Will There Be a Rapture?

No.

Not tomorrow, but, you know, eventually?

No.

Never?

Never.

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. [1]  The idea of the Rapture has a foundation in some poor Biblical interpretation and even poorer Christian theology.

Scripture

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. [2]

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. [3] 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.

Theology

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.

Creation. 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.

Incarnation. 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.

Sacrament. 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.

Resurrection. 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.

New Creation. 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) [4]

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.

Rev. Mark Schaefer
United Methodist Chaplain
American University

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and are not necessarily the opinions of the AU United Methodist Community or The United Methodist Church.

Notes

[1] 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 and end times theology.
[2] The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII, Nashville: Abingdon, 1994, p. 446. (Emphasis added). Similarly, 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.
[3] The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. XI., Nashville: Abingdon, 1994, p. 725.
[4] Hill, p. 208-9.

18 thoughts on “Will There Be a Rapture?

  1. I will use this in my Sunday school lesson on “The Christian Hope of Resurrection At the Last Day”

  2. I will use this in my Sunday school lesson on “The Christian Hope of Resurrection At the Last Day”

  3. Dispensationalism, which was built on a “rapture” type theology, has never been my cup of tea. Thus, the idea of a rapture in the sense that dispensationlist see it, is certainly non-biblical. Plus, there is great danger always in taking a literal point of view on everything you read in Scripture. I at least appreciate this approach to a very controversial and quite confusing subject matter.

  4. Dispensationalism, which was built on a “rapture” type theology, has never been my cup of tea. Thus, the idea of a rapture in the sense that dispensationlist see it, is certainly non-biblical. Plus, there is great danger always in taking a literal point of view on everything you read in Scripture. I at least appreciate this approach to a very controversial and quite confusing subject matter.

  5. What a great article about the rapture, but in the middle of it you dismiss the creation account and support evolution? I agree with a lot of what you post, but are you saying you believ in evolution? What? Do you realize that evolution and christianity cannot co-exist. Evolution is not scientific, as a matter a fact it is illogical and is anti-God an anti-Christian. I do not have time to provide research but I am going to send you a copy of my Discussion Board post for you to read. Please give credit if you post or re-use it. It is not detailed but gives you a few basic ideas as to why I disagree with evolution.I didn’t even go into detail about the lack of paleontological evidence of millions transitional life forms in the fossil records.Not one transitional life form skeleton is present amongst all the fossil records?? please read what I wrote and i would appreciate a response.

    If a person does not believe that all people, both male and female, are personally created by God in His image, then it is easy for him or her to adopt a belief system that does not value all human life. The theory of evolution is taught our in the public schools as a fact. They call it a theory, but is presented as a fact with no substantive alternative for the students to study. Evolution denies the creation account and teaches us that the world created itself. The Big Bang Theory and evolution is well known and accepted by most teaching institutions in America while creation, that respects all human life is written off as unscientific, superstitious, and a fallacy made up to satisfy mans need to believe in something. My answer to evolutionist is that it takes too much faith to believe that the world created itself from particles that did not exist, but developed out of nothingness, but that it takes just a little faith to believe that there exist someone who I am not smart enough to completely understand, and that He is an infinite, God who inhabits the eternity and is everywhere in His creation.1
    Evolutionist deny the creation account, yet they cannot explain how a “big bang” or any sort of combustion, created the world that we live in, when no oxygen, fuel, heat, or for that matter any atoms, or elements existed. It is as if it came about by magic, yet they claim that creation is unscientific and illogical. It is important for us to discuss this because the theory of evolution not only denies the creation account but it lessens the value of all human life. Evolution devalues human life and teaches us that we came from lower life forms, therefore we are just another species of the animal kingdom. The Origin of the Species written by Darwin is a world known book accepted by most of secular academia today, and some who proclaim to be Christians. What many people do not know is that the original title of the book as it was written in 1859 was: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Before even opening the book, the title alone suggests that not all human life have the same value. If that was not enough, Darwin’s book titled The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, predicted how the civilized races would eliminate the less civilized races:
    “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes,…,will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state as we may hope, than the Caucasian and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.”2
    Darwin’s view that some races are inferior, and the predicted of the destruction of lesser races along with other misguided and racist literature, were adopted by Hitler, as he justified the killing of millions as his way of creating a superior race. In the article The Influence of Evolution on Nazi Race Programs by Jerry Bergman, he writes: “It is now well-known that Hitler openly intended to produce a superior race and relied heavily upon Darwin and Darwinian thought in both his social and extermination policies. Nazi Germany actually glorified war as it was a means of killing the less fit… “Clark concludes, quoting extensively from Main Kampf,”” 3 Darwin was also sexist in his writing and considered men superior to women. He thought they were superior in science, philosophy and history he agreed with “Mr. Galton, in his work on ‘Hereditary Genius,’ that if men are capable of a decided pre-eminence over women in many subjects, the average of mental power in man must be above that of woman.”4 I often wonder how many people actually read Darwin’s material before believing it, if they read the material and agree with his premise about the evolutionary process then how can they divorce themselves from his racist beliefs.
    God values every human life but he especially loves little children, including the ones in the womb.5 The idea that we came from nothing and or from apes, rather than being created by a God, who loves each individual person, big or small, takes away the uniqueness that human beings share over the animals. Today abortion is ramped in America, and around the world. Here again we have to look at evolution and the idea that “the fittest survive.” 6 In this case the women are the fittest and they can chose to let the weaker “unfit” baby live of chose to kill them. I am not saying that Darwin advocated abortion specifically, evolution teaches us that those that are the stronger and superior should be the ones to survive. Our culture have adopted a lot of Darwin’s ideas and it has even reached into some churches.
    Psalm 139:7-10
    1. Darwin, Charles, The Descent of Man, 2. Bask?, New York, A L. Burt Co., 1874, s. 178
    2. Bergman, Jerry. “The Influence of Evolution on Nazi Race Programs.”Www.creationism.org. Investigator, Nov. 2001. Web. 20 Sept. 2014. .
    3. Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, Murray, London. 1859, P 156
    4. Matthew 19:14
    5. Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species

