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In my last blog, I discussed the most critical issues surrounding the end times and which events believers should be especially aware of. These are the “end time essentials,” as I understand things. Though I discussed the issue of Christ’s return and the resurrection, there is something else that should specifically be covered: The Rapture.
Over about the last decade, one of the more memorable stories I can recall focuses squarely on this issue. I remember this story because it was humorous, but also because it illustrates a belief that is common within the church. One of my female co-workers (at that time) told me about the strange Saturday that her daughter, Ellie, had endured. To briefly summarize, the entire family had been outside working in the yard and playing for most of the day. At some point, Ellie ventured off from the rest of the family and was playing on her own. Meanwhile, the others slowly dispersed to engage in other activities. Mom went to the store. Brother went to the basement for a nap. Dad went out to a distant part of the yard to work in the barn.
When Ellie finally returned to the house, no one else could be found. Everyone seemed to have disappeared.
After some time, they had all found their way back home and into the living room. That is, except for Ellie. Now, she appeared to be the one who was missing. After frantically searching the house, she was finally discovered hiding in the blankets of her closet. Her face red and disheveled, she sobbed relentlessly. But why was she crying? Was she just afraid of being alone?
Not quite. After Ellie began to calm down, she tearfully revealed the cause of her distress: “You left me all alone and I couldn’t find you anywhere. I was afraid everyone had been raptured away!”
While Ellie’s belief that her family had simply been zapped out of existence may seem strange to some, others would find it entirely reasonable (depending on their denominational background, of course).
And this illustrates the mystery of the Rapture.
Like so many other issues, there is an element of truth involved that is unfortunately covered over with misinformation and wishful thinking.
But first things first: what is the Rapture? It may surprise you to know that the Bible never once uses this term. Never once. However, like the word “Trinity” or “Easter,” the basic concept of the Rapture is based on Scripture. We ultimately derive the word “Rapture” from the Greek word “harpazō,” which Paul used in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. There, he was describing the order of events that will occur at Christ’s return: “Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.”
The word translated as “caught up” is a form of harpazō, and this is the term that would later be translated in Latin as rapturo. Naturally, from rapturo came the English term “rapture.”
This generally describes how the term came to be, and it most essentially means to “catch,” “steal,” or “carry off.” However, the form of harpazō used in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 literally reads, “we will be carried off.” Specifically, Paul intended it to say that believers—at the Parousia, the Second Coming, or Christ’s Return—would be lifted up into the sky to meet the King of Kings as he once again enters our world.
Certain denominations see Jesus’ words in Matthew 24—which is the first part of the “Olivet Discourse”—as describing the Rapture, when his apostles asked about what would transpire at the end of the world. He told them the end and his return would arrive with the haste of a flood (Mt. 24:37-39). Interestingly, Jesus then provided two vivid examples of what this will look like: “Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and the one left” (Mt. 24:40-41).
However, is this sudden separation of people—of believers and non-believers—what Paul explained in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18? Predictably, there is disagreement on this issue. Scholars coming from backgrounds that tend to ignore (or at least downplay) the apocalyptic aspects of Scripture believe that Jesus was not talking about the same event that Paul was. The case is that Jesus was describing people being taken in the context of the Great Flood. There, the ones who were “swept away” were actually the unrighteous. Therefore, they see the people “left behind” at the mill or in the field as the saved and the ones taken as the unsaved. In other words, you “want to be left behind” in Jesus’ example but not in Paul’s.
I have looked at both sides of this, and I tend to believe that Paul and Jesus were describing the same event. We could easily invert the Flood analogy, and it would make better sense to do so. At the Flood, Noah and his family were taken away (in the Ark) and those who were left on the earth perished. In Paul’s example (1 The. 4:17), it is also the righteous who are taken off the earth and the unrighteous who remain. To me, this is a much more natural connection.
It also seems very out of place to view the ones who are taken in Jesus’ examples as the unrighteous. Where did they go? How does that square with Paul telling us that believers will be caught up to meet Christ? This view appears to pit Jesus against Paul and confuses the entire issue. But I digress . . .
Elsewhere, Paul explained that not all will sleep (die), but all will be transformed (1 Cor. 15:51). That transformation—or the reception of new and glorious bodies—will occur at Christ’s return. Lastly, Revelation more vaguely describes this event in 20:4, where the dead “came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years.” As we already saw, Paul stated that the living believers will also join them (1 The. 4:17).
All these teachings are describing the day when Christ will return to raise the dead, separate the righteous from the wicked, and give all believers their resurrection (or “spiritual”) bodies.
So far, so good. Now, here comes my patented “but”. . .
If this was all that is intended when people say “Rapture,” then the doctrine would rest on a firm foundation. Remember, “Rapture” is even derived from the word Paul used (harpazō). Unfortunately, this is not what people of the 21st century often mean.
A number of Bible teachers and authors have introduced—and even popularized—certain concepts about the Rapture that, well, simply aren’t true. Unfortunately, these false views have gained quite a lot of traction over the years. I suppose the Left Behind series of books is as much the culprit as anything else, but this can be traced to the 19th century origins of dispensationalism (not that it’s all wrong).
