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Evangelicalism’s Radical Diversity 2

Choir.jpgWhen you hear these two words, the words “evangelical” and “eschatology,” what is the first word that comes to mind? I’m asking you for the first thing that comes to mind.

Here’s what would probably be said by conventional culture: “rapture.” 

What words are you hearing? What “eschatology” do you think evangelicals have?
Steve Wilkens and Don Thorsen, both profs at Azusa Pacific, have a new book that takes on misperceptions of evangelicals. I like the title: Everything You Know about Evangelicals Is Wrong (Well, Almost Everything): An Insider’s Look at Myths and Realities
What this book shows to me is that evangelicals have done a poor job educating the public and culture what it really believes, and instead have allowed a minority viewpoint to become the defining term. Here are some of their claims:

1. Prior to the 19th Century virtually no Christian thinker believed in the “rapture” theory. [The rapture theory, or secret rapture theory, teaches that the Church will be taken into the sky prior to the Great Tribulation and will be in (what I often call) a holding pattern until the Second Coming when the Church will descend with Christ to the earth and populate the millennium.]

2. Today the majority of Christian in the world do not believe this, and here they are including RCC and Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestants.
3. Most Prots today don’t believe in the rapture.
4. Even among evangelicals, they argue, this view is not as prevalent as it once was. In fact, Luther and Calvin and Wesley and Whitefield and Edwards did not believe this. They were amillennialists — they believed the Church age was the fulfillment of the “millennial” image of Rev 20. Some, like Hodge and Warfield, were postmillennialists, which means they saw a Christianization of the world. [I see a trend of this at times among the optimistic among some today.]
5. The Council of Ephesus in 431 condemned belief in a literal kingdom on earth.
The point being made here is simple: evangelicals and Christians, as a vast majority, don’t believe the rapture theory. 
Instead, the Christian position has been the Second Coming (and there’s no rapture in this belief), the resurrection, the kingdom of God/reign of God, and eternal life. That’s what we agree on; all evangelicals believe such things. 
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posted July 19, 2010 at 12:49 am

So how do they explain the polls that show the majority of American Christians believe in the rapture —
which shows a substanial majority of not only American charismatics and pentacostals believe in the rapture, but also a majority of “other Christians” as well?

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Carol Noren Johnson

posted July 19, 2010 at 12:53 am

Revelation promises a blessing to those who read it, it just takes so much effort to figure it out that perhaps many Christians don’t bother. “The Late Great Planet Church” DVD takes a critical look at the dispensational system that the Scofield Reference Bible and the “Left Behind” book series promotes. I always knew I couldn’t buy dispensationalism, but it took me a while to accept amillennialism.

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Brian LePort

posted July 19, 2010 at 1:03 am

I can’t find where the Council of Ephesus condemned a literal kingdom on earth. Can anyone point that out?

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Scott Morizot

posted July 19, 2010 at 6:04 am

What was condemned as heresy was chiliasm or the belief in a literal thousand year reign that would end. The positive and countering belief is captured in the creed by the phrase “whose Kingdom shall have no end.” However, I did think it was the second ecumenical council at Constantinople (the one that produce the version of the creed still in use today) that condemned chiliasm or millenialism.

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posted July 19, 2010 at 7:10 am

Interesting EricG
The numbers for the US from the study you link are not exactly in agreement with the claims here.
% saying they believe in the rapture
All Christians (n=594 surveyed) 63%
Pentecostals 90%
Charismatics 69%
Other Christians 59%
We still have diversity in that many don’t believe in rapture – but a majority do. Hard to defend a statement that most protestants don’t believe in rapture though.
Unless, of course, Wilkens and Thorsen are talking about the beliefs of Christian thinkers – professors, leaders, etc. while the survey is rank and file in the pew. I would expect such diversity in that case.

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Scot McKnight

posted July 19, 2010 at 7:27 am

EricG, thanks for this. As I read this chp in the book I sensed they, by including mainline Prots, thought the numbers shifted significantly.
This Pew study would probably include mainline Prots in “All Christians”?

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Scot McKnight

posted July 19, 2010 at 7:41 am

On the question the Pew Study asked: I don’t like the connection of “rapture” to “taken up to heaven.” Why? The rapture theory doesn’t really hold quite that view: it is not that they are raptured and taken to heaven but raptured into the sky and then 3.5 years or so later taken back to earth.
What I’m saying is that the connection of the two might skew the answers because some will be thinking here of some will be alive when the world ends, when Jesus comes back, and we will be taken from the earth to heaven to be with him forever.

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Scot McKnight

posted July 19, 2010 at 7:44 am

Now here’s the question asked:
Which, if any, of the following do you believe in? Do you believe (insert item)?
d. in the Rapture of the Church, that is, that before the world comes to an end, the religiously faithful will be saved and taken up to Heaven?
Anyway, I have no dog in this fight though I would have thought fewer Christians today believe in the secret rapture than the Pew numbers.

