On Friday, October 3, 2014 the false doctrine of the secret rapture will hit the big screen as the movie “Left Behind,” featuring famous actor Nicolas Cage, comes to a theater near you.
As producer and writer Paul LaLonde put it, “It’s a Bible-based movie, it’s a biblical story, it’s a true story—it just hasn’t happened yet.” As a result, it can cause us to wonder, What will it be like when all the Christians suddenly disappear? How close are we to the rapture? Will I be taken or left behind?
But there’s another question we should ask, one that may surprise you: “Is the rapture taught in the Bible?” It may come as a shock to learn that many Bible-believing Christians today doubt the rapture, and that most Christians throughout history had never even heard of it.
“Two thumbs off!” (See Judges 1:6.)
“Left Behind” is based on an astoundingly successful fundamentalist publishing venture, a series of novels known collectively as Left Behind. At last count, there were eight volumes in this series. This series has generated sales totaling approximately a quarter of a billion dollars in just five years. Big money. Big audience. Big hopes for a very small movie producer.
The series is co-authored by Rev. Tim LaHaye, husband of Beverly LaHaye, who runs the Christian activist organization, Concerned Women of America.
Brief History of the Secret Rapture
The doctrine of the secret rapture emerged during the early 19th century through the teachings of John Nelson Darby (1800–1882). Darby was one of the early leaders of the Plymouth Brethren movement, and his teachings became known as “dispensationalism pretribulational premillennialism.” But what do these three terms mean? Paul Enns summarizes this eschatological system well: “Dispensational premillennialists believe that the church will be raptured (1 Thess. 4:13-18) prior to the Tribulation period; God will judge the unbelieving Gentiles and disobedient Israel during the Tribulation (Rev. 6-19). At the end of the Tribulation Christ will return with the church and establish the millennial kingdom on earth. He also provides the fundamental elements of this view: “Dispensational premillennialism can be identified through two basic features:
(1) a distinction is made between God’s program for Israel and His program for the church;
(2) a consistently literal interpretation of the Scriptures is maintained.
Actually, their literal interpretive method is what leads to the distinction between Israel and the church. These elements are what distinguish dispensational premillennialism from historic premillennialism. However, both their interpretive method and their separation of Israel and the church are faulty.
Darby’s dispensationalism distinguished sharply between Israel and the church. The former was earthly, he believed, and the latter heavenly. God had two distinct peoples and separate plans for each. Thus Darby understood Old Testament prophecies as applying only to Israel, the earthly people of God. Rather than “spiritualizing” such prophecies, he expected a literal fulfillment of God’s promises to literal Israel. So when, according to dispensational thought, would God fulfill his prophecies to Israel? During the millennium (Rev. 20:1–8) after Jesus’ second coming.
So in order for God to resume these plans for Israel, Darby believed, God would first need to remove the church from the world. Hence arose the need for the secret rapture. Darby had in effect proposed something new: a two-stage return of Jesus. Jesus would first come to “rapture” the church, and then return again in visible glory.1
Darby’s views spread rapidly, especially in the United States. The dispensational system, including the secret rapture, was disseminated through prophecy conferences and received support from evangelists like D. L. Moody and Billy Sunday. By far the most important boost for Darby’s teaching, however, came from the Scofield Reference Bible. Scofield’s work became the English standard for fundamentalist, Bible-believing Christians in the early 20th century, and in the process exposed thousands of readers to the secret rapture through his dispensational-informed study notes.
The secret rapture doctrine continued to gain steam in the latter half of the 20th century, and the advent of modern Israel in 1948 seemed a clear sign that God was restarting his plans for Israel. The rapture must be close! Books like Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth and movies like A Thief in the Night further popularized dispensational teaching. And then there are the Left Behind novels, which have sold millions of copies and captured the imagination of a new generation.
The rise and spread of the secret rapture teaching is a remarkable story. In just a century and a half, a previously unknown doctrine has become a central eschatological hope for millions.
Is the Rapture in Scripture?
The movie’s first scene after the Rapture has taken place occurs on a transatlantic air flight. A lady asks a stewardess if the stewardess can look for her husband. “I think he’s naked.” She points to a pile of clothes on the seat next to her. The lady is elderly. So, presumably, is her husband. (This is a family film, after all.) But others on the plane are also missing. Where are they? They’re gone! On flights all over the skies, they’re gone. The rest of the people in the film have been . . . left behind!
Nobody knows why. In the movie, it’s a huge mystery, even a national security issue. The movie spends the next thirty minutes with characters wandering around saying, “Where did they go?”
Millard Erickson says, “The pretribulational position involves several distinctions that seem rather artificial and lacking in biblical support. The division of the second coming into two stages, the postulation of three resurrections, and the sharp separation of national Israel and the church are difficult to sustain on biblical grounds. The main text used to support the pretribulational rapture is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. However, dividing this coming from the next chapter as well as 2 Thessalonians 2 depends upon already adhering to the unbiblical distinction between Israel and the church. There is no reason to even use the word “rapture” at all. This text is referring to the second coming of Christ. The pretribulational rapture cannot be supported by the Word of God.
