This past weekend the eschatological thriller Left Behind opened in theaters. It joins a flood of Christian movies this year including Exodus, Son of God, God’s Not Dead, Heaven Is for Real, and Noah. Okay, let’s not count Noah.
Yet Left Behind stands out among this surge of Christian films, not just because it stars Nicholas Cage, and not just because it’s based on the wildly successful Left Behind novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Perhaps more than the other films, Left Behind captures believers’ imagination because it portrays a future, world-changing event: the secret rapture, that moment Jesus suddenly snatches up all Christians to himself years prior to his visible second coming.
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.
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.”
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?
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.
Should Christians Watch Left Behind?
Full disclosure: I have not seen the new Left Behind film, and probably won’t. I’m mainly avoiding it because the reviews are so poor, and I’m too busy for potentially bad art. But more 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? Didn’t you read my TGC article?”
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.
1 Dispensationalism is an incredibly complex system of interpretation, and this brief summary does not begin to do it justice. Nor have I addressed the ways dispensationalism has grown and changed over the years. A short, helpful, and ironic summary and critique of dispensationalism can be found in Vern Poythress’s Understanding Dispensationalists.