6). People are rejoicing in a lot of things today, and some Christians seem all too eager to rejoice in false prophecy. Real and lasting joy comes from the simplicity of God’s pure word and from that inner knowledge that we are walking in his truth. The early Christians had such a joy. It was contagious and permanent. May we find the truth they had, and hold to it firmly.
- Jim Gerrish