Rapture fever is back, as a new iteration of the Left Behind film franchise prepares to slither onto screens, this time sans Kirk Cameron. (How desperate is Nic Cage getting, anyway?) Now is as good a time as any to kick Left Behind in the behind and reiterate that the rapture, quite simply, is a lie.
Leave aside the fact that the word “rapture” never once occurs in Scripture. Forget that the concept is part of a system not invented until the 19th century. Don’t even mention the observation that the rapture would mean a kind of two-stage return of Christ, which the Biblical text does not support. Focus, instead, on this: the one text that rapture preachers can (kind of) point to has nothing to do with a rapture. As Mickey Efird writes,
“Since Jesus has conquered death, so those who are united to God share in this great victory. Therefore, those who have already died, rather than being in a secondary position with regard to the final victory of God, are in a primary position. The reason for this is that they are already with the Lord. They are in a real sense already experiencing the joys of the final consummation. This seems to be what Paul means by the expression ‘The dead in Christ will rise first.'” (Mickey Efird, Left Behind? [Macon: Smith & Helwys 2005], 40.)
If that doesn’t suit you, NT Wright has another reading of this infamous passage, stressing Roman imperial imagery in Paul’s language. The point is simple enough: the Darbyist rendering of this pericope is only one of many which are plausible, and is far from the dominant reading throughout the history of the church and among top contemporary scholars of the Bible. At minimum, the dispensational rendering is hardly enough of a home-run around which to build an entire eschatology.
Of course, dispensationalists will point to other passages to prove the rapture, including Jesus’ fuzzy parables (“one will be left in the field!”) and arguments from silence (after chapter 3 in Revelation, the word church is not found again until the end!). All of these are specious, though, and nothing carries the weight of the aforementioned Thessalonians passage.
I have referred to rapture theology in the pulpit as, “escape hatch religion.” This is why it matters that Christians do not buy into this popular but horrific doctrine: it turns the ministry of the church into gnostic bunker-huddling. The rapture reverses the logic of the incarnation, actually. On the Darbyist scheme, Christ was incarnate of the Spirit and the Virgin Mary so that he could one day rescue the church out of a world going to hell. So much for, “Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” Abraham’s mission, fulfilled and intensified by the faithfulness of the Messiah, has been mutated from blessing the world through the elect into saving the elect and letting the world go to pot.
So give the rapture a good swift kick in behind. It’s not just un-biblical, it’s not just bad theology, it is a pernicious lie. The good news is that God loves His creation and His creatures. Jesus came to renew both, not save one at the expense of the other. Thanks be to God.