NOW YOU SEE THEM, NOW YOU DON'T!

June 21, 2009

First, there was the Scientific Revolution (c. 1680-1760) which brought about the First Great Awaking in religion and taught that science could answer the things that God couldn't.  Then, there was the Industrial Revolution (c. 1800-1880) which brought about the Second Great Awaking in religion and taught that industrial progress will make man more advanced.  The third revolution is called the Nuclear Revolution (1945-2000) and different from the first two, this one did not bring about a religious awakening like the previous two, but did contribute to end-time scenarios that make people feel that there is a religious awakening.  Every time there is a "revolution" in society, three things follow:

    1)   An interest in and the rise of Charismatic phenomena.  Healing and miracle services and speaking in tongues are paramount.
    2)  The rise of cults and occults, each claiming that someone within each group is "inspired" by God to teach and write with His authority (such as Joseph Smith and the Mormons; Charles Taze Russell and the Jehovah's Witnesses; Mary Baker Eddy and the Christian Scientists, etc.)
    3)  The progressive study of and heavily devoted interest in prophecy or the doctrine of "The Last Things."
The year 1829 falls within the context of the second "revolution."  The so-called "Shakers" in America were preaching and encouraging the working of miracles and spoke in tongues.  Joseph Smith had already claimed to received a vision of and had already published the Book of Mormon.  And, interest in the doctrine of the last things was gaining popularity.

To find the origin of the most popular eschatological view of our time we must begin with the second "revolution," i.e. The Industrial Revolution. 

A big shift in the study of prophecy began in the 1820's when a Scottish Presbyterian minister named Edward Irving co-founded a group of men and women interested in the last things and the second coming of Jesus Christ called The Society for the Investigation of Prophecy.  There were many Bible societies and study groups popping all around the world in the early and mid nineteenth century.  Many scholars and historians attribute this to the rise of the Industrial Revolution.  In fact, there have been three so-called "revolutions" in history.  Each one was considered a major historical shift in society that affected everything from politics to science, and from economics to religion. 

Into this mix comes Irving.  He and his Society for the Investigation of Prophecy researched and taught hundreds of lessons on the rise of the Antichrist.  But it was around the fall of 1829 that Irving began to teach what many called a novel idea of a two-phase return of Christ.  He wrote and preached that the first phase was a secret rapture before the rise of the Antichrist.  Christian journalist Dave MacPherson has researched this matter for many years and in his investigative book entitled "The Rapture Plot" he noted that Irving "stole" the idea from a young Scottish teenager named Margaret MacDonald.  MacDonald attended a number of "healing" services and while at one, was said to have exclaimed during one such service that she had a vision of Jesus returning twice.  Irving was present when she had such a revelation and he spent many months doing research.

Within the months that followed, a brilliant lawyer and pastor began to write a number of tracts on Irving's studies.  His name was John Nelson Darby who staunchly defended the infallibility of the Scriptures against British liberalism and unbelief.  In 1830, Darby became the lead of an English group called the Plymouth Brethren and spent many years developing his school of thought which he called "Dispensationalism."  Both Darby and Irving championed a view of the Second Coming of Christ that had never been taught before.  In the 175 years since, this view is accepted and taught by more than 60 percent of the Bible believing world!

The number one emphasis in this theology is first there will be a secret rapture (or first-second coming of Christ) - then the appearance of the Antichrist.  Reporting on Irving and Darby's rapture-then-Antichrist views, Dave MacPherson wrote:

Into this futurist system both Darby and Irving had injected a further refinement, based upon a declared attempt to reconcile the different parts of the New Testament which they considered to be relevant.  In their view, the Second Advent would take place in two stages:  first, there would be a quiet appearance - the "presence" - of Christ, when all true Christians, the true Church, would be removed from the earth.  The was the "rapture of the saints."  Only then, when the restraining presence of the Holy Spirit in His own people had been removed from the world scene, would Antichrist arise.  His rule would be brought to an end by the second stage of the Advent - the public "appearing" of Christ in glory.