A lot of believers have gotten the impression that, on a future day, people will suddenly vanish from sight while the rest of the world just sort of hums along. The saved are zapped out of worldly existence while the unsaved sit back and ponder where they went. If you recall, this is exactly what caused little Ellie to suppose that her family had been Raptured away and that she had been “left behind.”
Ellie errantly believed—through someone’s misguidance—that the Rapture will bring about a division between two groups: those who disappear into heaven, and those who just stay behind to live in what the band Duran Duran called, the “Ordinary World.” The rapture will definitely bring about a massive separation between two groups (the godly and ungodly), but the latter will not carry on with life as usual.
Neither Paul nor Jesus suggested that life will simply continue as normal after believers are caught up. Far, FAR, from it. Such a view completely fails to account for the fact that Christ’s return will coincide with a rise in earthly turmoil and even the emergence of the “man of sin” (2 The. 2:1-12). I discussed these issues in my blog about the end times.
Jesus’ earlier statement about the men in the field and the women at the mill is also referenced as evidence of this view; one was taken and the other left. However, this totally misses the point that Jesus was making. He was not saying that the ones who were left just go right on their merry way after the others had vanished. Instead, Jesus was describing the way this will occur. Remember, directly before those two examples Jesus mentioned that the end will come like a flood.
People will be carrying on with life and many (not all) will not expect that anything is amiss. Then, BOOM; fast and furious, the end is upon us! The same principle applies to the people in Jesus’ examples. Those who are taken to meet the Lord in the air will be taken suddenly and—as far as the unsaved are concerned—completely unexpectedly.
This will not be a “secret” event, either. That is another false view.
To the contrary, Christ’s coming will not go unnoticed by anyone: “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Mt. 24:27). Revelation adds that every eye will see Jesus coming (1:7).
These points are connected to another fallacy concerning the Rapture: the belief that Jesus will return not once, but twice. On this view, the first return will be to whisk the church off to heaven to avoid the tribulation altogether—which is typically believed to be 3.5-7 years of time—and the second return will be to judge the rest of the world.
The truth is that Christians will not be whisked away to live in heaven upon his return. In fact, and as I have consistently pointed out in my writings, living in heaven is not something that any of us will ever do. Our future is the resurrection and life in the new heavens and new earth.
Rather than going to live in heaven at that time, Paul indicated that believers will be caught up to meet Christ in the sky and then return to earth. From that point on, we will remain with Jesus. We know this in part because of Paul’s word usage. The term he used for “to meet” is apantēsin. It is used only three times in the NT, and each time it refers to meeting someone and then returning with them. This is like going out to meet a newly arrived official so you can travel back with them. Believers will be what Ben Witherington III calls “the royal entourage.”
Further, the belief that there will not be a “second return” of Christ (or a third coming) is consistent with what Revelation 20 reveals, where the first resurrection is for the saved and the second will only include the lost; “Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection!” There is no “third coming” for another judgment, because those who are not taken alive or resurrected to be with Christ will—at that very point—stand condemned.
Instead, those remaining are the type that Revelation 6:6 describes: “They called to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!’ ”
Imagine realizing that you were wrong: completely wrong. The Christian faith really is the right one. The Bible really is true. Jesus really is Lord. But you were holding the wrong hand when the dealer finally turned the cards. You lost Pascal’s Wager.
It doesn’t get scarier than that.
This is a tragic reality, no doubt about it. I would suggest, however, that it is a tragic necessity. As Jesus explained in his Parable of the Tares, the wheat and the weeds must ultimately be separated. There must be a day when God judges the world in righteousness (Acts 17:31).
Otherwise, what is all this for? What are we heading towards?
And that is exactly what the Rapture is about. As C.S. Lewis once said, “When the author walks on to the stage the play is over.” When the Lord of Lords returns, the world as we know it will be no more. Those who have followed Christ and carried their crosses will either be raised from the dead or instantly “caught up” in the air to meet him.
This is what we can accurately call the “Rapture.” That is, so long as we don’t assert that believers will disappear into heaven (especially forever), that it will be a secret event, or that life will simply go right along for the rest of the world.
[Brief Note: There is a great deal that could be said about how this meshes with the various views about the period of Tribulation, the Millennial Reign, and other details that primarily come from the book of Revelation. These are important considerations, but they warrant their own discussion. These details are typically where Christians truly diverge on the sequence of the end time events. For the sake of preserving clarity, I have not covered this in greater detail at this time.]
This brings us to the final (and most critical) consideration, which should not be a point of debate among believers.
The Rapture and other end time discussions should cause us to evaluate our lives. In fact, they were designed to do that very thing; that’s why apocalyptic writings are such a large part of the Bible (especially the NT).
I seldom make such extreme claims, but sometimes extreme claims are warranted. The single most important question in all of existence is this: which side are you on? Will you experience the Rapture with joy and excitement, or will your feet remain firmly planted on earth as you watch others ascend to meet the Lord? Will Christ’s return be the greatest moment of your life or the realization of all your worst nightmares?
We all had better ask ourselves these questions. More than that, we’d also better answer them.
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