Why the Rapture Didn’t Happen (and why it’s not going to happen): A Short History of a Strange Belief

Bad news: you will eventually die. I will die. Everyone we know and love will eventually turn to dust. Some people do not believe this. But coming to terms with this is a healthy thing that allows us to appreciate life all the more. To do otherwise is to descend into an illusion in the same way that an addict tells himself he is truly free because he can quit at any moment.

If you want to continue believing you will not die, you should not read this post! Below, I’ll tell the story of how one man came up with a crazy idea about the end of the world and made fame and fortune convincing Americans that they were going to be Raptured. And it’s not Harold Camping.

Guys like Harold Camping and Fred Phelps become a peculiar sort of hero for many of the people who decry them while basically retaining most of the same beliefs. In psychoanalysis, this phenomenon is called fetish disavowal, wherein a symbol is used to exclude something in ourselves from our awareness. All across America, pastors and parishioners will use the coming Sundays to teach on “what the Bible really says” about the Rapture and Tribulation. They will cite the unrelated verse Matthew 24:36 (“No one knows the day or hour…”) to decry date-setters and lend themselves credibility. But I’m sorry to say, this fetish disavowal of Camping’s embarrassing (mis)prediction is nothing more than a repetition of his farce. It’s just Camping’s lunacy minus a date.

As a kid, I read the Left Behind novels, terrified that Jesus would beam me up before I ever got to buy a car or have sex. You guys can laugh, go ahead, but you know you had the exact same fear if you grew up with this stuff! The churches I was a part of taught it like it was normal Christian teaching. And I wasn’t part of any abnormally strange church- it was just normal belief in that part of America. We had charts and graphs, and we knew that the Antichrist was probably a Jew from Eastern Europe, and he was probably a Democrat that would take over the UN. His evil agenda would be easy enough to impliment with all the Christians raptured away (because we all knew that the remaining nonchristians don’t have morals.) Oh, and if anyone ever wanted peace in the Middle East, watch out! That’s very bad! I never even questioned this eschatology until I read N.T. Wright’s Surprised By Hope, in which he described the Rapture/Tribulation ideology as a “cartoonish” belief confined to North America. I thought the Rapture was believed by all Christians throughout all our history (I mean, it’s in the Bible just like everything else I believe, right?).

I knew people who myself said things like “why care about the climate problem when God will probably destroy the earth before the end of the century anyway?” (the number of Americans who reason like this is truly terrifying). Why care about poverty or economic justice when the final countdown is ticking? All that ultimately mattered was getting people to believe a list of proper things about God so that Jesus could beam them up before that East European Jewish Democrat called Antichrist (a term which doesn’t appear in Revelation) chopped all the Christians’ heads of and enforced abortion-on-demand.

It was all about escape. It justified the idea that the world is not my home. If I made the world a worse place, I was just acting as I expected God to do.

And not only was I going to live forever in an afterlife, I wouldn’t even have to die to get there. I think part one reason that people get so angry when you tell them Rapture is less than 200 years old is that you are giving them back their prospect of death. And telling people they are going to die, when they seriously think that they may not, can be traumatic.

So have you ever heard the history of the Rapture doctrine? Well sit back; you are about to hear the story of how one Brit came up with a crazy idea and made tons of money convincing Americans that they might not have to die (history repeats itself in a perpetually pitiful cycle). Seriously, if you want to keep believing in the Rapture, you should probably quit reading right now!

The History of the Rapture (excerpted from my Systematic Theology paper on The Fundamentals, downloadable as pdf here)

The 19th century had no shortage of speculation on end times and anti-christs. The millenarianism movement, a popular theological conversation emphasizing a literal thousand year reign (either by Christ or by benevolent rulers), had excited the public interest in eschatological speculation. Riding the wave of eschatological hysteria was British Plymouth Brethren pastor John Nelson Darby, the author of dispensational theology. His Dispensational theology divided the Bible and history itself into eras, or dispensations. Ostensibly, this is done in order to account for apparent contradictory messages in scripture, contradictions which disappear when applying a theological grid by which certain verses apply only to the Jewish people or a to the Old Covenant, but do not apply under the New Covenant of Christ.

After ousting his one-time colleague-turned-adversary Benjamin Wills Newton during a quarrel to gain power in his Brethren congregation, Darby had a small but well-connected pulpit to promote his theology. The focus of their argument had been Darby’s creation of a doctrine of a rapture, a doctrine which Newton would spend the rest of his career trying, without success, to dispel. In 1840, Darby took his eschatology public and lectured on the rapture for the first time in Lausanne. The message picked up steam (and Darby picked up a small fortune) as followers flocked to his conferences which predicted a Rapture and an end to the world.

