Last Saturday we were supposed to witness cataclysms signaling the start of various end-time events according to a writer named David Meade. This did not happen. When such predictions fail, the errant prophets usually try to cover their tracks by redefining what sort of events actually took place (“the signs were spiritual, not literal”), or they hedge on the certainty of their predictions (“I only said it was possible this would happen”), or they admit a slight error in their calculations and produce a new date (“the terminal generation began in 1967, not 1948”).
But underlying virtually all of these sorts of predictions is a novel theory about God’s plan for the end, a doctrine known as the rapture. In this post I want to explain what the rapture theory is, why it leads to such predictions, and why it is unfounded in Scripture.
The Rapture Theory
The doctrine of the rapture is based on two fundamental premises. The first is that the Bible must always be interpreted literally, and the second is that Israel and the Church always have been and always will be two different entities. And these premises are interconnected. When the Old Testament makes promises like the coming of a “new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31), this promise must be interpreted literally, and can only refer to Jews. Old-school rapture theorists go so far as to say that the Church is never mentioned in the Old Testament.
But when the Jewish people rejected the kingdom offer of Jesus, God hit the “pause button” so to speak on his prophetic program for Israel. Instead, God established the Church, creating what some proponents of this theology call “the great parenthesis.” God’s plans for the Church and for Israel are completely distinct according to this teaching. Some even refer to the Church as God’s “heavenly people” and Israel as his “earthly people.”
The Rapture and End Times Predictions
But when will God “hit the play button” and resume his plans for Israel? When he raptures the Church. The word rapture means “to be caught up” (as when we speak of a rapturous piece of music). In this system, the rapture refers to the moment when all Christians (living and dead) are caught up to heaven. And once the Church – God’s heavenly people – is raptured, God will restart his plans for Israel – God’s earthly people.
The most popular version of rapture theology contends that the event of the rapture will initiate a period of dire events on earth, known as the “Great Tribulation.” And they claim that this seven-year time of trouble was predicted by Jesus:
And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains…For then there will be great tribulation (Matthew 24:6-8, 21).
This is why any period of history marked by an acute sense of turmoil moves date-setters into action. They believe these events signal the coming of the Great Tribulation, which in turn will mark the time of the rapture. It is this theory that prompted David Meade to make his predictions. One of the tabs on his website is labeled “Rapture,” where you can read his explicit endorsement of the rapture theory (and watch all sorts of conspiracy-laden YouTube videos).
The Problems with the Rapture Theory
In a previous post I explained why the use of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24 to date the end of the world is a serious mistake. When Jesus warned about famines, earthquakes, wars, and tribulation, he was prophesying about the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by Roman armies in the first century, an event fulfilled in AD 70. But aside from this distortion of Jesus’ teaching, there are much more serious underlying problems with rapture theology.
First, rapture theology is mistaken in its understanding of biblical interpretation. Remember, it assumes that all prophecies in the Old Testament must be taken literally, and therefore never refer to the Church. This is simply not what the inspired writers of the New Testament claimed. Notice what James says about the fulfillment of a promise found in Amos 9:
After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, “‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’ (Acts 15:13-17)
Notice – James says that God’s promise to restore the dynasty of David (“the tent of David that has fallen”) has been fulfilled, and that the proof of its fulfillment is the ingathering of the Gentiles into the Church that Peter (Simeon) witnessed (at the house of Cornelius in Acts 10). And James says this is exactly what Amos said would happen. Here is an Old Testament promise to Israel that James says has been fulfilled in the Church.
I appreciate the desire to take God’s word seriously, but this is not the same thing as taking Scripture literally. We must interpret the Bible in keeping with the way the inspired interpreters of Scripture understood it. And on this point, rapture theology fails.
Second, rapture theology is mistaken in its understanding of Israel and the Church. God did indeed choose the family of Abraham as his special people. But the ultimate objective God had in mind was for the nation of Israel to be a conduit of blessings for all the world. And according to the apostle Paul, with the coming of Christ, God’s “chosen people” are now defined in terms of grace rather than race, including all of those who are in Christ:
For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:26-29)
Paul is emphatic that the gospel message does not mean that God has two different people. Through Christ, God has created a new race, incorporating Jews and Gentiles together.
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 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, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:11-16)
Any theological system that rebuilds the “dividing wall” and separates Jews and Gentiles is contrary to the gospel itself.
Third, rapture theology is mistaken in its understanding of the Second Coming. According to rapture teaching, Jesus will actually come twice. The first coming will be a secret, invisible coming for his people – the rapture), and the second coming will be a personal and visible coming with his people after the Great Tribulation. The Bible simply does not teach this. The Bible teaches that Jesus will come again, with those who are dead in Christ and for those who are still alive.
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 Thessalonians 4:14-18).
When Jesus comes, it will not be to initiate God’s plan, but to consummate God’s plan.
But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. (1 Corinthians 15:23-24).
In contrast to this clear teaching that Jesus will come, the dead will be raised, and God’s plan will be accomplished, rapture theology insists that there will be multiple “comings” of Jesus and multiple resurrections, all in connection with the resumption of God’s plan.
It is important to know that rapture theology is a relative newcomer in Christian history. There is no evidence that anyone held to such a teaching before the 1830s. And if students of Scripture could not find a doctrine in the Bible for one thousand eight hundred years, there’s a good chance it is because it isn’t in the Bible! And that is ultimately why the date-setting predictions generated by rapture theology fail.