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.
- Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright
- The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation by Barbara Rossing
- 1 & 2 Thessalonians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary by Ben Witherington III
- Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Intro to Paul & His Letters by Michael Gorman