Resurrection, Part 5: The Rapture

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emptytombI have a confession to make: I didn’t know what the “Rapture” is until I was in law school. A degree from Lipscomb and a childhood of Sunday school classes and sermons, and somehow the Rapture got entirely past me.

We in the Churches of Christ don’t speak of the Rapture — either pro or con. In fact, my first rapturestickerexperience with the teaching came from a bumper sticker: “Warning: In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned.” I thought it was a drug-culture reference. I mean, there was no Internet yet, so how was I to know?

So I eventually came to understand the reference, and it struck me what a perfectly dreadful things these bumper stickers are. First, why would we presume that a non-Christian understands the concept? And, to me, it comes across as more than a little smug. The message is not just “I’m saved,” but also “And maybe you’re not” not to mention “and you’ll be left behind with a bunch of empty cars and dead bodies from all the wreckage.” So I began to understand why the Churches of Christ don’t preach Rapture. We make enough mistakes without adding this one to the mix.

But, of course, this begs the much more important question: Is the Rapture really taught by scripture? And this much is clearly true —

(1Th 4:14-17 NET)  14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also we believe that God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep as Christians.  15 For we tell you this by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not go ahead of those who have fallen asleep.  16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be suddenly caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord.

Paul pictures Jesus as descending from heaven — reversing the ascension that ended his earthly ministry. And then the general resurrection — the dead in Christ — will rise to meet him, shortly followed by the living in Christ. I guess we leave our cars behind. Imagine the wreckage and carnage! A Christian surgeon is taken in the middle of a critical operation. The engineer of a train disappears, leaving the train to crash into houses and schools. It’s unthinkably horrible from the perspective of those left behind.

But does Jesus return when the damned are destroyed on Judgment Day? Or are the damned “left behind” to clean up the mess created by the saved due to the Rapture? Well, nothing in this passage addresses the fate of the damned. Later in the book, Paul says,

(1Th 5:2-3, 9-10 ESV)  2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.  3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.  … 9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,  10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.

The Day of the Lord is the same day as “sudden destruction.” There’s not the least hint of a 1,000 year gap between Jesus’ return and the judgment of the damned.

Hmm …

So what happens next? We are resurrected, we go up into the sky to meet Jesus, and then what? We go up to heaven with Jesus? If so, then Jesus never really returns to the earth, just the sky. And Rev 21-22 describes Jesus as enthroned on the kainos/renewed earth.

(Rev 22:3 ESV)  3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.

Obviously, nothing in heaven itself has ever been accursed. This is speaking of the curse on the heavens and the earth created in Genesis 1 and renewed by God when Jesus returns — that is, when he returns to earth. Hmm … How can Jesus go back up into heaven only to then sit on his throne on earth?

NT Wright explains how the Thessalonian church would have understood these words.

[T]he word parousia had two lively meanings in non-Christian discourse at the time. Both of these seem to have influenced it in its Christian meaning.

The first meaning was the mysterious presence of a god or divinity, particularly when the power of this god was revealed in healing. People would suddenly be aware of a supernatural and powerful ‘presence’, and the obvious word for this was parousia. Josephus sometimes uses this word when he is talking about YHWH coming to the rescue of Israel. God’s powerful, saving presence is revealed in action, for instance when Israel under King Hezekiah was miraculously defended against the Assyrians.

The second meaning emerges when a person of high rank makes a visit to a subject state, particularly when a king or emperor visits a colony or province. The word for such a visit is ‘royal presence’: in Greek, parousia. In neither setting, we note, obviously but importantly, is there the slightest suggestion of anybody flying around on a cloud. Nor is there any hint of the imminent collapse or destruction of the space-time universe.

Now supposing Paul, and for that matter the rest of the early church, wanted to say two things. On the one hand, supposing they wanted to say that the Jesus they worshipped was near in spirit but absent in body, but that one day he would be present in body, and that then the whole world, themselves included, would know the sudden transforming power of that presence. A natural word to use for this would be parousia.

