The Rapture theology that is widely understood today, was not taught in the Early Church. In fact, it was a doctrine predominately introduced into mainstream Christianity in the 1800’s. In a nutshell, the Rapture theology teaches that the Church will be raptured (removed) from the earth by Jesus and taken to heaven with Him, leaving the wicked to remain on the earth. Whether the Rapture will occur pre-tribulation or post-tribulation is another matter. The Early Church (pre 325AD) warned about this deceptive doctrine and taught that the true rapture is about us ascending from our earthly nature, into the mind of Christ; an entirely different understanding of this theology that has greatly infiltrated the Church. Interestingly, the Mirriam-Webster dictionary describes the rapture acutely in alignment with the Early Church as “a mystical experience in which the spirit is exalted to a knowledge of divine things”. Truth is objective, not subjective, and we need to understand what the Early Church taught on this matter in order to have pure doctrine.
The main perpetrator of the Rapture doctrine as we know it today, was Nelson Darby. Born in 1800, he was an Irish Preacher who oversaw an Anglican church. Below is an excerpt about when his theology really began to take hold in the Christian Church:
“From Left Behind to numerology, the picture of the “last things” painted by many Christians today looks different than it did before the middle of the nineteenth century. Up to that point, most American evangelicals imagined that the church was the New Israel, heir to the promises of the Old and New Testaments. It would persevere through tribulation to triumph and enter the blessed millennium of Revelation 20. Only then would Christ return to bring about the consummation of all things. That view, known as postmillennialism, formed a near consensus.
Beginning in the 1830s, a new paradigm, in which Christ would rapture believers before a great tribulation that would precede the millennium, began to displace the old. By the early twentieth century, this view, known as premillennialism, had come to predominate. Its chief architect: John Nelson Darby.” (1)
The theology that Darby held, that believers would be raptured out of this fallen world prior to the 1000 year reign of Christ, began to really take hold in the early nineteenth Century.
Second-third Century Christian theologian, Hippolytus, wrote regarding the false Rapture doctrine:
Believe not the enemy who is to come and be seen; for he is an adversary and corrupter and son of perdition, and deceives you; and for this reason he will kill you, and smite them with the sword. Behold the deceit of the enemy, know the machinations of the beguiler, how he seeks to darken the mind of men utterly. For he will show forth his demons brilliant like angels, and he will bring in hosts of the incorporeal without number. And in the presence of all he exhibits himself as taken up into heaven with trumpets and sounds, and the mighty shouting of those who hail him with indescribable hymns; the heir of darkness himself shining like light, and at one time soaring to the heavens, and at another descending to the earth with great glory, and again charging the demons, like angels, to execute his behests with much fear and trembling. . . . And those who yield to him he will seal with his seal. (2)
Hippolytus warns that the false Rapture doctrine that will be birthed by the Son of Perdition (2 Thessalonians 2:3) pertains to visible manifestations, such as being physically carried off into heaven and hearing trumpets and sounds. This deception is all about signs and wonders and is to keep us, the body of Christ, from understanding and pursuing the real rapture.
He goes on to give an alarming prediction that this theology will deceive many believers, and they will only realise when it is too late:
When men have received the seal . . . these miserable men will perceive that this is the wicked accuser, and will mourn in anguish, and weep vehemently . . . while they say to each other: Woe for the calamity! woe for the bitter contract! woe for the deceitful covenant! woe for the mighty mischance! How have we been beguiled by the deceiver! how have we been joined to him! how have we been caught in his toils! how have we been taken in his abominable net! how have we heard the Scriptures, and understood them not! For truly those who are engrossed with the affairs of life, and with the lust of this world, will be easily brought over to the accuser then, and sealed by him. (3)
We can see that this prophecy has already come to pass, because this is what the majority of the Church believes today. Hippolytus states that it is through a wrong understanding of scripture that the Church will be deceived into believing Christians are going to be raptured from earth, and ‘fly away’. What a huge statement, that we can miss what God has for us because of our wrong understanding of Scripture. This completely aligns with what the Apostle Paul taught in 2 Corinthians, that the letter (the literal understanding of Scripture) versus the spirit of the Word of God “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). The Jews read the scripture by the letter (simply the literal understanding), not by understanding the mysteries hidden in scripture (Colossians 1:26), and therefore they missed the first coming of Jesus.
One of the main scriptures used as a basis for the Rapture theology is found in 1 Thessalonians, Paul writes:
For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17)
Paul is referring to the second coming of Christ. He prophesies that there will be a group of people who will be “caught up” with the Lord. The Greek word for “caught up” is harpazo and means to seize, or to catch up. (4) At first glance this seems pretty straightforward, however upon seeking deeper, we see there is a greater meaning, beyond face value.
Again referring to the second coming of Christ, Paul writes:
“Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does corruption inherit incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed— in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:50-52)
This scripture is also often used as a “biblical basis” for the Rapture theology, but notice that Paul says it is a mystery, so as not to be taken literally, but to be unveiled.
