Thank God for Pre-trib Rapture

Among Christian groups who hold to belief in a literal apocalypse, the most common view today is “pretribulationist” – the belief that God will remove his faithful from the world in the Rapture, following which there will be seven years of suffering and bloodshed as unsaved humanity is tortured by God and ruled by the Antichrist. (“Pretribulation” refers to the timing of the Rapture, in this belief system preceding the seven years of tribulation.) There are differing views in Christian theology – midtribulationists, posttribulationists – but the pretribulation view has the most currency today. The bestselling Left Behind books teach this view, as do prominent current or past preachers such as Hal Lindsey, Jack Van Impe, John Hagee, Jerry Falwell and others.

And all I can say – and I say it with full irony – is, thank God for that.

Of course, it would be far better if no religious groups believed in the apocalypse at all. Belief in the imminent end of the world has led to a multitude of harms: instilling pointless terror and dread in innocent lay believers, encouraging powerful churches to advocate environmental decimation and war in the belief that there’s no sense trying to preserve the world if God is soon coming to destroy it. But since apocalyptic belief is widespread, this is the best variant we could have hoped for. To be blunt, pretribulationism keeps the nuts and fanatics in check, because they believe the show won’t start until after they’re gone. We don’t realize how fortunate we’ve been in that respect. If a different eschatology had become prominent, it’s very likely that, by now, some religious group would have tried to start Armageddon themselves in order to hurry their deliverance along.

Even with things as they are, we hear power-crazed lunatics like John Hagee and Rod Parsley ranting about how it is Christianity’s (or America’s – the distinction is not a clear one to them) God-given destiny to destroy Islam in a final apocalyptic battle. We are very fortunate indeed that they believe the cosmic showdown won’t happen until after they’ve been raptured away. If they believed that it would happen prior to their salvation, they might already have had our armies marching into the Middle East to take on the whole Islamic world, expecting that Jesus would appear at the climax.

It’s tempting to speculate on why the pretribulationist view has become dominant, and I have a hypothesis of my own. The Bible’s teaching on this subject is confused, to say the least. The Rapture as a doctrine is nowhere explicitly stated, and has been inferred from a pastiche of vague verses from different biblical books mashed together with little regard for context. Ludicrously complex theories have been drawn up based on these verses, and defenders of the different eschatologies argue endlessly, each citing their own preferred interpretations. Out of the confusion, the pre-trib view has risen to dominance not because it’s the best supported scripturally, but because it makes for the best story.

In much the same way that alien abduction stories have converged on a consensus description of the aliens based on popularity, Christian rapture belief has been shaped by which interpretations give the most dramatic details for an evangelist to announce. And the pre-trib view certainly has that going for it: a world suddenly missing millions of people, airplanes crashing, lawnmowers left running in empty yards, crumpled clothes in heaps on street corners… and the confusion and panic among those left, slowly coalescing into a creeping dread as they realize that it was true all along and they’ve missed their chance. It makes for a great horror story, no doubt about it. And we shouldn’t be surprised that the value of a good story has shaped the evolution of religions, considering their often explicit teaching that we should believe whatever we most want to be true.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Grimalkin

    Question: If God will decide whether to rapture or not rapture based on pre-rapture conduct, wouldn’t it be a good idea to take all his commandments very seriously in the years (months?) leading up to the apocalypse?

    Shouldn’t Christians be uber-focused on the sermon on the mound? On caring for the sick and the poor? On their stewardship of the earth? On stoning to death anyone wearing polyester/cotton blends?

    I don’t know about you, but I ain’t been seeing any stoning – not to mention the whole thing about “meh, global warming global shmorming!”

  • Dennis

    I think Pre-Trib is the most popular because it, obviously, allows believers to think they will still get the chance to be raptured. If we were in mid- and post-Trib, they’d be out of luck; they missed the boat. Since the Rapture is all about looking down and gloating on those who didn’t get taken up, they choose the one that makes them feel the most self-righteous, without giving any thought to whether they would actually deserve rapture.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    If we were in mid- and post-Trib, they’d be out of luck; they missed the boat.

