This doctrine is new; it was never taught or even discussed prior to the 1830’s. It seems to have first come from a “prophetic vision” by Margaret Macdonald, a woman in 1830, who was a part of the cult group the “Irvingites,” while having an emotional experience. Through a “mingled prophecy and vision” (breakdown), and saying “the power of the Holy Spirit,” she came up with this. She was very ill and delusional according to physicians and learned observers at the time. How, how, how did this get to doctrinal status? In spite of her condition, people believed her. Not ministers trained in the Word, not those who were pious Christians, not those with discernment, but those seeking a new fad and emotional experience, just as so many do today. By the way, she was a cultist! Then another cult group in England picked this up by the name of “The Catholic Apostolic Church,” headed by Edward Irving (1792-1834). After that, another cult group called the “Millerites,” predicted the return of Christ on October 22, 1844. It did not happen; that should have been a clue, but this would not die.
At the same time, this belief was then picked up by Irish born minister, lawyer, evangelist and author, John N. Darby in 1930, who took this new fad to America in 1862 to 1877. He was looking for a “hook” in his motivational Bible speeches to attract crowds in England and on his visit to the Americas, USA, and Canada. People who knew him said he was not well schooled in the Bible or original languages, read into the Bible all kinds of ridiculous ideas. Many people today still believe in him, especially Baptists who love this guy; he is a favored son.
I have his commentaries and find them insightful in places and they are also posted in our sister site http://www.withtheword.org/. But you have to be very discerning and know the Bible before reading them, so you can filter out the garbage to get to the pearls. He was, in fact, a failed lawyer who was very “intolerant to criticism” and prideful. This should be another clue. He managed to become an Anglican priest in 1826 and his theories were rejected by all in his denomination. He then developed a poor method of biblical interpretation called dispensationalism (The Problem with Dispensationalism!)—another clue.
But he is a testament on how God uses our foolishness. He founded the Plymouth Brethren Church and has been very popular amongst fundamentalists. The very popular commentary of the Bible he produced has many great insights and with great financial backing, he was able to give free copies to just about every preacher and minister in England and America who were starved for resources. Many only had a Bible and that was it. A well-done commentary, or so they thought, was received with open arms. And this spurred on countless sermons. But he did not do his homework in the Bible. It is filled with errors and illogical content amongst the good stuff, as he put in many of his not so well thought out ideas as fact. Then his theories were picked up by another great reference, the very first study Bible, given out to just about every preacher and evangelist beginning in 1909, and one we still have today, The Scofield Study Bible.
Where are the Bible passages for this? Is this not clear in Scripture? Many people think so, but take a look for yourself. The most popular Bible references are John 14:2–3; 1 Corinthians 15:49–55; Philippians 3:20-21; 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-7. The best thing to do is read the passages in their context and you will clearly see for yourself what they say. If you “read into” them, you can make them say anything as you “feel” the words. But God calls us to faith and to reason, as these texts also state!
What happened? How did this get all mixed up? Scofield took the Latin word, raeptius, which is an equivalent of the Greek word harpazo used in the 1 Thessalonians 4:17 passage. Harpazo means “caught up” as we previously saw and the Latin means more like “taken away”. It is believed he anglicized it to be the first to use the term Rapture. By the way “caught up” and “taken away” are used in most newer English translations of the Bible. The word caught up or taken away is correctly placed. But in the English, not knowing what this means may cause all sorts of runaway thinking.
Then this was further popularized the book, Jesus Is Coming by evangelist William Blackstone, who also sought hooks to motivate people and not so much the Lord, or it seems so from his writings. This work sold more than one million copies. Then the rapture gets a new day by in 1957, when respected Theologian from Dallas Seminary, Dr. John Walvoord, wrote a book called, “The Rapture Question.” He has done great work in Romans and I love what he did with Hebrews, but it seems he did not check his facts and read into the passage a presumption he saw as fact because it was in his favorite work, Scofield Study Bible. But he did not declare it a dogmatic fact, but left it open for further research and debate. Apparently he did not “exegete;” he “isogeted.” (By the way, his one volume commentary, The Bible Knowledge, is very well done, except he tends to read in ideas that are not there and he gets Revelation completely wrong.) Then, the rapture gets popular with the publication of Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth, which sold over 15 million copies; his other works and even other popular authors keep spinning this tail.
Some proponents such as Hal Lindsey have taught that Early Church Fathers such as and Origen even Augustine taught the dogma of a Rapture. This is just very bad scholarship at Clement best or lying at worst. I poured over their writings trying to prove a rapture and I never found it. Now with modern software it is easier to search, still not there. Then I asked for the references from the people who think the Church has taught this before; I looked them up; not there either. The emperor has no clothes; they never said it or even alluded to it.
So if someone insists this is a valid doctrine, ask for the Scripture references, then ask for any solid biblical scholarship on it. You will find none as I did not. Yes, many great people think this is true and teach it passionately. They get so caught up in it, pun intended, they do not look it up. Many have made grievous errors by thinking like this such as one of my heroes, Chuck Smith who dogmatically predicted that Jesus would return in 1981. Smith recanted and feels ashamed and forgiven.
I personally went to Hal Lindsey to interview him for this article, which in 1991 was a seminary paper. I was for the rapture view then. However, following that meeting, I knew it was as wrong as my professor had said. Hal was prideful and condescending; he also was not able to answer any of my questions, such as to exegete the key words in the 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 passage, and refused to look at the references he said taught this. I had copies with me. I was there to prove him right, but he proved himself wrong.
So the history of a rapture started out as a prophetic vision inspired by the emotional breakdown of a cultist, that then was picked up by emotional zealots and more cultists unconcerned for biblical truth. Furthermore, it was used as a hook by a prideful preacher who only wanted to give out his nonsensical theorems, then by other evangelists not concerned or trained in the Word. Afterwards, it creeps into the first study Bible, then popular books, and now is it is in the landscape of popular Christian thought.