History of the rapture doctrine

What the history means from an apologetics standpoint

The lack of historical evidence for the rapture doctrine as it is currently understood by Fundamentalist Protestants in the writings of the Church Fathers and other early Christians, not to mention the widely divergent views of what the rapture actually is among its adherents, is a classic example of discontinuity in teaching. This is a clear sign of a false religion – and the Catholic apologist should always be ready to show that the history of the invention of the doctrine of the rapture shows it to be a complete fabrication.

The history of the doctrine

Like so many novel teachings – including Mormonism – the widespread dissemination of rapture preaching originates from much ignorance and mis-reading of Scripture by the American Protestant movement – in particular, the Fundamentalist wing.

However, Catholics must take their lumps here as well. As is often the case, the more well-known heresies begin in the minds of errant Catholic priests and the rapture is no exception.

In colonial America, there are scant references to the underlying idea of a rapture in the preachings of a handful of puritan ministers. The most notable was Increase Mather in the 1680’s in Boston. The doctrine as it is now preached bore very little resemblance to Mather’s preaching, but a seminal version was present.

Mather’s ideas were picked up a century later by Morgan Edwards who developed them in some of his sermons, but the real watershed moment for this heresy came from a Chilean Jesuit who published a book in 1812 entitled The Coming of the Messiah in Glory and Majesty. His name was Manuel Lacunza and he was the first to give impetus to the notion that Christians would escape the pain and suffering of the tribulation period prior to the end of the world. He wrote that Christians would be escape the last 45 days and be caught up in Christ. That was the foundation of the errant teaching about the rapture. Everything since then has been changes of smaller or greater degree.

Lacunza’s book was translated into English in 1827 by an excommunicated Presbyterian minister in Scotland named Edward Irving. He was excommunicated by the Presbyterians for preaching that Christ had sinned. Churchless, he decided to do what many non-Catholic believers do when kicked out of their former denomination – he simply started his own. He called his new religion the Catholic Apostolic Church. Just for the record, it was neither Catholic nor Apostolic.

His teachings influenced an imaginative fellow by the name of John Nelson Darby. Darby traveled to the US and Canada seven times between 1859 and 1874 preaching to all sorts of crowds more then happy to accept his anti-biblical preaching that Christians won’t have to suffer as the end of the world approached. He preached to the Protestant Bible Prophecy conferences of his time and brought many around to his way of thinking.

One fellow who swallowed everything Darby preached was Dwight L. Moody who was a shoe salesman turned preacher.

Another preacher that believed the Darby lie was William Miller, a self educated Baptist lay preacher. So deeply fascinated with End Times discussion was Miller, that he actually began preaching that the world was going to end between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. He was assisted in spreading this nonsense by Joshua Himes. They convinced enormous crowds of followers that somewhere during that year, Christ was going to “cleanse the sanctuary”.

March 21, 1844 came and went and there was no “cleansing”. This period immediate afterward became known to the Millerites (the name given to believers in Miller’s preaching) as the Great Disappointment. One Millerite in particular was so disappointed that one day, as he was walking through a cornfield lamenting the turn of events, he claimed he had a vision in which Christ personally showed him what had gone wrong.

It was not that the Millerites had gotten the dates wrong; it was that they had not understood the fullness of the events. Christ assured Hiram Edson (the cornfield visionary) that He had in fact “cleansed the sanctuary”. But it was the sanctuary in Heaven. He told Edson that he had performed an “investigative judgment”. This now became the standard line among all the disillusioned Millerites and quickly became the core of the teaching.

This judgment now having already been done, all that was left was to sit back and wait for Christ to return secretly and snatch away all the true believers who had already been judged worthy to be raptured.

And ever since this nonsense (totally unsupported in Scripture) became entrenched in certain branches of American Protestantism, every generation has come to believe that it is the one that will be raptured. Fortunes have been made writing pamphlets, selling books, producing movies, giving sermons about the impending rapture.

And the most common Scripture always cited for proving the rapture is I Thessalonmians 4:17 – but this verse is totally misinterpreted. Any common-sense reading of the entire passage clearly shows that this is a passage about Christ’s return on the Last Day to judge the world. It is not a support for a secret coming of Christ.

We are given the specific order of events in detail about what the scene will be like when Christ returns. First Christ descends from Heaven with a cry of command; then the archangel’s call; next, a trumpet blast. At this point, the dead will rise and then all the faithful, living and dead will be caught up in the air and go out to meet the Lord in the air.

This clearly describes the Second Coming of Christ – not something that happens before His Second Coming.