The Rapture Theory

The Rapture Theory

The date is a day in the near future. The place, a Boeing 747 over the Atlantic Ocean on its way to London’s Heathrow Airport. Most passengers are sleeping or dozing. Suddenly almost half the passengers disappear into thin air. First one, then another of the remaining passengers cries out as they realize their seat mate is missing. Only the clothes of those who have gone are left behind. The remaining passengers cry, they scream, they leap from their seats. Parents are frantically searching for their children, but all the children have disappeared in midflight.

Science fiction? No. This is a scene from the first volume of the 16-volume Left Behind series. Written by Christian authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, these books have shown up on the New York Times bestseller list and can be obtained in most bookstores.

These books are based on the theory that seven years prior to the second advent of Christ, faithful Christians will be translated, taken up into heaven—they will be raptured. Why exactly seven years? Because one of the mainstays of this theory is that the last week of the 70 prophetic weeks in Daniel 9:24 is still future.


The Roots of the Rapture Theory

The roots of this theory may be traced back to the time of the Counter-Reformation. The Protestant Reformers in the 16th century identified the papacy as the antichrist of prophecy. Martin Luther, for example. said, “I believe the pope is the masked and incarnate devil, because he is the Antichrist.”Several Jesuit scholars undertook the task of defending the papacy against these attacks. The Spanish Jesuit, Francisco Ribera (1537–1591) projected the antichrist prophecies into the future (futurism), and another Spaniard, Luis del Alcazar (1554–1613), contended that these prophecies had already been fulfilled during the time of the Roman Empire (preterism).2

Alcazar’s preterism was soon adopted by the Calvinist Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) in Holland, and in time became the favorite method for the interpretation of biblical prophecy among liberal theologians.

Ribera applied the antichrist prophecies to a future personal antichrist who would appear in the time of the end and continue in power for three and a half years. For nearly three centuries, futurism was largely confined to the Roman Catholic Church, until in 1826, Samuel R. Maitland (1792–1866), librarian to the Archbishop of Canterbury, published a 72-page pamphlet in which he promoted Ribera’s idea of a future antichrist. Soon other Protestant clergymen turned to futurism and began propagating it far and wide.



Ribera’s futurism laid the foundation for dispensationalism, which teaches that God has dealt differently with humanity during different eras of biblical history. John Nelson Darby (1800–1882) is usually regarded as the father of dispensationalism. He was a lawyer and Anglican clergyman who in 1828, disillusioned with the spiritual laxness of the church in England, joined the Brethren Movement. He had a brilliant mind; not only did he preach fluently in German and French, he was also the author of more than 50 books, and in 1848 became the leader of the Exclusive Brethren.

Darby developed an elaborate philosophy of history in which he divided history into eight eras or dispensations, “each of which contained a different order by which God worked out his redemptive plan.”3 Furthermore, Darby asserted that Christ’s coming would occur in two stages. The first, an invisible “secret rapture” of true believers, would end the great “parenthesis” or church age that began when the Jews rejected Christ. Following the rapture, the Old Testament prophecies concerning Israel would be literally fulfilled—ignoring the conditional nature of many Old Testament prophecies—leading to the great tribulation, which would end with the second coming of Christ in glory. At that time, Christ would establish a literal 1,000-year kingdom on earth with Israel at its center. The purpose of the secret rapture was to preserve believers from the great tribulation.

Darby’s eschatological views figured prominently in American fundamentalism in the 1920s, when conservative Christians defended orthodox Protestant Christianity against the challenges of Darwinism and liberal theology. Today, most evangelical Christians have accepted the main pillars of Darby’s eschatology.

The doctrine of the rapture was disseminated around the world, primarily through The Scofield Reference Bible. In the 20th century, it was taught in schools like Moody Bible Institute and Dallas Theological Seminary. Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth and many books of a similar nature further propagated the secret rapture.


Investigating the Rapture Theory

The rapture theory is based on a number of assumptions. With space limitations, we can briefly investigate only two of them: (1) that the 70th week of the 70-week prophecy in Daniel 9:24 to 27 is still future; and (2) that the church will not go through the great tribulation.

1. The 70th Week of Daniel 9:27

The idea that Daniel’s 70th week is still future surfaced first in the writings of Irenaeus (second century A.D.). It played no significant role in Christian theology until it became a foundational pillar of dispensationalism in the 19th century. According to this view, the sixty-nine weeks end with the triumphal entry, and the 70th week “is separated from the other 69 by an indefinite period of time.”4 Why this separation? Because the church age is seen as a parenthesis in God’s plan. That is, the prophetic clock stopped on Easter Sunday and will begin to tick again in the future after the rapture when God assumes His direct dealings with Israel.

In response: First, there is no logical or exegetical reason for separating the 70th week from the other 69 weeks. There is no other time prophecy in Scripture that has such a gap. None of the supposed prophecies with gaps listed by J. Dwight Pentecost (247) are time prophecies. All are based on the idea that Old Testament prophecies concerning Israel must be literally fulfilled by Israel in the future.

