Key Passages related to the Rapture
The truth is that, particularly as it is connected with the broader system of eschatology present in Dispensational Premillennialism, scriptures used to more or less support the Rapture doctrine are difficult to unravel. Many relate to showing how the rapture must precede the last seven-year literal Great Tribulation inherent in Premillennial eschatology. It simply exceeds the space and time constraints of either Facebook posts or my blog (adorate.org) to address these passages individually.
Instead, I will focus on two key portions of scripture that are, in both popular media and in providing biblical evidence of support for the belief that: There will be a sudden removal of all Christians from earth several years before the actual Second Coming of Christ. These are the places in scripture where we read about one person being taken while the other is left behind and believers being suddenly caught up to “meet the Lord in the air.” Combine these two ideas: believers taken up into the air to meet the Lord and some people suddenly finding they are “left behind,” are you have the most popular and widely used Bible phrases and images of the rapture. These are also the two Bible references that inevitably seem to come up when someone discovers I do not believe the Rapture doctrine:
“But what about where the Bible says…?”
I am certainly not out to discredit the Bible or dismiss biblical doctrines. My purpose, in fact, is to honor scripture by insisting we read passages in context. In this case, it is our familiarity with some of the phrases in these passages that actually gets in the way. It’s one of those times when hearing dozens or hundreds of sermons puts us in such a different place than those first readers and hearers. When we hear these phrases or ideas, we just can’t get past our own deeply embedded assumptions. So, my challenge is this: can you put yourself in the place of those first hearers? That is, I would pray for what Eugene Peterson once referred to as “fresh ears.”
PASSAGE ONE: 1 Thessalonians 4
In First Thessalonians, Paul addresses the End Times in the second half of chapter four and the first half of chapter five. Not all this extended passage is related to the Rapture, of course. This contains the best-known description of the rapture. Believers will be suddenly caught up in from the early to meet the Lord in the air.
MEETING THE LORD IN THE AIR
“…caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” (4:17) We begin with what is assumed to be the single clearest and most unambiguous Bible verse describing the Rapture. In some sense, this is unquestionably true. It cannot be doubted the passage depicts believers being miraculously taken up from the earth to meet Christ “in the air.” In the broad definition of the word, this is, indeed, some kind of rapture. But, before putting checking this verse off as undeniable evidence of the Rapture Doctrine, let’s listen to what leads up to this verse and see what Paul is actually saying in 4:17.
1 Thessalonians 4:13–17
“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again,
so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this, we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. THEN WE WHO ARE ALIVE, WHO ARE LEFT, WILL BE CAUGHT UP TOGETHER WITH THEM IN THE CLOUDS TO MEET THE LORD IN THE AIR, AND SO WE WILL ALWAYS BE WITH THE LORD.”
You may want to re-read the passage (although this is the ESV, any good translation is fine) as I outline some points below. If you do, here are what I think you will discover in this broader context:
Why even bring up the subject of the Second Coming?
The main issue Paul is addressing is centered on some anxiety among the Thessalonians about Christians who have died (“fallen asleep” was just a polite way to say “died” in that culture – like we might say a person “passed away”). At least in a general sense, it’s clear what those concerns are. There was confusion and angst because at least some in the church thought those who had died, even if they were Christians, would then miss out on the Second Coming. This the theme he returns to repeatedly in 4:13-17 and then adds (4:18) that the believers should “encourage one another” with what he has written.
So, following on this main purpose, the primary group Paul centers on in 4:13-18 is actually believers who have died. Paul’s point is that, even though they are dead, people in this group will not miss the Second Coming. In fact, they will be first to be transformed and we (the living) will join them in meeting the Lord’s return. This emphasis remains true even in the familiar passage in 4:17. While Paul begins the sentence with “we who are alive,” he then returns the focus to the dead in Christ by noting his readers (those alive) “…will be caught up together WITH THEM in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” Follow his thinking and then read 4:17. It is the “with them,” not the “caught up,” that is the focus of what Paul assumes will be encouraging words he mentions in 4:18.
The event described in verse 17 begins in verse 16 with a loud cry of command, the voice of an archangel, the trumpet of God, and the resurrection of the dead. By any reasonable thinking, this bears no resemblance to some kind of secret rapture of the saved in which everyone else is left wondering what just happened. In fact, as everyone dealing with this passage prior to the 1830’s demonstrates, 4:17 is describing nothing less than the actual Second Coming of Christ. That is, the Second Coming of Christ will be announced by angels, trumpets, and recognized by all the living, and will be accompanied by both the resurrection of the dead and the transformation of the living.
