Um, I think we're in trouble.

I have not used the word “rapture” for some time now when describing the second coming of Christ as it is described in 1 Thess. 4.15-18. In part, I think this has been due to the popular understanding of the word and the subsequent implications. The Left Behind series of fictional novels and other books like The Late, Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey have formulated how the word rapture is understood by the popular imagination. I am not necessarily supporting full abandonment of the word, but it seems damaged enough that it is worth discarding.

This subject was brought up yesterday and I was asked why I didn’t affirm a “rapture” if I did find 1 Thess. 4.17 mentioning us being “caught up together” with the Lord Jesus Christ.

First, as I noted, the popular image of the rapture is escapist. Christians are vacuumed out of the earth into the heavens for a debated period of time. I rejected this.

R.G. Clouse defines the rapture as, “A phrase used by premillennialist to refer to the church being united with Christ at his second coming (from Lat. rapio, “caught up”).” [1] If this all that the doctrine of the rapture entailed then I affirm it, but there are important variants and other assumptions like a defined vision of the “Great Tribulation” that has been further defined than I think Scripture tells us. There are pretribulationist who believe before the time of wrath the church goes into heaven. I don’t see this anywhere to be honest. There are those who think it happens during the time of wrath. Again, I don’t see this anywhere. Then there are those who think the rapture happens at the end of the time of wrath as the saints meet Christ in the air to join him in his final victorious assault upon evil.

As far as that last definition is concerned let me say that (1) I do think the saints meet Christ in the air to welcome him to his rule on earth which includes his victory over evil but (2) I have no opinion of the so-called “time of wrath” so I don’t really feel obligated to speculate in that regard.

Second, it is important to examine the message of 1 Thess. 4.15-18 when pondering this teaching. Let me provide the NASB version  here:

For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of  the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 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. Therefore comfort one another with these words.

As you can see where I made the text bold there are certain elements of this passage that provide some context to what is happening.

“The coming of the Lord” (τὴν παρουσίαν τοῦ κυρίου) is an important concept. The παρουσία is a “coming” and/or an “appearing”. Therefore, it is essential that we realize this testifies to Christ’s return here to earth. Another way of saying this would be to note that he is making himself visible to the physical world.

This concept is shared in the canon. In Acts 1.11. as the disciples stare into heaven the angels tell them that Jesus will return the same way that he went. Christ’s coming back from heaven in v. 16 parallels this idea. Also, in 1 Jn. 3.2 we are told we will be like Christ when he “appears” because then we will see him face-to-face. This seems to express the idea that Christ is present, but not visible. He is ruling, but not “physically” (for lack of a better word).

So we must think of Christ’s return as his appearing. This is his descent back to earth. This is the time when he is made visible. Paul himself describes this event further in 1 Cor. 15.23-27 where he sees our resurrection as being like Christ’s resurrection and it occurs “at his coming” (ἐν τῇ παρουσίᾳ αὐτοῦ). Again, we have Paul mentioning the παρουσία.

As we ponder this doctrine from these different angles we see (1) Christ’s returns/appears; (2) it will be the opposite of his ascension; (3) we will be like him because we will see him as he is; (4) in Paul’s language this means for the dead there will be a resurrection occuring just like Jesus’ resurrected. In both 1 Jn 3.2 and 1 Thess. 4.15 there is the assumption that there will be believers who have not died. These believers will go instantaneous change just like the dead who receive new bodies. All will be like Christ.

N.T. Wright sees Phil. 3.20-21 as describing this event as well. [2] This passage reads (NASB):

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly bwait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.

Don’t misread the statement that our citizenship is “in heaven”. That doesn’t mean we must “go” there to get it. It is obvious that even in this passage, like the others we have mentioned, resurrection is the focus and if resurrection is the focus then we do not regain our bodies to “go”.

So what do we do with the part in 1 Thess. 4.17 where we are “caught up”. It almost seems like resurrection could be so we “go to heaven” where Christ has been. I think this misses Paul’s point and it ignores the Johannine and Lukan contributions to our eschatology that we noted.

The word ἁρπαγησόμεθα does indicate a future event where we are quickly “seized” into the air (hence, the Vulgate rapio and the English rapture). But this does not mean we stay in the air. Again, this is Christ’s “coming”. This is his “descent” from heaven. This is his “appearing”. If there is something known as a “Great Tribulation” then I am convinced Christ’s return would be afterward because when Christ comes we meet him to welcome him and this signifies Christ’s victory over death and evil. Resurrection has occurred.

Wright sees three images behind Paul’s words:

(1) Moses coming down from Sinai where we have a trumpet and a loud voice.

(2) “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.”

(3) When emperors visit colonies within the empire and “the citizens of the country would go to meet him at some distance from the city” in order to welcome him as ruler. [3]

We have two intertextual echoes and one historical antecedent that give context to 1 Thess. 4.17. So our being “caught up” to meet Christ has more to do with Dan. 7 imagery of the saints victoriously joining Christ in his descent upon evil as well as the parousia concept in the ancient world of the people of a colony welcoming their ruling emperor. While much more has been written on this subject, and I know this blog post cannot cover it, this provides a bit of a glimpse into why I don’t like “rapture” language (even if postribulationist see my views sympathetically).

My take on the passage is that it refers to our meeting Christ in the air to welcome him to his earthly rule. If this is a “rapture”, fine, as long as it is not confused with the popular idea.

[1] R.G. Clouse, “Rapture of the Church” in Walter A. Elwell, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed. 983.

[2] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, 131.

[3] Ibid. 132.