Taking the Red Pill on the Rapture
Updated: Oct 7
John Nelson Darby and his followers have glued together an unbiblical event. Yet Darbyism is not entirely without merit.
Editor’s note: This column is part 2 in a series on eschatology, beginning here, but can also be read as a stand-alone column.
In a previous column, I argued that Christians too often avoid studying eschatology, telling ourselves that we can safely ignore it because "it'll all pan out in the end." Ignoring eschatology has become a kind of badge of one's identity as an educated middle-class Christian—as if these parts of the Bible are there for people less cultured and spiritually mature than ourselves. Although we believe that we are being humble by averting our eyes from these passages, the truth is that we are effectively treating large parts of God’s Word as if they don’t really exist.
Pointing to some widely-agreed-upon examples of fulfilled prophecies, I also introduced a general framework for interpreting biblical prophecy. God has given us prophetic narratives, not to make us feel stupid or confused, but to demonstrate the veracity of His prophets. The essence of the Judaic prophetic tradition, in contrast to Greek oracles, is its clarity. Thus, these prophecies do not confuse us because they are meant to be confusing, but because we are ignorant of the historical context in which their original audience lived.
Likewise, the focus of biblical prophecy is not on abstract heavenly forms or private individual piety, but on public, geopolitical events. In the cosmic drama of prophecy, God strikes down armies and gives victory to nations, knocks down old civilizations and founds new ones, and “removes kings and sets up kings.” The upshot is that, when reading the prophetic narrative, we must always strive to interpret it in a way that would have been readily apparent to the prophecy’s original audience.
One popular contemporary eschatology—though it is steadily falling out of favor—centers around the so-called “pre-tribulation rapture.” To avoid confusion with the classical rapture view, I will call this view “Darbyism”—a label not used by its actual adherents—after its main proponent, John Nelson Darby, 1800-1882. Darby was a theologian in the British nonconformist movement and is usually said to have invented the view, although it is also sometimes attributed to Margaret MacDonald, 1815-1840, a teenage mystic with whom Darby had contact.
Although I reject Darbyism as unbiblical, it will not be the main target of my criticisms in this series. I even suspect that it has had—in some ways but not others—an incidentally productive influence on the church. Still, to introduce any Christian to eschatology, we need to begin by first deconstructing Darbyism. Many contemporary Christians have, to quote William Lane Craig, simply absorbed Darbyism “with our mother’s milk” and have never thought to question whether it is biblically warranted or not.
Revelation can be divided into three sections, the third of which is a chronological narrative in the style of Daniel’s prophecies.
Before we can begin to understand Darbyism, let’s begin with a general overview of the Book of Revelation. Revelation can be roughly divided into three sections, each written in a different subgenre. In the first section, Revelation 1-3, John introduces his vision, and Jesus speaks individually to the seven churches of Asia Minor. Using the same rhetorical style and emphases he used in his earthly life, Jesus rebukes wayward churches for their compromise and lack of zeal: “Would that you were either cold or hot!”
Next comes the large midsection of the book, Revelation 4-16. It is here that John has apocalyptic visions of scrolls, trumpets, and “bowls of God’s wrath.” Set in the middle of this section, like a jewel on a diadem, is the famous story of the “woman clothed with the sun” describing the rebellion and fall of Satan. The content of 4-16 is widely understood as, on the whole, non-chronological. It is also understood that its parade of cataclysms—i.e., “every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found”—were understood by John’s original audience as symbols of God’s judgment, not actual meteorological and astronomical events. Thus far, major contemporary interpretations are generally in agreement.
Thirdly, in Revelation 17-22, an angel ushers John into a narrative of sudden coherence. The themes and style of this section are familiar to us from the political prophecies of Daniel. The story begins with the fall of a great world empire, and the events unfold as a natural sequence. And, just as in Daniel, we are guided through the story by the explanations of angels. The remarks of the angels are as simple as they are inescapably political: i.e., “the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth."
The story of Revelation 17-22 can be summarized in the following chronological series of events, which I list here only for introductory purposes.
Revelation 17: The Great City is introduced; it persecutes Christians.
Revelation 18-19: The Great City is destroyed; its empire falls
Revelation 20:1-6: The Resurrection of the Martyrs
Revelation 20:1-6:  The Millennium
Revelation 20:7-8: The Little Season
Revelation 20:9-10: The Camp of the Saints and the Last Battle
Revelation 20:11-15: The Last Resurrection and the Last Judgment
Revelation 21-22: The New Heaven and the New Earth
Darbyism raptures the church some time before the story of Revelation 17-22 begins.
