“Rapture” Theology – Part 1

Craig L. Adams —  October 29, 2010 — 7 Comments

The concept of the “Rapture” has been a characteristic feature of conservative and evangelical Christian theology for a long time now. This doctrine that all true Christian believers will be removed from the world just before (or maybe within) a period of earthly Tribulation has become not only a standard feature of conservative Christianity, but also a phenomenon in the wider culture through the best selling Left Behind books.

Actually, the commonly-held doctrine of the Rapture is a feature of the Dispensational theological system. This system of thought began with John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), but was popularized in the early part of the 20th Century by C. I. Scofield and the extremely successful Scofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909.

Dispensational theology, with its distinctive doctrine of “two comings” of Christ is a 19th Century doctrinal innovation. It arose, I think, in response to growing pressure to see and interpret the Bible in light of its own history. Dispensationalism by-passed an historical approach to Scripture by (a.) interpreting the Bible in a strict literalistic sense, (b.) dividing the Bible history into dispensations in which God dealt with the world on different principles, (c.) asserting a strict dichotomy between Israel and the Church. Thus, there was no need to appeal to history or to a notion of Progressive Revelation. Bible books belonging to a previous dispensation did not directly relate to the present dispensation of grace. (You start to see some of the problems here when you consider that the teaching of Jesus itself, would, from this point of view, belong to a previous dispensation.)

Most people who have been trained in Biblical studies and theology believe the Dispensational schema to be false. You can find several refutations on the Internet. While the faculty of Dallas Theological Seminary defends this point of view (though sometimes in a significantly modified form from the teachings of Darby and Scofield), very few academic theologians defend this view, or even take it seriously.

It is generally ignored in major theological Seminaries. It is never even mentioned.

And that’s too bad. It is very much a “live” theological option out in the real world, whatever professional theologians may think of it.

I think this is some sort of academic-theology ego thing. Theology teachers need to get out of their ivory towers and mix with real folks once in a while. Dispensationalism is a live option out in the church and in our culture even though its academic-theology credentials are… um, … not so good. It sells a lot of books. More people read stuff like the Left Behind books (or The DaVinci Code, for that matter) than read respected academic theology.

Besides, academic theology is hard to read!

Yes, I much admire Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann (and many other Systematic and Biblical theologians). But, the writings of academic theologians are generally not accessible to average (or even in some cases, the above-average) lay reader. By contrast, Tim LaHaye has always written for the masses. Academic theologians tend to see Dispensationalism as beneath contempt, but that stance is arrogant — and it is not been helping the church at large. The rest of us encounter it quite commonly.

Like it or not, this is the dominant eschatology of our day. And what it tends to say to people is this: The world is going to the Devil (and his minion, the Antichrist) and if we are fortunate enough to be believers we will be “bailed out” by the Rapture before things get too awfully bad. No need to improve things on this evil world. It’s going to the Devil anyway.

And, I believe it has spilled over from Christianity to our secular culture, as well. The dominant secular “eschatology” is a vision of a bleak future: an overcrowded, oppressive world, or the world decimated by plague, or maybe nuclear holocaust and its aftermath.

It was a long time ago that Jürgen Moltmann wrote about a Theology of Hope. But, the concept of “hope” (i.e., a confident expectation of good in the future) is pretty foreign to a lot of Christians. And, the eschatology of gloom, doom, and despair is very much ingrained into our churches and our culture. This is the mythos of our age.

The pre-tribulational Rapture theory is, as I have said, the Dispensational view. In this view, all of salvation history is divided into Dispensations in which God worked in significantly different ways. The Dispensational view is an approach to the interpretation of the Bible that avoids historical & cultural & literary questions. Thus, it has a certain amount of appeal to folks who do not wish to see the Bible as having been historically & culturally conditioned by its times.

Any particular Bible verse is simply located within its proper Dispensation. God worked in different ways at different times. So, for example, God doesn’t call us to slaughter Canaanites anymore, that was the Word of God to Joshua and appropriate to a previous Dispensation when God was working in a different way. And so forth. (In the older Dispensational theory there were 7 dispensations in which God worked in a distinctively different way. I don’t know what they teach nowadays.) Thus, the Dispensational theory has an attraction to folks who hold to a more Literal-Dictation view of the Scriptures, since it irons out what might otherwise be seen as discrepancies in the Bible’s teachings. But, people who adopt an historical approach to the Bible have no need of the Dispensational theory.

