Friday, July 11, 2014

"Rapture" a Nineteenth-Century Invention

With all the press it gets and popular culture it inspires, it's tempting to think of the modern Christian concept of "the Rapture" as a remnant of some much older religious tradition that retains some fantastic elements. However, that thinking would only be correct if by "much older" you mean "within the last two hundred years." That's right, for the first eighteen hundred years of the Christian tradition nobody believed anything even remotely like it. This article from CNN goes over the real history of the theology, and how it came to be accepted by many fundamentalist Protestants. It doesn't date back to ancient times, but rather to the dispensationalist movement that began in the 1830's.

The rapture notion goes like this: Jesus is coming back, and when he does, he will first return before a time of so-called tribulation begins, calling up into the clouds with him those who are "saved." Horrible suffering will then occur on the miserable Earth for seven years. Then Jesus will come yet again, for a final judging. There are many different versions of this scenario, so it's difficult to summarize. It's fair to say, however, that only fundamentalist Protestant churches bother to think about the rapture at all. (Catholics discount the idea completely.)

The rapture concept is relatively new. It started with an Anglo-Irish theologian, who in the 1830s invented the concept. This may come as a shocker to many, but it's a fact: Before John Nelson Darby imagined this scenario in the clouds, no Christian had ever heard of the rapture. The idea was popularized by Cyrus I. Scofield, an American minister who published a famous reference Bible in 1908, one that developed the idea of an elaborate series of final periods in history known as dispensations. Scofield, like Darby, read the Book of Revelation as a vision of the future, not a fiery dream of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70.

The latter view remains, in fact, the most common interpretation of the Book of Revelation by mainstream theologians and was described recently by Princeton scholar Elaine Pagels in "Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation."

So to the future Harold Campings of the world and their potential followers, keep in mind that the Left Behind series is pure fiction and the idea of the Rapture has little to do with Biblical teachings. Instead, it's part of an imaginative re-interpretation of the Book of Revelation that flies in the face of the professed literalism of the very churches that support it. Not only that, but since the Millerites of the 1840's the history of dispensationalism is made up of one false apocalypse prediction after another. If religion were scientific, the entire Rapture hypothesis would have been discarded long ago.

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