Where Did Rapture Theology Come From?

Where did Rapture theology come from? In this Seven Minute Seminary, Ben Witherington III explains that Rapture theology and its parent, Dispensationalism, are new ideas that were birthed in 19th century. He continues to work through the history of the belief and explains how it became a popular movement  in the United States.

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Dr. Witherington joined the Asbury Seminary faculty in 1995. A prolific author, Dr. Witherington has written more than 40 books and six commentaries. He is a John Wesley Fellow for Life, a research fellow at Cambridge University and a member of numerous professional organizations, including the Society of Biblical Literature, Society for the Study of the New Testament and the Institute for Biblical Research. In his leisure time, Dr. Witherington appreciates both music and sports. It is hard to say which sound he prefers: the sophisticated sonance of jazz sensation Pat Metheny or the incessant tomahawk chant of the Atlanta Braves faithful. A graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, he is a dedicated Tar Heels basketball and football fan. He and his wife, Ann, have two children.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Yeah except that Henry Clay Morrison was a premillennialist. I have read his works on the subject downloaded from the Seedbed website. Many devout Wesleyans, myself and Dr. Morrison included, believe in pretribulation premillennial rapture.

    • Brian there is a new book that was released in May of this year. Dispensationalism before Darby. I don’t remember the author’s name. A fascinating read. Dispensationalism may have been codified in the last 200 years but the elements that make it what it is have been around for a long long time

  2. With due respect to my friend and fellow Asburian, it matters not what modern theologians have said about the second coming (in two parts or in one part). I am a Protestant. Tell me what the bible says? I am more interested in the NT tradition than in what the RCC or others have said. In your answer talk about John 14:3 and the many synoptic references that build on the Jewish marriage model of a groom coming to the bride at a time that she thinks not to whisk her away to the wedding feast and the father’s house in which dwells a bridal chamber. This is the idea behind Jesus’ words in John 14. It seems to support certains images associated with “rapture” theology. If we do not accept a “catching away” theology, what do we do with the warnings to watch and wait because he will come at a time and an hour when we think not? I am also interested in the meaning of Rev 14:14ff when it talks about the “reaping of the harvest.” It uses the imagery of the Parable of the Wheat and Tares. Why does Revelation place this story about harvest and judgment in the middle of his vision. I would have expected it to be toward the end. Ultimately, if we affirm the second coming of Christ and urge people to be “ready,” it does not matter if Jesus comes for the church at the second coming or before the second coming. The end result is the same. We should watch, wait and be ready.

    I am not a dispensationalist in the DTS or Moody sense. In fact, I am charismatic. However, I remember how the preaching in the Great Awakening and early American Methodism emphasized the themes of “flee from the wrath to come” (judgment) at a means to draw people to God. In our zeal to push against dispensationalism, we should be careful that we do not throw out the baby with the bath water. In fact, it would be helpful if Ben Witherington told us what the NT traditions teach on the subject of the second coming. Certainly, one tradition believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and he would return quickly to restore “the kingdom to Israel.” They also affirmed a time of divine judgment leading to the return of Christ.

    Perhaps the NT does not speak in one voice on this topic. If that is true, it might be helpful if we remain open to a plurality of contextualize interpretations. More importantly, we should note how eschatological literature functioned in the NT community and how it should function in the church today. In the context of persecution, the admonition to remain faithful and trust that God will prevail gave the church hope and the ability to endure. For them, the second coming was the “blessed hope.” Most modern Americans who do not share the context of suffering ignore the second coming. Few are watching and waiting. Still, we do so at our own peril considering we live indulgent lifestyles, tolerate sin, and practice injustice. I think that the western church needs a new reading of eschatology, one that focuses on judgment rather than escape. Such a preaching would realign us with our Methodist heritage.

  3. There are a two issues: Is there a rapture and is Dispensationalism a correct understanding? I Corinthians 15 makes very clear that those who are alive at the Second Coming will be changed so that they have resurrection bodies. I Thessalonians 4 makes it clear that this event will include our be taken up to MEET the Lord in the air. That is, we meet Him as He comes down. That is a post-tribulation rapture. Dispensationalism has developed an elaborate justification for a pre-tribulation rapture. In that elaboration they have created a theology that is borderline cultish. For example one of the major proponents made this statement (quoting roughly): There are three kinds of rational beings: angels, Jews, and Gentiles. They believe the kingdom teachings of Christ are mostly not pertinent to the church age (which they consider a parenthesis in God’s plan). As one theologian put it: they interpret the New Testament by studying the Old Testament. So, yes, Dispensationalism needs to be left behind. But should the rapture be exegeted away because it is not consistent with how we believe God operates? The straightforward understanding of Scripture includes a resurrection or a rapture in our future.

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