Crazy Uncle Harpazo (Rapture Theology among Christian Traditions)
We who believe in a “pre-tribulation rapture” might sound like your crazy Uncle Larry, but please take a few minutes to talk with us like you do for Uncle Larry at reunions. I spent the first eight years of my faith in a die hard dispensational congregation where rapture theology was as dependable as the coffee and the altar call. No one questioned the rapture; we only marveled at it. After years of research, I’m glad to report that I have broken free from many Protestant ideas and traditions. Yet belief in a pre-tribulation “rapture” has withstood all of my research even as so many other doctrines did not. The term “rapture” comes from the Latin equivalent of the New Testament Greek verb “harpazo” for “seizing” something or “taking up” in Acts 8:39 and 1 Thessalonians 4:17. While the harpazo or “taking up” of Christians is clearly stated in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, the timing of that harpazo is less clear.
I present here the reasons why I believe the harpazo occurs before the great tribulation. My shorthand for “pre-tribulation rapture” is “early harpazo.” I write here not to convert others to my understanding, but in the hope of winning your cordiality toward those of my kind. One author on Conciliar Post characterizes this doctrine as scripture-abuse. Another has insulted it at length, including “… left behind theology and atheism are two sides of the same coin, both rejecting the God who creates and redeems.”1 While such opinions are quite meaningful, they did not appear to invite meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions.
Novelty in theology usually indicates heresy. John Nelson Darby popularized what is commonly known as “rapture theology” some eighteen hundred years after the birth of Christian theology. Understandably, this theology was nurtured in the Wild, Wild West of Protestantism rather than a community of apostolic succession. In many minds therefore, its novelty alone can disqualify the doctrine from consideration. While I now reject sola-scriptura (having recognized the mighty power which tradition wields even in Protestantism), the book of Daniel actually provides grounds for a new revelation in our time.
Some dispensationalists appeal to Ephraem of Nisibis2 and others as having taught3 the early harpazo; I personally resort to Daniel as providing grounds for a later unveiling of the doctrine. The early harpazo doctrine rides on the less controversial doctrine of seven years of trouble leading up to the bodily return of Jesus in wrath. That seven-year period springs from Daniel chapter nine and other passages. Daniel 8:26, 12:4, and 12:9 also speak of the sealing of words until the last days. These three verses do not prove an early harpazo, but I understand them to allow for truths to have been hidden until our time. Yes, I sound like Uncle Larry now. If our Lord returns soon however, then Darby’s understanding will have arrived in the last 15% of Christian years. These are not proof-texts, but an explanation of how Larry maintains his sanity.
The next disqualifier in many minds is the apparent fruit of the harpazo teaching. While some Christians might employ the early harpazo as an excuse to disregard environmental stewardship etcetera, I understand it in the exact opposite light.
The doctrine of an early harpazo emphasizes the surprise return of the Master in Matthew 24:36-51. In verses 40-42, Jesus taught that some would be taken and others would be left, then He tied that expectation directly to stewardship, warning that we do not know when our Master will return. He then preached at length regarding stewardship, which I take to include responsible stewardship of the environment.
I submit that the argument of fruit has been wielded in theology too often and too lightly. I have heard many rapturists insulting amillennialism as causing Christian apathy and vice versa. Association is not causation. Belief in an early harpazo causes neither irresponsible environmental stewardship nor irresponsible political stewardship. The early harpazo directly demands responsible stewardship.
CLINGING TO CRAZY
After much research, I now accept seven books of the Old Testament (commonly called the Apocrypha) which Protestants reject as Scripture. I also now prefer the Septuagint text over the Masoretic text.4 I have come to recognize inconsistencies in the five Solas that I will present in my next article, and I embrace the Christus Victor view of atonement. Why then, would I continue to believe in an early harpazo?
- The book of Daniel allows for the sealing of revelation until our time, and God may have used a Protestant to reveal it.
- Daniel 9:24-27 promises a seven year time of trouble which lacks historical fulfillment, is marked by events at an approximate midpoint, and ends with the bodily return of our Master in wrath. (Dan. 7:25, Dan. 12:11-12, Rev.11:2-3, Rev. 13:5)
- The signing of a seven-year covenant in Daniel 9:27 and the mid-tribulation events will mark (in advance) the day of the bodily return of Jesus.
- Matthew 24:36 appears to promise a different return for stewards than the return in wrath since the wrathful return is timed while the return for stewards cannot be timed.
- Scripture contrasts the peaceful circumstances in the day when the righteous depart (Luk. 17:26-36) versus the cataclysmic day in which our Lord returns in wrath.
While I do not claim these passages can only be understood via an early harpazo, such an interpretation is the only one by which I have been able to make sense of them thus far. I welcome the questions and corrections of my brothers and sisters. Most importantly, I hope my explanation will improve communication with dispensationalists. We might be wrong, but at least you may understand a little better as to why we hold to such a doctrine.
Image: “Rapture – One in the Bed” by Jan Luyken, published 1795 in “The Bowyer Bible.”
- Aldhizer, George. “Left Behind Theology and Atheism.” Conciliar Post. 13 Oct. 2014. < https://conciliarpost.com/theology-spirituality/left-behind-theology-and-atheism-two-sides-of-the-same-coin >
- Opponents debate whether Ephraem wrote “On the Last Times, the Antichrist, and the End of the World” in the 4th century or a Pseudo-Ephraem wrote it as late as the 8th century. In either case, pre-tribulation dispensationalists appreciate the text for predating Darby’s popularization and expansion of the doctrine.
- Pseudo-Ephraem. “On the Last Times, the Antichrist, and the End of the World.” Pre-Trib Research Center < http://www.pre-trib.org/data/pdf/Ephraem-OntheLastTimestheAnt.pdf >
- The Masoretic text is a line of Hebrew manuscripts codified by Jews in the 7th to 10th centuries AD. Following the scholarship of Desiderius Erasmus, the Protestant Reformers tried to translate Scripture from the original languages to provide a purer form of Scripture. Erasmus had used Byzantine Greek manuscripts to correct the dominant Latin version of the New Testament from its original language. The Reformers logically translated the Old Testament from Hebrew manuscripts since that was the original language for most of the Old Testament. Christians however, had not preserved Hebrew manuscripts. So the Reformers had to use manuscripts handed down by the Masoretic Jews despite its differences with the Old Testaments employed in Christendom. The most famous difference between the Masoretic text and the text preserved by Christians is the Masoretic substitution of “maiden” for “virgin,” but there are many other differences. Hebrew scrolls discovered in the 20th century among the Dead Sea Scrolls largely affirmed both the Masoretic and the historic Christian Old Testaments, but also showed serious differences from the Masoretic Hebrew.