By Dale Chamberlain, Crosswalk.com
Religious trauma has been a perennial topic of discussion in deconstruction and evangelical communities for some time now. But more recently, a very specific source of such trauma, known as rapture anxiety, has begun to make headlines.
The rapture, which is the belief that Jesus will suddenly but briefly return to the earth to take Christians to heaven, is a doctrine that is widely held among many American evangelicals.
Rapture theology experienced something of a cultural moment some three decades ago, having become the subject of myriad books, conferences, and even entire teaching ministries.
It has also been fictionalized in novels and other media that explore what the rapture will be like, perhaps most notably, the Left Behind series of books and films aim at reaching an audience of children and teens.
For many Christians who grew up in evangelical homes, rapture theology had such a heavy emphasis on their spiritual upbringing during their formative years that it has overshadowed their conception of the Christian life — so much so that it has become a source of significant anxiety.
This anxiety has often centered on the fear of being “left behind.” Many Christians who grew up with this fear have even recounted instances when they awoke from a nap or arrived home to realize that their house was empty and momentarily believed that they had not been faithful enough to be taken to heaven with their family and would now face the Great Tribulation alone — most likely to be, among other things, brutally tortured and beheaded.
While such fears were quelled upon realizing that their family had merely gone to the store or were in the backyard, the creep of anxiety and outright terror was persistent.
Others were more certain that they wouldn’t be left behind. But when faced with the prospect that their life on earth could end at literally any moment, they experienced a sense of dread that overshadowed their anticipation of many of life’s milestones.
Many who experienced rapture anxiety as a child or teen have carried those feelings into adulthood, which has even contributed to some Christians questioning whether their faith is actually harmful to their mental and emotional health.
Nevertheless, we can be confident that God does not want us to live in fear.
Here’s a closer look at what the Bible says about the rapture and what you can do if you continue to experience rapture anxiety.
The Rapture in the Bible
It may surprise you to find that the word “rapture” never once appears in the Bible. Further, there is only one direct reference to something that could be interpreted as a rapture-like event.
That reference comes in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church, wherein he reassures Christians who are concerned about their loved ones who have died before Christ’s return in glory, leading them to believe that perhaps they missed out on it.
Paul encourages them that this is far from the case, and those of us who are alive at the moment of Christ’s return will be reunited with believers who have died.
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 (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
The Greek word translated here as “caught up” is harpazo. When Saint Jermone translated the Greek New Testament into Latin in the fourth century, he rendered harpazo as rapiō, which is where we get the English word “rapture.”
Essentially, what Paul is saying is that when Christ returns, believers who are alive at the time will meet him in the clouds, and we will be with him forever.
For those who hold to rapture theology, they interpret this “catching up” as a separate event from Jesus’ full return in glory.
Further, it is argued that the rapture will set into motion a chaotic and turbulent period of time that will give rise to the Antichrist and will conclude when Jesus returns to defeat him.
This interpretation is buttressed by other verses — for example, Revelation 16:15, Matthew 24:43, 1 Thessalonians 5:2, 4, and 2 Peter 3:10 — wherein Jesus’ return, sometimes referred to as the Day of the Lord, is described as coming like “a thief in the night.”
While many scholars interpret the meaning of “thief in the night” to be describing the swiftness of Jesus’ judgment, those who hold to rapture theology believe it to be a reference to a “secret” return of Jesus that will take place prior to his glorious return.
This more developed version of rapture theology is part and parcel of a larger system of theology known as Dispensationalism.
How We Got Rapture Theology
Dispensationalism, which was not a widely popular system of theology prior to the 19th century, was formalized and popularized by theologian John Nelson Darby.
Darby believed that when we look to Scripture, we can see God orchestrating history in distinct eras, which he called dispensations.
These dispensations have been conceived of differently by different theologians, but many Dispensationalists hold to seven of them.
1. The Dispensation of Innocence, which Adam and Eve experienced before sin entered the world.
2. The Dispensation of Conscience, which Adam, Eve, and their descendants experienced after sin entered the world.
3. The Dispensation of Human Government, which began after Noah and his family emerged from the Ark after the great flood.
4. The Dispensation of Promise, which was inaugurated when God promised to make Abraham the father of a great nation.
5. The Dispensation of Law, in which God established Israel as a nation and gave them the Law of Moses.
6. The Dispensation of Grace, which can also be referred to as the “church age,” and began after Jesus died and rose from the grave.
