Christians have always talked about Christ returning.
The earliest creeds of the church talk about Christ’s return. It’s also mentioned in some New Testament letters from people like the Apostle Paul.
However, Christians believe differently about what the return of Christ looks like.
Some believe Christ will literally return like the Apostle Paul seemed to believe.
Others, like the Gospel of John, seem to believe it is more of a spiritualized return where our hearts and communities are transformed by justice, love, and peace.
But the idea that Christ would come back and take people away to heaven while the world was destroyed…
That is a pretty new idea.
193 years old to be exact.
This idea is often called the “Rapture.”
Creation of the Rapture
A young Irishman named John Nelson Darby started this interpretation in 1830.
Basically, he taught Christ would come and take Christians from the earth and everyone left on earth would suffer all kinds of horrible things, which he pulled from the Book of Revelation. Then, after all the destruction and suffering, Christ would come back again and make a new world. (The technical name for Darby’s teaching is “dispensationalism”)
Darby made a number of mission trips to the U.S. in the mid-1800s to share this idea. A few prominent preachers in the U.S. took up preaching his ideas. Eventually, a whole Bible was created called the “Scofield Bible.”
The Scofield Bible had headings and commentary that focused on teaching this idea of the rapture. It would take different passages of scripture throughout the Bible and say “This is all about the end times.”
In the process, the Scofield Bible completely ignored the historical context and what the authors of the books were actually talking about. (As one of my mentors says – A text without context is just a con)
Millions of copies of this Bible were sold, and for most of the 20th century, Americans were influenced by headings and commentary about the rapture and the end of the world. Seminaries, such as Dallas Theological Seminary, were started with the specific goal of teaching about the rapture. (1)
Many people know this way of thinking because of popular books like The Late Great Planet Earth in the 70s & 80s and the Left Behind series in the 90s and early 2000s. These authors wrote from Darby’s teachings and perspective.
All of the sudden, the Bible was turned into a book about the end of the world. And the book of Revelation held the secret code.
Early church leaders, like St. Augustine, opposed including Revelation in the Bible but agreed to accept it as long as it was made clear that it was to be understood as a spiritually symbolic book and not taken as literal. Early church leaders worried this book could cause harm (and it has).
Revelation is a specific style of writing called “Apocalyptic literature.”
The writing is coded language that pulls from deep within the Jewish tradition to reveal spiritual truths. This made it difficult for people outside the Jewish faith to understand, but the original readers of the letter knew what was being said.
For example, Revelation uses the name “Babylon” as a code name for Rome. Babylon destroyed the first Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 587/6BCE and carried them into captivity. Jerusalem was rebuilt and later on Rome destroyed the Temple in 70CE. Jewish people started calling Rome the name “Babylon” as a coded reference.
Revelation is filled with subtle details like this.
During slavery, African Americans used spiritual songs in similar ways.
These songs were sung to give hope and encouragement to each other. They sang “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Steal Away to Jesus” to cryptically request or signal the help of the underground railroad, which was the “sweet chariot” to get “home” (Northern states or Canada). Many slaves had to get past the Ohio River, which they called the “Jordan,” to get to the “promised land.”
The song wasn’t about being taken away from earth into heaven. It was about heaven coming to earth and “bands of angels comin’ after me” to carry them to freedom from slavery.
These spiritual songs were coded and symbolic in order to give hope, strength, and encouragement to keep going and to trust that one day things will be different.
It was never about leaving earth. It was always about heaven coming to earth.
This is what John Nelson Darby got wrong.
Not an Accurate Teaching
One of the foundational texts for Darby’s view of the rapture is simply misunderstood. This is what it says:
The Lord himself will come down from heaven with the signal of a shout by the head angel and a blast on God’s trumpet. First, those who are dead in Christ will rise. 17 Then, we who are living and still around will be taken up together with them in the clouds to meet with the Lord in the air. That way we will always be with the Lord. ~1 Thessalonians 4:16-17
Paul is pulling from a very common image at the time.
When the emperor would visit part of his kingdom, the citizens would go out to meet the emperor in open country and then escort him into the city.
Paul’s image of the people “meeting the Lord in the air” isn’t that all of the sudden Jesus takes the people away into outer space or heaven. The image is that the people will immediately turn around and lead the Lord back to this world.
This isn’t about leaving earth. It’s about welcoming Christ into the world.
That is what we pray when we say, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
The book of Revelation teaches the same thing. It ends with heaven coming to earth and a loud voice saying, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God.” (Revelation 21:3).
We aren’t being taken away from the world to go to heaven.
Heaven is coming to earth.
This world is our home.
Our whole faith tradition is built on the idea that God leaves heaven and comes to earth.
Because God loves and cares for all of creation.
As followers of Jesus, we don’t try to escape this earth.
We embrace it
We care for it.
We love it.
We nurture it.
Refusing to allow evil, injustice, and harm to chase us away.
The way of Jesus invites us to forsake heaven for earth…so that heaven may be on earth.
May we be bold enough and brave enough to live in this way.
(1) Learn more of this history in Barbara R. Rossing, The Rapture Exposed (Basic Books, 2004).