    I’m not sure I understand you Dennis. In mid-Trib or post-Trib they would still have the ability to be raptured since the rapture would just happen later in the tribulation period.

  • Polly

    they might already have had our armies marching into the Middle East to take on the whole Islamic world, expecting that Jesus would appear at the climax.

    We’re already there. And our soldiers are TRYING to convert the locals to Christianity. Did you hear about the xian coins with John 3:16 stamped on them in Arabic? Also, there’s a strong evangelical culture within the military.
    See this short commentary: US Military’s Middle East Crusade for Christ
    1st Afghanistan, then Iraq, and now Iran is next on the chopping block. If Saudi Arabia steps too far out of line, there’s a litany of charges that an American administration can use as pretext for an “intervention.”
    What’s left?
    Empires impose their religion on the vanquished. The US is no exception.

    It’s tempting to speculate on why the pretribulationist view has become dominant,

    Easy. I once told my mother that the Bible doesn’t support a pre-trib viewpoint. Her response: God isn’t going to let his people suffer, that would be unloving to leave his people on Earth to suffer.
    Basically, she wants a free pass, a get-out-of-trib card. Xians, long accustomed to believing in fairytale happy endings, choose to be believe that they will escape any major problems. Of course, nothing in history has demonstrated that xians are immune to catastrophic events. I think xians believe in pre-trib because it’s the ultimate escapist fantasy. In a moment, at any moment, they’re going to be whisked away to the clouds. It’s the Lotto mentality.

  • Mark

    The whole concept of the rapture and the tribulation has always seemed so ridiculous to me even when I WAS a Christian. 3.5 years for this, 3.5 years for that, 1000-year reign, Jesus arriving in uber-dramatic fashion, people being sucked up to heaven. It just seems like some kind of psychotic board game where the rules are so vague that no two people can agree on them. The idea that all of this was dreamed up by an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving being is laughable. Would a being of such immense power really resort to such cheap theatrics? Oh, wait, I forgot who we’re talking about here. Cheap theatrics are kind of this guy’s M.O. aren’t they?

  • Jack

    crumpled clothes in heaps on street corners…

    I had not heard this part before. Are the faithful to be raptured into paradise right out of their clothes?!” Why, that means they would all be naked in heaven! God forbid!

  • Steve Bowen

    As a practical joke why don’t we spirit away a few hundred of the leading pre-tribs and watch the reaction of the ones left behind

  • MS (Quixote)

    the pre-trib view has risen to dominance not because it’s the best supported scripturally, but because it makes for the best story.

    Absolutely true in my opinion…excellent observation and commentary.

    BTW- As the old joke goes, Jack, there will be plenty of Christians naked in heaven, because they think they are the only ones there :)

  • durandal_1707

    What’s funny is that the other day I was reflecting on how awesome it would be for the world’s most fervent and radical believers to just suddenly disappear. What could those of us “left behind” have to look forward to?

    -The end of jihads, crusades and other wars fueled by religious dominionism?

    -A huge drop in homophobia worldwide?

    -Human sexuality no longer being dubbed as vile and immoral and instead being embraced as natural and healthy?

    -Open, meaningful debates on philosophy and morality that don’t degrade to dogmatic shouting contests?

    If that’s the case, I can’t wait for the Rapture. Unfortunately it’s just a fantasy.

  • Dennis

    I was off in my understanding of the different views, and too familiar with the idea of the Rapture being the kick-off party for Tribulation. After doing some reading, I see that the Rapture could happen at any time, so I’ll be on the look out.

  • Roscomac

    Did anyone hear about this on NPR this weekend?

    http://www.youvebeenleftbehind.com/

  • Samuel Skinner

    Given how varied Christianity is, even if a “rapture” happened the number of saved would depend on how wide a net God cast. Wide enough and we could end up with the Muslims included… course, it would prove the theists right, but at that point it would make the world alot more livable- for starters, Latin America, the Middle East and a large amount of the Western World would empty.

