The Rapture: A Biblical Examination

Many of the responses to Tad’s last post were an appeal to an examination of the biblical text for scriptural proof of a literal Rapture. My aim here is to dispel some (mis)understandings of scripture and to make a biblical argument for why we should not read the text as supporting a Rapture not only because of these erroneous readings but also based upon a scriptural analysis of the eschatological nature of personhood and ecclesiology.

Before we dive in though, I want to briefly make a distinction between Second Coming and Rapture. Often times, when I say I don’t believe the Bible supports a doctrine of the Rapture, people will look at me in horror and say, “You don’t believe Jesus is coming back?!” Let’s be clear: Jesus is coming back. He says he will explicitly. What happens when He returns is, however, up for debate. And we can debate it until we’re blue in the face; we’re not going to know for sure until it happens. Yet that does not protect the Rapture from criticism, because as I just stated, there are important implications for personhood and ecclesiology at stake here.

Revelation and Dispensationalism

Let’s begin with the book of Revelation and a discussion of dispensational theology in general. First, in order to understand how Revelation relates to eschatology, we must understand the nature of the genre it falls under. Revelation is unique in that it is the only apocalyptic text in the New Testament. The Gospels and Acts are narratives. Everything between Acts and Revelation is epistolary  (letters addressed to someone specific that together give us a picture; in this case, a picture of the early church, its structure, struggles, etc.) Revelation is, as mentioned, apocalyptic. Going to a dictionary definition of that word, the one that we’re all most familiar with (describing or prophesying the complete destruction of the world) is actually not going to be helpful in coming to understand the original Greek meaning of the word, ᾿αποκάλυψις, which is actually where the English title of the book comes from. The word means “to reveal that which was hidden, to make something fully known.” Before we jump on the second half of that definition, we still need to understand this genre in an ancient context.

Ancient apocalyptic literature is highly symbolic and metaphorical. We can claim that John, while on the island of Patmos, actually saw the things  he describes, even if only in his mind, with some certainty; however, we can say with equal certainty that he was not intending these descriptions to be read as literal events that would take place at a particular moment in the future dubbed “the end of the world.” The same thing can be said about Daniel 7 and 8 as well. With that in mind, Revelation and Daniel are not about what will literally happen in the end times; rather, both are revealing to us that the ultimate victory and glory belongs to God alone, that his great drama will be brought to a close in a final act that sees all of creation acknowledging His glory, power, honor, and love. We do know how things will turn out: God wins in the end and it is going to be glorious beyond all imagination. How that literally happens is ultimately irrelevant to the Biblical authors. They weren’t interested in trying to pin down exactly what God has in mind. Instead, they are focused on what these events, whatever they look like, mean for us in relation to our infinite God.

Think about it this way: If the Biblical authors were attempting a literal description of the end times, why in the world would they not have had in mind the events of their own day? That is, many will point to certain characters (beasts, whores, dragons) in Revelation and use them to talk about current politics as if John on Patmos had in mind nations like the U.S., Russia, or China, that not only did not exist, but the parts of the world those nations are located were completely unknown to John and every other Biblical author. The claim that these texts must refer to specific, current political events involving nations that neither God nor the Biblical authors have specified interest in just doesn’t make sense and really is pretty arrogant. Why should the United States, over every other nation in history, be the chosen centerpiece of specific apocalyptic (in the contemporary sense) events?

The only way to conceive of describing the meaning of eschatological events in the ancient world was to write a text as vivid as possible in order to describe the truth that would be brought through them. They were attempting to explain the unexplainable. We do the same thing with metaphor in poetry. Sometimes metaphor, which is never a direct, representational description of reality conveys truth to us in ways that we never thought possible. As Tad pointed out in his post, this is how Revelation has been understood by the vast majority of theologians from the early church to the present. Only in the last two centuries has dispensational theology emerged, and it has caught the attention of so many precisely because that’s just what these types of claims do–they sensationalize the future by claiming to be able to provide a fantastic, detailed account of what is to come. However, there really is only one detail that should really concern us: that God keeps his promise to redeem and transform all of creation. More on that a little later.

A Look at Scripture: Matthew 24:40-41, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, Revelation 3:10

Let’s turn now to some specific verses that many commonly cite to offer biblical proof of The Rapture. First, we have to acknowledge that the word does not exist in Scripture. Then again, neither does “trinity” in reference to God, so that alone is certainly not enough to disprove a doctrine of The Rapture. We need to exegete each text. Even though the subheading of this section is in order of where these appear in Scripture, we need to look at them out of order so that we can understand how people come to the conclusion that this doctrine is valid.

1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 reads, “For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.” The most important thing to do when trying to understand specific verses is to first put them into their context: chapter, book, author, larger historical context.

