Why the Rapture doctrine is being left behind.
Rapture, Antichrist, and Tribulation are words Josiah Hesse associates with his apocalyptic upbringing—an upbringing he says was built on “the urgency of avoiding hell.”
In his article “Apocalyptic upbringing: how I recovered from my terrifying evangelical childhood,” Hesse looks back on a stormy night in his Iowa town when he was 10 years old and home alone because his parents were running late after being out for the evening. Unsure of their whereabouts, he feared they had been raptured, and he had been left behind.1
After grabbing snacks, juice boxes, a knife, and his Bible, young Josiah ran down to the basement. He knew being left behind would mean hiding from the Antichrist and denying the mark of the Beast—a branding that seals your doom. All of a sudden, he heard the sound of his parents returning home, relieving his apocalyptic anxiety. However, Hesse said he carried the same anxiety into adulthood, finally jettisoning the theology of his youth and, sadly, his faith as well.
Josiah Hesse represents a vast number of Christians who, for one reason or another, have abandoned belief in the Rapture of the church—the doctrine that Jesus will snatch His church to heaven in an instant, and only true believers will see Him (1 Cor. 15:52; 1 Th. 4:16–17).
What happened to this once-popular theology? Why do so many evangelical Christians reject it today?
The Pop Culture of the Rapture
Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye’s wildly successful, 16-book series Left Behind introduced eschatology (the doctrine of future things) to a much broader audience by merging popular fiction with premillennial and pretribulational Rapture doctrine. People who are premillennial believe Jesus will return physically to Earth before setting up a literal Messianic Kingdom over which He will rule for 1,000 literal years. People who are pretribulational believe Jesus will rapture His church before seven years of unparalleled tribulation afflict the entire world.
From 1995 to 2007, Left Behind unhinged the Rapture from the confines of a Sunday sermon and made it the framework of suspense novels that Christians and non-Christians alike discussed at the watercooler. Everyone was enraptured with the Rapture.
In the past, books and videos—such as Hal Lindsey’s bestseller The Late Great Planet Earth and the film A Thief in the Night—raised awareness about the pretribulational Rapture. But nothing connected Rapture theology to contemporary pop culture like Left Behind. Seven books from the series rose to number one on The New York Times Best Seller list, selling more than 63 million copies worldwide.
As the Rapture gained exposure in the secular world, it rapidly devolved from theology into theater. 30 Rock, a popular sitcom that aired on NBC, featured a character named Kenneth Parcell, a dedicated NBC page and outspoken charismatic Christian. In one episode, Parcell leaves his job after his pastor tells him the so-called date of the Rapture. When the date arrives, Kenneth dons a shirt with the word Rapture across the front and says his final goodbyes to his friends, only to find out the next day it was all a hoax.
The episode aired shortly after Harold Camping, the late president of Family Radio, spent more than $100 million advertising his particular version of a doomsday event that he said would remove Christians from Earth on May 21, 2011.2 (Camping was neither premillennial nor pretribulational, nor did he believe in the Rapture as taught by The Friends of Israel.)
The national news media waited to see if Christians would suddenly disappear. When May 21 came and went and Camping was still here, the then 89-year-old recalculated his numbers and came up with Oct 21, 2011. Yet again, the day came and went. Unfortunately, many people who could not distinguish between the biblical doctrine of the Rapture and Camping’s unique stance mocked the Rapture all the more.
Christians who believe in the Rapture are often portrayed as escapists who are out of touch with reality and ready to leave this world and all its problems behind. Consequently, this once-beloved teaching has eroded. Some Christians don’t want to associate with a belief that is mocked publicly or abused by date-setters, so they distance themselves from it; and this distancing appears more in the pulpit than in the pew.
From Culture to Christian Education
In Christian higher education, students are introduced to multiple ways of interpreting Scripture. They learn biblical history, different theological perspectives, and the development of doctrine.
Christian education is definitely worthwhile, yet most Christian colleges today disregard the value of the pretribulational Rapture and view it negatively. Today the Rapture is not taught as biblical doctrine but, instead, as a byproduct of apocalyptic evangelicalism that started with 19th-century British Bible teacher John Nelson Darby. Students who once sat under a pastor who taught about the Rapture from God’s Word become more susceptible to abandoning the doctrine altogether after they graduate from college or seminary.
In a 2016 LifeWay Research telephone survey of 1,000 Protestant senior pastors, one third said they believe in the literal Rapture of the church. However, of those pastors, 60 percent have no college degree. Only 26 percent of those who earned a master’s degree believe the church will be raptured at the appearance of Christ in accordance with 1 Thessalonians 4:17.3
The survey also showed that pastors under 45 are less likely to believe in a pretribulational Rapture and more likely to believe the Rapture will occur simultaneously with Christ’s Second Coming.4
It’s no coincidence pastors under 45 with advanced degrees are forsaking the pretribulational view. Christian higher education over the past 20 years has shied away from treating this doctrine with the seriousness it deserves, and we are reaping the results.
When actor Nicholas Cage starred in the reboot of the Left Behind movie in 2014, Dr. William Lane Craig, research professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University, said Christians should enjoy the movie but beware of the theology behind it.
According to Craig, the pretribulational Rapture is an unbiblical doctrine held by good Christians who lack the insight to disprove it. “It is astonishing, if I’m correct about this,” he said, “American evangelism is very widely misled, that it has departed from the historic Christian position about the second coming of Christ. That’s really rather sobering, because if we’re wrong about this, what other things might we have misinterpreted?”5
When we ask why the Rapture isn’t being taught much today from pulpits, at least two places we can look for answers are pop culture and Christian higher education. Together they have produced an apathy, which trickles down from the puplit to the parishioner, toward this important end-times doctrine.
Hopefully, the Rapture’s relevancy will resurface if believers sincerely examine the texts for themselves. There are plenty of valid biblical arguments to persuade any Bible-believing Christian that the pretribulational Rapture is the blessed hope of the imminent return of Christ and the resurrection of His church.
- Josiah Hesse, “Apocalyptic upbringing: how I recovered from my terrifying evangelical childhood,” The Guardian, April 5, 2016 <goo.gl/mv4huj>.
- Christopher Goffard, “Harold Camping is at the heart of a mediapocalypse,” Los Angeles Times, May 21, 2011 <goo.gl/9D75Dw>.
- Bob Smietana, “Only One-Third of Pastors Share ‘Left Behind’ End Times Theology,” Christianity Today, April 26, 2016 <goo.gl/uo43vd>.
- Morgan Lee, “No, Christians Should Not Believe in ‘Left Behind’s’ Rapture Theology, Says Prominent Christian Philosopher,” The Christian Post, July 30, 2014 <goo.gl/cVrwMf>.