“Jesus’s resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.”
― N.T. Wright, “Surprised by Hope”
If you have not yet read Part 1, read it first here.
In the last post, we examined the American history that led to the creation of the Rapture doctrine. This showed the relative newness of such thought and its absence from the majority of Church history. When there is a new idea, we must be ready to put it to the test by evaluating its scriptural support. That is exactly what we are doing in this series. We are asking:
Is the Rapture a reality described by the Bible? Do we look forward to day where we suddenly get taken to heaven? Did Jesus really promise to take his Church off the earth one day?
My answer to each of these questions is “no” and now I want to show why by examining the key passages used to support the Rapture. This post will be a tad more technical but stick with me, I think you will learn something of value! I encourage you to walk through this slowly and with a Bible opened in front of you.
Now, it is imperative that we recall our last conversation about the history surrounding the Rapture as we approach the text.
Remember, that for centuries, Christians across the globe had studied Scripture diligently without conceiving anything close to the idea of a Rapture event.
So, while these preceding interpretations may seem foreign to you if you have grown up hearing about the Rapture, we must recognize that it is the Rapture that is foreign to most of church history. Keep this in mind as you are most likely about to be exposed to a different, and yet in my opinion, more historically consistent interpretation of “Rapture passages”.
Alright, let’s get started!
The first “Rapture passage” is found in Matthew 24:39-42, which reads:
That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.
Rapture-adherents will say that Jesus is addressing the end of days and that those being taken are ascribed as the righteous and those being left behind (hence the name of the books) are the wicked. Understandably, if you have the Rapture in the back of your mind already, a quick reading of just this section would encourage such doctrine. Clearly Jesus must be warning of a coming day where he will take his people from the earth, right? However, this reading of Matthew rips Jesus’ words right out of context. Just before this prophetic parable, Jesus says this in verses 37-38:
“As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.”
Notice the comparison Jesus makes. Whatever this future day holds which Jesus speaks of, it will be like the days of Noah. Therefore, we must have the story of Noah in the back of our mind for a better interpretation of Jesus’ words. So, let’s ask ourselves a few questions:
Who gets ‘taken away’ in the Noah narrative? And who gets ‘left behind’?
Well, Jesus tells us, it was the wicked who were destroyed by the flood that took “them all away”. And the ones that get ‘left behind’? Why it’s Noah and his family! They get “left” on earth and sparred from being taken by the flood waters.
This becomes even more clear when we go to the parallel of Matthew 24. Here in Luke 17, Luke gives more of what Jesus said in this conversation:
“I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.”
“Where, Lord?” they asked.
He replied, “Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.”
The disciples ask our same question, “where are these people being taken?” Jesus does not say, “oh they get raptured to paradise in heaven”. It is quite the opposite! A place with dead bodies and vultures does not sound like the place I would want to be taken to!
What this means is that Jesus is not talking about some rapture event because in this situation you want to be the one “left behind”.
When reading this passage in context we see that Jesus is speaking of a complete opposite hope from the Rapture.
The second, and probably most used passage to support the Rapture is 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, which reads:
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
The key term for Rapture-adherents is Paul’s phrase “caught up together with them in the clouds/air”. Paul must be speaking of the Rapture as the event where believers take to the sky and meet the Lord in heaven. Well, just as we learned above, context is key to reading the Bible! In this letter to the Thessalonians, Paul is answering a few concerns the church had about believers who had died. Paul says in 1 Thes. 4:13 just before this “Rapture passage”:
And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope.
This means that everything proceeding this follows as a response to their question about the dead. The Thessalonians are wondering, “what is the hope for our deceased brothers and sisters?”
Paul answers their concerns as such in the next verse (v. 14):
For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died.
Take notice of what Paul gives as hope for the believers. It is the hope for the day in which God “brings back” the dead. He says this along the same lines as the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Meaning that believers look forward to bodily resurrection and being brought back by God to earth. This goes along well with Paul’s usual emphasis on resurrection and new creation as the believer’s true hope. This is already quite opposite of a Rapture hope. Paul does not offer a hope of going somewhere else, of “going to heaven”, but instead the hope of God raising the dead believers and bringing them here. The language Paul uses is of resurrection and of God’s people coming back to earth, not leaving it.
