Why the Rapture isn’t Biblical… And Why it Matters

I grew up in church culture. Most of what I recall from those early childhood and teenage years bring memories of good things.  People genuinely taught me that loving Jesus matters more than anything else in the world.  The world, after all, is corrupt and the place we truly long for is far, far away – heaven.  So we are to love Jesus and hate the world.

Now, this is not hatred toward the people on earth.  I did not grow up in a church culture that taught that we ought to tell outsiders how much they suck, but that this “world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.”

World and physicality = bad.
Jesus and spiritual bliss in a distant heaven = goal of the game.

This distinction came with a subset of beliefs about the destiny of God’s world.  Eventually this planet would be destroyed and we Christians would “fly away” to heaven at the rapture of the church.  Certain Christians understood the timing of the rapture as it corresponds to the book of Revelation differently than others, but no one ever denied the imminent return of Jesus to evacuate the church out of earth.

What I’ve come to realize is that the church of my youth probably had the rapture all wrong.  You see, the Bible flows from Creation (Gen 1-2) to Renewed Creation (Rev 21-22).  This is the narrative of Scripture.  Nothing in the text (if read in its proper context) alludes to the actual complete destruction of the planet.  This world’s worth to the Creator runs deep and because of this, the world as a whole ought to be intrinsically valuable to us.

Physical/earthly realities such as social injustice, violence, hunger, preventable sickness, and the destruction of nature are invitations to the church of Jesus to get our hands dirty and proclaim that this world matters (even in its broken state)! Christ will complete creation upon his return, uniting heaven and earth for the life of the age to come!

The famous “rapture” passage is found in 1 Thessalonians 4.15-17 and reads:

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.

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 [see appendix below!].

In this passage, Paul borrows two specific images from the Old Testament that would have been familiar to Jewish converts and Gentiles who were familiarizing themselves with the Hebrew tradition.  The first of these that Paul employs in the text has to do with Moses who comes down from Mount Sinai with the Law with the great blast of the trumpet.

The second image is taken from Daniel chapter 7 where the “one like the son of man”  (or “human being” or “The Human One”) and the community he represents is vindicated over the enemies of the people of God.  Clouds here symbolize the power and authoritative judgement of God about the rescue of his people. This idea now seems to be applied to Christians who are facing various forms of persecution.

Finally, there is a third image in the text that comes from outside of the canonical context.  This is the image of an emperor who visits a city.  The people of that region would have gone out to meet him to usher him into their home in a royal procession out in the open air.  This, Paul seems to apply to the church who will usher in their King into the new creation.***

Rapture, as it is popularly understood, is nowhere to be found in this “rapture” passage.  Christ will return to resurrect, to purge, to heal, and to establish the eternal kingdom of God on this earth. Heaven and earth will unite like a bride and husband – for all eternity. That’s it.

The Bible teaches that when Christ comes back, it will be Good News!  “‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away’” (Revelation 21.4).  Surely we cannot erase judgment from the picture, but the hope is that those in Christ will be raised to eternal life and everything that is wrong with this world will be made right.

This world renewed is going to be our home for eternity, and we have the opportunity to reflect that future in our present.  Rapture invites us to escape this world: the last thing that Jesus would have ever taught! “On earth as in heaven” is what he said, not “in heaven away from the earth!” Our world’s future is hopeful. Let’s tell that story and not the escapist narratives that many of us grew up with.

[Kurt Note: This article is an adaptation from various pieces that are part of my "rapture" category.]

—————————————————————————————————

APPENDIX

Word Study, 1 Thessalonians 4.17 (Warning: a bit more technical!)

Below is a Word Study that I did based on 1 Thessalonians 4.17.  What is interesting to me is how it reinforced my belief that the “rapture” as it is popularly understood (Jesus secretly returns to extract believers from earth to heaven for eternity) is completely unwarranted.  If you choose to follow the logic below, you will know why :-)

1. Word Identification

The word underlying “air” in 1 Thessalonians 4.17 is the Greek word “ἀήρ” (Strong’s: #109).

2. Frequency and Distribution

  • Roman Historical Narrative  (1x,  Acts – 1)
  • Pauline Letter  (4x, 1Cor – 2, Eph – 1, 1Thes – 1)
  • Apocalyptic (2x, Rev – 2)

The usage of ἀήρ in the New Testament by verse:

Acts 22:23

…εἰς τὸν ἀέρ
…dust into the air,

1Co 9:26

…ὡς οὐκ ἀέρα δέρων·
…one that beateth the air:

1Co 14:9

…γὰρ εἰς ἀέρα λαλοῦντες.
…shall speak into the air.