Let’s start by going back a few verses to 4:13. In this chapter, Paul is encouraging the Thessalonians to reject their pagan pasts. Paul wrote many letters (the letters to the Corinthians, for example) that addressed specific issues these congregations faced in transitioning from pagan to Christian practice. This is one of the reasons many Jews in the early church were fighting for Gentiles to first be converted to Judaism; they were afraid that Gentiles’ pagan practices would too greatly influence their newly adopted Christian ones, and they wanted Christianity to stay true to its Jewish heritage. Much of Paul’s career was spent addressing this issue so that he could insist that Gentiles did not need to be converted to Judaism before Christianity (see Romans.) Back to verse 13. Paul writes: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” This is the immediate context of the verses that follow. Paul is concerned that the Thessalonians will continue to mourn the dead as they had before accepting Christ. This is actually a concern in other parts of Scripture as well. Leviticus 19:28, for example, which many people point to as being a prohibition of tattoos, is actually a specific commandment against tattooing the name of the dead on one’s body. It is not that this practice or the one Paul is addressing (which is not specified) is something borne out of evil or directed by Satan; rather, Scripture is calling God’s people to be set apart, to distinguish themselves from those around them, which was particularly difficult in the ancient world because there were so many religions and variations on religions, including variations on Judaism. Paul is calling the Thessalonians not to mourn their fallen brothers and sisters because what sets them apart now from their still pagan neighbors is the hope they have in God’s promise through Jesus Christ. They should have no fear of death because of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Paul is teaching doctrine here. But it is not the doctrine of The Rapture as popularly understood. Let’s look at the specific phrase in the verse that is commonly used to point to proof of The Rapture: “…will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air.” The word commonly understood as “rapture” is ἁρπάζω (arpazo), which is translated here as “caught up.” It’s dictionary definition is “to be caught or seized by force with the purpose of removing or controlling.” If we leave it there and couple it with the imagery of being in the clouds and meeting the Lord in the air, then we have the perfect equation for understanding this as a literal description of The Rapture. But remember: Biblical authors were not interested in literal descriptions of the eschaton. That means that we need to dig a little deeper. Paul is actually using the imagery of a Greco-Roman practice (Thessalonica, remember, is Northern Greece, so this image would have been very familiar) in which a crowd of people would exit a city to meet their king, and the king would then lead them back into the city. Note, there’s no mention of heaven in verse 17, unless you believe heaven will literally be in the sky above the earth. This is, again, not about a literal description of what will happen. Rather, Paul is offering encouragement to the Thessalonians, reminding them that they will be united with Christ one day and reunited with their loved ones who have died and that this reunion will be accompanied with a feeling of elation and utter, complete joy. It’s Paul’s way of getting across to them why there is no need to mourn. The power that came through Jesus’ death was an end to death as the Thessalonians knew it. That theme is repeated over and over again in Paul’s epistles.

Let’s move now to Revelation 3:10, which reads: “Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.” This verse is commonly pointed to as evidence for a pre-tribulation Rapture. Again, we need to understand the context. The first few chapters of Revelation are comprised of short epistles to “the seven churches,” and even though they are epistles in form, they are still a part of the larger apocalyptic genre that the whole book fits under. That said, there certainly are a number of ways to interpret chapters 2 and 3. I’d like to offer but one possibility, specifically for 3:7-12.

This letter specifically can be read as a warning against believers doing exactly what dispensationalists today do: predict the particulars of how God will act. That requires some more detailed explanation. The author is alluding to false teaching in the synagogue (verse 9.) Therefore, to read the following verse outside of that context would be a mistake. That false teaching could be many different things. One of the primary “false teachings” warned against in the New Testament, particularly in Jesus’ ministry, was the belief that the Messiah would come to help the Israelites overthrow their Roman oppressors by force. So when the author, in verse 10, says that the church at Philadelphia will be spared the hour of trial that is coming, he could be referring specifically to the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, which would more accurately fit the way that prophecy worked in the ancient world (that is, prophecy was expected to be fulfilled immediately, within the initial audience’s lifetime or perhaps the very next generation.) In 70 CE, the Jews, led by Simon Bar Giroa (who also claimed to be the Messiah) rose up against the Romans only to be utterly destroyed by the Roman general, Titus. Some may be wondering now about the fact that verse 10 mentions the whole world and all its inhabitants. Remember: Apocalyptic literature is symbolic, so there’s no reason for us to read that literally. It could just as easily be referring to the “world” of Israel, trying to emphasize Israel’s importance. It’s certainly possible to understand this passage as referring to that specific event rather than an end-of-the-world tribulation.

Now, I want to make it clear that I am not saying this is the way to read this passage. Rather, I want to point out that there is not one way to read these verses. The text is far more complex than that. Limiting ourselves to a “raptural” understanding of Revelation 3:10 prevents us from seeing other things that God may want to reveal to us in the text.