To pin the creation of the Rapture to a specific year, Darby claimed to have realized this doctrine in as early as 1827. Accounts on the origin of this new idea vary (one story posits Darby adopted the Rapture from another wild-eyed Scottish mystic, who envisioned the Rapture during his years living in a cave), but Darby’s belief in a Rapture can be seen as a necessary consequence of his dispensational theology. That is, the Rapture was created two make contradictory Biblical passages on the return of Christ cohere. Darby solved these differences by dividing them into two “second comings,”[sic] one a secret rapture and the other a post-tribulational announcement in glory.

Darby spread dispensational theology via writings and conferences, which effectively solidified his career as a novel theologian. In fact, both Dispensationalism and the rapture might have died out completely if not for Darby’s contact with one man; Cyrus I. Scofield. In the late 19th century, a young pastor Scofield became convinced of Dispensationalism, and in 1909 the Scofield Reference Bible was published. Using the King James Version, Scofield’s highly successful Bible included copious footnoting to explain passages via dispensational theology. For many Christians in America, these footnotes were their first exposure to the rapture doctrine. The Scofield Reference Bible’s dispensational theology, as well as its penchant for literalism (Scofield introduced the date of creation as 4004 B.C.), made it a prime candidate for adoption into fundamentalist circles. Over the next decade, dispensational eschatology focusing on the rapture of the church and speculation about the end times came to dominate conservative Reformed circles, and this theology was practically canonized in The Fundamentals.

The Fundamentals, a series of books published in the 1910s, canonized five main tenants which had to be affirmed for hiring within an increasingly politicized network of denominations, seminaries, and Bible schools. In a movement conceived of by a California oil tycoon and backed by an ambitious cadre of American businessmen, an assortment of evangelists were hired to promote what they saw as the minimum fundamental truths one must assent to in order to be Christian.3 Mass financial backing allowed the free distribution of The Fundamentals, as well as the subsidizing of the Scofield Reference Bible, and they aimed to reach not only pastors but para-church ministries, Sunday school teachers, professors, and missionaries (success among Christian missionaries has expanded American fundamentalism to a global phenomenon). Since the Rapture, Dispensationalism, and the fundamentals were not initially well received by the theological academy (who saw the revisionist pop-theology movement as anti-intellectual), an impressive number of bible colleges were founded to train pastors without influence from seminary academia (most bible colleges today are products of this era). Without the subsidizing of literature and the political connections of these American businessmen, it is likely that the Rapture could have died out. But as the history of Christian theology sadly demonstrates, money and politics make powerful allies in the rewriting of orthodoxy.

In 1924, dispensationalist theologian Dr. Sperry Chafer founded Dallas Theological Seminary, which would become one of the most well respected schools of dispensational and post-fundamentalist, evangelical theology. Founded to teach the new school of Dispensational thought, its impressive success and growth in the 20th century (along with influence on other seminaries throughout the South) produced such a hegemony of belief that, within three generations, most Southern Christians would now express the belief that the Rapture and Tribulation is a belief as old as the church itself! In fact, it is a belief almost exclusively confined to 20th century North American theology.


So the next time your pastor tells you that the Bible teaches about a Rapture, you might ask him how nobody noticed until the crazy cave monk told Darby about his vision about a Rapture. And what exactly did Darby do with all the cash he made from convincing Americans they weren’t going to die? And an even better question: assuming they did their assigned reading in seminary and know all this… why don’t they ever tell their congregations any of it?

by Tad Delay



5 thoughts on “Why the Rapture Didn’t Happen (and why it’s not going to happen): A Short History of a Strange Belief

  1. […] of the responses to Tad’s last post were an appeal to an examination of the biblical text for scriptural proof of a literal Rapture. My […]

  2. […] of the responses to Tad’s last post were an appeal to an examination of the biblical text for scriptural proof of a literal Rapture. My […]

  3. an irenicon says:

    Exactly. It’s sad when certain eschatologies cause reversals in normal Christian actions.

    I think the Middle East is a great example of this. One popular teaching about the end times Antichrist has him spreading a false peace between the Jewish and Arab populations. When Christians hear this, they hesitate to raise their voices for peace (or worse- they outright oppose it) in one region of the world that most needs it.

  4. […] saw similar things happening with responses to Tad’s post on the Rapture back in May. Now, the purpose of the blog and the Facebook page is to invite this sort of […]

  5. […] Why the Rapture Didn’t Happen (and why it’s not going to happen): A Short History of a S… […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: