The Rapture Fallacy

If you have been following my posts here at the blog, you know that last month I began addressing “rapture” theology that has permeated American evangelicalism over the last century.

I’m confronting rapture theology head on because I think it has obstructed the gospel of the Kingdom that Christ proclaimed. In fact, it distorts the unique Christian hope, thereby influencing the way in which we evangelicals think and live in the world today.

I do affirm the orthodox teaching of the church that there will be a literal return of Christ. It completely bewilders me how anyone could deny this essential doctrine of the early church (Matt 24:36-42; Mk 13:26-37; Phil 3:20; 1 Thess 4:13-18; 2 Peter 3:8-10, Rev 22:20-21 etc.).

So while I do believe in the bodily return of Christ, I do not believe in the “dispensational” timetable of the end times—which has only recently (in the last century or so) been elaborately constructed by cutting and pasting verses together, and mishandling apocalyptic texts to promote something foreign to the NT apostolic hope for the future.

In the next few posts on this topic, I will deal with key “end times” verses that I believe have been mishandled, thus enabling the propagation of bad theology. This has major implications for our understanding and practice of the gospel, and our expectations for the future.

I have expressed here, here, and here that there are many good reasons to question the legitimacy of the popular Left Behind version of the future.

If you haven’t seen it already, please watch this short video on the history and influence of rapture theology in American evangelicalism.

The Situation & Context

I’ll go out on a limb here (though not a very long limb) and say that rapture theology is entirely based upon Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17.

Let’s first begin with what I believe to be the foundation stone of this popular teaching. If we’re going to examine a verse or two of Scripture, it’s always best to read the surrounding verses in context. So, let’s do that first.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (NIV) reads:

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

It should be understood that Paul is writing in response to the confusion among the believers in Thessalonica. They apparently were led to believe that Christians who had died before the return of Christ would miss out on the Kingdom being fully realized on the earth.

Paul is correcting their theology and assuring them in the hope that the “dead in Christ will rise first” (v.16).

The main point of this passage is that the dead will not miss out on the resurrection. They will participate in God’s final victory. They are not lost. Christ will raise them up on the last day.

Now let’s look at the metaphors Paul uses to paint an altogether familiar, albeit ancient picture of a king returning in victory as a conquering hero.

The “Rapture” Proof-Text

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.  1 Thess 4:16-17

I will grant that it’s entirely understandable how, without any background knowledge of ancient literature and the common use of biblical metaphors, that a person could see a “rapture” idea.

But keep in mind, what may seem like a “plain” reading to our modern eyes, is not necessarily a plain reading to the ancient reader.

What did this imagery mean to Paul’s readers? The only way to get at Paul’s meaning is to recognize the metaphors he is using here.

You really need to have some knowledge of OT word pictures, first century ideas of imperial coronations (crowning of kings), and an awareness of second temple Judaism to understand the imagery Paul uses in this passage.

The church can’t be reminded enough that the Scripture is an ancient text that does often require help from trained individuals who have spent a great deal of their time studying the ancient literary and cultural context of the biblical world. Some have been trained better than others.

That isn’t to say that formal study guarantees correct interpretation. But it does mean that the ancient world is not the modern world. Therefore, an intimate knowledge of ancient literary genres and styles are necessary for getting closest to the original intent of the author.

Do you want someone performing open-heart surgery on you that has no real training and relies on the Holy Spirit’s guidance alone? Not very comforting is it? Let’s not set formal training up against the Spirit.

Mixing the Metaphors

The language of Jesus coming on clouds and everyone going up to meet him, should not be understood literally, but should instead be seen as a powerful image of divine kingship.

In the first century, kings would return to the city victorious from battle and be paraded back into his city.

You will recall that they actually did this to Jesus on Palm Sunday. The striking contrast is that Jesus was riding on a donkey, not a white horse; he didn’t have an army, only a hopeful crowd of peaceful followers and fans.

Now that’s saying something!

The trumpets blasting indicate a victorious procession and anthem upon Christ’s return (v. 16). The clouds should rightfully be understood as exalting Christ as divine. In both the Old and New Testaments the cloud(s) speak of divinity—God’s presence.

You see this with the cloud by day which led the Hebrews out of Egypt, the cloud on Mt. Sinai that surrounded Moses when receiving the Law, the clouds of the Son of Man in Dan 7:13, the cloud enveloping Jesus during his transfiguration, and now here with the return of Christ.

Jesus will literally “come down from heaven” (God’s space), not literally float down from cumulus clouds, but a hidden dimension altogether.

The purpose of the dead rising to “meet the Lord in the air” is to mix the metaphors (as it were) in presenting this picture of a divine king coming to his city and being paraded back (to earth in this case) by his people. It’s a beautiful image that ancient readers would have understood.

