The teaching of a rapture, that before Jesus comes to judge the earth he will first snatch up the true believers into heaven for seven years as a great tribulation racks everyone else on the earth, seems custom made for the big screen. Since Hal Lindsey’s 1970 book, “The Late Great Planet Earth,” the idea of a rapture has become extremely popular in the United States, especially amongst the evangelical and fundamentalist crowd. The reason is not because the Bible teaches it. Not at all. The Bible very obviously doesn’t teach it. It’s rather because people want it to be true. Because it would be really cool. And it makes for sensational novels and movies. “The Late Great Planet Earth” sold 28 million copies and was made into a movie narrated, ironically, by the great Orson Welles. The Left Behind series has sold some 70 million copies and been made into several Hollywood movies. What would the world be like after 200,000 million Christians from all around the world simply vanish? A dad is riding a bike with his son and suddenly there’s no kid, only a bike. A husband and wife sit down to dinner and the husband sees her disappear right in front of his eyes. What do you do after that? After realizing billions around the world are dealing with the same thing, and suddenly the world is turned into turmoil for seven years? That makes for good drama. But it makes for horrible theology. This sermon is going to have three parts. First, we’ll talk about the origins and history of this belief in the rapture. Second we’ll talk about what the Bible actually teaches about a so-called rapture. Third we’ll talk about why the biblical teaching offers so much comfort and is so far better than the dramatic sensationalism of the rapture.
So first. The idea of the rapture came about very late in Christian history. Like Mormonism, it’s a new thing and a very American thing. It arose in America with Increase Mather, a New England puritan preacher and president of the then upstart Harvard university, and then a couple generations later it was popularized by John Darby, another puritan preacher. Like Mormonism, Darby had some very strange ideas about the people of Israel. Mormons, you’ll remember, think that a group of Jews sailed to America some 2000 years before Columbus did and that these Jews were either turned into Indians for being bad or killed off by the bad guys – but before the last one was killed off, a fellow named Moroni managed to finish the Book of Mormon and later on, have it buried in the hills of New York. Darby came up with a different theory about Israel, which is called dispensationalism. He taught that God deals with different people differently according to the time or dispensation. So Darby insisted that God dealt with Israel according to the law, and the promises He gave to them still hold. He insisted they’re still God’s people despite not believing in Jesus, and that God will save them despite it all. In other words, Darby held, and most American evangelicals today still teach this, that Israel is still God’s people, because of their DNA, because of their race, and not because of faith in Jesus.
So according to Darby, we are now living in a different time, a different dispensation, the dispensation of “grace,” where we get saved by faith in Jesus, but this dispensation will end with the rapture, where all Christians will be taken straight to heaven, and God will again turn His attention on the Jews. After that, and we’ll get into this the next two weeks, Jesus will set up an earthly kingdom in Jerusalem and reign for a thousand years here on earth, and fulfill his different promises, one to the people of Israel and the other to us. So while Mormonism is distinguished mostly by just making things up about the past, dispensationalism is distinguished mostly by just making things up about the future. And the rapture is the most sensational of its claims.
There is literally nothing in the Bible about a rapture. What you just heard from 1 Thessalonians and Matthew 24 are the only times we hear about people being snatched away. That’s what rapture means, by the way, a snatching, a seizing, from the Latin rapio, which means to take or snatch, the same root word as rapacious. And you’ll notice that in each case this taking of Christians up into heaven comes at Judgment Day. That’s part of the reason we had such a long reading from Matthew this evening, so you could see the context of this so-called rapture. The sun will be darkened, the moon won’t give its light, the stars will be falling from heaven, and all nations will see the Son of Man coming visibly on the clouds of heaven, that is when two people will be in a field and one will be taken up and another left and two will be grinding at the mill and one will be taken and another left. This is Judgment Day. It’s not a separate event. It doesn’t somehow come before Judgment Day. It is Judgment Day – Christians will be taken up into heaven to be with Jesus forever. And notice that it all happens after a great tribulation, not before it. But we’ll get into that next week.
St. Paul says exactly what Jesus says, because he’s Jesus’ apostle and that’s his job. The Thessalonians had a lot of questions about the resurrection. They were particularly concerned that when Jesus came back on Judgment Day, their loved ones who had died would not be left behind dead on earth. So Paul tells them not to grieve as those who have no hope. When Jesus returns on the last day, He will first raise the bodies of those who believe in Him and bring them to Him, then on that same day He will take those who are still living and welcome them into His heavenly glory – and so we will always be with the Lord. Here it is even clearer that the taking of Christians, the “rapturing” of Christians, takes place on Judgment Day, after the resurrection of all flesh, when our bodies are changed and made to conform to Jesus’ glorious body. It isn’t the start of a new dispensation on earth. It’s the end of the earth. It’s the beginning of the new heavens and the new earth, the start of eternity.
The appeal of the rapture theology is the appeal of earthly glory. It feeds off of our thirst for political victory, for earthly success. We’ll be spared the great tribulation; we’ll be able to reign on earth with Jesus; we’ll finally get that political victory we’ve been dreaming of – much greater than electing our guy to the presidency, much better than overturning Roe. Again, the similarities with Mormonism are striking, the great allure of ruling your own planet, of political dominance, and again, it is so American, so obsessed with material wealth and earthly happiness.
Once the Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God would come, and Jesus answered, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation, nor will they say, “Look, here it is!,” or “There,’ for behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” This is Jesus’ constant refrain, that He has not come as an earthly king, but as the King who rode into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey to suffer for us and win for us a heavenly kingdom. He said the Kingdom of heaven is within you. Because what your soul longs for, what the Christian soul longs for, above all else, is not some final political victory, not to see some earthly kingdom, it’s most definitely not to be taken up with Jesus, only to return to this sinful earth to gloat over your enemies for a thousand years. No, your greatest expectation is to see the Lord Jesus, your Savior, face to face. And your greatest joy is to know that He will come for you and take you forever from all sin and sorrow. And you will always be with the Lord.
Jesus’ entire point and Paul’s entire point, the Bible’s entire point, when it talks about the suddenness of the Lord’s coming, the suddenness of the Last Day, that suddenly one will be taken and another left, the entire point is to urge us Christians always to be ready. And that means not putting our stock in this earth. We can work for earthly justice – we’ve been reminded of that today as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for overturning Roe v. Wade: God grant it for Jesus’ sake, God bless those judges to give little babies justice – but no matter what we do on this earth we will be met with some disappointment, always. Because we are sinners and we deal with sinners and this world is sinful and corrupt. But our Jesus is pure and holy and He wears our flesh and blood. And He loves us dearly. Not just one chosen nation, but all nations, peoples of all blood and ethnicity and country, made one by His Word which we cling to as our anchor and our refuge. His love for us is not hidden. He speaks it to us here in His Church; He gives it to us in His body and blood. And so we prepare for His coming by clinging to this Word. And it will not catch us unaware. When He takes us to Himself He won’t find us obsessing over money or politics or long-held grudges, not dreaming of some utopia on this earth, but looking for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Looking to see our Jesus. And that’s exactly what Jesus will give us, life with Him forever and ever. Amen.