The same word for “caught up” in Greek, harpazo, is used where Paul describes his experience being caught up into heaven. He writes:
“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” (2 Corinthians 12:2-4)
Paul is not talking about a physical experience of flying away into heaven. He is referring to a spiritual experience wherein he heard the revelation of the mysteries of the kingdom (see Romans 16:25). Here, Origen, a third Century Early Church Father confirms this:
We must therefore know that the Paraclete is the Holy Spirit, who teaches truths which cannot be uttered in words, and which are, so to speak, unutterable, and “which it is not lawful for a man to utter”. (5)
And in another place,
Such are the things which Paul labours to express when he says, “I heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter”. (6)
Origen explains that Paul’s experience was the Holy Spirit teaching him the revelation of the Word of God (inexpressible words). Scripture teaches us that the Holy Spirit searches the deep things of God (1 Corinthians 2:10). The word for deep in Greek means mystery (7) and the secret, unrevealed purposes of God (8). Paul’s rapture experience was him being “caught up” or elevated in his understanding by the revelation the Holy Spirit unveiled to him. He left his carnal, or earthly way of thinking, and was elevated into the heavens, or the spiritual way of understanding the Gods Word. Just as he writes to the Church in Corinth, “we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory (1 Corinthians 2:7) and later, “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14) The word here for “natural” in Greek means the part of the immaterial life held in common with the animals, as contrasted with spirit and pertaining to the natural as distinguished from the spiritual or glorified nature of man. (9) The natural man is one who only sees scripture by the letter, and the spiritual man is one who has the understanding of the mysteries (the deep things of God).
Origen describes the mindset of the Early Church, fully in alignment with the Apostles in their understanding of being caught up to a spiritual perspective:
“Beware lest you think of ascending and descending spatially. For this is frequently found in the sacred literature, as in the prophet Micheas: “Behold,” Scripture says, “the Lord departed from his holy place and came down and will tread upon the high places of the earth.” . . . But also when he descends he is below with some, but he ascends with others and is above. For he goes up with the chosen apostles “into a high mountain and there is transfigured before them.” Therefore, he is above with those whom he teaches about the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven. But he is below with the crowds and Pharisees, whose sins he reproaches, and he is there with them where there is grass. He could not, however, be transfigured below, but ascended above with those who could follow him, and there he is transfigured.” (10)
Origen is referring to another passage in scripture, but the concept is the same. The Word teaches us to compare scripture with scripture to come to the right interpretation (1 Corinthians 2:13). Origen explains that ascending and descending in scripture is not referring to a physical action. He explains that the ascent, or real rapture, is when we arise to the mind of Christ, understanding God’s plan and purpose and are able to receive the revelation of the mysteries of the kingdom and walk in His nature. Origen writes that those “below” on the “grass” are those who are in sin, which confirms what we discussed earlier in regard to the carnal, or earthly, way of thinking being in complete contrast with the spirit. Those that dwell on the earth and are not caught up with the Lord cannot come into His mind and His divine plan.
The real Rapture is when we understand God’s Word spiritually, through the revelation of the mysteries of the Kingdom being revealed to us, taking us higher in our understanding. We are truly “caught up” with the Lord when ultimately, our actions and our walk are changed from our earthly nature (see 1 Corinthians 3:3, Romans 12:2), into the nature of God, by the right understanding of His Word and power (1 Corinthians 4:20). If we focus on the Rapture in the literal sense, we will miss the opportunity the Lord is giving us to be “caught up” with Him and be transformed into His image (2 Corinthians 3:18). The Early Church believed that without the revelation of the Word of God we would remain in our earthly nature and we would ultimately become those sealed by the Son of Perdition (3). For us to understand the deeper meaning of scripture, and not be caught off guard in these last days, it is absolutely imperative we get back to the teachings of the Early Church.
1. Robins, R., 2021. Caught up to meet Jesus in the clouds | Christian History Magazine. [online] Christian History Institute. Available at: https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/caught-up-to-meet-jesus-in-the-clouds
2. Hippolytus, Appendix Pt 1, Ch XXIX
3. Hippolytus, Appendix Pt 1, Ch XXXI
4. Strong’s Bible Dictionary: ‘Caught up’ (G726)
5. Origen, De Principiis, Book 2, Ch VII
6. Origen, Against Celsus, Book 7, Ch XLIII)
7. Strong’s Bible Dictionary: ‘Deep’ (G899)
8. Complete Word Study Dictionary: ‘Deep’ (G899)
9. Complete Word Study Dictionary: ‘Natural’ (G5591)
10. Origen, Genesis Homily IV, Ch 5
All scripture references from The Holy Bible: New King James Version: NKJV. Thomas Nelson, 2010, unless stated otherwise.