Christ’s return is literal, but the imagery being used is not to be taken literally.

The authors and readers of the NT would have understood this. They communicated great mysterious truths (especially future events) in this fashion and weren’t bothered by it like 21st century American Christians who tend to think that the literal reading is always the right one.

Rapture theology distorts this imagery by reading it literally and emphasizing the rapio (latin: “to be caught up”) in order to promote an escapist view of the future. The promise of the Lord has always been to renew this earth, not destroy it to steal us away somewhere else.

The imagery Paul is using here is consistent with the biblical covenants, promises, and hope for the future of God’s good world. This is what all Jews, including Jesus, were expecting. The Kingdom of God was going to come to earth in one cosmic event on the last day.

Meaning & Original Intent

Paul is meaning to say that Jesus (king) will return victorious, and like a king coming into his kingdom, we will usher him back to the city (earth) and reign with him forever. As he says, “So shall we be with the Lord forever.”

The literary context dictates these things.

Therefore, the original intent of human language, in the ancient situation and context, is what makes the difference here.

Unfortunately, ignorance of the metaphors and Paul’s deliberate use of over-the-top language in 1 Thess 4:16-17 is why most evangelicals react with such frustration at someone claiming that the literal reading is a mistake.

It has only been translated literally by those who are unfamiliar with the metaphor(s) in the text and by defenders of an escapist view of the future.

As I said before, learning and study is required in reading this ancient text. Meaning isn’t always floating on the surface. Sometimes you have to dig down deeper so you can appreciate the context, the language of the biblical writers, and their methods of communicating ideas.

Let’s be honest, many Christians don’t like to be reminded of that. I suppose this skepticism toward in-depth “Bible study” is born from sheer laziness, anti-intellectualism, or pure dogmatism and fundamentalism.

I’m not sure which.

Either way, we can do better. We must do better.

The Second Coming of Christ

How then do I envision Christ’s literal parousia (coming)? Honestly, I don’t know exactly. And I’m not too sure that the apostles knew either. I think that’s why they use metaphors to describe it.

They are essentially saying this:

“When Christ returns, it will be like a king returning from battle in triumph to his city. We will all go out to meet him and celebrate his arrival. Then at last we shall live with our king forever on the earth.”

Paul mixes the metaphors of clouds (divinity) and meeting in the air (exalted and caught between heaven and earth) for obvious reasons. This is no human king. This is the divine Son of Man (Dan 7:13).

Throw in the resurrection of the dead in this meeting of the Lord and you have a beautiful way of talking about something mysterious and unknown to any man on this planet. What a glorious sight soon to behold!

All of this is lost when you force a literal interpretation.

So, I’ll stick to the metaphors and imagine that whatever it’s going to be like, it will be greater than the metaphors themselves.

For no eye has seen nor ear has heard what the Lord has in mind for those who await his coming (1 Cor 2:9).

Therefore, I believe the NT only recognizes the imminent “second” return of the Lord Jesus to establish his Kingdom on the earth forever without end.

Based on this reading of the biblical text, I think we can safely say that you cannot build a rapture theology from 1 Thess 4:16-17.

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

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About David D. Flowers

David received a B.A. in Religion from East Texas Baptist University and a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Houston Graduate School of Theology. David was in student ministry for 7 years, taught Biblical Studies & Latin at The Woodlands Christian Academy for 5 years, and now pastors an Anabaptist congregation in Virginia. View all posts by David D. Flowers

22 responses to “The Rapture Fallacy

  • Larry

    David,
    By not completing the passage in 1 Corinthians 2:9, you totally misinterpret the text. Verse 10 says, “10 these are the things God HAS revealed to us by his Spirit. And verse 16 for,

    “Who has known the mind of the Lord
    so as to instruct him?”

    But we have the mind of Christ.

    Paul’s teaching is not that we can’t know,BUT THAT WE CAN.

    Secondly, the wrong teaching of using the rapture as an escape has to do with the timing, not the event itself. The “pre-trib” theory is clearly unbiblical and wrong, but the fact of the rapture is not.

    • David D. Flowers

      Larry, you make a semi-valid point regarding 1 Cor 2:9, but the idea of the verse is easily applied to all things the Lord prepares for the future. Paul is quoting Isaiah 64:4, and is not using this passage any differently than I have.

      I would say that if you’re going to say “the fact of the rapture is not” wrong, you should deal with the content of my post where I’m clearly saying that it is wrong. In order to have a discussion, please respond directly to my exposition of the relevant text. Thanks.

  • Larry

    If Jesus will not descend from heaven, then what is the meaning of, “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” Acts 1:11?