Eph 2:2

…ἐξουσίας τοῦ ἀέρος τοῦ πνεύματος…
…power of the air, the spirit that…

1Th 4:17

…κυρίου εἰς ἀέρα καὶ οὕτως…
…the Lord in the air: and so shall…

Rev 9:2

…καὶ ὁ ἀὴρ ἐκ τοῦ…
…sun and the air were darkened by…

Rev 16:17

…ἐπὶ τὸν ἀέρα καὶ ἐξῆλθεν…
…vial into the air; and there came…

3. Meaning

1) the air, particularly the lower and denser air as distinguished from the higher and rarer air 2)the atmospheric region[1]

After surveying the above seven occurrences, it is clear that the definition is simply the area of unseen space in our atmosphere.  Below, the meaning in its various usages are explained:

ήρ (aēr109), ἀέρος, (ἄημιἄω, [cf. ἄνεμοςinit.]), the air (particularly the lower and denser, as distinguished from the higher and rarer ὁ αἰθήρcf. Hom. Il. 14, 288), the atmospheric region: Acts xxii. 23; 1 Th. iv. 17; Rev. ix. 2, xvi. 17; ὁ ἄρχων τῆς ἐξουσίας τοῦ ἀέρος in Eph. ii. 2 signifies “the ruler of the powers (spirits, see ἐξουσία 4 c. ββ.) in the air”, i. e. the devil, the prince of the demons that according to Jewish opinion fill the realm of air (cf. Mey. ad loc.; [B. D. Am. ed. s. v. Air; Stuart in Bib. Sacr. for 1843, p. 139 sq.]). Sometimes indeed, ἀήρ denotes a hazy, obscure atmosphere (Hom. Il. 17, 644; 3, 381; 5, 356, etc.; Polyb. 18, 3, 7), but is nowhere quite equiv. to σκότος,— the sense which many injudiciously assign it in Eph. 1. c. ἀέρα δέρειν (cf. verberat ictibus auras, Verg. Aen. 5, 377, of pugilists who miss their aim) i. e. to contend in vain, 1 Co. ix. 26; εἰς ἀέρα λαλεῖν (verba ventis profundere, Lucr. 4, 929 (932)) “to speak into the air” i. e. without effect, used of those who speak what is not understood by the hearers, 1 Co. xiv. 9.*[2]

Although ἀήρ is not a word that is frequent in the New Testament, it is interesting to note that there is only one other word that is translated into English as “air.” The Greek οὐρανός has a different meaning when used as “air” than ἀήρ.  Rather than referring to the “lower and denser air as distinguished from the higher and rarer air,” it means:

1. the vaulted expanse of the sky with all things visible in it

  1. a. the universe, the world
  2. b. the aerial heavens or sky, the region where the clouds and the tempests gather, and where thunder and lightning are produced
  3. c. the sidereal or starry heavens

2. the region above the sidereal heavens, the seat of order of things eternal and consummately perfect where God dwells and other heavenly beings[3]

It seems that the difference between these two words will prove to be significant.  The word in the 1 Thessalonians text indicates the “air” of the “lower” region as opposed to the “heavens” as οὐρανός can also be translated (heavens – 24x, heavenly – 1, heaven – 218).  In other words, Paul had an option to use either of the words to talk about the “air” but he chose to use the word that refers mostly to the lower atmospheric region.

4. Meaning in Context

In the context of 1 Thessalonians 4.17, Paul is answering questions regarding the blessed Christian hope.  What happens to Christ-followers who die before the return of the Messiah?  Are they gone forever?  And what about those of us who are waiting for this day?  What are we to look forward to?  In answer to these kinds of questions Paul describes the coming of Jesus as a moment of resurrection.  Because Jesus died and rose again, his followers will someday be like him.  They will have bodies that are restored to the image of Christ who is the image of God.

Paul in this passage uses mixed metaphors to communicating the reality of the final resurrection.  He employs imagery from the Old Testament as well as from Roman royalty.  Christ will appear in such a way that it will be like Moses when he descended down from the Mountain of Sinai.  He will come with the “clouds” meaning that he will come with the power / authority of heaven like the “son of Man” in Daniel 7.  When this happens all followers of Jesus will be gathered around their King and will usher him into the new heavens and new earth.

Unfortunately, the present passage of Scripture has been interpreted in several different ways; mostly indicating that the return of Christ will be a rapturous moment when God will snatch believers away from this evil world to meet him in the “air” (up in heaven) for eternity.  There are several problems with this approach (too numerous to look at for this word study).  The current word study exposes one of the fallacies in this interpretive scheme.