Over the millennia, Christians have proposed a variety of interpretations of the events in this third section. The distinct innovation of Darbysim is this: Darbyists claim that, before any of the events of Revelation 17-22 can begin, all then-living Christians will be taken suddenly into heaven: an occurrence popularly called “the Rapture.”
Darbyists generally imagine that, once all living Christians are raptured, post-Rapture converts will form a kind of second church throughout most of eschatology. These converts are therefore the only Christians who live through the whole roller coaster—not only its lows, but also its highs—of Revelation 17-22. This facet of Darbyism gives rise to the title of the popular Left Behind series of books, as the heroes are characters who converted to Christianity after being “left behind” by the Rapture.
A digression: I’m suddenly reminded that, as an anti-Christian teenager, I once asked a Christian classmate what he thought that Christians would be doing at the end of the world. I don’t remember the context of my question; probably I was trying to maliciously steer him towards some unpleasant outcome. But I do remember his answer. He said: “I won’t be there: I will be in the Rapture. But there will be others like you, who know the beliefs of Christianity, who will be left behind. Then you will have a chance to be the church.”
While I now think he was mistaken on the specifics of his eschatology, in terms of his apologetic technique, this was an excellent response. I remember being struck with a funny semi-admiration for the certainty of this answer—a feeling I rarely had towards Christians. Christianity, though outlandish, was made just a little more credible by my sense that this Christian genuinely inhabited and lived within it.
Of course, if you’d suggested that I try living as a Christian myself, I probably would have told you that I had no interest in being bored and repressed. Yet I did get the impression that there was a depth of experience—a kind of dramatic power—beneath his beliefs that was not present beneath any of mine.
Are there any lessons here? In the first place, my classmate confidently asserted that he was right, that I was wrong, and that I would face the consequences of my mistake if I did not change course. At the same time, he seemed to be inviting me to join a challenging adventure. Both aspects of his answer, in retrospect, were effective. Apologists, take note.
Back now to our main discussion. As we follow the drama of Revelation 17-22, there is no hint of the church having vanished before the story began. Nor is there any evidence of the so-called “pre-tribulation rapture” at any prior point in Revelation, or anywhere in Daniel. A clever Darbyist would probably respond that the pre-tribulation rapture is outside the scope of Daniel and Revelation. But it would be remarkably unlike Daniel—whose work prefigures Revelation—to omit such a seismic public event: especially one which surely sets in motion the rest of the Darbyists’ own eschatological story.
Darbyists claim to support their view of the rapture using statements of Jesus and Paul. Consider, for example, Matthew 24:36-44. When I speak with Christians who have no strong views on eschatology—but have absorbed Darbyism as the default view—they often think of this passage.
But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only… Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming… Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
There is no denying the power of this verse, and others like it, to reinforce Darbyism if read against a Darbyist cultural backdrop, and outside the context of Daniel and Revelation. I was not raised in the church, and have never read a Left Behind book. Even after years as an active believer, I often notice that I think and even speak in ways that native-born Christians do not. Yet even I, reading this statement of the Lord’s from Matthew, have to admit that I instinctively imagine a kind of Darbyist eschatology. Even non-Christians have vaguely absorbed Darbyism as a description of what Christians believe.
The classical rapture was understood to happen at the time of the Last Resurrection.
The very word “rapture” has been increasingly monopolized by Darbyism, even as Darbyism declines in popularity. Thus, if you attend any evangelical Bible study long enough, you will hear someone say that “the rapture is not in the Bible.” Technically, this is untrue: all Christians believe in a rapture. Darbyism is unique only in imagining a “pre-tribulation,” or non-classical, sort of rapture.
Strictly speaking, the rapture is simply “the experience… of meeting Christ midway in the air upon his return to earth.” “Rapture” is a biblical word that comes from the Latin vulgate text of 1 Thessalonians 4:17—from “rapiemur,” or “caught up”—and its definition comes from straight from the verse: “we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”
But even without 1 Thessalonians 4, some kind of rapture would follow logically from the rest of the Bible. All Christians agree that there will be a Last Resurrection at the end of our eon. As Jesus says in John, “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” At the Last Resurrection, all Christians who have passed away will be raised from the dead and given “resurrection bodies,” a phenomenon most famously described in 1 Corinthians 15:50-57 but also helpfully explained in 2 Corinthians 5:1-5.
