One aspect of popular theology concerning the end times is the rapture but I’m not sure that it is a Biblical concept. Perhaps the most popular understanding of the rapture is that Christ will return and take his followers back to heaven before a time of trouble and judgement before returning again to reign. I imagine that most believers have heard about this in some form. I am willing to listen to the arguments of others, but as I interpret the Bible I do not see this being present.
Is the Rapture Present in 1 Thessalonians?
The first difficulty with the idea of the rapture is that it is primarily taken from one text – 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. The context that Paul is writing is to Christians who are concerned that those who have died will miss out on the second coming of Jesus. His purpose is to assure them that they will not. Death is not the defining enemy because whether dead or alive, followers of Jesus will meet him.
Kurt Willems describes the context of 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 this way:
“This passage, when placed in the larger context of the chapter, is answering questions that Christians in Thessalonica had concerning death. What has happened to our loved ones who have died before the return of Christ to earth? What is theirs and our ultimate destiny? Paul’s answer: bodily resurrection at the return of Christ to earth! Not an escape into the sky”
Paul specifically refers to this meeting taking place in the air and thus giving rise to the idea of the rapture. The rapture doesn’t take into account that Paul was writing in the midst of the Roman Empire. When Caesar would visit a city it was normal for the city’s leaders to come out to welcome him before escorting him into the city. I think this is the idea in Paul’s mind. Jesus, the true ruler over all, is being met by his followers and accompany them back to the earth.
Does the Rapture fit with the Rest of the Bible?
Secondly, as I read the Bible as a whole, I would describe the message is to be God’s agent in the world. Noah is left in the world. The Israelites, while being distinct, are called to demonstrate what it means to be the children of God and call others to join them. The New Testament’s emphasis on mission shows Christians going into all the world to make disciples. The overall thrust is to be a follower of God means to be actively participating in the world as God’s people and never isolationist. I think the rapture goes against the thrust of Scripture because it separates God’s people from God’s world.
John Tancock makes the point this way:
“The Church has always prayed ‘your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’. Yet Rapture theology says that Jesus is coming back not to redeem the earth but to take us away and destroy it. Thankfully, in Surprised by Hope, Tom Wright puts forward the idea that God wants to redeem the earth, not vacate it to destruction.”
This is not merely an intellectual pursuit. If, by my understanding, the rapture won’t occur then it must affect the way I live. I cannot try to remove myself from the world and its problems but I must seek to engage with the world as God’s agent. It means that I must be part of the solution to problems as God’s representative. And I am accountable for what I do in the world since I will be one of those who will greet him and accompany him back to earth.