  • Samuel Skinner
  • NoAstronomer

    My respone for any ‘true-believer’ who tells me I’m going to get left behind…

    “When you’re gone can I have your stuff?”

  • Joffan

    Actually, the Rapture’s already happened, but nobody noticed, as it was during the Black Death. God is now sulking; he should get over it in another millenium or two.

  • ChristineS

    De-lurking to comment on this… I’ve often thought that, rather than how awesome it would be for all the pre-tribs to be raptured, for the truly moral people to go instead. That would include some Christians, true, but also Jews, Muslims, people of all religions, and even– horrors!– some atheists! Can’t you just imagine their horror as they realized they’d been getting it wrong the whole time?

    And on a related note, does anyone else see the glaring hypocrisy in those “In Event of Rapture this car will be empty” bumper stickers? I mean, isn’t Pride one of the seven deadly sins? And isn’t it fairly arrogant to assume you’re one of the chosen?

  • Valhar2000

    “When the rapture comes, you will be left behind!” quoth he.
    “Good riddance!” was my reply.

  • http://bridgingschisms.org Eshu

    And we shouldn’t be surprised that the value of a good story has shaped the evolution of religions, considering their often explicit teaching that we should believe whatever we most want to be true.

    Erm, do they? I know the wishful thinking is a big part of it, but I thought most religions pretty much tell you what to believe and making up your own stuff is generally a no-no. Perhaps they’re telling people what to believe and then convince people that it’s what they want.

    As a practical joke why don’t we spirit away a few hundred of the leading pre-tribs and watch the reaction of the ones left behind

    A grand idea, but I’m sure we’d get into heaps of trouble!

  • mikespeir

    I was raised pretribulationist. It wasn’t until I was grown that I was confronted with convincing Scriptural arguments against it. That precipitated a two-year period where I studied almost nothing but biblical prophecy. I wandered around through various opinions but finally ended up a post-tribulationist. Even then I wasn’t all that comfortable with the belief. During my studies it became ever so evident that no eschatological scheme of great concinnity could be derived from the Bible. I took the Newtonian approach: the particulars were hidden for now, only to be understood as events unfolded. I refused to entertain the possibility that the various passages couldn’t be reconciled because they were simply irreconcilable. Funny how much obvious stuff you miss when you want to bad enough.

  • Christopher

    If there’s going to be a rapture, good riddence! All those pious gas bags being moved out of the way would really help ensure an opportunity for me to expand my domain into the properties they leave behind – perhaps even allow me consolidate them all into my own personal kingdom?

    But alas, this is but a fantasy…

  • HP

    I like to believe that the rapture already occurred, years ago, and there’s a poor Coptic family in rural Egypt who misses Grandma very much.

    [I've never commented here before, but I just want to say that I love you.]

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    Hi, HP! It’s always good to be loved. :)

    Some thoughts on other comments:

    Grimalkin:

    If God will decide whether to rapture or not rapture based on pre-rapture conduct, wouldn’t it be a good idea to take all his commandments very seriously in the years (months?) leading up to the apocalypse?

    Be fair! The religious right is hating women and gays as hard as they possibly can. That must be what Jesus talked about, right? I mean, why else would they put so much effort into it?

    Jack:

    Are the faithful to be raptured into paradise right out of their clothes?!

    It depends somewhat on who you ask, but yes, that’s a pretty standard part of the Rapture mythology. It does seem unusually titillating by religious right standards, doesn’t it? Then again, sexual repression has a funny way of coming out where you least expect it. Just look at the very first lines of Left Behind:

    Rayford Steele’s mind was on a woman he had never touched. With his fully loaded 747 on autopilot…

    You’re just not going to convince me that that wording was a coincidence.

    Polly:

    We’re already there. And our soldiers are TRYING to convert the locals to Christianity. Did you hear about the xian coins with John 3:16 stamped on them in Arabic?