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Jason Lee

posted July 19, 2010 at 8:06 am

Scot and EricG,
I look at the Pew study. The survey question is a double-barreled question, which makes it kind of hard to pin down what people are responding to. Are they affirming that the faithful will be saved, or that there will be a rapture of the Church? Hard to say. If I were a reviewer of refereed journal and I saw a paper based on the rapture question in the Pew study … I’d rapture it to the dustbin.
The BRS[] found that 33% of Americans absolutely believe in the Rapture. If you include people who say “probably,” you get 49%. This is a pretty clean survey question I’d not throw in the dustbin, and it supports what you’re saying EricG. It would be interesting to see this broken down by religious group… if half of Americans believe in the rapture, then I’d be shocked if over half of Evangelicals didn’t believe in the rapture.

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posted July 19, 2010 at 8:13 am

First thing in my head with ‘evangelical’ and ‘eschatology’ — Left Behind series. Along with a bad taste in my mouth and a story about a church my friend was attending that split (into a new church across the street) because some in the original church weren’t pre-trib rapture. I think my lasting impression is “adventures in missing the point.”
There were several things as a kid growing up in conservative evangelical churches and schools that made me wonder about how much of the Bible that my teachers were getting wrong. One was the certainty of some of the eschatology, especially given what seemed to be some intentional vagueness in the relevant scriptures. If there is this majority or near majority that doesn’t hold the Left Behind eschatology, they’ve gotten good at keeping it to themselves. Maybe most are like myself that hold it all a bit at arm’s length and have little interest in the “timing” issues.
I was glad when I first read Wright’s historical take on meeting Jesus “in the air” as he returns. Good stuff. But I have to say I’m still pretty turned off by the whole subject. Michael Gorman has a book coming out soon about Revelation, called something like reading revelation responsibly. It may be the first book I read directly on the issue in over 20 years.

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posted July 19, 2010 at 8:14 am

Ooookay… I believe in the rapture. And I’m a postevangelical protestant emergent type. What’s the big deal?

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posted July 19, 2010 at 8:34 am

And I DON’T believe in the rapture. And I’m an evangelical protestant emergent type.
I can’t understand why all the “bible” churches in the Midwest seem to make the pre-trib rapture theory one of their “core” beliefs. Seems silly to me.

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Diana H

posted July 19, 2010 at 8:49 am

What I hear is dispensationalism.
Sadly, this is what I see, more importantantly this is what my husband (a Muslim and Palestinian) sees. This is (a response) from the largest and most popular and powerful churches in our area after an attempt by locals to educate/inform the uninformed of the plight of the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Local op/ed’s filled the papers with such nonsense drowning out a (supposed) minority voice. Should we, as Christians, be concern when the face of Christ is not mirrored in our words or deeds? Did not Christ come for all people?

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Travis Greene

posted July 19, 2010 at 9:22 am

Scot @ 7, “On the question the Pew Study asked: I don’t like the connection of “rapture” to “taken up to heaven.” Why? The rapture theory doesn’t really hold quite that view: it is not that they are raptured and taken to heaven but raptured into the sky and then 3.5 years or so later taken back to earth.”
That is definitely not the rapture theology I grew up with. It definitely was snatched away to heaven, and that’s it. I don’t know how one defines “official” or “classical” rapture theory, but there was no coming back to earth in the rapture I was taught. I probably still have a diagram somewhere I can show you.

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kevin s.

posted July 19, 2010 at 10:52 am

“Ooookay… I believe in the rapture. And I’m a postevangelical protestant emergent type. What’s the big deal?”
This aptly summarizes the view of most evangelicals who believe in the rapture. It is generally considered to be a far off event, with little likelihood of happening during our lifetime.
As such, most evangelicals haven’t put a lot of thought into it. To do so requires study of Revelation, the most esoteric book in the Bible, and the one most prone to misinterpretation. Most pastors seem to recommend their congregants tread lightly on these issues, which is a reasonable tack.
The Left Behind series came along and offered a tangible illustration of what the events might look like. The books and films hit on a lot of conservative evangelical touchstones (the United Nations, the evil French, Kirk Cameron). They are easy to read, if nothing else, and so the issues presently has more headspace in the collective evangelical conscious than it did 20 years ago.
At the same time, evangelical progressives have taken an interest in the issue as it relates to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They see dispensationalism as the driving force behind evangelical support for what they deem to be Israeli apartheid. The success of the Left Behind books only reinforces this notion.
The result has been a strong backlash against a theological strain that, while problematic, really isn’t all the essential to the faith. But I would maintain that most evangelicals just don’t think about it all that much. A substantial percentage would probably go along with whatever explanation was provided by a survey question, so long as it comported with some definition of eternal life after death through Christ.

