Here’s the link to this article by Bart Ehrman.
March 23, 2023
This post is immediately relevant for me in two ways. My book on Revelation has now appeared (I kept *saying* it was “coming soon”!) AND I will be doing a lecture soon, April 15, on the idea of the “rapture,” the belief that Jesus is soon to return to take his followers out of the world before the Antichrist arises and all hell breaks out on earth. You don’t wanna be here for that. You don’t want to be “Left Behind”! The lecture is not connected with the blog per se; you can find out more about it on my website, http://www.bartehrman.com/courses
Here, to titillate your interest on both fronts, is a bit of what I say about the rapture in ch. 1 of my book (I say much more about it in a later section):
Almost everyone today thinks that Revelation provides a blueprint of what is to happen in the near future—at least those who think about it at all. There are, of course, some holdouts, even among conservative Christians, who maintain the book needs to be read another way. But the popular perception is that, whether absolutely right or terribly wrong, the book of Revelation tries to describe what is going to happen to us here in the twenty-first century.
Why does this seem to be the natural, commonsensical reading? Because the fundamentalists have won. It is not that fundamentalists have won over the great bulk of society to the entire panoply of their religious views. The vast majority of the human race decidedly does not think the Bible is completely inerrant in everything it says, that the world was created in six days some six thousand years or so ago, that there really was an Adam and Eve, and that . . . well, make your list. But fundamentalists have succeeded in convincing everyone (or at least those who are remotely interested) that Revelation describes what will happen in our own future, and probably soon. Possibly starting next year, or, well, next Thursday.
But here is a little-known factoid: The word “rapture” never appears in the Bible. Here’s another: Even apart from the actual word, the book of Revelation never says anything about the followers of Jesus being taken out of the world before it all goes up in flames. The idea of the rapture has not been taken from the Bible; it has been read into the Bible.
Here is an even more interesting factoid: No one had even thought of the idea of a “rapture” until the 1830s. Of the many, many thousands of serious students of the Bible throughout Christian history who pored over every word—from leading early Christian scholars such as Irenaeus in the second century; to Tertullian and Origen in the third; to Augustine in the fifth; to all the biblical scholars of the Middle Ages up to Aquinas; to the Reformation greats Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin; on to, well, everyone who studied or simply read or even just heard passages from the Bible— this idea of the rapture occurred to no one until John Nelson Darby came up with the idea in the early 1800s (as we will discuss in chapter 3).
Even so, back in my fundamentalist days, I, too, was completely certain the rapture was in the Bible, right there in black and white. The key passage was 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, a letter by the apostle Paul to his converts in the city of Thessalonica, written to provide assurance and comfort because they were about “those who have fallen asleep.” That’s a euphemism in the Bible for “those who have died.” When Paul converted the Thessalonians, he had taught them that the end of the present age was coming very soon: God was about to bring a utopian world to the world, the glorious kingdom of God. Now, some of the Thessalonians had died before this could happen, and the survivors were very upset: Had those who were no longer living lost out on their chance for the coming kingdom?
Paul writes to assure these people that they do not need to “grieve as the others who do not have hope” (that is, the non-Christians; 1 Thessalonians 4:13). When Jesus returns from heaven, the very first to be rewarded will be the believers who have already died. They will be raised up from their graves to meet Jesus on his way down; then those still living on earth will also rise up to meet him in the air.
That’s the rapture, right? It sure seems to be if you read the passage with fundamentalist eyes:
For we tell you this by a word of the Lord: we who are living, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not go before those who sleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God—and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are living, who remain, will be taken up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4:15–18)
How can this not be referring to the rapture?
(I’ll explain in the next post!)