    I agree, it’s bad enough as it is – plenty of Christian evangelicals, in the military and out, view Iraq as their own personal mission field. How much worse would it be if these people believed they were actually in the midst of tribulation and were in a race against time to save as many souls as possible before Jesus’ imminent return? We might not have stopped with Iraq…

  • http://www.xanga.com/andrea_thatonegirl TheNerd

    Ebon: I actually had this discussion with my husband last week! I focused more on the fact that pre-trib theory has kept Christians in this “it could happen any time” frame of mind for centuries. They are distracted on their own fate, but not as much the fate of others.

    Without it, they would be burning anti-christs left and right, like a reverse witch hunt. Think about it: any time a charismatic male political leader comes into power who differes even slightly from the leading dogma of the day, he’d become “the anti-christ”! This could eventually lead to Theocracy.

    The only downside to this “I could be gone any day now” mentality is that many simply don’t care about the environment! Why should they care about the future, when there won’t be a future?

    Lucky for us, the pre-trib theory is popular. Without it, we couldn’t swiftly shut up any fool who tries to make his personal end-times dogma mainstream.

  • EKM

    On June 10, 2008, 5:13 pm, ChristineS said:

    And on a related note, does anyone else see the glaring hypocrisy in those “In Event of Rapture this car will be empty” bumper stickers? I mean, isn’t Pride one of the seven deadly sins? And isn’t it fairly arrogant to assume you’re one of the chosen?

    Humility seems to be the Christian form of arrogance. I am better than you because I am humble. Can’t you see how humble and selfless I am?

    On June 11, 2008, 12:31 pm, TheNerd said:

    I focused more on the fact that pre-trib theory has kept Christians in this “it could happen any time” frame of mind for centuries. They are distracted on their own fate, but not as much the fate of others.

    I propose a new bumper sticker: The Rapture: Imminent for 2,000 years and counting!

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    The Rapture: Imminent for 2,000 years and counting!

    Great idea, EKM. I’d buy a couple.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    For some reason, I’m picturing a parody of one of those workplace signs: “2008 Years Since Last Rapture”.

  • Polly

    I propose a new bumper sticker: The Rapture: Imminent for 2,000 years and counting!

    Awesome.
    I’ve never been a bumpersticker kind of guy, but that and this one would definitely be welcome on my bumper. :D

  • http://aveganatheist.blogspot.com Vegan Atheist

    To be completely accurate, it’s been 1,975 years since the last rapture – maybe 1,981, if you take into account the corrected date of Jesus’ supposed birth.

    …I think my day just jumped the shark.

  • Jack

    Forgive me, I know it’s a bit off topic, but since the subject of bumper stickers came up, I can’t resist pointing out one of my favorites..

  • Jack

    Sorry, that link seems to be a little flakey. If it doesn’t work for you, try this one instead.

  • Thropmorton Clackenhammer

    Doesn’t it say somewhere in Revelations that only 180,000 actually get into heavan? And doesn’t that 180,000 include all the people who have ever been born – those old bones mouldering away in graves are included in the count. I remember saying this to a good ole catholic boy – he just about crapped his drawers and went running off to his priest….he was quite concerned.

  • Chrystien

    I think the main reason why the pre-trib view is so popular compared to the others is because it’s more attractive to believers than the other possibilities. Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t the mid/post-tribs suggest that believers are to be tortured during the tribulation along with the non-believers? If so, than pre-trib would be the best option. It locks in with the concept of a “happy ending for the good guys” that’s so widespread in so many big religions today.