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Larry, that’s a good question. I may address this one further in a future post.

      Once again, I think “a cloud hid him from their sight” (v.9) furthers the point I was making about clouds being used as ancient metaphors of exalted divinity.

      It is true that “the sky” is thought to be the place of divinity in the ancient world. That’s because the heavens above them was very grand and mysterious. According to that worldview, the gods (or God) is located above the earth. The sky reminded them of the unseen spiritual dimensions.

      Therefore, I think Luke expects his readers to understand, being this idea is in keeping with their worldview. I think the real point of this passage is to say that Jesus went into heaven (God’s space). Just as he ascended and was exalted in his disappearance, he will return in power in his reappearance (second coming).

      As for the link you shared earlier, I don’t disagree. What I’m saying is that we should not force a literal interpretation of the metaphors.

      • Larry

        David,
        I think it is a “good question” because it directly refutes your position. Clearly, the Holy Spirit could have communicated the concept of Jesus’ return without the clear teaching that He will return JUST AS you saw Him go. They literally saw Him ascend into the clouds. Didn’t they?

        • David D. Flowers

          Larry, it seems that I’m just reiterating what I’ve already said in this post and previous comments here and elsewhere.

          Maybe they did see him float upward in some way and disappear into a cloud, but I don’t think that’s the major point being made (if any). All texts about Christ’s coming is saturated with metaphorical language. The message it’s conveying with the metaphors is much more important than anything you could gather by forcing a literal interpretation where it’s not the main point, or even the point at all.

          You’ve made it clear that we’re not reading the biblical text the same way. To you it appears that I’m playing fast and loose with the text. But really I’m trying to appreciate the way in which the biblical authors communicated in ancient times.

          With all due respect, it doesn’t appear that you’re familiar with the common literary methods of the biblical authors. That’s why I have previously recommended some books on the subject.

          Thanks for sharing, Larry.

        • Larry

          David, metaphorical language for sure, but not all. My ignorance to your enlightenment remains. Words is scripture have points, main or otherwise. We do agree, however, that the teaching of escapism is incorrect and very damaging to the body and that need addressing and correcting.

          Carry on.

          Larry

        • David D. Flowers

          Thanks, Larry. I don’t know if I’d call it “enlightenment” as if it were hidden knowledge… just that my studies have led me to this position. You’re right, we do agree that “escapism” is not a biblical idea. Thanks, bro.

        • Larry

          Sorry to keep bothering you, but I’m confused. I think you are saying there will be no literal destruction of the current heaven and earth, but you say you do believe in a literal flood destroying the earth the first time. Well. Peter makes clear the earth is being reserved for destruction as before, but not by water, but by fire?

        • David D. Flowers

          Larry, I do believe there was a literal flood. But as I said before, I think the language of that flood is purposely exaggerated. “Destroyed” in English doesn’t really communicate the main idea of these passages.

          So, when Peter says that the earth will be “destroyed” like the world in the flood, we should keep a few things in mind: 1. Whether it was a local or global flood (I think it was a local flood), the earth was not annihilated or destroyed in the same literal sense of the English word. It was cleansed of the wicked in the land. 2. In this way, the earth will be “destroyed” (i.e. purified) and transformed with the fire of judgment. Peter is comparing the judgment of the flood like unto the judgment that will come on the Day of the Lord.

          This is all consistent with what Jesus said about the winnowing fork, separating sheep from goats, throwing things in the fire (see Rev 3:18), etc. Peter says our faith, like gold, is refined in the fire (1 Pet 1:7). This is the idea he’s expressing with the flood, judgment, fire, etc. “In this way” (2 Pet 3:11), the earth will be purified in judgment (3:10).

          Peter says, “By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men” (3:7). He is clearly envisioning the “fire” (metaphor) as a purifying act of creation, for it is the “ungodly men” that are taken away in a destruction resulting in death. John calls it the “second death” of unbelievers (Rev 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:18). This fits with Jesus’ use of Noah and the flood (Matt 24:38), as I mentioned in Then the End Will Come.

          There are some difficulties with Peter’s language in the Greek. However, he is definitely couching these ideas in apocalyptic style. I recommend Peter Davids’ The Pillar NT Commentary on 2 Peter & Jude.

          My final thoughts on this is that “destruction” and “judgment” should be understood from the way it’s used in the entire biblical narrative. The biblical narrative is that judgment and “destruction” play out differently depending on the person (believer vs. unbeliever), and according to God’s plan to bring about a transformation of the present world for a new heavens and earth (Isa 65:17; Rev 21). This is why we should concern ourselves what the biblical writers intend to communicate, and not what a flat-footed literalism renders.