Had the Apostle wanted to communicate that Christ coming downward to take us upward was the goal of the 2nd coming, he could have chosen to use a word like οὐρανός.  This word, which is interpreted as “air” on some occasions (as indicated above), would have given the impression that going to meet Christ in the “air” was a upward heavenly route.  However, what this word study has discovered is that the word Paul chose to use was one that indicates the lower part of the atmosphere.  Paul had a grammatical choice to make, and clearly he did not want to misguide his first century audience by making them think that being “with the Lord forever” actually meant going to heaven, away from the creation project.  So, in order to keep his metaphorical devices in place without giving the wrong impression, he chose to use ἀήρ to indicate that he was not talking about escaping this world; but rather being part of its redemptive process.  If the alternative word had been selected, Paul would have given us the opportunity to affirm cosmological dualism.

5. Verification

There is no dispute of how ἀήρ is to be translated from Greek into English among the translations.  In every version that was checked (ESV, KJV, NIV, and TNIV) this word is translated as “air.”

After consulting the “Easton Bible Dictionary” we find that this word study’s findings about the meaning of the word ἀήρ is consistent and verified.  It states: “The atmosphere, as opposed to the higher regions of the sky (1Th_4:17; Rev_9:2; Rev_16:17).”[4] This is also confirmed by the UBS Greek Dictionary: “air; ethereal region above the earth, space.”[5]


FOOTNOTES

***N. T. Wright, “Farewell to Rapture,” Biblical Review (August 2001). http://www.ntwrightpage.com/Wright_BR_Farewell_Rapture.htm (accessed October, 2009).

[1]http://www.biblestudytools.com/Lexicons/Greek/grk.cgi?number=109&version=nas

[2] http://www.greekbiblestudy.org/gnt/greekWordStudy.do?id=100095&greek=false

[3] http://www.biblestudytools.com/Lexicons/Greek/grk.cgi?number=3772&version=nas

[4] See: Easton Bible Dictionary. Available Online at: http://refbible.com/a/air.htm

[5] The Greek New Testament With Greek-English Dictionary by B. Aland (Editor), K. Aland (Editor), J. Karavidopoulos (Editor), B. M. Metzger (Editor), C. M. Martini (Editor)

We Can Be So Right and Still Be So Wrong: My Theological Journey from Certainty to Discovery
God is Waiting on the Outside: Moving Beyond our Theological Boundaries in Pursuit of Jesus
FREE: Missio Alliance Anabaptism Conference Talks
Politicized Christology in Christianized Politics: “Constantinianism” of “Right” and “Left”
  • CyPontuo