With these two verses as a backdrop, supporters of The Rapture will turn to Matthew 24:40-41 (the earliest text of the three) which reads, “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” Again–let’s look at context. First, Jesus makes this statement as part of a chronology of responses to a question that the disciples ask about the “end of the age” but in immediate proximity to Jesus’ prediction that the temple would be destroyed at the beginning of the chapter (24:2.) It’s this statement about the temple that frames the rest of the chapter. This prediction can also be understood, with the help of other verses, to be in the context of the Jewish uprising against the Romans. Such a thing would not have been difficult to predict. It would be like someone 10 or 20 years ago with some basic knowledge of history in the Middle East predicting that the United States would eventually enter a conflict with one or more nations in that region. The Jewish uprising against the Romans was all but inevitable, and we can see allusions to it popping up all over the Gospel narrative. Jesus’ primary concern was that his people would see that uprising as the moment, as the consummation of God’s promise, when it wasn’t–Jesus’ death was. God wasn’t fulfilling the promise in a way that any Jew, including the disciples, thought the Messiah would.

When the disciples ask him about “the coming of the end of the age,” they’re most likely not referring to the destruction of the entire universe as they knew it. While we obviously can’t say what they mean by this question absolutely, it’s fairly certain that they have in mind a general bringing in of the final phase of God’s plan. They’re living under God’s promise. They want to know when that promise gets fulfilled. Notice, there’s no direct question about how it’s going to happen or what will specifically happen. In fact, they don’t really seem to suggest that “the end of the age” is going to be a process of any kind–they just want to be able to anticipate it somehow. Jesus’ warnings are for them, in their time. He’s warning them (and he ends up being right) that other Jews will come claiming to be the Messiah (Simon Bar Giroa, as mentioned above. About 200 years before Jesus, Judas Maccabeus led the first Jewish revolt against the Selucids, and many thought that he was the Messiah.) This was common in the Jewish tradition of the time.

Jesus is telling his disciples, essentially, that no one will be on their side, and that it will be very difficult to stay the course. It’s obvious to Jesus from their question that they will be on the lookout for events to interpret as signs. Jesus response? The sign is already here. He talks about enduring all of these things that they would mistake for signs, to not be fooled by them and all of the false prophets who would misinterpret them as signs. Ironically, this is probably the strongest indictment against dispensationalism there is in the Bible. Jesus moves then in verses 27-36 to a much more symbolic, apocalyptic description, again for the same reasons John and Daniel do: The particulars of what God does are just not important. So the “signs” he gives the disciples are frustratingly vague. Verse 34 makes things even more complex. Clearly, the disciples’ generation did pass away. But again, Jesus is still speaking apocalyptically, and the word for generation, γενεά, could really mean a whole host of things including the people of a particular time but also the people of an age (as in the age the disciples are referring to) as well as one’s line of descendants. It’d be tough to definitively say what Jesus meant by that. All of this discussion is really to point to the fact that this is a very difficult passage–one which requires a detailed interpretation and not a literal reading.

Let’s get to the verses in question though. Immediately prior to these statements, Jesus describes what happened in the time of Noah before the flood (by the way, one could say that the flood was the end of an “age” the way the disciples understood it.) People are having a great time, living in sin instead of for God, and without even realizing it, they are swept away. This is really important in understanding verses 40 and 41. Who is it that is taken? If we put those verse in context, it is the wicked person who is taken–the righteous one is left! That seems to make much more sense in the context of what Jesus says immediately prior. Let’s look at verses 39-41 together: “39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.” We can only read this as a rapturing of believers in light of a misreading of the previous two passages (1 Thessalonians 4 and Revelation 3) and by ignoring the immediate context of these verses.

Biblical Eschatology

This idea of being “left behind” is at the heart of biblical eschatology but in the exact opposite way that proponents of the Rapture would think. The Rapture is really a doctrine of escape. It is the story of a rescue mission, but it misunderstands what God wants to rescue us from. Peter Rollins tells a great parable illustrating this (thanks to Tad for pointing me to it):

Just as it was written by those prophets of old, the last days of the Earth overflowed with suffering and pain. In those dark days a huge pale horse rode through the earth with Death upon its back and Hell in its wake. During this great tribulation the Earth was scorched with the fires of war, rivers ran red with blood, the soil withheld its fruit and disease descended like a mist. One by one all the nations of the Earth were brought to their knees.

Far from all the suffering, high up in the heavenly realm, God watched the events unfold with a heavy heart. An ominous silence had descended upon heaven as the angels witnessed the Earth being plunged into darkness and despair. But this could only continue for so long for, at a designated time, God stood upright, breathed deeply and addressed the angels,

“The time has now come for me to separate the sheep from the goats, the healthy wheat from the inedible chaff”

Having spoken these words God slowly turned to face the world and called forth to the church with a booming voice,

“Rise up and ascend to heaven all of you who have who have sought to escape the horrors of this world by sheltering beneath my wing. Come to me all who have turned from this suffering world by calling out ‘Lord, Lord’”.