To help make this even clearer, look at another well-known passage about the Second Coming and notice how Paul says virtually the same things about the same event (First Corinthians 15:51-53):
“Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”
On a side note: I’ve run into a few people who will insist the word “mystery” in 15:51 points toward a mysterious secret, and therefore proves there will be a secret rapture. Not only does it not fit the context of First Corinthians any better than that of Thessalonians, it also reflects the assumption any word in the Bible must mean exactly what that same word means in popular American English today.
Any good reading, even an English Bible, of how the word “mystery” is used in the New Testament demonstrates the Greek word “musterion” as used in the New Testament does not mean what the popular notion of a “mystery” means today. Any fundamental knowledge of New Testament Greek, or even some basic research on the New Testament use of “mystery” will make it clear it does not mean mysterious or spooky. A “mystery” something once hidden or known only in scattered parts but later explained and revealed. The most common context, in fact, for “mystery” in the New Testament refers to the inclusion of Gentiles within the People of God, something hinted out throughout the Old Testament, but not revealed clearly until the coming of Christ and the apostolic church.
Returning to First Thessalonians 4:17, the verses does, in the broad sense of the word, describe what could be called a rapture, even if that word (as critics are quick to point out) is nowhere in the Bible. Believers are, indeed, caught up to meet the Lord in the air.
But, this verse cannot be referring to a sudden and (to those left out) baffling disappearance of believers separated from the Second Coming of Christ, itself. What Paul describes is the great universally announced with angelic shouts and trumpets rapture. It is the rapture that includes the final resurrection of the dead (there is some debate over whether this includes all of the dead or only the saints). It is the twinkling-of-an-eye transformation of the living Christians in which the mortal is clothed with immortality. The notion of two people standing together and one suddenly vanishing, leaving the other both confused and “left behind,” cannot fit what Paul is actually saying in Thessalonians.
This naturally leads us to the second portion of scripture. Here we find the actual source of the common idea, in the Rapture, one will be taken and the other “left behind.”
PASSAGE TWO: Luke 17:34-35 [and parallel passages in Matthew 24]
The picture of scenarios where one person is suddenly snatched away to God, while the other is left standing there, seems rooted directly in the teachings of Jesus. In an extended discourse about the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the age, Jesus presents us with the following paragraph. I’ve capitalized the last few sentences, which will certainly be familiar.
And he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. And they will say to you, ‘Look, there!’ or ‘Look, here!’ Do not go out or follow them. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot—they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all— so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed. On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. I TELL YOU, IN THAT NIGHT THERE WILL BE TWO IN ONE BED. ONE WILL BE TAKEN AND THE OTHER LEFT. THERE WILL BE TWO WOMEN GRINDING TOGETHER. ONE WILL BE TAKEN AND THE OTHER LEFT.”
Of course, those last sentences are the backdrop of the whole “Left Behind” series of best-selling novels and movies. Many years ago, contemporary Christian music pioneer Larry Norman typified the same idea when he wrote:
“Life was filled with guns and war
And all of us got trampled on the floor
I wish we’d all been ready
Children died the days grew cold
A piece of bread could buy a bag of gold
I wish we’d all been ready
A man and wife asleep in bed
She hears a noise and turns her head he’s gone
I wish we’d all been ready
Two men walking up a hill
One disappears and one’s left standing still
I wish we’d all been ready
There’s no time to change your mind
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind”
Here we need to be challenged, once again, to step back, consider the context, and hear the teachings of Jesus with fresh ears. That is, we ought to engage our imaginations to the task of
Jesus as if we were standing there in the crowd and had never sat in a prophecy lecture or read an engaging novel about the end times. If we didn’t have all that background and framework, and were hearing Jesus words for the first time, what would we hear Him say?
As I mentioned above, feel free to read and re-read the passage in whatever translations you like. I will still propose that the following observations are clear enough to be certainties.
The whole point of bringing up the time of Noah and of Lot focuses not on the evil going on at
time of judgment (a common idea we get by just hearing a few choice phrases from the passage), but on the fact that people were just going about their normal day-to-day activities. That is, the people of Noah’s generation or of Sodom had no idea judgment was about to come upon them. While Jesus could certainly have pointed out they were sinful and wicked cultures, instead He says picks out ordinary day-to-day living kinds of things. He notes they were eating, drinking (this did not imply anything bad like drunken parties), marrying, giving away children in marriage, buying and selling. So, why bring up Noah and Lot? Jesus uses them as two biblical examples when God poured out judgment on people and it came, without warning, while people were just going about whatever they would normally be doing – it just happened. Yes, this is very similar to the point Paul makes to the Thessalonians.
The sudden nature of this judgment means that no preparation will be given. It just happened. And, it means that it did not matter where you might be standing or who you might be standing next. Those things had no relevance related to this judgment.
