The Pre-Tribulation Rapture Theory – Part I: Its Surprising History

February 21, 2018


 The “rapture” is in the news again. Just look at these headlines:


"Christian researcher warns rapture will begin Saturday"

NBC News, Sept 18, 2017


"Rapture is coming on Sept 23, conspiracy theorists claim"

ABC News, Sept. 18, 2017


"Biblical prophecy claims the world will end on Sept. 23,

Christian numerologists claim" 

Fox News, Sept 15, 2017.


Of course, the rapture is never far away from the news. Other predictions include those of John Hagee (2014), Harold Camping (1994, 1995. 2011), Edgar Wisenant (1988, 1989), and many others. Even Isaac Newton predicted that either 2000 or 2060 would be the year of the second coming.


For those who may not know, the rapture is the Christian doctrine that Jesus Christ will one day return for His church. The scriptural basis for Jesus’ coming again is found in several places, such as in the Gospel of John.


“In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:2-3).


This basic truth is agreed upon across the spectrum of Christian belief. For example, the Eucharistic Prayer of liturgical churches states, “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again” (Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 363). What is not agreed upon is how Jesus will return, when Jesus will return, and why Jesus will return.


There must be at least a dozen combinations of the “how”, the “when” and the “why.” For this article I want to focus on the theory that’s called the “pre-tribulation rapture,” because that’s the theory that has motivated the date setters you see in the news today and the failed predictions of the past.


Believers in this theory would answer the “how, when, and why” questions in this way:


How: Jesus will return not once but twice. The first time is for the believers, whom He snatches away (i.e., “raptures”) and then returns to heaven with them. The second time is His full return to the earth “in power and great glory.” (Matt.24:30).


When: Jesus returns for believers just prior to the period of time called the “tribulation.” (defined in the next section).


Why: Believers are “raptured” away from the earth so they won’t have to suffer through the tribulation like the rest of the world will. The pre-trib rapture theory also postulates that the spiritual scene shifts away from the church and back to Israel for the duration of the tribulation.


However, there isn’t any Biblical support for the bold portions of the “How, When, Why” statements above. Yet, of those who believe in some kind of “rapture,” fully 50% would answer the “how, when and why” questions this way, the so-called “pre-tribulation rapture” point of view. But they would be wrong.


So how did such a popular doctrine come to be, and how did it become so popular? We can only scratch the surface in this article, but I think you will be surprised by the answer. It is nothing less than the infusion of political expediency into the doctrines of the Christian church!




Scripture divides time into a number of eras or ages (aion in Greek, from which we get our English word eon). We are now living in “this present evil world (aion)” (Gal. 1:4). Passages that speak of the “end of the world (aion)” are not talking about the annihilation of the earth but the end of “this present evil age.”


As we approach the end of the age, we are to enter into a time of great trial and testing, called “great tribulation” in scripture (Matt. 24:21, Rev. 7:14), which is followed by a thousand-year “millennium.” (Rev. 20).


A “pre-tribulation rapture,” then, calls for Jesus to return for believers prior to the beginning of this time of incredible trouble called the tribulation. Other time settings for His return are mid-tribulation, post-tribulation (after the end of the tribulation to inaugurate the millennium), and even at the end of the millennium. Each school of thought has outspoken, vocal proponents who can offer an abundance of scripture to support their positions. However, the pre-tribulation rapture doctrine is the one that makes web page headlines and network news broadcasts. It is also a theory that made a relatively recent appearance in Christian thought.


So let’s look at how the pre-trib rapture theory came to be, starting with the culture of the times and then progressing through history from its adoption to the present time. You may have heard the story before, or this may be new information for you. Either way, I think you’ll be surprised at what you are about to read and the implications for how we should be living our Christian life now in the present.




The seeds of the pre-trib theory were first planted in the late 16th century, and the seeds sprouted quickly in the fertile soil of the time. The Bible was being translated from Latin and Greek into native languages – for example, Wycliffe (1384), Geneva Bible (1560), King James Version (1611) – which made the Bible accessible in the languages of its readers. The development of the Gutenberg printing press (1455) made the Bible more available, and the rapid increase in literacy – for example, in England, from 5% in 1475 to 53% in 1650 – made the Bible more readable by more people. 


These three things (translation, printing, literacy) enabled people to read and study the Bible themselves for the first time. Learning and thinking for themselves, people were no longer limited to hearing the official positions church authorities told them.


It was inevitable that conflicts would arise, many of which were expressed in the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation that followed (16th, 17th centuries). Ideas about the millennium, return of Christ, the role of Israel and the Jews in the church age, along with many others, were developed as doctrines at odds with the official position of the Catholic church.


