Today there are a lot of people talking about the rapture, the idea that believers in Jesus Christ will one day at the Lord’s call be snatched off the surface of the Earth and carried off to a heavenly abode while Earth and everyone on it are tossed in the trash. I don’t want to offend anyone but on this point I gotta say that the doctrine of the rapture has only weak support in the Scriptures at best. New Testament scholars like N.T. Wright and Gordon Fee have written extensively against this doctrine and have both observed that the idea of the rapture is only a recent point of discussion – nobody was talking about this until the beginning of the twentieth century. Three scriptures in particular are usually used to support the rapture: 1 Thess 4; 2 Pet 3: 10; and Matt 24: 36-51. I don’t intend to appear like I am knocking down ducks at the shootin’ gallery, but I would like you to think about each of these.
In 1 Thessalonians Paul is trying to correct the mistaken impression that believers who died before Jesus came back wouldn’t go to heaven. Now don’t forget that is what Paul is addressing when he writes in 1 Thess 4:16-17,
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.
Paul says that the dead in Christ will rise first, the believers who are still alive will rise and meet Jesus as he returns. It is somehow assumed by those who believe in the rapture that we are then carried off while the rest of the world is destroyed but that isn’t what the text says. Paul is imagining a common practice when the ruling Lord or head of state visits a city, all the citizens of the city come out to meet their Lord, who then accompanies them back into the city. That is the image that Paul is trying to create. Paul is answering the question of, “What happens to people who die before Jesus returns,” not the question of, “How does the world end?” It’s very important when you read the Scriptures that you avoid imposing your questions on Paul’s answers. You need to keep the original context firmly in mind. What is Paul originally addressing?
Whats more is when we read other scriptures like Rev 21 the interpretation of Jesus being welcomed into the city like a Roman emperor makes more sense. In Revelation we read that the new city, the new Jerusalem that Jesus has been preparing comes down:
1 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. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” 5 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
God is in this city. He comes to make his dwelling place among humankind. This is what he has wanted since mankind lived in the Garden. The tree of life that we are kept from eating from (see Gen 3:24) is in this city (Rev. 22:2). In the new Jerusalem we will live in resurrection bodies, eat the fruit of the tree and live there with God forever. This doesn’t jive with a rapture interpretation of 1 Thes 4: 16-17 where God throws out the life raft and everyone who is with the program bails out of God’s failed creation project.
People often mistakenly quote a poor translation of 2 Pet 3:10 when asked about God’s ultimate purposes with creation.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.
The King James Bible and a couple of other older translations, render this verse, “everything will be burned up” but this is based on a poor translation of the Greek word heuretheasetai. It is better understood figuratively as in burned: refined by fire. Literally the word there means, exposed, or revealed. The idea behind the verse is that the earth, and all creation will be refined with fire for judgment. Again, look at the context! Peter, just a few verses earlier speaks the same way about how the earth was previously judged with water during the flood (see 2 Pet 3:6).
The third verse used in supporting the doctrine of the rapture is Matt 24
36“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 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; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.
Again, context is to understanding this passage. Getting ‘taken’ here isn’t good, it’s bad! The taken ones are being judged! You don’t want to be taken in this story! You want to be left! The picture here is not believers being plucked off before God wipes creation out. The idea is that judgement will come swiftly and unexpected. Jesus is saying, “live in readiness.”
Whether my interpretation of these verses has been convincing or not, I think we can agree that no matter who you are, your understanding of the final coming of Jesus Christ is incomplete, not because of some perceived weakness in the Scriptures, but because of our inadequate comprehension of the Scriptures. “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Cor 13: 12) Anyone who claims a full and complete understanding of precisely how the world will end assumes too much (and is usually selling something 🙂