Harold Camping, serial 'End is Nigh' predictor
Thanks to Harold Camping, leader of the Family Radio Christian Network, millions worldwide have become familiar with the Christian dispensationalist doctrine known as “The Rapture”. But how did all this madness begin?
Back in the nineteenth century, an evangelist by the name of John Darby decided from his reading of the Bible that at some stage before Jesus’ Second Coming there would be a “secret” intervention by Jesus in which he would rescue all the Christians from the period of trouble and tribulation that was later to come. Jesus would then reign on Earth for a 1000-year period, and only after that would we see Jesus’ Second Coming. While not the first to suggest such things, he was certainly the most influential on twentieth and twenty-first century adherents of what became known as dispensationalism.
So for Darby and the dispensationalists, you might say that there are Four Comings of Jesus:
1. The First Coming of Christ: Jesus first came to Earth around 4BC;
2. The Second Coming of Christ: Jesus will organise a ”secret rapture”, in which all dead Christians will be raised from their graves and all live Christians will be caught up into the air with him, shielded from the Great Tribulation of the End Times, and whisked off to Heaven;
3. The Third Coming of Christ: Jesus will reign on Earth for a thousand years, that is, a millennium;
4. The Fourth Coming of Christ (or the Second Coming in non-dispensationalist Christian belief) in which Jesus will resurrect absolutely everybody, judge them all, and send the great majority off to Hell for not believing either in Him, his Big Snatch, or His Four Comings.
Darby’s scheme got very popular in the United States, due to the large number of conservative evangelical Christians there who latched onto the idea. Darby determined the way the Bible was read by most evangelical Christians in the US, via a long chain of influence
, which includes Cyrus Scofield (who in 1909 developed an annotated version of the King James Version linking it all to dispensationalist beliefs), Lewis Chafer (who founded what became Dallas Seminary), John Walvoord (president at Dallas), and Hal Lindsey (student at Dallas, and author of The Late Great Planet Earth
). Today, the idea of a secret rapture is widely known from what is the second-highest-selling novels of all time, The Left Behind Series
(1995- ) by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins – who took many of their ideas from Hal Lindsey’s book from 1970. (Incidentally, the best-selling fictional novels are the Harry Potter
But why did Darby come up with his “secret rapture” idea? And why did he multiply the Second Coming of Christ into what I’ve called the Second, Third, and Fourth Comings of Christ? His motivation came from the fact that the various accounts of the End Times in the New Testament are hopelessly at odds with each other. They don’t really agree with one another on very many of the details. As an example of one of these contradictions, Paul’s conception of the End Times treats it as something of a quick afternoon outing by Christ, who returns, rescues all the Christians, who live happily ever after in Heaven, while the idea in the Revelation of John involves more than a thousand years, greatly elaborates the persecutions or “tribulations” of the End, portrays an eternal punishment of non-Christians which is absent in Paul, and also inserts the concept of the millennial reign of Christ on Earth. Moreover, where the New Testament accounts about the End Times do agree, they got things terribly wrong: they all agree, for example, that the return of Christ was going to be very soon, even within a single generation (i.e. about 40 years after his death in AD 30).
When faced with the discrepancies and contradictions which occur in the Bible, what literal-minded believers tend to do is develop an elaborate harmonization out of all the disparate passages, piecing together a whole lot of biblical passages that never fitted together in the first place. So, to deal with Jesus’ quite plain statement that he was going to return while some of his followers were still alive, dispensationalists will devise many tendentious solutions: e.g. they will strain the term “generation” to mean the entire age in which Christians are alive! As you might imagine, such harmonizations can end up being quite complex and convoluted, and this is certainly the case for the various End Times harmonizations by dispensationalists, who divide into several opposing camps on the issue! Ironically, each of the elaborate schemes by the dispensationalists looks wildly different from any of the individual passages which it purportedly ”incorporates”. This is the inevitable result if you try to harmonize quite different and contradictory texts, rather than attempt to understand the particularities of each. So Darby, in order to hamonize the Paul’s ideas about Jesus’ return with, for example, the very different ideas in the Revelation of John, was forced to turn St. Paul’s single description of Jesus’ Second Coming into two separate events: an initial rapture and a later second coming.
By contrast, Paul, when he mentioned being “caught up” in the clouds, in his first letter to the Thessalonians (4.13-17), was simply describing the whole process of the End Times, as he believed it would happen:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up [ἁρπαγησόμεθα] in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.
- Paul, 1 Thessalonians 4.13-17
The term which Paul employed for “will be caught up” is ἁρπάζω (harpazo), which means “to snatch up”. Darby used a similar term, “rapture”, which sounds a little archaic these days. So today, we might prefer to call this event: Christ’s Big Snatch. The way Paul understood it, Christ’s Big Snatch and Christ’s Second Coming were all a part of one event occuring at a single time. Whereas for dispensationalists, eager to harmonize the Bible’s contradictory ideas about the End Times, Christ’s Big Snatch will occur before Christ’s Second Coming.