    1. Sharon,

      There are plenty of people who are both Christian and who accept the findings of science. The United Methodist Church accepts science and many other churches do, including the Roman Catholic Church. So, off the bat, I don’t know that your claim that the two are irreconcilable holds up.

      In addition, there are a lot of assumptions in what you have written, some of them based on inaccurate understandings of what science is claiming (the Big Bang is not an explosion or combustion, it is the rapid expansion from a singularity into the universe that we witness). Further, Darwin never advocated survival of the strongest, but the “fittest”. Social Darwinism, the idea that the strong have power over the weak is not the same thing.

      But as neither of us is a scientist, this question really comes down to one about theology. You write: “The idea that we came from nothing and or from apes, rather than being created by a God, who loves each individual person, big or small, takes away the uniqueness that human beings share over the animals” really is the heart of the matter. Science does not speak to morality or human dignity. Even if we are 96% genetically similar to chimps, that has nothing to do with whether human beings are worthy of dignity. The two are entirely separate questions. You seem to think that science speaks to theology and morality and that our scriptures speak to biology, geology, and cosmology. But neither of those is the case.

      As this post is about the Rapture, I will refer you to another post written to address this very question, where the conversation can continue. http://www.aumethodists.org/bible/the-accounts-of-creation/

    2. Your statements fly in the face of what Methodists believe. You’ve been convinced by evangelicals and fundamentalists.

  6. What a great article about the rapture, but in the middle of it you dismiss the creation account and support evolution? I agree with a lot of what you post, but are you saying you believ in evolution? What? Do you realize that evolution and christianity cannot co-exist. Evolution is not scientific, as a matter a fact it is illogical and is anti-God an anti-Christian. I do not have time to provide research but I am going to send you a copy of my Discussion Board post for you to read. Please give credit if you post or re-use it. It is not detailed but gives you a few basic ideas as to why I disagree with evolution.I didn’t even go into detail about the lack of paleontological evidence of millions transitional life forms in the fossil records.Not one transitional life form skeleton is present amongst all the fossil records?? please read what I wrote and i would appreciate a response.