On the other hand, supposing they wanted to say that the Jesus who had been raised from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand was the rightful Lord of the world, the true Emperor before whom all other emperors would shake in their shoes and bow their knees in fear and wonder. And supposing they wanted to say that, just as Caesar might one day visit a colony like Philippi or Thessalonica or Corinth (the normally absent but ruling emperor appearing and ruling in person), so the absent but ruling Lord of the world would one day appear and rule in person within this world, with all the consequences that would result. Again, the natural word to use for this would be parousia. (This was particularly significant in that Paul and the others were keen to say that Jesus was the true Lord and that Caesar was a sham.)

Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 141–142.

Wright explains that, in the Roman world, if a dignitary — especially the emperor — visited a city, this was called a parousia, and the custom was for the citizens to run out of the city gates to meet the emperor on his way, escorting him into the city.

In fact, the Greek word parousia, which has become a technical term for the literalistic construct of an early Christian hope involving the end of the space-time world, with Jesus ‘coming down’ in a ‘second coming’ and believers flying upwards to meet him, is drawn, not from the Bible at all, but from the world of pagan usage, where it was almost a technical term for this kind of imperial ‘visitation’. Properly, parousia means ‘presence’ as opposed to ‘absence’; Paul can use it in that way of himself, without implying that he is going to be flying downwards on a cloud; but the point here is that the ‘meeting’—another almost technical term in the Greek—refers, not to a meeting after which all the participants stay in the meeting-place, but to a meeting outside the city, after which the civic leaders escort the dignitary back into the city itself. This passage thus belongs very closely with 3:13, and with Philippians 3:20–21, pointing towards the larger picture of 1 Corinthians 15:20–28 and Romans 8:12–30, indicating not that believers will be taken away from the earth, leaving it to its fate, but that—in the language of apocalyptic imagery, not in literal spatial reality—they will ‘meet’ the lord as he comes from heaven (1:10) and surround him as he comes to inaugurate God’s final transformative, judging-and-saving reign on earth as in heaven.

N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 217–218.

In fact, Wright suggests that 1 The 4:14-17 combines three, rich metaphors —

The three stories which Paul is here bringing together start with the story of Moses coming down the mountain. The trumpet sounds, a loud voice is heard, and after a long wait Moses appears and descends from the mountain to see what’s been going on in his absence.

Then there is the story of Daniel 7, in which the persecuted people of God are vindicated over their pagan enemy by being raised up on the clouds to sit with God in glory. This ‘raising up on the clouds’, which Jesus applies to himself in the gospels, is now applied by Paul to the Christians who are presently suffering persecution.

Putting these two stories together, in a typically outrageous mix of metaphors, enables Paul to bring in the third story, to which we have already alluded. When the emperor visited a colony or province, the citizens of the country would go to meet him at some distance from the city. It would be disrespectful to have him arrive at the gates as though they his subjects couldn’t be bothered to greet him properly. When they met him, they wouldn’t then stay out in the open country; they would escort him royally into the city itself. When Paul speaks of ‘meeting’ the Lord ‘in the air’, the point is precisely not—as in the popular rapture theology—that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from. Even when we realize that this is highly charged metaphor, not literal description, the meaning is the same as in the parallel in Philippians 3:20. Being citizens of heaven, as the Philippians would know, doesn’t mean that one is expecting to go back to the mother city, but rather that one is expecting the emperor to come from the mother city to give the colony its full dignity, to rescue it if need be, to subdue local enemies and put everything to rights.

Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 144–145.

In short, there will be no Rapture — not before and not after a thousand-year reign. Jesus will descend back to earth, just as he once ascended from the earth — but this time, he’ll come as King with his glory fully revealed. He’ll put the visitations by Caesar Augustus to shame. And he’ll come with his holy angels, and his brothers and sisters will leap from their graves or, if they’re not yet asleep, from their work or play or sleep, and hurry into the heavens in their newly transformed, Spirit-empowered bodies — shining like stars in the sky — to welcome their king.

But no one will be left behind. The damned will defeated by the wrath of God, their fate foretold by Isaiah —

(Isa 66:24 ESV) 24 “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”

God will melt away the unredeemed, imperfect, not “very good” parts of the creation, remaking it just as he remade us into new creations by his Spirit. That process will be completed so that we are in the very image of God, united with him in a way that only a parent and child be united. We’ll have the same spiritual DNA.

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