    i just hear you saying the same things and when you unpack the passage it says the same thing, we should always be prepared to meet the One and Only Creator who has the power to create and re make . That only comes through Jesus HE already came once and promised again but the gift of the Holy Spirit the Wonderful Counselor comes with those who receive Jesus now, to reduce or to diminish the fact that any day is our last sort of gives some the impression that there is time, but like a thief in the night , in a blink of an eye this fleeting world and our human earthly nest and dwelling is gone – or a sudden interruption occurs through disease of tragedy, we do get a new body and there is new creations but through Jesus it can start now, We are made new creation in Jesus and God offer solely mercy and grace to start new. There is urgency in not waiting to figure it out, many parable express this ( like the virgins with the lamp oil) . We don’t understand when the birdie and groom will unite in one phase but Jesus clearly states to be ready and those that are dispels and following are to be sharing that message as well. I would not emphasize the non essential aspects of rapture and what that may look like but you cannot reject that sudden sweeping even will occur like Days of Noah and many will have no idea of whats happening nor will they be prepared, having eternal security and solid ground, a house built on the rock in tragedy whether its an armageddon scenario or a serious car accident or finding out someone you love has been murdered or has a disease or suddenly you lose everything you once held dear, I mean there is no real fairness in how we die, mankind inherent sin in a world and state that co exists with good and evil, on earth and in our earthy shells , in the systems we function in and the systems around us , so it is imperative that people know who Jesus really is and what God has done for us and what God is offering us and anyone any day. Jesus is solid I understand what this article is trying to depict, and I get that but there is also some error in it I know its hard to convey , like what Im saying has its human frailties in trying to communicate it, but certainly we need to be ready any day for the worst so the only One that can make it new and first can do that, and we need to know Him – and it is for certain we need to be ready and sharing that message and just admit some of the gray areas when we do not know everything about how that will look. I do agree HE always showed grace and that the Revelation shows what we become and the finished competed work, but there is an available wholeness available now in Jesus right here, right now and it has nothing to do with end times situations, in essence at the fall of man things died and ended and a paradigm came in the knowledge with good and evil where there was brokenness and death and God has healed that in many ways , but there is much of that healing that is yet to be also, this current sate needs to be in existence like a wheat crop needs to have a full growth before harvest all history with its weeds caught in the goodness of life and earth needs to reach its fullness and so the farmers servants can gather the wheat crop in its fullness and separate the weeds that an enemy planted in the wheat . The LORd then says He will take the wheat crop into a stable , and there is this parable there about that being similar to heaven and the next coming or the new creations beyond this fleeting earth. Personally I feel like we should still recognize the times like a ripening of some a tree ( Jesus used fig tree, leaves etc) we are not be so ignorant to that , but yes people get things wrong you know there is much love and presence available now without even a religion or a temple, there is much to be joyful about on earth and humanitarian things that need to be handled and done in Jesus name, but there are also people who worship the earth soley without Jeus and make Jesus something else, and Jeus talked about some of those people who will say they did things knowing God but Jesus does not know them – because of greed and sin and the lust of power it go to some peoples heads that they are doing good works and doing good things on this earth , they will get power perhaps and rule, and yet not all of those people are necessarily of God . We are given the best cornerstone and the best works come by submission to the Holy Spirit and the movements of the Holy Spirit, disciples who continue on and press on get sanctified by the grace and mercy and forgiveness of God and that manifests into doing works by His Spirit not works of the flesh. But this is good article get us all thinking , the rapture is a tough one –Harpazo look that up. . I just read in Scripture to be ready any day, and tell others where the Life is that is never truly dies, that there is life more than eyes can see and Jesus is for real and reveals that. God breaks tradition a lot and we can do that anywhere and not get hemmed into a pattern of religion time and time again, we are the salt and light and hands and feet of Jesus but His power is also made perfect in our weakness and we fail and people see us and call that hypocrisy a lot and often thats because they are looking for the good in us and to see if we will do what is right, but they condemn themselves for they know right and wrong and know what it should look like and don’t do it but condemn those that should deb because we lay claim to Jesus , but when we are sincere we will fall and fail but the Lord is using us anyway through the cross and through the redemption God offers through Jesus its victory weaving anyway, and that is why we cannot just foo good works to make ourselves still feel Christina enough or working enough or seving enough, it need to be by His Spirit and with true love , the price is paid already we do not earn it like many religions try to do and teach to modify behavior. Goodness will become us when we keep admitting sin and moving on in the faith through the mercy which gets us in deeper soil but we cannot fall too far form thinking we are no longer sinners like the rest of the world, that is why the work that needs done needs to be that we know Jesus and tell others the day is coming and there is ONE FLOCK and ONE LIFE , ONE SHEPHERD to which heaven rests and the cornerstone to which heaven is built on . And we need to ready in that any day. Also it is obvious these days are like no other, and Jesus spoke of like Days of Noah so I do feel there is some kind of event whatever you wasn’t to call it that is approaching if you steer from that you risk becoming more fleshly in lusts and procrastinate it drifts us form the important focus we need to have each day in our daily walk and surrender. But the balance is that we should be able to be loving and approachable and that God will use us in ordinary ways, not self righteous legalistic pretentious faith with masks and cloaks of religion , this gets messy within the journey at times discerning these things. I think Lori has what i have always perceived as the way I found it to look according to Scripture – i mean there is real spiritual war fare and its pretty intense when you are aware and the bride the church is a wonderful refuge , the blessed hope and all really shine brighter in the dark times. There are many that feel the day is good now, all is good but is it? You know the people that God loves everyone and all people are of God. I do feel God loves everyone but I also feel the Scripture tells us to guide others and help all people regardless of their belief but we can recognize those that are rejecting us and we move on – but Scripture also tells us that not all people are of God that an enemy sowed weed in the wheat , who are the weeds ? There is definitely some other beings around us fighting and we are fighting amongst ourselves and within our selves and Jesus is offering the constant refuge and offering movement for those that are willing to submit time and time again. And being ready is knowing Jesus , for any day the time is coming , that is apparent.

  • Bonnie G

    The gathering of the saints spoken of in Matthew 24 and Mark 13 takes place immediately after the great tribulation. This is the first resurrection and the rapture (changed in a moment or in the twinkling of an eye). The righteous dead are resurrected and the alive righteous ones will be changed in the moment and all will be caught up to be with Jesus. Jesus will then pour out his wrath on those unrighteous people that remain on the earth.

  • cesar

    And so the marriage of the Lamb and His bride, the church which is to be done in heaven before coming to earth in the final judgment is also a hoax? The Lamb while in heaven and the church while on earth could not get married if they are not together.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X