As the Church has faced more opposition in the past few months, I’ve heard more “End Times” sermons than at any time in my Christian life. It seems that any time things get tough in the US, American Christians turn to the rapture as their great hope. They believe (and hope and pray) that we’ll be out of here before things get really bad.
But is that realistic?
Is that what Scripture promises?
Origins of the Pre-Trib Rapture Theory
The belief in a pre-tribulation rapture became popular around 1830 with the advent of a doctrine called Dispensationalism. Made popular by John Nelson Darby, Dispensationalism breaks world history into time periods called “dispensations” where God deals with men in specific ways. Of note, each of these time periods ends in failure and judgment.
According to this doctrine we are currently in the age of grace, a period when God relates to mankind through the Church. And a period when things will get worse and worse leading up to the advent of the anti-Christ and the rapture when true believers activate their “get out of jail free” card and head for heaven to watch from afar as the world destroys itself. Anyone who didn’t accept Jesus before the rapture is doomed to seven (or three and a half, depending on your theology) years of increasing terror where it sure looks like Satan wins until at the very last minute, Jesus returns with a shout and saves the day.
I don’t want to be sacrilegious, but does that sound like the God you know? What would believers in three quarters of the world who have been living in the tribulation of persecution and martyrdom for years say to that belief?
What Did the Early Church Believe?
Between Pentecost and Dispensationalism there were a variety of theologies that rose to prominence. This isn’t the place to discuss all of those, but let’s just say the rapture isn’t how most of the early church fathers viewed things. Admittedly they were confused. They were living under persecution to the point of martyrdom. They believed they were living in the end times (see 1 Peter 4:7). They were looking forward to being rescued since they were already living in tribulation. But the leaders of the church and the bible writers were less focused on the end and more focused on the Kingdom.
By this time, they understood that the earthly kingdom (to defeat the Romans) that they hoped Jesus would establish wasn’t going to happen. Unfortunately, Christianity was never intended to conquer Rome. Unfortunately, they were going to live through some pretty tough times. John told them that the antichrist spirit was already living among them (see 1 John 2:18, 2 John 7).
What? Antichrist was already there? It wasn’t a future event? That’s what John said. And yes, the definite article for “the” is in the Greek. And John says there are more than one antichrist. The deceiver, the antichrist, is anyone who doesn’t acknowledge Jesus as Lord.
What Did Jesus Do?
But here’s the deal. And here is what we need to understand. When Jesus was on earth, the topic he talked about and lived the most was the Kingdom. In fact, He was the embodied Kingdom who came from the Kingdom in Heaven to earth. He was a Kingdom carrier. Everywhere he went, the Kingdom went and was established. Everything he did was evidence of the Kingdom. And when he returned to heaven, he delegated all of his authority to his followers through the power of the Holy Spirit and through the vehicle of the Church, the ekklesia. And he declared the gates of Hell would not overcome his ekklesia (Matthew 16:18). Of course, he also promised persecution, trouble, and tribulation (see Luke 21:12, John 15:20, John 16:33). Overcoming and tribulation. All at the same time.
At first the disciples didn’t get it. Jesus said to spread the Kingdom to Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8). But it was comfortable and safe in Jerusalem. Until it wasn’t. It looked a lot like persecution and tribulation. And in 70 AD, most of the signs of the end times occurred when the Romans overthrew the Jews and destroyed their temple. The one Jesus said would experience the abomination of desolation and be destroyed (see Matthew 24:2, Luke 21:20).
Yet, in the midst of that, the earlier followers spread the gospel, the Kingdom, throughout the known world. They continued to be Kingdom carriers wherever they went. In the midst of unprecedented turmoil.
And despite the fact that they experienced circumstances far worse that our present shutdowns, inconveniences, and closed churches, they persevered. Admittedly, there have been a lot of fits and starts over the next 2000 years. There were times when the Kingdom spread and times when it stagnated. There have been reasonable theologies and crazy theologies. But the Kingdom continued to advance. And it still is.
Should We Be Packing Our Bags?
So, should we be packing our bags? Or should we be advancing the Kingdom? I’m not saying there won’t be a rapture. I honestly don’t know if or when it might be. But what I do know is that Jesus didn’t say pack your bags and wait on the corner. What I do know is that Jesus told us to advance the Kingdom, to be Kingdom carriers (see Matthew 28:18-20). To occupy until He comes (see Luke 19:13). To stay ready, filled with the oil of the Holy Spirit (see Matthew 25:1-13). To be ready while at the same time being busy for the Kingdom.
Here’s the thing about the Dispensationalist point of view. It looks like things will just keep getting worse and worse and worse until God loses. Until the gates of Hell do prevail against the Church. Until churches are closed and singing is forbidden. Until pandemic floods the land. Until lawlessness prevails. Until everything familiar is destroyed. Until God finally has to rescue His people, just in the nick of time. Until the devil comes an inch from defeating God and His Church and then goes on to defeat the world that God loves.
Does that sound like your God? It sure doesn’t sound like mine!
So should we be packing our bags? I honestly don’t think we’ll need them, whether there’s a rapture or not…