Bulletin Articles

Bulletin Articles

“Rapture”

Categories: Iron sharpens iron

Those who study eschatology—doctrines about end of the world—eventually hear the term, Rapture.  This is a relatively recent innovation in Christianity, which isn’t a strong endorsement.  It’s usually tied to the Tribulation, another loaded term. 

The basic idea is that at some point in the future, God will take away the faithful from earth and leave the wicked to suffer plagues, wars, natural disasters, and the like.  After this tribulation, so it goes, Christ will return to earth and (depending on whom you ask) establish his 1000-year reign.  Where did all of this originate?  The word rapture doesn’t appear in your English Bible.  It comes from a Latin word, rapio,  which occurs several times in the Latin Bible used by the Catholic church.  This was the translation of the Greek word ἁρπάζω-harpazo-snatch, which appears in the following passage:

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.  (1 Thessalonians 4.16-17)

“Caught up,” translates the word in question, which worked its way through Latin and into English as “rapture.”  For “tribulation,” we must look elsewhere.  The word appears many times in the Bible, but two passages lead some people to expect a Tribulation (with a capital T!) as part of a series of events surrounding the end of the world.

“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (Matthew 24.29-31)

When Jesus mentions the gathering of the elect from the four winds, it sounds similar to the catching  up of Christians alive and dead to meet him in the air.  Revelation contributes to the puzzle:

And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.” (Revelation 7.14-15)

That description sounds like heaven, and the ones with washed robes sound like faithful Christians.  However, there are also problems with the timing of all these predicted events, and especially with the most common version of the Rapture doctrine, which states that the faithful are to be taken away before the Tribulation occurs.

Paul describes the resurrection of dead Christians again in a later letter, and there’s little or no time for the kind of shenanigans we’ve been dreaming up:

so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. (1 Corinthians 15.22-24)

This is explicitly about “the end,” and it includes no Rapture or Tribulation; only a resurrection followed by destruction.

In Matthew 24, however, just after the passage we considered, Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (v34).  Furthermore, Revelation contains many reminders that the events described in that book would come “soon” (2.16, 3.11, 22.6, 22.7, 22.12, 22.20).  There are surely elements of both Matthew 24 and the visions of Revelation that pertain to Christ’s second coming and the end of the world, but they’re primarily about events within the lifetimes and foreseeable futures of their immediate audiences.  The first is about the coming destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred in 70 AD, just 40 years after Jesus made his predictions.  The visions of Revelation mostly refer to the persecutions early Christians would have to endure from the Roman state and populace, as well as some of the ways God would bring them victoriously through and dispense justice.

Those are the same sorts of predictions he made through Old Testament prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah regarding the restoration of Israel to its land and nationhood—often using the very same words!  When we read further predictions under the new covenant, it’s silly to jump to the conclusion that it’s about the end of the world.  He’s told us very clearly a little about what to expect there, and we can find it in 1Th 4.13-5.11, 1 Co 15.20-28, and 2Pe 3.8-13.

People often see in their bibles what they want to see, or what they expect to see.  Most of them have not spent enough time in the Old Testament prophets to appreciate how God talks about his intervention in earthy affairs.  Too many allow pop-culture to exert influence in their interpretation of God’s word.  Don’t be distracted by such silliness.  Instead, focus on being ready for his coming, no matter how you expect that day to look.

Jeremy Nettles

Comment