The threat to the ecclesiastical powers that be was very real. The Reformers and others were calling out the Catholic church and Papacy as a present-day Beast system and Antichrist of Revelation that would hold sway for 1,260 years. The Catholic church tried to censor the printing press and preaching, to no avail, so a new approach had to be found to take the heat off the church.


Up to this time, the method of interpreting Biblical prophetic events was one of historicism, which associates symbols with historical persons, nations, and events. It gives a continuous fulfillment of prophecy from Biblical times to the second coming of Christ. Almost all the Protestant Reformers held historical views. Part of the Protestant doctrine was the identification of the Roman Catholic Church as a persecuting apostasy and the Pope as the Antichrist (according to Luther, Calvin, Cranmer and others), though this interpretation actually originated from within the Catholic church itself, such as Arneuf of Orleans (10th century), Joachim of Flores (12th century), and Archbishop Eberhard (13th century).


The Roman church struck back in a Counter-Reformation and commissioned Jesuit priests to develop alternative methods of interpreting prophecy: preterism (all prophecy was fulfilled in the past) and futurism (prophecy is yet to be fulfilled in the far future). Both of these disputed that the Papacy was the Antichrist, since the prophecies had already been fulfilled (preterist approach) or were yet to be fulfilled (futurist approach).





While the futurist method of interpreting prophecy got the Pope off the hook as the Antichrist, it created as many problems as it solved. One of the first futurists was the Spanish Jesuit priest Francisco Ribera (1537-1591). His 500-page work was picked up by Chilean Jesuit priest Manuel Lacunza (1731-1801), who wrote a three-volume work called "The Coming of the Messiah in Glory and Majesty" under the Jewish pseudonym Juan Ben Ezra. In it he developed a number of new ideas, some of which directly relate to our modern pre-trib rapture thinking, notably (2) and (5):


  1. Reassertion of the restoration of the Jews to Israel.

  2. Separate dispensations for the Church and Israel.

  3. The proposition that Christ has “two Brides,” the Church and Israel.

  4. A differentiation between the “day of Christ” and the “day of the Lord.”

  5. A two-stage return of the Lord.

  6. The setting up of temple sacrifices once again.

  7. The restoration of the earth following the yet future and final defeat of Satan.


Lacunza’s work would not have had the force it did on Christian theology were it not for Edward Irving (1792-1834), a Presbyterian minister and later a founder of the Catholic Apostolic church, translating Lacunza’s book from Spanish to English and writing a 100-page commentary on it. From reading Lacunza, Irving claimed Christ would return in two phases. The first was a “secret” rapture prior to the appearance of the Antichrist. The second was His return in power and great glory.






The pre-tribulation rapture theory took a major step forward with the work of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882). Darby is considered to be the father of modern Dispensationalism (to be discussed below) and its related pre-tribulation rapture theory. There is no conclusive evidence that Darby met or corresponded with Irving, though they were contemporaries and attended prophecy conferences where each other’s works were reviewed and critiqued. On the other hand, it seems evident that Darby built his theology on a number of propositions advocated by Irving from Lancuza’s work described above.


For example, Darby promoted the doctrine of Dispensationalism, which believes that history has been deliberately divided by God into distinct periods in which God deals with His people in particular ways (dispensations). The number of dispensations vary, but for our purposes, the two of importance are the dispensation of law (to Israel) and the dispensation of grace (to the church). This agrees with Lacunza’s teachings of separate dispensations for Israel and the church.



Darby adopted the necessity of a two-stage return of the Lord (the same as Lacunza), the first for the church and the second for Israel. He thought that the great tribulation was for the Jews only, so the church would have to be taken out of the picture prior to the tribulation for that to happen.


We can quickly summarize Darby’s teachings. Simply stated, they are:

  1. God has different ways (dispensations) of dealing with Israel and the Church. For Israel, it is centered on the Law. For the Church, it is centered on grace. The dispensations are distinct and separate.

  2. The distinct dispensations for Israel and the Church require two distinct outcomes, hence, require a two-stage return of Christ: first for the Church (rapture), then for Israel (at His second coming). In other words, Christ would have to return twice, though in different ways.

  3. The tribulation spoken of in Revelation is only for Israel, therefore, the Church is absent from it.

  4. Thus, the first stage of Christ’s return (rapture of the Church) must happen before the tribulation begins.

Darby’s theology, especially his pre-tribulation rapture theory, had a lot of proponents and quickly gained ground, especially within the organization called the Plymouth Brethren, which he helped found.




It didn’t take long for the pre-tribulation rapture story to spread to the United States. The soil was fertile, and the doctrine spread rapidly.


Darby visited the US six times between 1859 and 1874 to promote his dispensationalist doctrine. James Inglis (1813-1872), a Scotsman who came to America in 1848, drew strongly on the teachings of Darby and the Plymouth Brethren.