Yet, if all dead Christians are saved, what about Christians who are living at the time of the Last Resurrection? All interpreters agree that some kind of church will exist when the Last Resurrection occurs. It is no big leap of inference to say that Christians living at the time of the Last Resurrection will therefore be called into the presence of Jesus directly and be given resurrection bodies. Passages like 1 Thessalonians 4, as well as Matthew 24, clarify that this is the case.
The question, then, is whether there will be one rapture or two. The classical view is that there will be only one rapture—at the time of the Last Resurrection. This is the phenomenon that the “rapture verses” refer to, and it is at that time that “two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken” to meet the Lord in the air.
The problem for the Darbyist is explaining why the Bible should be interpreted as teaching, not one, but two raptures: a Rapture prior to all the events of Revelation 17-22, and a second rapture at the Last Resurrection.
Darbyists claim to be able to indirectly deduce a pre-tribulation rapture from 2 Thessalonians 2 and from modern theological concepts that are outside the scope of this series. Yet, even if the Darbyists’ arguments were compelling, they would face two glaring problems.
First, if the Bible really does teach two raptures, then it is surprising that nobody in church history believed in such a thing before John Nelson Darby’s own lifetime. Consider a list of some of the ancient and medieval Christian thinkers who have commented on eschatology. These include Irenaeus, a student of a bishop—Polycparp—who knew the disciple John. They also include figures like Hippolytus, Jerome, Augustine, Bede, Alcuin, and Hildegard. In searching the eschatological writings of all of these thinkers, I have not seen anything even vaguely resembling a Darbyist rapture. For Darbyism, then, Christianity existed for almost two millennia before a British nonconformist finally discovered the correct eschatology.
In light of the principles discussed in our previous column, this is strong evidence against Darbyism. Prophecies are meant to be understood in the historical context in which they are written. In some cases, prophecies are even more clearly illuminated after their fulfillment, as in the case of Isaiah 44:27—“Be dry; I will dry up your rivers.” But if the church is supposed to vanish from the earth before the story of Revelation 17-22 begins, this should have been apparent in the first centuries of the church’s existence, not discovered for the first time in the 1800s.
The classical view elegantly explains several similar statements from Jesus, Paul, and John as referring to a single event.
The second glaring problem is even larger: the relevant statements of Jesus, Paul, and John are most naturally understood as referring to one event that we can call the Last Judgment and the Last Resurrection. This will be a single event which will include the Lord’s Second Coming, a general resurrection of all the just and the unjust, and the rapture of all then-living Christians. It will happen at the end of John's story in Revelation, inaugurating the New Heaven and the New Earth.
In 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul plainly teaches that, upon the Second Coming of Christ, “the dead in Christ will rise first. 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.” Paul reassures then church that “we who are alive… will not precede those who have fallen asleep.” Note especially that, no matter how much the Darbyist wants to split hairs here, one thing cannot be denied: living Christians are not raptured before the dead in Christ are raised. Paul could not be less ambiguous: we “will not precede” the dead in Christ.
Darbyists, of course, want their rapture to precede many other end-times events. How can they respond to the chronology of 1 Thessalonians 4? Having already created a new rapture, the Darbyist must now take 1 Thessalonians 4 to mean that a preliminary Darbyist rapture will be accompanied by a general resurrection of all the dead in Christ. This is tremendous weight that is now being carried by an event with no direct biblical support.
Let’s turn to John’s description of the Last Resurrection. Note that Revelation 20:11-15 describes the Last Resurrection and the Last Judgment occurring as a single event. Additionally, the passage plainly refers to the resurrection of both just and unjust people. It is necessary to quote it at length:
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
It’s not hard to see that this is the general resurrection. This is, after all, the first time in the Revelation 17-22 narrative that a mass assembly of all the dead gathers for judgment before the Throne of God. Additionally, at least some of the dead are evidently listed in “the book of life” and are now saved from death forever. These are the dead in Christ.
In contrast, under Darbyism, the powerful language of Revelation 20:11-15, which definitely sounds like the general Last Resurrection of the just and the unjust, is left with relatively little actual content. It now becomes essentially a resurrection of the unjust only.
Likewise, Jesus discussed the resurrection of the just and the unjust as a single event. In John 5:28, he said:
Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.
Under Darbyism, there is no one “hour” in which the general resurrection of the just and the unjust will occur. In order to maintain the Darbyist rapture, the general resurrection of the just has been peeled off from Revelation 20:11-15 and from John 5:28 so that the Darbyist can glue it on to a constructed earlier event, identified with 1 Thessalonians 4.