7. The Dispensation of the Millennial Reign of Christ, which will begin when Jesus returns to the earth to establish his throne for a thousand years, after which will come the final judgment and new creation
Noteworthy is that many theologians outside the Dispensational tradition do not believe that the millennial reign of Christ, as described in Revelation 20, will be a literal thousand years, but rather is an aspect of the symbolism prevalent throughout the Book of Revelation. A literal millennial reign is a key feature of Dispensationalism.
Within Dispensationalism, a variety of views exist as to when the rapture will take place. The premillennial view argues that it will occur before Jesus’ one-thousand-year reign.
Some within that camp believe it will happen before the Great Tribulation, while others believe it will take place roughly halfway through the tribulation period.
Conversely, the post-millennial view argues that the rapture won’t happen until after Jesus has reigned on earth for a thousand years. Essentially, their view is that the rapture will be a quick turnaround event for Jesus on his way to the final judgment.
In contrast to the Dispensational view, others hold to something called Covenant Theology, which argues that God has centered history not on dispensations, but covenants, which are largely categorized under the “Covenant of Works” and the “Covenant of Grace.” The rapture is not a feature of this theological system.
As you can probably tell, a great deal of debate exists over who is right in their interpretation of how God has chosen to unfold history.
Nevertheless, if you were brought up to believe in a particular view of the rapture that has caused you to experience fear and anxiety, here are two things I encourage you to take comfort in.
Two Things to Remember if You Experience Rapture Anxiety
1. The rapture is not a central feature of Christian theology, and considerable disagreement exists about whether it will actually occur.
Important to bear in mind is that the rapture is not an essential doctrine of the Christian faith.
In other words, you can choose, based on your convictions, to accept or reject it without fear of falling outside proper Christian teaching.
Myriad Christians, both historically and today, have disagreed with the Dispensationalist interpretation of the Bible and rapture theology along with it.
For example, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Lutherans, Anglicans, most Methodists, most Presbyterians, and other believers in various Reformed traditions do not believe that the rapture, as it has been popularized in many evangelical circles, will occur.
Rather, rapture theology is more of a feature of Baptists, Pentecostals, and various non-denominational churches and networks.
Since these groups constitute much of the evangelical movement, and many publishers and thought leaders in these traditions have been so prolific in their exposition of rapture theology, it’s easy to assume that it is the definitive view. But it isn’t.
Throughout church history, Dispensational rapture theology has not been the only or even predominant view. In fact, evidence suggests that almost nobody who called upon the name of Jesus in the first 1,800 years of the church had even heard of the rapture as many understand it today.
So, if rapture theology causes you harm and you are sincerely convinced that there is a better way to interpret the relevant passages of Scripture, you can just jettison it from your belief system.
Further, you can do so without shame or guilt. It would make you no less a faithful follower of Jesus.
2. Your life in heaven will be infinitely better than the life you live now.
Assuming that the rapture could happen at any time, ending your life on this earth without a moment’s notice, it is still not cause for fear. Christians need not fear death.
And that’s because the life you will experience once you meet Jesus face-to-face will be infinitely and immeasurably better than the life you currently live.
Regardless of whether you live long enough to graduate school, get married, establish your career, or buy a house, you won’t be missing out.
In Jesus, you will become everything you were always meant to be.
In fact, even the wounds and traumas of your life will be transformed into something glorious. This is illustrated by Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ as recorded in John 20.
When Thomas saw the wounds in Jesus’ hands and side — the very markers of Jesus’ pain, humiliation, and suffering — they caused Thomas to worship Jesus. On the other side of the resurrection, these wounds actually brought joy, healing, and comfort.
This is the glory that awaits us. In our darkest moments, we can trust in the hope that even the worst things about our lives will be transformed into something beautiful.
This is the purpose for which Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church: hope. We have been told the end from the beginning. And while the road to glory often feels uncertain, we can look ahead with abiding joy and peace that is rooted in the hope that Jesus will make all things new.
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Dale Chamberlain (M.Div) is an author and podcaster who is passionate about helping people tackle ancient truths in everyday settings. He lives in Southern California with his wife Tamara and their two sons. Connect with Dale at KainosProject.com.