  • apronheadlilly

    Regardless of whether the rapture teachings are right or wrong, the effects have been the same. During the rapture rush of the Jesus Movement, many left college, left jobs, married quickly, etc., and all because 1984 was the last possible date we would be on the earth. Instead of dwelling on escapism, we should have been spending more time studying Proverbs and living a wise, sacrificial, and prudent life. Expectation, yes; not planning for a future and a mission here, no.

    • David D. Flowers

      Lilly, I’m not sure what you mean to say by “the effects have been the same” regardless of the truth or error of rapture theology. Can you explain? I may be misunderstanding you. I see a major impact on a person’s living being determined by their theology, especially concerning future things.

      • apronheadlilly

        I suppose I should juxtapose not your position, but quarreling rapture positions. Those pre-, mid, and post were the discussions I was most aware of, but held to Chuck Smith’s view. Of course, 1984 came and went. Those of your persuasion really did not even have a voice in most circles I was aware of. The regrettable part is that rather than a hope of deliverance along with doing the works of Christ, many of us concentrated too much on the rapture happening yesterday theology and so made unwise choices with finances, careers, realtionships–after all, we weren’t going to be here.

        I’m still not convinced that the rapture is faulty. Open-theism is something I embrace, and as a formal doctrine (if we can even say formal without rocks being hurled) it is very new to the scene. But regardless, my life should be about doing the works of the One whose I am, while at the same time, looking up and watching for the soon appearing of my Lord.

  • gioiamorris

    Love this post David! What do you say to Matthew 24:40-41 passage ? By this passage I was taught the rapture idea! How do we interpret Jesus’ words here?

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Gioia, good question. This passage has been used to teach rapture theology.

      I briefly mentioned this in my post “Then the End Will Come” when I stated: “Pay careful attention to this truth. It’s those who are righteous that are “left behind” (Matt 24:38-41). The wicked will not inherit the earth. They will be swept away in a flood of judgment.”

      Jesus uses Noah as an example of the judgment. But notice that it’s the wicked that are taken, the righteous are left behind. So, when he mentions two in the field, and two at the handmill, the ones taken are the wicked who reject God’s image in the earth. It teaches the exact opposite of what rapture folks propose. The context rules out a secret escape for Christians.

      I was already thinking about doing a post solely devoted to this passage. I remember an old “rapture” song based on this passage. I think it’s called “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” Do you remember that song? :-)

  • jimpuntney

    Once again the very simple, yet profound comment by Paul seems to fit well here.

    “And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.

    For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

    I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.”
    Paul of Tarsus

    We can rest in Him, and in this resting our lives are absolutely secure.

    Thank you David for your ministry.

  • Gioia Morris

    Thanks for the clarification David – that’s very interesting and helpful – never thought of it that way! Yes – I do remember that song – Larry Norman as well ad DC Talk (years ago). I listen to it now and the song makes me sad…. we don’t have to fear!! We are in Him and therefore are in a constant “state of readiness” :)
    Great reminder for all of us Jim! We have been set FREE and are living in complete security and peace in Him!!

  • Rob Dyer

    Thank you so much for your stand & telling the Truth. I wrote an article on this very subject about 2 years ago & have taken massive flak for my stand against the Dispensationalist or Rapture Theology heresy. It’s refreshing to know that there are other true Christian believers out there that know the true Gospel and the beauty of the doctrine of the Triumphant Church. Thanks again for your stand.

  • Gary F. Patton

    Thank you, David, for this helpful piece.

    Given your clarifying comment re the cloud metaphor and the return of Jesus, the King, I now have to give up my modern update of “the clouds” as the “Worldwide Jumbotron in the Sky”. :-)

    It’s been a great week of new Scriptural revelation for me. You’ve clarified the metaphors around the “rapture”. Also, I’ve learned that by the time of Jesus, the Greek word “Christos” (translating the Hebrew and Aramaic words “Messiah”), were understood by the New Covenant writers and their readers to mean, not just “anointed one” (literally I was informed: “smeared with oil”, ) but “King”.

    I wonder why bright Bible translators down through the ages, who probably ally all knew this, have stuck with the traditional transliteration, “Jesus the Christ”, rather than an accurate translation, “Jesus The King”? Your thoughts, my bright Brother?

    • David D. Flowers

      Hey Gary, good question. Considering that the Church was married to the state for about 1,000 years, it makes sense why translators would steer clear of language that undermined the power & authority of the worldly kingdoms and their kings. Jesus was hijacked by the powers-that-be and turned into a cheerleader for the state. This isn’t the only issue that has affected interpretations of certain words and phrases. And the word “king” even today may be outdated for many people. It might be more appropriate to say Jesus is president or prime-minister in the US/UK. Something to think about.

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