After Inglis’ death, James Brookes (1830-1897) took up the pre-tribulation rapture reins and organized the Niagara Bible Conference (1876-1899) which disseminated those ideas further. It was through these conferences that William Blackstone (1841-1935), Dwight L. Moody (1837-1897) and C. I. Scofield (1843-1921) would hear of and embrace the theory.


William Blackstone, father of Christian Zionism, wrote Jesus is Coming in 1878 that became the reference of American dispensational and pre-tribulation rapture thought over the next 50 years.


Dwight L. Moody, an American evangelist and preacher connected with the Holiness Movement from which Pentecostalism emerged, first heard of dispensationalism through the Plymouth Brethren during a trip to England. Those views were later reinforced by the Niagara Bible Conferences. Moody is known as one of the greatest evangelists of the 19th century. He founded the Moody Bible Institute and Moody Press. It would be through Moody that the pre-tribulation rapture theory found its way in the Pentecostal community.


C. I. Scofield was a contemporary of Blackstone and furthered the popularity of dispensationalism and pre-tribulation rapture through his book Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth (1885) and later the Scofield Reference Bible (1909). While Scofield’s correspondence Bible study served as the basis of his Reference Bible, Darby’s dispensationalism and pre-tribulation rapture theory permeate it throughout.


Lewis Sperry Chafer, a disciple of Scofield’s, helped to solidify the belief that the Church does not pass through the tribulation because of the “parenthetical nature of the Church: it is strictly a phenomenon that began at Pentecost and that will end before the consummation of the times of the Gentiles. Thus, the church will not go through the tribulation.” Chafer would later become the founder of what is today the Dallas Theological Seminary, which had among its students Hal Lindsey, author of “The Late, Great Planet Earth,” which brought the pre-tribulation rapture theory to the masses with over 35,000,000 copies sold.




After the release of “The Late, Great Planet Earth” in 1970, pretribbers were throwing second coming predictions out like they were weather forecasts. But this didn’t happen just from the publication of one book. The doctrine had already found its way into evangelical and charismatic communities by means of some Bible colleges and seminaries. These institutions were teaching the doctrine to young men and women who would go on to be leaders and pastors in churches across America.


So with a Scofield Reference Bible (with its dispensational and rapture-themed study notes) in one hand and Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance (which legitimized word study as a valid exegetical method) in the other, they took this doctrine into the churches they would lead and pastor.


Two institutions of Bible learning stand out as the primary teachers of this theory: Moody Bible Institute and Dallas Theological Seminary.


The Moody Press and Moody Bible Institute

The Moody Press took over Scofield’s Bible correspondence course, which strongly promoted dispensationalism and the pre-tribulation rapture theory. Moody Press also supplied Sunday school materials to the newly formed Assemblies of God churches (in 1914) and thus introduced Pentecostals to futurism, dispensationalism, and the pre-tribulation rapture. Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the “Left Behind” series is a graduate of Moody Bible Institute.


Dallas Theological Seminary

Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) was founded by Scofield disciple Lewis Sperry Chafer and has over 15,000 alumni serving around the world. As such, it has had a major impact on evangelical churches in every denomination as well as those not affiliated with a denomination.  It takes a strong dispensational view of Scripture (Article V of its Doctrinal Statement) as well as having a pre-tribulational rapture teaching (Articles XVII and XIX) that is totally separate from the Lord’s second coming. (Article XX).


Among its alumni and faculty are well-published authors and well-known pastors and church founders. You’ll probably recognized a number of names, which represent only a very small fraction of DTS’ influence in the evangelical world: Henry Cloud, Tony Evans, Jerry Falwell, Hank Hanegraaf, Robert Jefress, David Jeremiah, Tim LaHaye, Zola Levitt, Hal Lindsey, John Maxwell, Josh McDowell, J. Vernon McGee, John Ortberg, J. I. Packer, Charles C. Ryrie, Gary Smalley, Andy Stanley, Charles R. Swindoll, and John F. Walvoord.






With such strong and vocal supporters as these, it’s no wonder that the pre-tribulation rapture is the most widely believed of all the rapture theories. It has become deeply embedded into the doctrines and life of many churches across America and around the world. In these churches and among their members it has become an unquestioned article of faith.


But what does scripture have to say? And why has the theory become so attractive? In the long run, does it make any difference whether one believes the pre-trib theory or not?


Part II of this series will answer these questions by looking at what scripture really says about the theory, first examining the passages that proponents of the theory use to support it, then using passages that contradict it. We’ll see what has made the theory so compelling and attractive, especially to Western audiences, and how what we believe about Christ’s return really does make a difference to our Christian lives.


The Pre-Tribulation Rapture Theory – Part II: Its Compelling Attractiveness







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