Concerning the link of these two men to Margaret MacDonald, MacPherson testified:

Since Margaret MacDonald was the first person to teach a coming of Christ that would precede the days of Antichrist, it necessarily follows that Darby - back to whom pre-tribulation theory can easily be traced - was at least the second or third down the line.  To date no solid evidence has been found that proves that anyone other than this young Scottish lassie was the first person to teach a future coming of Christ before the days of Antichrist.  Before 1830 Christians had always believed in a single future coming, that the catching up of Christians in I Thessalonians 4 will take place after the Great Tribulation of Matthew 24 at the glorious coming of the Son of man when He shall send His angels to gather together all of His own.

Whether she realized it or not, Margaret did her part of pave the way for the doctrine that would demand separate waiting rooms at the end of this age - one for the church and another for Israel.  To her belongs the credit for the Left Behind books and The Late Great Planet Earth!

Having unfolded this brief little history behind the teaching of the Rapture, let's look at this concept a little closer. The exact word, "rapture" isn't used in the Bible!  However, millions of prophecy-minded Christians have nevertheless been taught that soon God's Church will disappear from earth without a trace.  Headlines are predicted to read: "Multitudes Missing, Chaos Sweeps The Globe!"  "All Children Have Disappeared!" "Massive Traffic Snarls Due to Evaporated Drivers!" "Planes Crash, Trains Wreck, as Pilots and Engineers Vanish!"  Perhaps you've seen the bumper stickers reading: "In case of Rapture, this vehicle will be unmanned."

In the last few years, the number-one promoter of the rapture idea has been the New York Times bestselling Left Behind series co-authored by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins.  A high-speed, 12-book sequence of novels about the end times, Left Behind teaches that the return of Jesus Christ takes place in two distinct phases.  First, Jesus comes invisibly to remove His Church before a seven-year tribulation during which the rest of humanity must face the Antichrist.  This is the rapture.  At the end of those seven years, Jesus will again return visibly to deliver those who became Christians during the tribulation - after being given a "second chance" to be saved - and to pulverize the invading enemies of Israel at Armageddon.  This is the second coming.  Thus it's rapture first, then seven years with the Antichrist, then the visible second coming of Jesus Christ.

These popular concepts - rapture, seven years of horror, future Antichrist - have also been taught in many Christian films of the last thirty years such as A Thief in the Night, Image of the Beast, Tribulation Force, The Omega Code and Left Behind: The Movie.  Because the rapture teaching has been promoted so heavily in our society, even among those outside the Church, a rumor has circulated that some higher-ups in American Airlines want at least one non-Christian pilot aboard each flight - just in case!

The real question is: Although "rapture" isn't a Biblical word, is the doctrine there?  If not, could it be an END TIME DELUSION? Let's find out...

First of all, the Bible certainly does teach the exciting truth that Jesus will return for His people.  Our Lord Himself said, "I will come again and receive you to Myself" (John 14:3).  All Christians should believe Christ's promise and long to meet Him on that great day.

But will He come invisibly?  Will the Church disappear?  Does the Bible really teach vanishing Christians?  Without a doubt, the most quoted passage used to support the rapture concept is I Thessalonians 4:17.  A lot of Christians know this verse by heart, and it is cited in Left Behind: The Movie.  There Paul wrote that true believers will someday be "caught up ... in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air."  But does "caught up" mean disappear?  Is Paul describing a silent return of Jesus Christ before a seven-year tribulation?  The answer is in the context.  We just need to read it and take it in slowly.