A Muted Trumpet
The problem here, for both the screenwriter and fundamentalist theologians, is the trumpet. We are told later in the movie that the New Testament says this:
“For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
In another epistle, Paul wrote: “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed” (I Corinthians 15:52). The trumpet is prominent in both passages. This is because both passages refer to the same event: the end of history and the final judgment.
So, why didn’t anyone in the movie hear the trumpet? Because the movie is about the secret Rapture. This is what fundamentalists call this hypothetical future event: the secret Rapture. Every Christian on earth will disappear in the twinkling of an eye, leaving behind piles of off-the-rack suits, but nobody who is left behind will have heard the trumpet. They will have trouble figuring out just what has happened.
Once again, is the Rapture in Scripture? Ultimately we must assess doctrine not on the narrative of church history, but on the text of Scripture. That fact that the secret rapture, and dispensationalism, are the new kids on the eschatological block doesn’t necessarily mean they are false. Previous generations could have misinterpreted their Bibles. As Protestants we hold Scripture, not church tradition, to be authoritative.
But the secret rapture faces biblical challenges as well. There are no biblical texts that explicitly teach it or anything like a two-stage coming of Jesus. Passages that supposedly describe the secret rapture could just as easily be read as referring to the glorious second coming, and in fact have been read that way throughout the church’s history.
For example, the New Testament repeatedly warns that Jesus will return unexpectedly “like a thief” (e.g., Matt. 24:42–44; 1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Pet. 3:10). Many read this as describing the any-moment return of Jesus at the secret rapture. However, in each of these passages the context seems to indicate the coming in question is Christ’s public, triumphant return in glory on the Day of the Lord (e.g., Matt. 24:30–31; 1 Thess. 4:16; 2 Pet. 3:10-13).
And then there’s Jesus’ warning that at his coming “two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two men will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken, the other left” (Matt. 24:40–41). Doesn’t this describe the rapture? Two people are in the car: one is taken, the other left. Hence the bumper sticker: “In case of rapture this car will be unmanned.”
But again, the “coming” of Jesus to take people (24:39) has already been identified as his coming in glory in the immediate context (24:30–31) without any clear textual indication that another coming is in view. Further, the Old Testament analogy of Noah and the flood suggests that those “taken” are actually the ones swept away in judgment (24:39)!
While it’s possible these texts or others describe a secret rapture separate from Jesus’ return, it’s not clear or, perhaps, even probable. Again, part of what drives the doctrine of the secret rapture is the function it serves in classic dispensationalism to separate God’s current workings in Israel and in the church.
Furthermore, the secret rapture doctrine actually teaches that there are three comings of Christ: His Incarnation and birth at Bethlehem, His future secret coming to rapture the church, and His final manifestation on the Judgment Day. But God’s Word teaches only two advents of Christ: His first advent having already taken place when Jesus was born, and His second advent to be a future, public, world-impacting event where Jesus will come again in glory to judge all mankind, both the righteous and the wicked (see John 5:28-29; Acts 1:10-11), and to usher in the new heavens and new earth (Second Peter 3:10-13).
I fear that this new Left Behind movie will be prove to be yet another occasion for unbelievers to mock and ridicule Christianity, for I suspect that our biblically-and-theologically-illiterate culture will wrongly assume that the movie accurately depicts what all Christians and all Christian churches have always believed, which is simply not the case. While some believers may be excited and view this new movie as an opportunity for gospel witness, I fear that it will ultimately serve to make Christians look silly. It is time for God’s people to “leave behind” the secret rapture doctrine as promoted by sensationalistic works like the Left Behind book series and movie.
Should Christians Watch Left Behind?
Generally, what should Christians do with movies or books or teachings built on the secret rapture theory?
Watch and read and listen to what you want, but be aware.
Be aware of the historical background and biblical challenges surrounding the secret rapture doctrine. Don’t just assume it’s true because of the emotional effect of its portrayal in a movie or book. Just as we don’t ultimately build our beliefs on church tradition, so we shouldn’t build our beliefs on popular films or novels.
And be aware that the secret rapture is one of those “secondary doctrinal issues” over which Christians can disagree. It grieves me to think of churches or Christians dividing over it. If you’re a secret rapture skeptic (as I am, if you couldn’t tell), will you be upset if you’re wrong and you get raptured? “Hey Jesus, why did you rapture me?
If on the other hand you have rapture fever, will you stop faithfully following Jesus if things deteriorate, persecution and suffering come, and you must endure it?
Finally, be aware of your hope. As you groan at life in this broken and sin-soaked world, place your hope in Jesus’ coming, not in a certain theory of how he will come. Of course those who believe in the secret rapture believe Jesus is coming back. But when I talk to such folks I sometimes get the sense they’re really comforted by knowing that they’ll be beamed up before the world goes completely haywire.
Remember, the glorious hope of the church has always been in Christ’s triumphant return. Regardless of how you draw your end-times chart, may Jesus himself occupy the center of it.
Source: From Various Document