In summary, Paul is most naturally read as discussing the Last Resurrection and the rapture as a single occurrence. At the same time, the narrative in Revelation 20:11-15, which reads as a general and final resurrection, involves both the just and the unjust. This is consistent with Jesus’ statement that “an hour is coming” in which both the just and the unjust are resurrected. These three sources are most naturally and elegantly read as discussing a single event, referred to in our earlier timeline as the “Last Resurrection and the Last Judgment,” at the climax of Revelation.
Darbyists must carve up this event in an ad hoc way. With no direct biblical data, they split the rapture into two, sticking one rapture earlier in the narrative. Yet because this first rapture cannot precede the general resurrection of the just, the Last Resurrection must be stripped for parts, which are then used in cobbling together the new Rapture. These actions create a staggeringly significant event with no direct biblical support, and which contradicts the plain meaning of Paul, John, and Jesus.
The Resurrection of the Martyrs strengthens the classical view.
Although Revelation describes one general resurrection, this event is not the first resurrection in Revelation. Earlier in Revelation 20, John reports on an event classically known as the “Resurrection of the Martyrs.” This event marks the beginning of the Millennium—a subject we’ll leave for a future column. For now, suffice it to say that some subset of Christians are said to be raised in advance of the general resurrection. Far from helping Darbyists, however, these verses are an argument against Darbyism. Let’s turn to Revelation 20:4-5:
Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years [the Millennium] were ended. This is the first resurrection.
This is a plainly chronological event, placed in a larger sequence with words like “had,” “until,” and “first.” We can therefore see right away that the Resurrection of the Martyrs will be of no help to Darbyism—for there is no room for Darbyists to stick their rapture in it. The reason for this is that, while there are different kinds of Darbyists, they all place their “tribulation”—and hence their “pre-tribulation rapture”—well before Revelation 20:4-5.
What then should we make of the Resurrection of the Martyrs? There is disagreement in church history on who exactly is raised in the Resurrection of the Martyrs. Yet the classical commentators did broadly agree that this was that this early resurrection is symbolic and non-physical, and that it is not until the general resurrection in 20:11-15 that we will be given the resurrection bodies described in passages like 1 Corinthians 15:50-57 and 2 Corinthians 5:1-5.
This was the view taken by Andrew of Caesaria, the author of the earliest full-length Greek patristic commentary on Revelation. It was followed by, among others, Augustine, Bede, and Hildegard. Augustine, for example, said those raised in the Revelation 20:4-5 are “of course, not yet reunited with their bodies,” but refers to 20:11-15 as “the day of the body’s resurrection.” A dissenting view was espoused by Irenaeus and by the Western father Victorinus, the first Latin commentator on Revelation, both of whom thought the first resurrection was physical.
Yet the text of the Resurrection of the Martyrs, spiritual or not, points ahead to Revelation 20:11-15 as the general resurrection. Seeming almost to shift our attention away from itself, 20:4-5 says “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.” It is then in Revelation 20:11-15 that we see at last a great assembly of all the “dead” before a throne, with language corresponding to the “hour… when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out.”
The general resurrection therefore does not occur until this event, when “the thousand years were ended.” Because the dead in Christ “will not precede those who have fallen asleep,” it follows that no rapture can occur in advance of the Last Resurrection.
While erroneous, the Darbyist tradition also has its strengths.
In setting out to criticize Darbyism, above, I lapsed into praising a Darbyist who witnessed to me as a teenager. I don’t think there is anything special about the pre-tribulation rapture that allowed him to do this: he could have done it just as easily if he adopted the views that I now hold. Yet there is certainly something in the culture of Darbyism, probably represented in the Left Behind books, that helped his witness.
Psychological and cultural criticisms of Darbyism will be familiar to many people. Darbyists are accused—fairly—of promoting a quasi-Gnostic dismissiveness about the created order. The frequent boast of secular people, that "nonbelievers are more likely than Christians to care about making the world a better place," is of course nonsense: the data consistently shows that religious people volunteer and donate more than nonbelievers, even donating more to secular charities. Yet, sadly, native-born Christian friends have often told me that they grew up hearing Darbyists dismiss any focus on the environment, arts, sciences, or space exploration by stating that Christians will soon leave the world behind. Granted that the church is more glorious than the world, perhaps she would be far more glorious had she never stepped into the trap of Darbyism.