    Also, I can clearly understand why so many prominent religious figures bring up the “end times” so frequently. I mean, if you think about it, the Tribulation basically acts as a sort of “Silent Time Bomb of Doom.” Without End Times fear, most of the liberal believers would only fear about their eternal fate until they were close to death. I can testify to this: when I was still a Christian (albeit a Christian who was questioning his beliefs) I thought that I wouldn’t have to worry too much about going to Hell for the time being, since I’m still young, and probably have a full life ahead of me, assuming I don’t die in anything tragic or sudden, which I assume isn’t particularly likely, all things considered, and I was very reluctant to become the Christian literalist my mother was, since I despised a lot of the concepts of fundamentalist Christianity, and hated watching shows such as the 700 Club and Pastor Hagee. But the concept of “End of Days” and “Tribulation” creates urgency, and many of the Christians who preach these ideas always say its “IT’S THIS GENERATION” or “WE’RE IN THE END DAYS!” Despite the fact that I was becoming more of an atheist as time went on, hearing people like John Hagee and Jack Van Impe bringing it up so frequently was frightening, even though I knew these guys were nut jobs, especially after I watched a YouTube video that showed Van Impe incorporating UFO’s into his End Times ranting, saying that they were demonic beings sent by Satan (topped with imagery of stereotypical grays so prominent in alien culture – it’s ironic how he stoops so low that he starts digging out of the pseudoscience barrel.)

  • lpetrich

    The Book of Revelation can be very confusing, but the number is not 180,000 but 144,000. Each of the 12 tribes of Israel will contribute 12,000 male virgins, who will become the first to make it into Heaven during the Revelation grand guignol.

    There’s a Wikipedia article about the number 144,000 that discusses various beliefs, like the Jehovah’s-Witness belief that only 144,000 people of either sex will make it into Heaven, and differences of opinion among other Xians as to whether that number is literal or symbolic.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    The verse is Revelation 14:3. It adds that the 144,000 are exclusively made up of male virgins, those who “are not defiled with women”.

    As I recall, Jehovah’s Witnesses get around this problem by saying that only 144,000 people get to go to heaven, while everyone else gets eternal life on Earth, which is treated as sort of an overflow box.

  • http://www.xanga.com/andrea_thatonegirl TheNerd

    Sucks to be #144,001.

  • http://metroblog.blogspot.com Metro

    I favour the bumper sticker that reads “In the event of rapture, this car will be unoccupied. It will then plow into a school bus, killing all aboard.”

    The reason pre-tribulation is top of the heap is that it reinforces the believers’ sense of their own specialness and worthiness to be among the elect. They’ll get to sit on clouds sipping cool drinks while watching the wrongbelievers suffer. Which is why the map of heaven includes a window into Hell. I mean, it’s no fun having a good time unless someone else is suffering horribly and you get to watch, right?

    Can I get an A-men?

    One of the advantages to growing up Catholic is that we weren’t actually taught that we were special. We were as dammned as anyone else and we’d best remember it. “Rapture?” Nice thought. The good, the bad, and the ugly were all going to go through Tribulation together. Sort of “(God will) kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out.” If you were really lucky, God might see fit to tip the scales in your favour, but you didn’t get a pass just for going to church, nor even for confession.

  • goyo

    I think Roman Catholic theology teaches the “Amillinialist” position, that is, jesus has already returned spiritually. There is no rapture, or tribulation. We’re in the kingdom of god now.
    Yes, the Jehovah’s Witnesses continually show cartoon pictures of the future paradise on earth in their elementary-like materials. They have a famous cover of one that shows a lion with a lamb and an infant together. That will be when carnivores become vegetarians.
    The 144,000 in heaven has already filled up.

  • Jared

    MILLIONS MISSING or MILLIONS MISSLERING?

