Most people have some idea about what the rapture is – or do they? Generally there is an idea or concept of a form of escapism from the world when Jesus returns, which happens pre, mid or post tribulation and in some connection to the millenium. Now, if you understood any of those terms, you are most likely on, or aware of, the Dispensationalism side of things.
There’s a lot of doctrine all bundled together in “end times” beliefs, and a fair bit of speculation around “the rapture” with its timing and logistics etc. which makes the whole thing a but murky, but nonetheless, it’s pretty much taken for granted as a staple belief within the Evangelical world. But has this always been so, and does it have any biblical basis?
In short: sort of.
This is the primary verse where the doctrine finds its footing:
…then we that are alive, that are left, shall together with them be caught up in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
— 1 Thessalonians 4:17
On the face of it, that is a pretty obscure (and short) text, yet so much has been written on and speculated about around this event.
I’m not going to cover every aspect of rapture doctrine here, but rather want to just highlight the context of this verse and its parallels in Paul’s other letters, as this seems to get lost under centuries of doctrinal baggage, which, incidentally, also the leads to the next point to look at: is the rapture biblical?
The word “rapture” itself comes from the Latin word rapere, which means: “to seize” or “to abduct”. It is a translation from the Greek word that is rendered as “caught up” (ἁρπάζω / harpázō) in our English Bibles today.
For many, asking if this belief is biblical is a non-starter because it is assumed so based on 1 Thess. 4 so obviously it is. But this is a presupposition, reading the modern ideas of what “the rapture” means into the text. The modern idea being that Jesus comes back briefly (and maybe secretly), whooses all the Christians into the sky and takes them to heaven, away from all the troubles on the earth, before coming back later to do a proper “second coming”.
John Nelson Darby, a 19th-century theologian, is often credited with creating this premillennial rapture doctrine, followed closely by C.I. Scofield who wrote a best-selling annotated Bible which promoted Darby’s rapture views in its footnote commentary. This particular Bible became wildly popular across America in the early 1900s and ended up solidifying the futurist dispensational viewpoint for generations to come within Evangelicalism.
Despite the popularity of Scofield’s Bible, what it (and Darby) taught was a novel idea which had not been seen nor heard of before in the previous 1800 years of Church History, yet many Christians accepted it without hesitation, likely due to it being part of the exposition alongside the Scripture they were reading, and therefore a seeming authority.
I realise there is somewhat of an irony here in that I’m acting similarly like an authority telling you that this belief is wrong whereas Scofield was writing as though it were accurate, but in an even more ironic twist, just a handful of verses later, the same letter to the Thessalonians says to “test everything; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21). This is what I would invite you to do: don’t just take my word for it, test everything and see if what I say is accurate.
So what is the context of these verses, if not about being whisked away into the sky with Jesus? A couple of things, but one slightly more obvious than the other, though still overlooked by people, I’ve noticed; the other requires knowing some more about the ancient Greco-Roman culture of the time.
Firstly, we only need go back a few verses to see what Paul is writing about here: he begins the passage in verse 13 by saying that he doesn’t want his readers to be “uninformed” about fellow Christians who have died, so that they “may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (i.e.: unbelievers). The main context here is about death and having hope through Jesus’ resurrection that they also will be resurrected when the time comes. Therefore, do not grieve the death of a loved one as we’ll see them again on that day. It’s a passage of comfort to the Thessalonica church, not one of escapism from “the great tribulation”.
Secondly, then, Paul is speaking of this resurrection event and the hope we should all have in it, using language which not only parallels his other great passage on the resurrection in 1 Cor. 15 (being changed in a “twinkling of an eye”), but also using a contemporary allusion which his readers could relate to, which also hints back to John 14:1-3 where Jesus he will come again to receive us (see also, Jude 14).
What Wright is talking about here is noted by several Biblical commentaries too. “The expression translated to meet is kind of a technical term 'for the official welcome of a newly arrived dignitary'…and is very suitable in this context.” writes Dr. Leon Morris in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. F.F. Bruce's International Bible Commentary, Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words and The Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary all note the same theme in their notes about this phrase being used of dignitaries coming on official visits and being met by their loyal subjects.
As Wright also notes in his book Jesus And the Victory of God (p.345), “Had Jesus wished to introduce so strange and unJewish an idea to them he would have had a very difficult task.”
Modern rapture theories completely divorce the original context from the text and wrangle in other, new ideas.
This isn’t just something which has been recognised by scholars and commentaries in modern times either, if we go back to the fifth century we can see that the respected early church father, John Chrysostom wrote about this meaning in his commentary on 1 Thess. 4:17.
If he is about to descend, on what account shall we be caught up? For the sake of honour. For when a king drives into a city, those who are in honour go out to meet him; but the condemned await the judge within. And upon the coming of an affectionate father, his children indeed, and those who are worthy to be his children, are taken out in a chariot, that they may see and kiss him; but the housekeepers who have offended him remain within. We are carried upon the chariot of our Father. For he received him up in the clouds, and “we shall be caught up in the clouds.” Do you see how great is the honour? And as he descends, we go forth to meet him, and, what is more blessed than all, so shall we be with him.
– John Chrysostom (~ AD 407)
So while the concept of “the rapture” and of the Church being “caught up” to meet Jesus in the air has always existed in Christian thought and theology, the underlying meaning of those terms hasn’t been the same as the last 100 years or so.
So let's recap 1 Thess. 4 for clarity's sake:
Whatever your views about the “millennial reign” and how that looks, the context here is all within that framework of Christ coming, the saints rising and then ruling with him as he returns to earth. It leaves no room for the modern rapture doctrine of escaping to heaven with Jesus and avoiding coming to earth immediately without the resurrection involved.
I hope this has served to illuminate some of the issues with “the rapture” and has pointed you towards a more biblical view of the return of Jesus.
If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, sign up to be notified about my new book, The Coming of Christ, which will look at this topic and more when it’s released.
Further reading and sources:
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