I’m not certain how many “Left Behind” films there have been so far but since the 1970s there have been several evangelical thrillers—beginning with “Thief In The Night”—based on the eschatology of John Nelson Darby (1800–82) et al that anticipate a “secret rapture” of believers as part of a complex of events associated with the “end times.” As a young, newly converted evangelical I was quickly introduced to the evangelical pop sub-culture which included Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). For a time I even worked at one of the pioneering CCM radio stations (KBHL, Lincoln) with some of the folks who invented that radio genre (Scott Campbell, Dewey Boynton). Back then the most famous and one of the better CCM artists was Larry Norman and one of his more popular songs was “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.”
The song in question starts at about 1:30. It’s fun to hear Phil Keaggy and Larry having fun. Whatever one makes of his theology, Keaggy is an amazing guitarist.
The premise of the song is that Jesus will come and believers will be taken secretly to be with him and, in this scheme, it the rapture will be followed by a period of tribulation. The imagery behind “left behind” is taken from Matthew 24:36–44:
“But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son,but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect (ESV).
According to Thomas Ice Dispensational Premillennialist theologians don’t often appeal to this passage in support of the so-called “pre-trib” rapture but in popular evangelical folk-culture this passage is often taken this way. It certainly was taken that way in the circles in which I was introduced to evangelicalism.
If, however, we read the passage slowly, carefully, however we will see that, in context, to be taken is not a good thing, it is not to go to be with the Lord in the air. No, to be taken is a bad thing. Observe the comparison. Our Lord begins with Noah. Who, in that episode was “taken” and who left behind? Noah and his family were left behind and everyone else is “taken” in the floodwaters of judgment. That establishes the pattern and the analogy that informs the rest of the passage. “So it will be when the Son of Man comes.” Two men are working. One will be taken and the other left. Two women are making bread. One will be taken and the other left. Following the analogy with Noah, one does not want to be taken because that is to be destroyed. One wants to be left behind.
Is It Secret?
Above we looked briefly at the problem with the popular appeal to Jesus’ discourse in Matthew 24. It reverses the analogy that our Lord made. Here we want to consider another passage that fuels the plausibility of a “secret rapture,” i.e., the notion that, as part of a complex of end-times events, our Lord will take believers out of this world bodily ahead of a period of tribulation.
In 1 Thessalonians 4 the Apostle Paul speaks directly to the nature of Christ’s return. He explained to the Thessalonians that it will not be secret, that they would not miss his return. Beginning in v. 13 he turns to the resurrection of the body. “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
Our bodily resurrection is linked to Jesus. Because he was raised bodily, so shall we also be raised bodily. Notice the last clause, “even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him.” This bringing occurs at his return. He explains more beginning in v. 15:
For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thess 4:15–18; ESV).
When Jesus returns those who have already died will be brought with him as a great, royal entourage. Those believers who are alive on the earth will rise to meet the returning Lord after the bodily resurrection of those who have already died. Notice how the Lord returns: with a “cry of command” or “with a shout, in the sound/voice of the archangel” and “in the trumpet of God.” This shout and this trumpet are not secret. The imagery here is that of a conquering king arriving at a city.
The residents of the city, just as today, go out to meet the arriving dignitary. When the President of the United States flies to a state or a city the mayor and the governor go to meet him. There is fanfare, e.g., Hail to the Chief. It is not a secret. It is public, visible, and even noisy. He comes into the city with a motorcade, with motor officers driving at high speeds to block off intersections and to provide security. This is the sort of image that Paul is painting for the Thessalonian Christians, who worried that Jesus might have returned and that they might have missed it. Hymenaeus and Philetus (1 Tim 1:18-19; 2 Tim 2:15–18) had been telling people that the resurrection had already happened and that they had missed it.
Those who talk about a secret rapture are not making quite the same mistake but they create the same sort of anxiety among believers when they warn them about “missing” the so-called “secret rapture.” The only “rapture” (being taken up) about which Scripture knows is quite public and quite noisy.
Remember, the notion that believers will be taken bodily out of the world before tribulation is an idea that is hardly known among Christians until the 19th century, just as Dispensational Premillennialism, on which the secret rapture theory is built, is also unknown among Christians until the 19th century. Prior to the rise of Dispensationalism, most Christians expected to suffer. To be sure, there were eschatologies (doctrines of final things) of victory or triumph in this life. In the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), Heinrich Bullinger (and the Swiss Reformed Churches) condemned explicitly a notion, held by some Anabaptists, of a glorious triumph of believers on the earth.
THE SECTS. We therefore condemn all who deny a real resurrection of the flesh (II Tim. 2:18), or who with John of Jerusalem, against whom Jerome wrote, do not have a correct view of the glorification of bodies. We also condemn those who thought that the devil and all the ungodly would at some time be saved, and that there would be an end to punishments. For the Lord has plainly declared: “Their fire is not quenched, and their worm does not die” (Mark 9:44). We further condemn Jewish dreams that there will be a golden age on earth before the Day of Judgment, and that the pious, having subdued all their godless enemies, will possess all the kingdoms of the earth. For evangelical truth in Matt., chs. 24 and 25, and Luke, ch. 18, and apostolic teaching in II Thess., ch. 2, and II Tim., chs. 3 and 4, present something quite different (chapter 11).
As the old historicist view, which transposed the 1,000 years of Revelation 20 upon church history, began to break down post 1000 AD—there was a great panic which came and went as the date turned over—the Protestants began to cast about for alternatives. Some (perhaps many) of them pole-vaulted a literal millennium into the future. That view, historic premillennialism or chiliasm had long existed. In the 17th century and after some began to look for a future golden age, the result of the progress of the gospel in the world. In that view, the millennium is figurative.