Here is what Paul actually wrote:

For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God.  And the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  And thus we shall always be with the Lord.  (I Thessalonians 4:16-17)

Rapture teachers interpret this event as silent and secret, yet doesn't it seem rather loud and visible?  There is a shout, a voice, and a trumpet.  Have you ever heard a silent trumpet?  The truth is, I Thessalonians 4:16 is one of the noisiest verses in the Bible!  Look carefully: Jesus comes down from Heaven shouting and blowing a trumpet.  The dead rise.  Then true believers are "caught up."  There is nothing here about vanishing Christians prior to the tribulation.  Rapture promoters interpret "caught up" to mean disappear because this view fits their tightly-meshed prophetic system, you it must be admitted that the text doesn't say this.

At the end of Jesus' earthly ministry, He was also "taken up," (Acts 1:9).  This doesn't mean He disappeared, leaving His clothes on earth.  Instead, in full view of His disciples, "while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight."  This event was highly visible.  Luke said Christ was "taken up," then clouds are mentioned, just like Paul wrote about believers being "caught up ... in the clouds."

Notice carefully the fill context of Acts 1:9:

Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.  And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven?  This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you have seen Him go into heaven."

Here we have holy angels - in the form of men in white robes - explaining the simple truth about Jesus' return.  They told the disciples that just as Jesus was literally and visibly "taken up" into the clouds, even so He would come in like manner as they had seen Him go into heaven.  The angels taught no secret coming here, nor anything about vanishing Christians.  Everything will be highly visible.

Returning to I Thessalonians, Paul, then, brings up the thief-in-the-night idea:

For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God.  And the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  And thus we shall always be with the Lord.  Therefore comfort one another with these words.  But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night.  For when they say, "Peace and safety!" then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman.  And they shall not escape (I Thessalonians 4:16 - 5:3).

Here Paul compares the coming of Jesus Christ to the arrival of a midnight thief.  Rapture promoters interpret this to mean Jesus will come like a silent thief to snatch believers off the earth before seven years of chaos - then driverless cars will crash, pilotless plans will collide, and babies will be found missing from their cribs.  Is this really what Paul is saying?

Again, slowing down and looking closely at this passage we see, first of all, the day when Jesus comes as a thief is clearly the very same day in which He descends with a shout and a trumpet blast.  Secondly, it comes as "a thief in the night" only upon the unprepared!  When it hits, "sudden destruction comes upon them (the lost), as labor pains upon a pregnant woman.  And they shall not escape."

Do you see what Paul is saying? Jesus' coming as a "thief in the night" does not mean He will come quietly and invisibly to steal Christians out of this world, as taught in rapture movies and New York Times bestselling books.  Rather, it means He will come unexpectantly, bringing "sudden destruction" upon the unsaved.  Will the unprepared get a "second chance" to be saved during a subsequent seven-year tribulation?  Paul answered this question when he wrote, "They shall not escape" (verse 3).

Here's a simple summary of what I Thessalonians 4:16 - 5:3 really says:

  1. Jesus Christ will literally descend from Heaven with a shout and a trumpet blast;

  2. The dead in Christ will rise first and true believers will be "caught up" just like Jesus Himself was visibly "taken up" into the clouds almost 2,000 years ago;

  3. This cataclysmic "day of the Lord" will burst upon the unprepared like the unexpected arrival of a midnight thief;

  4. "Sudden destruction" will overwhelm the lost, "and they shall not escape."

When taken literally, these words describe the visible second coming of Jesus Christ, not a secret rapture.

Immediately after his solemn prediction of Christ's return as a midnight thief, Paul wrote to true believers: "But you, brothers, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief.  You are all sons of light and sons of the day.  We are not of the night nor of darkness" (I Thessalonians 5:4 & 5).

Remember the Blackout of 2003?  It left 55 million North Americans in darkness because a massive system failure short-circuited our electrical power grid.  At least when it comes to I Thessalonians 4:16 - 5:3, we have just witnessed another system failure.  The popular doctrine of a silent, secret return of Jesus and vanishing Christians is just not there!

Next time we will take a closer look at what is called the Parousia - the Second Coming of Christ.  Everything in the end occurs all in one day - not seven years.

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