At the same time, there are aspects of the broader Darbyist culture which are strikingly biblical. In one sense, Darbyists have a keen appreciation of the geopolitical dimension of prophecy—never hesitating to ask themselves whether an entity like the European Union or United Nations might have prophetic significance. Of course, Darbyist speculations in this area are often presumptuous and goofy to the point of comedy: the famous Darbyist author Hal Lindsey was wrong about seemingly all of his predictions. Yet this is due to one basic error: the Darbyist never asks whether this or that prophecy might already have been fulfilled in the past, or might be reserved for the distant future. The Darbyist cannot read prophecy like an ancient Jew—but this is only because he is a chronological snob. The prophetic narratives in Daniel span centuries and millennia, whereas the Darbyist wants to fit them all in his own century.
Yet the Darbyist's mistake is not in trying to identify this or that figure in Revelation with a specific world power. In this respect, he is squarely within the ancient Judaic tradition. He is simply reading Revelation as a Jew living just before the Maccabean Revolt would have read Daniel 8.
In another respect, too, Darbyists are admirable. Despite their misguided quasi-Gnosticism about the world, Darbyists do often have a kind of active zeal for the faith. As stories like Left Behind show, they tend to envision Christians as co-participants in the story of eschatology, not mere observers who silently pray as God acts.
Consider a statement from the patristic commentary of Andrew of Caesaria, mentioned earlier. “Concerning those who ally themselves with the antichrist,” wrote Andrew, “there is reason to think that they will suffer the first death, that of the flesh, by the sword of God, that is, by his command, and that then the second death will follow.” This mention of physical warfare would likely be at home in the story of Left Behind or other Darbyist narratives. The same cannot be said of most other modern eschatologies, which often turn political prophecies into highly abstract spiritual events.
Darbyism is therefore, ironically, closer to the classical Christian tradition than are other views that are now popular among educated Christians. We’ll turn to those in the remainder of the series.
 Daniel 2:21.  Cf. Matthew 5:13 (“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.”); Mark 11:13-14 (“And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. And he said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”).  For instance, the fall of Satan described in Revelation 12 evidently took place before most of Genesis 1. Revelation itself indicates this, describing the fallen Satan as the “serpent of old.” Likewise, the chapter apparently describes the birth of Jesus, “a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron,” which had already taken place before John wrote. And even reading the text in the genre of apocalyptic literature, the end of Revelation 16 seems to describe an unprecedented eschatological cataclysm. In Revelation 17 and following, this cataclysm is not in evidence as a prior event.  Cf. the fulfilled apocalyptic prophecies in Isaiah 13:10, Ezekiel 32:7, and Acts 2:19 (examples William Lane Craig’s).  Revelation 17:18. cf. Revelation 17:15.  See also Daniel 2:44-45.  I did not grow up in the church and have never read any of these books; I have only read summaries of the storyline.  He might claim that Daniel and Revelation are only about ethnic Jews. One problem here is that this does not fit well with the universalizing and Gospel message of Revelation. The Resurrection of the Martyrs in Revelation 20:4-5, for example, concerns those “beheaded for the testimony of Jesus.”  Dictionary.com.  John 5:28-29.  (“I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”).
 (“For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”).  On the Millennium, Bede—c. 637-735—taught that the “Church therefore reigns with Christ in the living and in the dead” and that the Millennium is “congruous with this present time.” With respect to Revelation 20:11-15, however, he said that “it may also be taken literally, that all the bodies, even those which the deep has swallowed, or the wild beast has devoured, will rise again.” As we will discuss later, both Bede and Hildegard believed that they lived during the Millennium, and therefore that a symbolic Resurrection of the Martyrs had already occurred. Hildegard—1098-1179—wrote that the church had grown large, but would shrink in the future: “as the Gospel was spread, the wisdom of the saints broadened… And at the end of time—as it were, at the edge’s summit—the studies of many will grow cold, divine wisdom will not be lovable to them as deeds are lovable.” Hildegard believed she was living in between these two periods. At the same time, when discussing the Last Resurrection, she powerfully emphasized the physical and non-figurative nature of the event, saying that the bodies of the dead would rise again in their wholeness and gender.  Like Darbyists, Irenaeus and Victorinus attach the general bodily resurrection of the dead in Christ to the Resurrection of the Martyrs. However, neither imagines anything like a pre-tribulation rapture. Instead, their early resurrection simply inaugurates the beginning of the Millennium.  Campbell, David, and Robert Putnam. “Religious people are ‘better neighbors'” USA Today. 14 Nov. 2010. #LeftBehind #Rapture #Eschatology #OldTestament #Jesus