There’s no clear, unequivocal teaching in the New Testament that would lead one to think that believers will be taken suddenly, bodily out of the world ahead of suffering and persecution. Consider these points:
- Our Lord came to suffer and die. He was not delivered bodily until after he suffered and died (Matt 16:21). He called his disciples to take up his cross and to follow him (Matt 16:24). To be sure, that cross is usually figurative but frequently it has been literal and especially in the ancient, pre-Constantinian, world.
- The Apostles rejoiced at the privilege of being counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus (Acts 5:41).
- When the Apostle Paul was given new life and called to ministry, he was called to a life of suffering (Acts 9:16; 2 Cor 11).
- Paul taught explicitly that the ordinary pattern of the Christian life is suffering and then glory:
The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him (Rom 8:16–17).
- He wrote to the Philippian congregation that it had been granted to them not only to believe but also to suffer for Christ’s sake—suffering for Christ’s sake is a gift! (Phil 1:29).
- Peter wrote to the congregations of Asia Minor (Turkey) that suffering for Christ’s sake is a given and that when they suffer it must be for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of righteousness, not because they did stupid, illegal things (1 Peter 2:19–21). When we suffer for Christ’s sake, we are blessed. When we are arrested for his sake—a thought that today does not seem nearly so foreign and remote as it once did—we should be prepared to give an answer for the hope that lies within us. We should shame the pagans by our good behavior and thus imitate Christ (3:13–18; 4:16).
- When we are insulted or arrested or suffer for Christ’s sake, that is evidence that the church is God’s holy temple, on which the Spirit of God and of glory rests (4:14–19). For Peter it was not a question if Christians shall suffer but when. His is a theology of the cross (as opposed to a theology of glory and triumph in this life).
- The letters to the seven churches in Asia Minor (Rev 1–3) were written to suffering congregations c. 93AD. On this see Colin Hemer’s excellent book, The Letters to the Seven Churches. The major burden of the Revelation was to help Christians understand the nature of existence between the ascension and return of our Lord. How can it be that he is now reigning with the Father, departed believers, and with the angels and yet Christians on the earth suffer so grievously? The Apostle John explains the nature of inter-adventual history in a series of seven parallel, highly symbolic visions.
- The 1st century church suffered under Nero and Domitian. The early post-apostolic church suffered under Trajan, Decius and other rulers. Christians were regularly arrested, questioned, required to renounce Christ and affirm “Caesar is Lord” and pour out a drink offering. When they did not they were put to death horribly. The Martyrdom of Polycarp narrates the dignified way he faced his death for the sake of Christ in the mid-2nd century. In his epistles (2nd century) Ignatius begged the churches (especially the Roman congregation) not to intervene in his martyrdom.
In most views current before the rise of Dispensational Premillennialism, the church expected to suffer and for that suffering to be relieved, as Peter has it, by the single, bodily, visible, noisy, conclusive, final return of Christ. Peter likens it to the Noahic flood. There are no such floods today, in the interim, but there will be another even greater, final cosmic flood of judgment (2 Pet 2:4–6). Noah was mocked and relatively few people listened and then the flood came. So it will be when the Son of Man comes (Matt 24).
From where, then do so many evangelicals get the idea that believers will be taken bodily out of the world (raptured) invisibly, suddenly, before the alleged seven-year tribulation preceding the alleged millennial reign of Christ and the saints on the earth, the reinstitution of priestly sacrifices in Jersualem etc? The whole scheme hangs on a single point: the notion of two parallel peoples of God: Jews and Christians, on the notion that the dividing wall that Paul says was destroyed in Christ’s body, on the cross, still remains.
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace…. (Eph 2:13–15)
There are Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians but there is no separate parallel people of God apart from Christ. If your eschatology has a dividing wall, you have a problem with Paul.
Scripture may be said to teach a rapture, of sorts, but certainly not the sort of rapture that is portrayed in the various Left Behind books and movies. Paul wrote to the Thessalonian congregation:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thess 4:13–18; ESV).
Some in the Thessalonian congregation were concerned about the return of Christ and whether perhaps they had missed it—as is suggested today by a form of what is known as preterism—and Paul wants them to know that they have not missed Christ’s return. When Christ returns it will not be partial nor will it be multiple. Scripture knows nothing about two or three returns of Christ. When he returns it shall not be secret. It will be noisy, visible, and obvious to all. When it comes it will be with a great cry from the heavens. Royal trumpets will announce his arrival. His first advent was quiet and was missed by most of the world. Such a disappointment he was to their expectations of earthly conquest that, ultimately, even those who saw he chose to call for Bar-Abbas instead of Jesus. This time there will be no ambiguity. Those who want to see earthly conquest and visible royal power shall have it. The believers who have already died before Christ’s return shall be raised bodily, visibly. Believers who are alive on the earth shall be visibly, bodily taken up to be with him and with the believers who’ve gone before.
One assumption of the pre-millennial, pre-tribulation, secret-rapture theory is that Jesus then returns to heaven and takes the raptured with him but 1 Thessalonians 4 says nothing of the sort. The imagery of the royal, conquering king leads us to think quite the opposite. Kings do not approach a conquered city and then withdraw. They enter and those in the city come out to meet them. That’s all the “rapture” is in this case, believers being taken up to escort their glorious King.
The Left Behind properties (books, novels etc) may be good business but they are poor biblical exegesis, poor biblical theology, poor systematic theology, and quite out of accord with the expectations of the historic Christian church. Jesus is coming again, bodily, visibly, gloriously, and finally. It won’t be secret. As it was in the days of Noah, two will be working and one will be taken in judgment and the other, the believer, will be left behind in peace and fellowship with his Savior who, for the joy set before him, despised the shame of the cross, and endured it our sake (Heb 12:2).