Will there be a rapture?
Not tomorrow, but, you know, eventually?
Wait, why not?
Allow me to explain.
The Rapture, from the Latin raptus “seizing,” refers to the belief by some Christians that at the End of Days, Jesus will return and take up the faithful into heaven with him. These righteous evacuees will be spared the turmoil and tumult of a period of Tribulation during which (among other things) the Antichrist will rule the earth, earthquakes, plagues, wars, and devastations will ravage the earth, and ultimately, the world itself will be destroyed.
It’s a nice idea, but it does not have a long pedigree. It came out of early Nineteenth Century dispensationalist theology and the work, in particular, of an Irish clergyman named John Nelson Darby.1Craig C. Hill, In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future, p. 200 ff. This entire work is a wonderful introduction in accessible language to eschatology and end times theology. The idea of the Rapture has a foundation in some poor Biblical interpretation and even poorer Christian theology.
One of the Biblical passages that is often quoted in support of the idea of the Rapture is the following passage from Matthew (with parallel passages in Luke):
For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.Matthew 24:37–41 NRSV
This seems to be very much the situation contemplated by most espousers of a rapture and the idea that lies behind the plot of the Left Behind series. Two are standing on a street; the righteous one is taken up to heaven and the unrighteous is left behind in the world that is lost to destruction and devastation.
But there are two possibilities for the interpretation of the word “taken” and neither of them supports the idea of a rapture of the Church.
First, “taken” might have a negative interpretation. Given the experience of the Jews in the Babylonian Exile, the term “taken” might have the sinister implications of being taken into captivity, exile, or death. In the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament), the same verb is used in Jeremiah to refer to being “dispossessed” of the land.
Second, “taken” might have a positive interpretation, but not in the sense of being raptured. Since these verses follow after a statement about Noah and the flood, “taken” might refer to being rescued from destruction, but not in the sense of being whisked away to heaven. Indeed, Noah was taken into the ark but he still experienced the flood—he was just saved from its consequences. As one commentator notes:
Matthew has no rapture in his eschatological understanding. Those who are “taken” refers to being gathered into the saved community at the eschaton, just as some were taken into the ark. To be a believer is to endure faithfully the tribulation, which is part of the church’s mission, not to escape from it.2Similarly, in Matthew 24:30-31 the language of the Son of Man “gathering his elect” from the four winds speaks more to the identification of authentic Christian community on the last day than any plan to whisk the righteous out of the world.The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, 446 (emphasis added)
But perhaps the more famous (and more relied upon) passage of scripture is this passage from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians:
For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.1 Thessalonians 4:16–18 NRSV
As with all Biblical interpretation, context is everything. Here, the context is obscured by the English translation. The word translated as “to meet” is the Greek word απαντησις apantesis, which means “meeting.” However, it usually connoted an entourage of citizens going out to meet a dignitary.3The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI., 725. That is, in the ancient world, when a king came to visit a city, a delegation would leave the city, meet the king outside the city walls, and then escort the king back into the city. They did not leave with the king. And so here, Paul is comforting his parishioners with a hopeful vision. Those who have died will not miss the resurrection of the dead. They will be the first ones raised. As for the rest of us, we’ll go and meet Jesus as he comes to earth (literally from the sky), by going out and meeting him in the air. But if the rest of the metaphor holds, we return with Christ to earth. Jesus doesn’t come to meet us in the sky and then take us back with him.
Furthermore, while there are numerous verses about the end of days (it was precisely because there were so many and so varied that John Darby sought to harmonize them all in one account), there are no verses of scripture that speak of Jesus returning twice. That may seem obvious, but the proponents of the rapture believe that Jesus will return to rapture the church, then leave the world to be destroyed, then come back to reign in the Kingdom of God. In an attempt to reconcile the diverse and different passages of scripture concerning the end times, Darby and those who came after him have produced a narrative that is nowhere found in the Bible. Far from being Biblical literalists, those who espouse this view often do great violence to the plain meaning of scripture, let alone to the diversity of voices within the canon.
But far beyond any Biblical interpretative problems, there are serious theological consequences to a belief in the rapture, ones that stand in stark contrast to the overwhelming bulk of the tradition, and five doctrines essential to Christian faith.
The first chapter of Genesis describes the creation of the world from the priestly tradition of Israel. Strong on liturgical refrain and a theology that stood in opposition to the violent origin stories of the ancient world, the account in Genesis presents the picture of a gracious and benevolent God who creates the world out of love and generosity. The world that is thus created is described as “good.” It is somewhat depressing to see how those who are the most vocal proponents of taking this story literally (and thus rejecting scientific truths like evolution) are the ones who miss the point of the story so greatly. The overwhelming affirmation of Genesis is the goodness of the creation. In the second chapter of the book, a story coming from a folkloric tradition, humanity is fashioned out of the dust of the earth in order to keep and till the garden of God’s earth. We become living beings in that story, not because we are imparted with a soul, but because God breathes the breath of life into us. From the very beginning of our story we see that the creation is good and that we are an intimately connected part of that creation.