In an instant millions where caught up in the clouds and ascended into the heavenly realm. Leaving the suffering world behind them.

Once this great rapture had taken place God paused for a moment and then addressed the angels, saying,

“It is done, I have separated the people born of my spirit from those who have turned from me. It is time now for us leave this place and take up residence in the Earth, for it is there that we shall find our people. The ones who would forsake heaven in order to serve the earth. The few who would turn away from eternity itself to serve at the feet of a fragile, broken life that passes from existence in but an instant”.

And so it was that God and the heavenly host left that place to dwell among those who had rooted themselves upon the earth. Quietly supporting the ones who had forsaken God for the world and thus who bore the mark God. The few who had discovered heaven in the very act of forsaking it.

This parable is a play on our earlier distinction between Second Coming and Rapture. Just as I do, Rollins believes Christ will return. His narrative demonstrates, however, that it may not happen the way proponents of the Rapture envision. Rollins’ story is not just an alternative imagined at random though. It is an attempt to accurately reflect, in a symbolic not literal way, what God envisions when he brings his drama to a close.

Richard Mouw, the president of Fuller, where I attend seminary, offers some really helpful insight that will help explain what Rollins is doing from a Biblical standpoint. His book When the Kings Come Marching In offers a prophetic reading of Isaiah and Revelation that speaks to the ways in which God will use and transform culture to his glory in the end times. Mouw’s central point seems to be that the traditional understanding of how Christians relate to culture needs to change—that Christ is not against culture; rather, he will transform it and use it in a way that brings glory to God and ultimately fulfills God’s divine plan for Creation. Mouw uses four main illustrations taken from Isaiah 60 in order to demonstrate in general the ways in which God will transform culture in the end: the material, the political, the human, and transforming light.

I want to briefly describe the first illustration to get a sense of Mouw’s point; then I’ll explain how this relates to Rollins’ parable. The first illustration, the Ships of Tarshish, represent the “stuff” of the world—all the things of culture, nature, and society that fill the Earth. Mouw is careful to point out the places in the Bible where these ships—which metaphorically refer to the things of industry, economy, and culture—are detrimental to God’s divine plan. But he also argues that the “fire” that is referred to again and again in the Bible, which will consume the ships, is not a destructive fire but a purifying one. The things man has brought into the Earth, that man has filled the Earth with as God instructed him to in Genesis are all things that have the potential to glorify God. In their sinful state, they cannot. But once purified by God’s holy fire, they will be fit to enter the City and help to fill it. The difficulty is that some artifacts of man—weapons, pornography, etc.—do not seem to be able to serve any function in the City; however, the Bible says these things will be completely transformed into something different. The Christian then does not need to look around at culture and ask herself what things are holy now in God’s sight. Certainly, there is very little in the world that would be worthy right now, in its current state. A Christian in contemporary culture should be focused upon the ways in which God will completely transform the artifacts of culture and is currently working in those things now to begin the process of that transformation. We are looking for the inbreaking of God’s kingdom in the world–right now.

This is what Rollins’ parable is pointing to. This is what the Bible is pointing to. God wants to redeem all creation not individual people. Both Mouw and Rollins understand the Second Coming as a call to care about the world we live in. As I mentioned in the beginning, the problem with the Rapture is that it is an escape plan. An easy way out. But Jesus doesn’t promise an easy way out. Remember Matthew 24? Jesus tells his disciples that they will be put to death for what they believe in–specifically, for not believing the religious leaders of the day who were preaching false prophecy. He’s warning them that the road they’re being called to walk is really difficult.

A Closing Word

The bottom line is that issues like this are never easily resolved by appealing to a handful of verses taken out of context. They require serious biblical study, which is what God wants us to do. He wants to reveal Himself through the Word. He didn’t call people to be bystanders, not participating in the kingdom. He called people to be engaged and to care about seeking after Him at the expense of their comfort, pride, and human desires.

by Joel Harrison


2 thoughts on “The Rapture: A Biblical Examination

  1. […] A gentleman became quite disgusted with me over my position regarding the authority of Scripture (also on the Facebook page.) In this case, it wasn’t that he thought I was too liberal—it was that I wasn’t liberal enough. He seemed to be in line with Bart Ehrman, believing that our holy text is just a dubious mash up of incomplete semi-historical records that have been hacked to bits through translation (though even Ehrman’s position isn’t quite that polemical.) A few weeks after that though, he was in complete agreement with both our position on Osama bin Laden’s death and the posts on the Rapture. […]

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