“When the Son of Man returns, it will b like it was in Noah’s day.” (NLT)
Just like every other kid I knew in the Jesus Movement of the early 1970’s, I believed in “The Rapture.” At our prayer meetings we would sing a song about two men walking up a hill and one disappearing and the other being left behind. Feeling badly for the one left behind we would sing, “I wish we had all been ready.” The thought here was that Jesus was going to come and snatch the faithful away so that we do not go through the terrible tribulation that is coming at the end of days. This, it was believed, would predate His final coming on Judgment Day. So the Rapture was seen as a sort of 2nd Coming lite.
Right after graduation I managed a Christian Book Store and one day an elderly gentlemen came in and asked me if I believed in the Rapture. The question caught me off guard because I assumed that everyone did. When I said “Of course” he asked me to read the passage in the Bible from which the idea of the Rapture was taken. I read to him from Matthew 24 and said, “there it is right there.” Then he asked me to read it again, out loud and more slowly. I asked. “What point are you trying to make?” To which he replied, “I’m not trying to make a point, I’m just asking you to read it again more slowly.” I did so and it was as if someone had turned on a light in my mind. I heard myself reading Jesus’ words connecting the days of Noah with His return, saying that they did not know what was happening until “the flood came and took them all away.” Realizing that it was the wicked that were taken away by the flood, I knew that to make Jesus’ parallel work, it has to be the wicked and not the faithful that are taken away upon His return. To test that new theory (new to me), I read the parallel text in Luke and was even more startled. In Luke the disciples ask where the people who are taken go and Jesus says, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” (Lk 17:37). That hardly sounds like the scenario we were singing about.
I later discovered through some research that the Rapture theory was a relatively new teaching coming from a 19th century evangelist named Darby, through a Bible scholar named Scofield who authored the famous Scofield Reference Bible. It was his notes that people accepted, sometimes as gospel, and was how this erroneous teaching became so widely held.
There were a couple of lessons for me in this experience. First, how easy it is to be misled if you are reading Scripture through the lens of a predetermined perspective. Without realizing it, I was importing an interpretation on the text rather than letting the text speak for itself. That is why the gentleman had me read it slowly and out loud. It gave the text time to speak.
My second lesson was the importance of looking to the larger Church to test my personal interpretation of Scripture. Many Protestants who decry papal infallibility nevertheless grant themselves personal infallibility when it comes to their own private interpretations. Luther once quipped, “The only thing worse than the Pope is a thousand little ones.” As a student of the Scriptures I have learned to ask how the Church over the ages has understood a text. It should be a serious red flag if I am claiming to see something in the Scriptures that the Spirit has not previously revealed over the last two millennia. Such claims are how cults are birthed. As the collect in the Prayer Book tells me to do, I read, mark, learn and inwardly digest Holy Scripture but I don’t trust fully my private interpretation of it. I look to the Church to help me properly understand it, and one man’s notes in a Bible with his name on it is not the Church. I read the Church Fathers. I go to those who have been given the gift of teaching and scholarship. I look for a consensus in the mind of the Church.
But doesn’t it say something in Thessalonians about us meeting the Lord in the air? Of course it does, but if you look at that passage without the lens of the Rapture theory, you will see a discussion of the 2nd Coming of Christ. The faithful will join the hosts that accompany Him on his return, just as it was the custom in biblical times for officials to go out and greet a royal as he approached a town, and then join him in a triumphal entry. That is very different from being like those in the days of Noah that were swept away by the flood, or as we are told in another teaching of Jesus, gathered out of His kingdom by the angels to be thrown into a fiery furnace. So contrary to the popular novels on the topic, I am one boy that is hoping to be left behind. Maybe I should create a bumper sticker. “I case of Rapture, can I have your car?”