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James-Michael Smith

posted July 19, 2010 at 10:53 am

Thanks for posting this, Scot. I’m sharing it on Facebook. The rapture is taken for granted by most people (especially here in the Bible belt) yet no one who believes in it seem to be aware of how it developed or where it came from. But, like the Prosperity Gospel, is one of the most widespread examples of folk theology in existence.
Here are a couple of short pieces on it for anyone who may be interested:
Why belief in the Rapture should be ‘Left Behind’
According to Jesus you WANT to be ‘left behind’!:
Readers’ response to Rapture article:
A summary of the spectrum of beliefs regarding End Times:–How-can-we-sort-it-all-out

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Terrance Tiessen

posted July 19, 2010 at 11:00 am

Re: your comment # 7, I haven?t looked at the Pew questionnaire but I think they are right to identify the rapture with the being taken up to meet Christ. The term comes from the Latin word in 1 Thess 4:17. Consequently, we can assert that all Christians have traditionally believed in the rapture, as described in 1 Thess 4:17.
The point that needs to be made, therefore, is that most of the Christian church is post-tribulation rapturist and that pre- (and somewhat later mid)-tribulational rapturism did not gain any traction until the rise of Dispensationalism in the mid-19thC. It is in that minority group that the rapture is conceived to be secret and that a time gap is asserted between Christ?s taking up (rapturing) of the church and his returning with it.
If the intention of a survey is to determine what percentage of Christians believe in a time gap between the taking up and the return with Christ the question will have to be asked in those terms. When that is done, unquestionably a very small minority of Christians world-wide will be found to believe in a pre- or mid-tribulational (secret) rapture. They are found only within evangelicalism, in its Dispensationalist wing.
As John Walvoord rightly asserted in his book ?The Rapture Question,? the issue is primarily ecclesiological. The time distinction between the taking up (rapture) of the church and its return with Christ is necessitated by the distinction between two distinct peoples of God, Israel and the Church. From the Dispensationalist perspective, the removal of the church from the world, in the secret rapture, is so that God can get back to his program with Israel which was postponed during the ?church age.?
Since ?progressive Dispensationalists? have given up the two peoples ecclesiology that was fundamental to classic Dispensationalism, whether pre- and mid-tribulationism will survive within progressive Dispensationalism is an open question, I think, since the ecclesiological foundation has been removed.
It is also important not to confuse pre-tribulationism with premillennialism, as often happens. Prior to Augustine, the early church was premillennialist but post-tribulationist.

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posted July 19, 2010 at 2:37 pm

My mom and I discuss this a lot. Right after we discuss whether buying a lottery ticket is a sin or if dancing causes pregnancy. My mom is a hardcore pre-tribber. Most midwesterners are. That’s because (I think) of Dallas Seminary – the Cadillac of seminaries in the Bible belt. Suffice it to say, dispensationalism reigns. Mom tends to attribute the downfall of the church to failure to hold to this doctrine. If someone in the church is having trouble with their kids, or financial problems, whatever, “Well, you know, they’re mid-trib.” She wants to believe that God would not let his children go through the great tribulation. I don’t want to be pre-trib. None of the cool kids, the people I admire and respect, are pre-trib. They are all pre-mill, post-mill or amill. I want to be cool like them. To fit in, I even mock pre-tribbers a little bit behind their backs. “Mom,” I say, “that idea has only been around 150 years.” “Would God let us be wrong for 150 years?” she responds. But I honestly can’t dispel (for myself) some of the ideas that make up this particular eschatological position. So, I place myself firmly in the “I don’t know” camp. I guess it’s just not a dealbreaker for me and we can’t do anything about it, anyway. But, just in case, I’m going to eat my dessert first.

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Terrance Tiessen

posted July 19, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Item #5 claimed: “The Council of Ephesus in 431 condemned belief in a literal kingdom on earth.”
An interesting looking article appeared in the Trinity Journal: Michael J. Svigel, “The Phantom Heresy: Did the Council of Ephesus (431) Condemn Chiliasm?” Trinity Journal 24.1 (2003): 105-112.
On I found a piece by Svigel that appears to be that article. ( Svigel traces the origin of the idea that Ephesus 431 condemned chiliasm and sums up his own study thus:
“The purpose of this article was twofold. First, by tracing the error to its source, I have attempted to counter the assertion that the Council of Ephesus condemned Chiliasm in A.D. 431. In light of the conclusions of this article, any continued assertion of this nature must satisfy a weighty burden of proof with reference to primary source evidence. Given the plentitude of untranslated, unedited, or perhaps even presently non-extant material on this subject, the case will of course never be finally closed. Nevertheless the burden of proof has been re-shifted to those who maintain an official ecumenical condemnation of Chiliasm.”
I pass that along lest Wilkens and Thorsen’s position be taken as fact.