Second, the subject of Daniel 9:26 is the Messiah, and the subject of verse 27 is also the Messiah, not the antichrist. The he of verse 27 must refer back to the Messiah at the beginning of verse 26. According to this verse, not the prince but “‘the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary’” (ESV). Now, the people of the prince, the Messiah, are the Jews. “In what sense did the people of the Jewish Messiah destroy the city and the sanctuary in A.D. 70? The Roman army was indeed the physical agent that brought about the literal destruction of Jerusalem. But why did they destroy it? They did so because Judea had rebelled against Rome. If Judea had not rebelled, the Roman army would never have come there, and Jerusalem would have been spared.”5

Third, in Daniel 9:27 we read, “He shall confirm the covenant with many” (KJV). The text does not say he will make a covenant. The Hebrew idiom “to cut a covenant” is not used in this text. Instead, the Messiah, it says, will strengthen or “cause a covenant to prevail.” The reference is not to a new covenant but to a covenant already made. If the antichrist is to make a new covenant with “many,” the prophet would have used the appropriate language of “cutting a covenant.”

Contrary to the dispensationalist theory, the 70th week presents the high points of the Savior’s ministry. In dispensational thinking, Christ’s death did not even fall within the 70-week period. During the first half of the week, He strengthened or confirmed the covenant through His teaching. An example of this is where Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, took a selection of the Ten Commandments from the old covenant and strengthened or deepened its meaning (Matt. 5:21–30). Then in the middle of the week, He brought to an end the theological meaning of the rounds of sacrifices by offering Himself up for the salvation of the human race. Thus, the everlasting covenant was confirmed and ratified by the death of Jesus Christ.

2. The Church and the Great Tribulation

According to dispensationalism, the tribulation after the rapture of the church will last seven years. Its purpose is “to bring about the conversion of a multitude of Jews,”the 144.000, who will experience the fulfillment of Israel’s covenants. First Thessalonians 1:10; 5:9; Romans 5:9; and Revelation 3:10 are used as support for this theory.

Careful exegesis of the texts in Romans and 1 Thessalonians indicates that the “wrath to come” refers to God’s wrath, which will destroy the wicked at the Second Coming7 as indicated in 2 Thessalonians 1:6 to 10. It is the manifestation of God’s wrath in the final judgment, not the time of tribulation preceding Christ’s coming. Paul says that we “wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10, NIV). It is the second advent of Christ, at which time the rapture will take place, that delivers us from the wrath to come. Hence this wrath cannot come prior to the Second Advent.

The “‘hour of trial” in Revelation 3:10 (NIV) may well refer to the great tribulation, but the text does not say that God’s people will not experience it. The phrase “will keep you from” (NIV) comes from the two Greek words tereo and ek. Tereo has the meaning “to keep watch over,” “guard,” “preserve”; and the preposition ek has the basic meaning of “out of” or “from,” referring to coming out of something or from somewhere. Another Greek preposition (apo) expresses the idea of separation, “away from.”

In His high priestly prayer, Jesus says: “‘I do not pray that You should take them out [ek] of the world, but that You should keep [tereo] them from [ek] the evil one’” (John 17:15, NKJV). To “‘keep . . . from the evil one’” does not mean that Satan could not tempt the disciples, but that Jesus was asking the Father to keep the disciples safe in the temptation, to watch over them, and to prevent Satan from overcoming them.

Similarly, in 2 Peter 2:9 the apostle wrote: “the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of [ek] temptations [peirasmos]” (NKJV). The apostle here is not saying that God’s people will be kept away from (apo) temptations, but that He will deliver them out of (ek) the midst of them. In the same way, the apostle John in Revelation 3:10 is not saying that the believers will be kept away from (apo) the hour of trial (peirasmos), which is the same word translated “temptations” in 2 Peter 2:9, but that they will be kept safe during that time.

Thus, none of the texts used to support the idea that the church will not go through the great tribulation is really saying that. In fact, Scripture clearly teaches that the saints of God will go through the great tribulation (Matt. 24:9; Mark 13:11; Luke 21:12–19; Rev. 13:14–17).



The rapture theory has captured the imagination of millions of sincere Christians. Its central teaching—that the fulfillment of the 70th week of Daniel’s 70-week prophecy is still future—is based on unbiblical presuppositions, and its teaching that the church will not go through the great tribulation caters to the human emotion of fear of hardship, but it is contrary to the Bible’s teaching. According to Scripture, the church will experience the great tribulation but will be delivered out of it through the rapture at Jesus’ second advent.



1. Sämtliche Schriften (St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House [1887]), 23:845.

2. L. R. Conradi, The lmpelling Force of Prophetic Truth (London: Thynne & Co., Ltd., 1932), 346.

3. Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1984), 292.

4. J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1958), 247.

5. William H. Shea, Daniel 7–12, The Abundant Life Bible Amplifier (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press, 1996), 75, 76.

6. Pentecost, Things to Come, 237.

7. See John Stott, Romans (Downers Grove, Ill..: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 146.