Aging Jesus People like me will remember singer Larry Norman, one of whose songs became something of an anthem in those heady days of Jesus People enthusiasm and anticipation of the imminent return of Christ: “I Wish We’d All Been Ready”. The first verse and chorus ran: “Life was filled with guns and war, And all of us got trampled on the floor. I wish we’d all been ready. Children died, the days grew cold, A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold. I wish we’d all been ready. There’s no time to change your mind. The Son has come and you’ve been left behind.”
Okay, so it’s not exactly Shakespeare (or even Wesley). But its popularity did not stem from its lyrics, but because it gave voice to one of the Jesus People’s deepest longings—namely that Jesus would return soon, within a few years hopefully, no later than a generation of forty years certainly. And when He returned, all the true-born Christians on earth would suddenly disappear. Bumper stickers proclaimed it with certainty: “Be Prepared: Jesus Is Coming at Any Moment…Driver will disappear!”
And not just drivers in cars, but every single Christian everywhere on earth, no matter what they were doing. One anticipated nightmare scenarios of airplanes falling out of the sky and crashing to earth after the Christian pilot and co-pilot disappeared leaving the aircraft without anyone to guide it to safety. The imminent sudden return of Christ would allow His people with no time to finish what they were doing when it occurred: no time to park a car or land an airplane. Nope: when the Second Coming occurred, every Christian would be snatched up bodily to heaven. This event was called “the Rapture”, a term thought to be derived from the Medieval Latin raptura, meaning “seizure”, derived in turn from the Latin raptus, “carrying off”. In evangelical parlance, the noun even became a verb—“to be raptured”, or taken up from the earth at the Second Coming. I can even remember “Rapture Practice” with some of my fellow Jesus People while in a convertible: this involved someone suddenly shouting “Rapture!” and everyone standing up while the vehicle was moving. (Everyone except the driver, of course: we were crazy, but not that crazy.) Those were the days.
The teaching purports to find support in 1 Thessalonians 4:15f: “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.” This was often coupled with 1 Corinthians 15:51f: “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” Note: “in the twinkling of an eye”—no time for drivers to park or pilots to land. And what happened after that? Well, everyone left behind (great title for a movie, n’est pas?) was doomed to endure the rise of Antichrist and the persecution he would unleash on the earth. Faithful Christians (presumably converted after the Rapture) had to go through the Great Tribulation, when the Antichrist sat in the (rebuilt) Temple in Jerusalem, and made and broke covenants, and—well, you get the idea. It would all be very exciting.
Looking back on those Jesus People days, I wish we’d all been smarter—or at least more biblically literate. Or at very least, able to count—by anybody’s figuring, if the Rapture constituted the Second Coming of Christ, then the final return of Christ when He would slay the Antichrist and end the world would be not His Second Coming, but the Third Coming. This alone should have been our first clue that something wasn’t quite right with the evangelical exegesis.
In those days we spent a lot of time reading the predictions of the Second Coming in Matthew 24 and its parallels in Mark 13 and Luke 21. Full exegesis of those chapters is beyond the scope of a blog article, but suffice it to say that Christ was speaking there about the destruction of Jerusalem (which occurred in 70 A.D.) and also about the Second Coming and the resulting end of the world. In Mark’s version of this passage, Christ says, “But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then He will send out the angels and gather His elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (Mark 13:24-27).
Note several things: the Second Coming is described here as taking place “after that tribulation”, not before it, as in the evangelical Left Behind scenario. And if you read it all in context, that “tribulation” centers on the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., not the end-time Antichrist. (This is clearer in Luke’s version: “Great distress shall be upon the earth and wrath upon this [Jewish] people; they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trodden down by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. And there will be signs in sun and moon an stars…And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory”.) Also note the bit where Christ says that He will send out His angels to gather His Christians from the four winds, “from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven”. This is what Paul was talking about in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 1 Corinthians 15—not a special secret rapture of the Christians followed by end-time horrors for those left behind, but the end of the world itself when Christ finally returns as Judge. The evangelical interpretation of Paul’s words which makes the Last Trumpet into a Secret Rapture has no historical pedigree at all. The Fathers all understood those Pauline texts as referring to the end of the world and the Last Judgment. The interpretation of it as a secret Coming of Christ to “rapture” His people years before the end of the world cannot be traced back much before the nineteenth century and John Darby. It was later popularized by the Schofield Reference Bible, which is really where Larry Norman got it from.
But what about Larry Norman’s verse about “two men walking up a hill; One disappears and one’s left standing still”? Isn’t this what Christ was talking about in Matthew 24:40, “Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left”? Surely this vindicates the evangelical understanding of the Rapture, doesn’t it? Keep reading: a verse or so earlier Christ refers to His Second Coming as being like the flood in the days of Noah—“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 did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man”. In Matthew 24:40 the one who is “taken” is the one who is taken away in the flood of final judgment, not someone taken up out of the world to be with Christ in heaven. The verbs for “taken” in verses 39 and 40 are different in the Greek (airo and paralambanomai), but the thought is the same: in the days of Noah and at the time of Christ’s coming, the one “taken” is swept away in judgment; the one “left” is the one who remains to inherit the earth. Christ is not speaking here about any supposed Rapture, but about the suddenness of the coming judgment.
The movie Left Behind may well be as exciting as the book and series it is based on, but nothing short of a huge donation to our church’s Building Fund could induce me to either see the movie or read the books. I look back fondly on my old Jesus People days, and my youthful enthusiasm. Being a teenager with all those other Bible-totin’, bumper stickin’ Jesus People was wonderful. I can even smile at Rapture Practice. But eventually there comes the time to grow up, and read the Bible for what is actually there. I like fantasy and science-fiction. But I no longer confuse it with Scripture.