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posted July 19, 2010 at 6:08 pm

“Instead, the Christian position has been the Second Coming (and there’s no rapture in this belief), the resurrection, the kingdom of God/reign of God, and eternal life. That’s what we agree on; all evangelicals believe such things.”
You’re right on this point in that more and more people seem to hold this view. I have long believed, like much of the divine, eschatalogy is a mystery to us and rather than ttrying to figure out how exactly things are going to go down, I think our time is better spent living right on this side of heaven.

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Brad Boydston

posted July 20, 2010 at 12:21 am

“What this book shows to me is that evangelicals have done a poor job educating the public and culture what it really believes, and instead have allowed a minority viewpoint to become the defining term.”
The problem isn’t that we have miscommunicated to the public and culture. The problem is that we ourselves — the average Left Behind saturated person in the evangelical pew — has embraced this view. The dispensational perspective is simple and chartable. In my experience, if you try to teach anything more sophisticated people think you’re trying to pull a fast one on them. The truth is simple and obvious.
The overall confusion in the culture regarding what evangelicals believe is understandable.

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pam w

posted July 20, 2010 at 1:22 am

first thought with the words evangelical and eschatology? Larry Norman
that shows my age!
Brad Boydston – completely agree.
I do see that eschatology is incredibly powerful when our faith ‘hits the streets’ so to speak. It determines how we frame many everyday issues, domestic and foreign policy, and even how we define a good life, or a life well lived for God and His Kingdom.
Most evangelicals I know believe in a dispensational eschatology. they can describe it in detail, but they have no idea what dispensationalism is or how it was developed. But the dispensationalists have written the books which gave people pictures and made Revelation easy to understand.
This has become very clear and very important for me in the last 6 years as I have been speaking with evangelical audiences on economic, environmental, and social sustainability/justice. This eschatology is used to support destruction of the ecosystem God created to nourish life, to ignore social injustices, and support unethical economic behaviors. Not only is it simple and chartable, it allows is at the top of the food chain to justify all kinds of behavior that is antithetical to following in the Way of jesus.

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Tambra Plummer

posted July 21, 2010 at 4:21 am

I still believe in the Rapture and I bet if you took your own poll on Belief you would find out that most Christians still do. If you truly believe in your word, you know that our Lord will come back in the clouds and there will be a rapture, and during tribulation we will be waiting for him and others still will not give their heart and lives to him, isnt that a shame?? anyway sorry had to add that, because that always has bothered me, and when the time is right we will all be with him, his believers in paradise. Anyone agree? It will not be pretty either, because during that time, as far as I’ve been taught and read, the devil will be let loose to run amuck. As times get worse lately to me, it already feels like he’s here. I pray for a hedge of protection for all..Amen

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Rev. Allen W. Gildard

posted July 21, 2010 at 11:00 am

As a Pastor, I find the rapture enthralled folks to be way off base. A handful of verses that relate to or imply maybe a thing called rapture does not warrent all the nonsense novels and so called theology of rapture that we have seen in the past half century of time. One could take a handful of verses from various books of the Bible to create, or defend, almost any position. Possibly one of the greatest disservices of biblical history was when it was broken into verses and people started losing the completeness of thought patterns.

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Chad Brooks

posted July 21, 2010 at 12:47 pm

As a seminarian who reads and writes to much about Eschatology, I add to the conversation that the general public simply isn’t taught about it. As a preachers kid, I remember my father just letting Tim Lahaye take care of it because, “It’s to complicated for me to handle.”
Sociologically, the church has bought into the secular worlds apocalyptic vision that the earth was created by chance (we say creation) and therefore it will be ended by chance (we say an dramatic, bloody apocalyptic ending). We tell the same story, with a different twist. The church has quit hoping, just as the world has. It is the pendulum of modernity, and humans figured out they couldn’t fix everything and completely lost hope.
The Church needs to re-story eschatology, forgetting such issues of escapism as rapture, pre-millenialism and a view of prophecy that is bent on the telling of destruction and not how a biblical community conforms to a Triune God.
Glad to see this post on

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Phillip Smith

posted July 24, 2010 at 11:27 pm

Before I did a session on this very subject last year in “Living the Questions 2″ in Session 13 “Debunking the Rapture”, much of the session, of which, was conducted by theologian Barbara Rossing, I’d never even heard of the term “rapture” used in this sense, but now I’ve heard it all, and, to me, it’s a very dangerous theology. As Rossing states, to paraphrase “it encourages children to be scared alll the time”. She, as well as I’m sure other proressive Christians, would deplore this type of theology, as, as well as what I’ve just stated, it’s not biblical. We need to lovingly stand up against this type of theology, and say words to the effect of “hey, this is NOT what the Bible says”. The Book of Revelation was originally written as an afront to the Roman Empire, and should be interpreted as such.

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