The doctrine of the rapture – the idea, as made popular in books such as the Left Behind Series, that Jesus-followers will disappear in the twinkling of an eye before God’s final wrath is poured out on the earth – is often seen as a non-negotiable element of the evangelical theological tradition in North America. But is it based on the Bible? My opinion is that it is not. In this post I will explain why I think that and why it matters.
There are two major texts that people who believe in the rapture will point to as evidence of that position, but I would contend that these texts, properly understood, do not in fact refer provide much evidence for this position.
First, and probably most familiar, is First Thessalonians 4:13-17. My initial observation is that this does not locate the coming of the Jesus within a particular time frame in relation to the events that surround the end times. There is no reference to a period of suffering or anything else. This coming-of-Jesus event very much stands on its own. So by this text alone we cannot say when this event will happen in relation to the tribulation (i.e. beforehand or afterward).
Next, we should look at the vocabulary used. Paul here speaks of being caught up to meet the Lord in the air. It would seem that this indicates we are snatched away into heaven. But the word translated as “meet” is used two other times in the New Testament to mean a very specific kind of meting: something more like “to meet and come back.” (This word does appear in some manuscripts of Matthew 27:32, but the authenticity of its appearance is debatable). In Matthew 25:6 the virgins awaiting the wedding party go out to meet the groom, but they do not stay with him out in the field or go away, but rather come back and partake in the wedding feast. Likewise, in Acts 28:15 a bunch of believers come from Rome to meet Paul as he journeys to Rome and then they escort him back there. Keeping these other occurrences of this word in mind, it would seem most probable that believers will be raised into the air to meet Jesus and then accompany him back to earth as his retinue to begin his millennial reign.
Third, we should note that this coming is no secret. Proponents of the rapture tell us that believers will be snatched up in the twinkling of an eye, with no one who is left behind seeing anything except people disappearing. But in this passage, it is very clear Jesus wants to be seen and heard. There is nothing secret about an energetic trumpet blast and a loud command and a man descending on clouds.
The second text to look at is Matthew 24. Jesus is addressing his disciples’ question about the end of the world. He doesn’t just brush it off, but engages with it and speaks to them as if they themselves might indeed experience it. It seems as if all people, believers included, could very well experience this. And then after all the trouble, Jesus comes down from heaven (again a visible and audible appearance) to collect the saints from across the world.
In the following verses, Jesus backtracks a bit in order to remark upon the suddenness with which these events will happen. He makes reference to the days of Noah. In those days, people were going about their business until the wrath of God was suddenly poured out in the form of rain. And the wicked perished. Notice that is was the unbelievers who were taken away by the flood. Proponents of the rapture use vv. 40-41 to show that righteous people will suddenly disappear, but in the context of this passage it is not the righteous who are taken away, but the wicked.
Lastly, we should consider the place and purpose of suffering in the Bible in relationship the Chruch. Jesus says in this world we will have trouble, but that he has overcome the world (John 16:33). Within the New Testament documents and throughout the history of the Church, the teaching and experience of faithful believers has been to expect persecution and trials. And in Matthew 24:22, Jesus says that the days of wrath will be shortened for the sake of the elect, which indicates that believers will be fully present as the world collapses into chaos and judgment. We should note also that the word translated “escape” in Luke 21:36 is probably better understood as meaning to be saved “out of the midst of.” In other words, not that we would not experience the trials, but that we would be given the grace to persevere. More explicit is Jesus’ prayer in John 17:15, in which he asks that his disciples not be removed from the world but be protected while they are under the attack of the enemy. Much the same comment could also be made about the word “keep” in Revelation 3:10.
This blog entry is no place for an exhaustive study of the subject, but I do hope that I have given you food for thought and the desire to explore this more fully yourself. In the end, I would say that I don’t have all the answers: that I hold these things loosely and am willing to be shown otherwise. This is not a hill I would choose to die on, but I do think it matters. Why? I think what we believe about how God will deal with us as history comes to a conclusion shapes how we feel God will deal with us in the meanwhile. It has been my experience that those who are looking very keenly toward the rapture also have some expectation that God will make this a pattern and spare them some degree of pain the meanwhile. But more than that, if Jesus should return before I or anyone else of my generation should die, people who believe they will be snatched away will be sorely disappointed. Would they loose faith? Would they have the courage to persevere through to the end if they suddenly realize the hitherto unexpected trials that lie before them? Jesus calls us to tribulation and suffering and we should patiently endure even the worst of it, and thank him for his faithfulness, until he calls us – alive or dead – to reign with him at the end of the age.