Most surprisingly, if you are standing there listening to Jesus, think about the images He has just brought into your mind. Judgment came in the days of Noah and destroyed the world, leaving only Noah and his family. Judgment came and destroyed Sodom, leaving only Lot and daughters. The ones left are the ones protected from the judgment. And then, Jesus pictures two people in a field or in bed with one being taken and the other left. In both biblical stories just mentioned by Jesus, the taken are those judged and the left ones are saved from judgment. Ironically, then, if someone had asked, “So, you wanna be taken or left?” – there’s no doubt which group you’d have picked.
The truth is this section of Jesus’ teaching says nothing about a secret rapture or a great tribulation or even the world growing ever more wicked. The point made by both biblical references and Jesus’ own analogies is that the children of the Kingdom should remember that the Final Judgment will come in the middle of day-to-day living and without warning. Whatever you happen to be doing at that moment, or where you are standing, or who you might be with, have no direct bearing on how you will fare in that judgment. So, living with that full knowledge means you need to be ready, day in and day out, for it. This is how you will not be caught unprepared.
The man who fully expects his house to be robbed may not know how or when or even who will rob it. But, if he absolutely believes it will eventually happen and it could happen at any time, that man will always order things in his house or make whatever preparations might be needed to stop or even catch the thief. That, in a few words, is the whole point. Go back and listen to the whole passage and it will be clear that this is the point Jesus wants to make.
Other defenses of the rapture doctrine (and I have read many) delve into such strange and esoteric approaches to End Times events that it would exceed all reasonableness to address them here. Let me just pre-emptively bring up an analogous example of the thinking you will encounter. Much of it depends maintaining confidence that all time in linear, that we can discern interplays between the spiritual realm and our world in literal and entirely logical terms, and that every detail in a vision or parable or narrative can be, when convenient to prove a doctrine, pushed to its most literal extreme.
Here’s an example of the problems with approaching such issues with unbridled confidence in linear rational systems of explanation: It’s not directly related to the rapture but will suffice to prepare you for the kinds of thinking you will encounter. The Bible teaches is it appointed to people once to die, and then the judgment. At some point, beyond the Parousia, the living and the dead will be judged, separating the sheep from the goats. However, in the story of the rich man and poor Lazarus, the rich man suffering in what sounds like hell can both see the blessed realm of Abraham’s bosom, and is aware his brothers are still living back on earth. So, when was his judgment? Is he in hell? What about poor Lazarus? Is he in heaven? How can you have heaven and hell before the end of the age? And can Paul say “once to die and then the judgment.” The story of Lazarus puts a lot of stuff between “die” and the end-of- the-world final judgment.
One answer is to use a smattering of obscure passages to postulate multiple after-stage realms ranging from Tartarus to Paradise to Abraham’s Bosom to whatever. Although it valiantly tries to logically (to us) reconcile a bunch of different passages, it ends up with an approach that is as complex as it is unconvincing.
For example, if you go to paradise or suffering instantly, anyway, the great final judgment is hardly needed. It would be like putting a murderer in prison for life as a convicted murderer, and then later announcing it was time have his trial. All of this, of course, assumes we can map the whole thing out on a time chart that makes perfectly good sense to us. To overlay linear (one thing must follow another) assumptions about time into anything that touches on eternity is never going to work.
One lesson many evangelicals need to learn is the humility to acknowledge that, like there’s no way in the world to explain to a three-year old why going to the doctor and getting shots is a really good idea, there’s no way for us to provide neat tidy logical schemes to pull together the Bible’s multifaceted glimpses into eternity. One theologian friend of mine steadfastly insists God must exist in some kind of “divine time” because logic requires that one thought must follow another. Such a silly notion is not so much a failure of the intellect as it is an utter failure of both humility and imagination.
Summary and Conclusion
The doctrine of a miraculous removal of the saved from earth several years before the second coming is, plain and simply, not taught in scripture. That’s why no one saw it for eighteen hundred years. It did not sit there, hiding in plain sight, century after century, until a lawyer-turned-prophecy-guru named John Nelson Darby rediscovered this lost treasure of apostolic truth.
The tenuous biblical support offered either ignores context or strings together passages linked with doctrinal assumptions to weave a pattern so complex that page after page of detailed charts are required to teach it. So complex that, in the decades since Darby, major rifts and splits have continued to occur related to significant details.
A good source for additional information related to the doctrine of the rapture and dispensationalism, I would recommend a book by fellow Ozark Christian College professor, Dr. Larry Pechawer: Leaving the Rapture Behind.
Finally, this is hardly an issue around which we should draw our lines of Christian recognition and fellowship. It is not a litmus test of orthodoxy. The ancients were wiser than many today in electing not to include complex theories about the Second Coming or details explanations of the Afterlife into the major Creeds. They understood the obvious complexity of the issues meant that Christians might differ and still be Christians.
Ultimately, I reject the Rapture Doctrine because I do not believe is supported by scripture and I believe the history of the doctrine serves to confirm this.