    If a person does not believe that all people, both male and female, are personally created by God in His image, then it is easy for him or her to adopt a belief system that does not value all human life. The theory of evolution is taught our in the public schools as a fact. They call it a theory, but is presented as a fact with no substantive alternative for the students to study. Evolution denies the creation account and teaches us that the world created itself. The Big Bang Theory and evolution is well known and accepted by most teaching institutions in America while creation, that respects all human life is written off as unscientific, superstitious, and a fallacy made up to satisfy mans need to believe in something. My answer to evolutionist is that it takes too much faith to believe that the world created itself from particles that did not exist, but developed out of nothingness, but that it takes just a little faith to believe that there exist someone who I am not smart enough to completely understand, and that He is an infinite, God who inhabits the eternity and is everywhere in His creation.1
    Evolutionist deny the creation account, yet they cannot explain how a “big bang” or any sort of combustion, created the world that we live in, when no oxygen, fuel, heat, or for that matter any atoms, or elements existed. It is as if it came about by magic, yet they claim that creation is unscientific and illogical. It is important for us to discuss this because the theory of evolution not only denies the creation account but it lessens the value of all human life. Evolution devalues human life and teaches us that we came from lower life forms, therefore we are just another species of the animal kingdom. The Origin of the Species written by Darwin is a world known book accepted by most of secular academia today, and some who proclaim to be Christians. What many people do not know is that the original title of the book as it was written in 1859 was: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Before even opening the book, the title alone suggests that not all human life have the same value. If that was not enough, Darwin’s book titled The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, predicted how the civilized races would eliminate the less civilized races:
    “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes,…,will no doubt be exterminated. The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state as we may hope, than the Caucasian and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.”2
    Darwin’s view that some races are inferior, and the predicted of the destruction of lesser races along with other misguided and racist literature, were adopted by Hitler, as he justified the killing of millions as his way of creating a superior race. In the article The Influence of Evolution on Nazi Race Programs by Jerry Bergman, he writes: “It is now well-known that Hitler openly intended to produce a superior race and relied heavily upon Darwin and Darwinian thought in both his social and extermination policies. Nazi Germany actually glorified war as it was a means of killing the less fit… “Clark concludes, quoting extensively from Main Kampf,”” 3 Darwin was also sexist in his writing and considered men superior to women. He thought they were superior in science, philosophy and history he agreed with “Mr. Galton, in his work on ‘Hereditary Genius,’ that if men are capable of a decided pre-eminence over women in many subjects, the average of mental power in man must be above that of woman.”4 I often wonder how many people actually read Darwin’s material before believing it, if they read the material and agree with his premise about the evolutionary process then how can they divorce themselves from his racist beliefs.
    God values every human life but he especially loves little children, including the ones in the womb.5 The idea that we came from nothing and or from apes, rather than being created by a God, who loves each individual person, big or small, takes away the uniqueness that human beings share over the animals. Today abortion is ramped in America, and around the world. Here again we have to look at evolution and the idea that “the fittest survive.” 6 In this case the women are the fittest and they can chose to let the weaker “unfit” baby live of chose to kill them. I am not saying that Darwin advocated abortion specifically, evolution teaches us that those that are the stronger and superior should be the ones to survive. Our culture have adopted a lot of Darwin’s ideas and it has even reached into some churches.
    Psalm 139:7-10
    1. Darwin, Charles, The Descent of Man, 2. Bask?, New York, A L. Burt Co., 1874, s. 178
    2. Bergman, Jerry. “The Influence of Evolution on Nazi Race Programs.”Www.creationism.org. Investigator, Nov. 2001. Web. 20 Sept. 2014. .
    3. Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, Murray, London. 1859, P 156
    4. Matthew 19:14
    5. Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species

    1. Sharon,

      There are plenty of people who are both Christian and who accept the findings of science. The United Methodist Church accepts science and many other churches do, including the Roman Catholic Church. So, off the bat, I don’t know that your claim that the two are irreconcilable holds up.

      In addition, there are a lot of assumptions in what you have written, some of them based on inaccurate understandings of what science is claiming (the Big Bang is not an explosion or combustion, it is the rapid expansion from a singularity into the universe that we witness). Further, Darwin never advocated survival of the strongest, but the “fittest”. Social Darwinism, the idea that the strong have power over the weak is not the same thing.

      But as neither of us is a scientist, this question really comes down to one about theology. You write: “The idea that we came from nothing and or from apes, rather than being created by a God, who loves each individual person, big or small, takes away the uniqueness that human beings share over the animals” really is the heart of the matter. Science does not speak to morality or human dignity. Even if we are 96% genetically similar to chimps, that has nothing to do with whether human beings are worthy of dignity. The two are entirely separate questions. You seem to think that science speaks to theology and morality and that our scriptures speak to biology, geology, and cosmology. But neither of those is the case.

      As this post is about the Rapture, I will refer you to another post written to address this very question, where the conversation can continue. http://www.aumethodists.org/bible/the-accounts-of-creation/

    2. Your statements fly in the face of what Methodists believe. You’ve been convinced by evangelicals and fundamentalists.

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