The most fatal flaw in this is that the Dispensational theory is nowhere explicitly taught in the Bible itself. It’s advocates argue that the theory is needed in order to understand the Bible properly. Dispensational Baptist preacher H. A. Ironside called this “rightly dividing the Word of Truth.” But, how can they claim that this is necessary when it is nowhere explicitly taught in the Scriptures themselves? If this is so important why didn’t Jesus (or, failing that, the apostle Paul at least) clearly spell this out? The great irony here is that people who proclaim that their theology is based in the Bible alone actually depend upon an extra-biblical theory of interpretation to give their view coherence.

And — worse yet! — the centerpiece of this theory, the Pre-tribulational Rapture is nowhere explicitly taught in the Bible itself.

Detailed support for the above affirmation follows in Part 2.

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Craig L. Adams

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I used to be a United Methodist pastor. I served several small United Methodist churches from 1975 to 2010. My interests include Bible, Wesleyan Theology, science, jazz, mystery novels and Mac computers. You can find out more about me at my web site: http://web.me.com/craigadams1
  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    Great article Craig!

    The keynote to the Dispensational theory is a strict distinguishing of “Israel and the Church” as you said. The fact that Dispensationalism is not taken serious by the wide-majority of Biblical scholars and theologians is most unfortunate because – to a great extent – it is the grass-root theology (what the average person believes) which tends to be on display for the world to see.

    Dispensationalism, be it Pre-, Mid- or Post-tribulationalism since all three are Dispensationalism, should be addressed more often. Awareness needs to be made of its novelty.

  • http://web.me.com/craigadams1/ Craig L. Adams

    Thanks, Derek. I’m as Asbury grad from long, long ago. The issue wasn’t addressed there either – except occasionally in passing. I did a lot of reading on this topic on my own.

  • http://web.me.com/craigadams1/ Craig L. Adams

    A FURTHER THOUGHT: Derek, would you class the Historic Premillenialists (like the late George Eldon Ladd) in with Dispensationalists? There were early church Chialists weren’t there? And, Hermas (at least) clearly expected an end-time tribulation period of some sort.

    I’ve actually been influenced in a way by John F. Walvoord’s old (but ever-popular) book The Rapture Question. He convinced me that the pre-trib Rapture doctrine (what most people mean by “The Rapture”) was an implication of the Dispensational system as a whole. But, then, I rejected his Dispensationalism! :-)

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    No I would not class Historic Premillennialist in with Dispensationalists because the issue has less to do with millennial views and more to do with biblical outlook. Historic Premillennialists are Covenantalists and Dispensational Premillennialists are, well, Dispensational.

    The watershed of the Dispensational View is – as Ryrie makes clear in his book, Dispensationalism – maintaining a clear divide between two separate and distinct groups of people, Israel and the Church. Historic Premill guys do not maintain that divide and agree more with post- and a- mill guys then with Dispensationalists.

    A good book to read is A Case for Historic Premillennialism. The Premill guys here take specific aim at the errors of Dispensational theology and particularly the (unfounded) claim that Dispensationalism has historic roots. Only (some) Dispensationalists make the historic claim, but no credible (in my opinion) scholar would agree since all the early church were Covenantalists. Dispensationalism is surely less then two centuries old.

  • http://web.me.com/craigadams1 Craig L. Adams

    I waffle a bit. If pressed I am Historic Premillenial. The writings of George Eldon Ladd influenced me in that direction, and I am impressed by the fact that some Church Fathers seem to have have expectations along this line.

    However the 19th Century revivalists and preachers I admire were postmillenialists & I recognize the force of their argument that Wesleyanism seems to fit best with a more optimistic eschatological scheme.

    Maybe I’m just a child of my times (born in 1949). I admire the optimism of the postmillenialists, but I can’t quite get there myself.

  • http://covenantoflove.net Derek Ouellette

    That’s cool. I can appreciate the post-, pre-, a-, mill positions because they all read the bible with church history as Covenantal. As a former Dispensationalist, I have little tolerance for this pop-culture doctrine myself.

    I think it’s funny that you weaver between pre-mill and post-mill because I believe I’ve combined the best of both those systems and while doing away with their weakness and viola! Out came Amillennialism. :)

    Thanks for these two posts, well done.

  • http://www.johnsrevelation.org Roger

    G’Day! Craig,
    This might be off topic, however, Permit me in order to introduce me personally being disciple associated with Christ The actual Christ and also a member of your body of believers referred to as supporters from the Method (Jesus The actual Christ).
    Great Job!