Once we get into the meat passage, Paul continues to use language of God coming here and not us going to Him in “heaven”.
We tell you this directly from the Lord: We who are still living when the Lord returns will not meet him ahead of those who have died. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God.
Again, recognize the movement of God in the passage.
All the language in 1 Thessalonians 4 implies God coming to earth not taking people from earth.
Now as we approach the “caught up in the air” verbiage, we must respect Paul’s previous words as they relate to the possible Rapture. This means that whatever Paul says next must be stacked up against and relate well with the resurrection. For Paul clearly has in his mind bodily resurrection as the hope for the Thessalonians and their questions regarding the dead. It would be illogical to think Paul is speaking of resurrection and then suddenly jumps to speaking of some rapturous event when Paul clearly sees the final, bodily resurrection as the eternal hope of believers.
So the proper question is, “what image is Paul giving in this passage when he talks about being caught up in the air?”
What many scholars believe is that the image Paul conjures up is one of a king coming to visit his kingdom. When this would happen, the people would go out to meet the king outside the city and then escort him into his kingdom. This was a common practice and one that Paul’s audience would recognize by his language. Therefore, with the image of the believers “meeting the Lord in the air” as well as the action of God bringing back those who had died for the event of bodily resurrection, we should see that the believers will greet the Lord and turn right around with Him to the renewed earth.
This bodes well too when we see that after this meeting event of the believers and the Lord, Paul says that we will be with the Lord forever. So, if after this “catching up in the air” event when we are immediately where we should be with God forever, where is the place to which we will be with God forever? This will be explored more in Part 3 but the quick answer is given to us in Revelation 21:
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.
The emphasis, as noted by the thrice repetition, is that God will be with his people here on the renewed earth. It is heaven that comes to earth (notice the new Jerusalem comes down from heaven to earth) and not earthlings going to heaven. God comes here to be with his people forever. This is the movement of the entire Bible (again, this will be explored more in Part 3) and so when Paul says that after this event in 1 Thes. 4 when we will “be with the Lord forever”, he thinks of this day and not being with the Lord forever in a removed heavenly place that we were taken to by the Rapture.
Some Rapture-adherents may argue that Paul is still talking about the Rapture here because they believe the church will be raptured and then later returned to earth after the tribulation. However, you can not pull that from a passage where (a) God is clearly moving towards earth (b) where God is bringing those who had died before back to earth (as shown in verse 14), (c) the final event of bodily resurrection is the focus and (d) it shows the final destination of believers being on earth immediately.
Whew! We made it through! So, to give a quick recap, these passages may make sense for defending the Rapture if you have that preloaded within your mind. Yet, doing so may be dismissing the context given by Jesus and Paul. For the New Testament authors, the resurrection of Jesus was an earth-shaking event which reshaped much of how they saw the world. It is through their “resurrection-lenses” that we are invited to see true hope when reading Scripture.
In the next part, we will focus on this true hope by zooming out to the larger context of the biblical story. We will see that resurrection and new creation is essential for understanding both the role and hope of God’s people as it relates to end-times. We will see how the Rapture is a puzzle piece that fails to fit into the big picture of Scripture. To wrap the series up, I will also discuss how holding to a Rapture theology might affect the way you live.
It is my hope that this series might start to shift the gears in your brain and allow space for contemplation and reflection.
For a great podcast episode which goes into more depth on these passages, check out this episode from Pastor Mike Erre.
I also recommend this commentary on 1 and 2 Thessalonians by Anthony Thiselton which walks through this passage by presenting a collection of interpretation throughout the centuries. You will notice that up until John Darby, prominent Christian scholars saw only bodily resurrection and Christ’s return happening in 1 Thes. 4 and not a Rapture.