    Many these days are abandoning the pretribulation rapture view, and the June, 1995 article by Chuck Missler (”Byzantine Text Discovery: Ephraem the Syrian”) reveals why there is such a mutiny! First of all, the authoritative scholar that Missler cited, Dr. Paul Alexander, referred only to “Pseudo-Ephraem” and not to Ephraem the Syrian. (If an unsigned ancient manuscript resembles the real Ephraem but there is a question of authorship, they assign it to “Pseudo-Ephraem” – the word “pseudo” meaning “possibly.” For some groundless reason, Grant Jeffrey, the one who reportedly found the “discovery,” changed Dr. Alexander’s terminology! For more info on Jeffrey, Google “Wily Jeffrey.”) And Missler’s scholarship is also questionable. According to the Los Angeles Times (July 30, 1992), about one-fourth of Missler’s 1992 book “The Magog Factor” (which he co-authored with Hal Lindsey) was a daring plagiarism of Dr. Edwin Yamauchi’s 1982 book “Foes from the Northern Frontier”! Four months later Yamauchi’s publisher revealed that both Lindsey and Missler had promised to stop all publishing of their book. But in 1995 they were found publishing “The Magog Invasion” (which was either a revision or a replacement of “The Magog Factor”) – which had a substantial amount of the same plagiarism! (Dave MacPherson’s 1998 book “The Three R’s” has complete documentation on this and other pretrib scandals.) After listing “1820″ as the reported date of the birth of pretrib (he should have said “1830″), Missler sees a pretrib rapture in that Medieval writer’s phrase “taken to the Lord” and, since he evidently favors rewriting others instead of researching, is unaware that Dr. Alexander explained that this phrase really means “participate at least in some measure in beatitude” – which has reference only to doing acts of virtue on earth and not being raptured away from earth! Alexander added that the same ancient writer held to only one final second coming (and not to any prior coming) which would follow the time of Antichrist! (Readers can Google “Deceiving and Being Deceived” by MacPherson to see how groundless the Pseudo-Ephraem claim is and to learn how desperate pretribs are to find any pre-1830 evidence for their escapist view. Dr. Robert Gundry of Westmont College has also demolished the Pseudo-Ephraem claim in his 1997 book “First the Antichrist.”) Since Missler also leans on Thomas Ice, readers can evaluate Ice’s qualifications by Googling “America’s Pretrib Rapture Traffickers,” “Thomas Ice (Bloopers),” “Thomas Ice (Hired Gun),” and “Pretrib Rapture Diehards” (the latter part). For further light on the 179-year-old, fringe-British-invented pretribulation theory, Google or Yahoo “Pretrib Rapture – Hidden Facts.” Finally – why would anyone who has the brains of a rocket scientist want to be taken up with the concept of an any-moment pretrib rapture? The answer may well be that there’s more money in elevating a rapture than launching a rocket!

  • andrew

    Although I must say if preterism were teh most visible form of eschetology we wouldnt have very many Chrisitans worrying about the end of the world at all.

  • Bert

    [Ho DA. Guess what confronted me when I was on my computer webbing away. This!]

    PRETRIB RAPTURE DISCOVERY !

    BREAKING NEWS: Intensive and extensive and expensive and even pensive research has just discovered that the well-known pretribulation rapture is really and actually a SEVEN-stage coming. For proof look closely at I Thess. 4:13-18:
    (1) The Lord descends.
    (2) The shout.
    (3) The archangel’s voice.
    (4) The trumpet of God.
    (5) The dead rise.
    (6) The caught up (rapture).
    (7) The meeting in the air.
    Right here you can add gasps, shortness of breath, and clutching your heart. Yes, it’s true – seven (count them) stages. BTW, the following pretrib traffickers don’t know yet about this new discovery: Crouch, Hagee, Hindson, Ice, Jeffrey, Jeremiah, LaHaye, Lindsey, Lutzer, Markell, Missler, Stanley, Strandberg, and Van Impe.
    If rapture discoveries are new to you, Google articles like “Deceiving and Being Deceived” by D.M., “X-Raying Margaret,” “Edward Irving is Unnerving,” “Walvoord Melts Ice,” “Thomas Ice (Bloopers),” “Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty,” “Pretrib Rapture Secrets,” “Thieves’ Marketing,” “Appendix F: Thou Shalt Not Steal,” “Pretrib Hypocrisy,” “Pretrib Rapture Secrecy,” and “Famous Rapture Watchers – Addendum.”
    For more info on the exciting seven-stage rapture, Google Joe Ortiz’s “End Times Passover” blog (Oct. 19, 2012) which can out-blog any blog that knows how to blog!