In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, in words that echo the creation in Genesis, we read that the “word became flesh and dwelled among us.” This is a passage that speaks to the Incarnation of the Son of God in human form as Jesus of Nazareth. Note what it does not say. It does not say that the word ‘took on’ flesh or ‘appeared in’ the flesh. It says the word “became” flesh. That is, Jesus was not just the Second Person of the Trinity pretending to be a human being. The miracle of the Incarnation is that the Son of God was a human being. Fully. Truly. In every meaningful way. Our physical being is not apart from God; God chose to become one of us. That is an affirmation of our createdness, and the goodness of our existence.
In Christianity, depending on who you ask, there are two or seven sacraments. All Christians agree on the sacraments of baptism and communion as ordained by Christ for his followers. A sacrament, to put it in traditional language, is a “visible sign of an invisible grace.” That is, we know something about God’s grace, love, self-sacrifice and purposes from having ordinary water poured over us and consuming ordinary bread and wine. In these ordinary elements something divine, something profound is conveyed into us. Were these material things not worthy, they could not possibly convey something of the grace of God. And yet they do.
The entire Christian message begins with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Resurrection is an idea that had existed in Judaism that on the last day the dead would be resurrected, raised to new life and would live forever in the Kingdom of God. When Jesus’ disciples found the tomb empty and when they later encountered him risen, they knew that their hopes for life, peace, and justice were vindicated. They knew, as Paul proclaims, that Jesus was just the “firstfruits” of those who have died, that his resurrection heralded the general resurrection of the dead that would one day come. It bears noting that the gospel accounts confirm that Jesus was neither specter nor ghost, but flesh and blood (albeit of a different order). But physical nonetheless. What is important to understand first and foremost about resurrection is that it is not an abandonment of our physical selves, it is an affirmation and glorification of those selves. The central message of Christianity has always been one that affirmed the goodness of the body, so much so that it would not be abandoned (as the Greeks believed) by our soul flying off to some other plane of existence, but that we would return to live as embodied creatures in a new and restored creation. Which takes us to our final point.
The vision presented in the Book of Revelation is of a renewed heaven and a renewed earth. Of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. It is in this city, on this earth, that God will dwell with God’s people, wiping every tear from their eyes. It is not a book of abandonment, but of restoration and renewal. Not of destruction at the hands of a vengeful God, but of resurrection, new life, and the rivers of life flowing freely. It is a vision in which God says “Behold, I am making all things new.”
Against this theological core, an idea like the rapture seems significantly out of place. A theology that encourages a belief in escapism takes away its focus from the world of the here and now, which scriptures demonstrates time and time again is God’s focus. And where we are called to be. Abandonment theology encourages complacency and an indifference to the world we live in, for it is not our home, not where we are meant to be. It promotes a decline in social justice, serving the poor, and in stewardship of the creation: precisely those things we are called to do throughout scripture. We cannot write off injustice simply by claiming that this world is not God’s and our fate is to escape this world in any event.
Dr. Craig C. Hill sums it up best in the conclusion to his wonderful book In God’s Time:
More than a century and a half ago, John Nelson Darby wrote, “I believe from Scripture that the ruin is without remedy.” Believers should expect only “a progress of evil.” All of us are the beneficiaries of those Christian reformers who ignored Darby and got on with the business of fighting slavery, opposing child labor, and campaigning for the enfranchisement of women—the business, that is, of making this world a little more like the dominion of God. For the time being, there remains more than enough such work for all of us. “Blessed are those servants whom the master will find at work when he arrives.” (Matt. 24:46) 4Hill, 208-9.
This is God’s world. God created it. God created us out of it. God came to dwell as one of us in it. God gave us ordinary elements of life and said they would convey something divine to us. God raised Jesus from the dead to new embodied life in this world. And at the end of all things, God will renew, redeem and restore this creation, making all things new. Given that, this world deserves better from us than to hope to abandon it. It deserves the same love, the same hope, and the same tireless work to live out God’s love and grace that God, through God’s own actions, has shown us it is worth.
For Further Reading:
Craig C. Hill, In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2002, p. 200 ff. This entire work is a wonderful introduction in accessible language to eschatology, the rapture, and end times theology.
Mark Schaefer, Religious Not Spiritual: Toward a Christian Faith That Matters, 2015.