A friend asked me to blog on the rapture. So here we go. Is there a case for a rapture in the NT and if so, what sort?
It is common in popular Christian circles—e.g. ‘Left Behind’—to speak of a future secret sudden rapture of the church. This is one of the key events at the culmination of world history. This happens before the Second Coming for many. At some moment leading up to the return, usually preceding or in the middle of a time (usually seven years) of terrible human suffering (the Tribulation) under an anti-Christ, all Christians will be whisked out of the world and taken to be with Jesus. This will happen as people are going about their normal lives. This will lead to carnage such as planes and other vehicles driven by Christians crashing into each other. Christians will suddenly and literally be whisked away. All the rest of humanity will be ‘left behind’ along with Israel to face the horrendous suffering of the Tribulation, a time which will culminate with the return of Jesus.
There are a few biblical passages which are cited as evidence, especially from Matt 24 and Luke 17, and 1 Thess 4 (some see Rev 4 as the rapture, however, this is bizarre at best). Although some scholars limit Matthew 24:30–31 to events around Jesus death, resurrection, and the Great Commission, or the fall of Jerusalem, most rightly see here Christ’s return.
In Matt 24:30–31 the Son of Man (Jesus) appears in the clouds, paralleling Acts 1:11 where Jesus will return as he left by ascension. It will be a powerful and glorious moment in history. Note that there is nothing secret about it; rather, “all people” will see and mourn. At that time, he (Jesus) will gather his people from all over the world (the four winds, i.e. the directions of the compass). Presumably this is when the gospel is preached to all nations and the Great Commission is completed to God’s satisfaction (Matt 24:14; 28:18–20). No further detail is given so it is unclear at this point the details of this moment.
Blomberg rightly says of this passage,
“Walvoord correctly observes that nothing in any of these verses in Matthew describes the rapture (believers being caught up to meet the Lord in the air) [Walvoord, Matthew, 182]. Disputes about a pretribulation, midtribulation, or posttribulation rapture will have to be settled by other texts” (Blomberg, Matthew [NAC], 363).
What happens is further clarified in what follows in vv. 36–41. After Matthew’s Jesus states that no-one, including Jesus himself, knows when this return will occur (reader take note!). Jesus then parallels his second coming to the events of the Noah and flood. At the time of Noah, the grossly sinful people of the world (Gen 6:1–4) were living normal lives including eating, drinking, and marrying. Noah entered the ark, the place of safety and refuge from the forthcoming flood. Then, without their knowing that the flood was coming, the flood “came and took them all away” (Matthew 24:39). “Them” and “all” clearly refer to the sinful people of Noah’s generation who were taken away by drowning. “Took them all away” means that they were recipients of God’s judgment; they were removed and killed. On the other hand, Noah and his family were preserved through the judgment and lived on.
This event is then paralleled with the Second Coming by Jesus. A pair of men is working in the field and two women are grinding at a mill. In each case one is taken and the other left behind. The question is who is left behind?
Rapturists assume that this occurs before the Second Coming and it is the Christians who are taken away and the unbelievers left behind in chaos. However, there are at least two reasons to argue that this is a flawed reading. First, this description of events does not precede the return which occurs in vv. 30–31, but further explains the return of Christ in v. 36. So, it clearly speaks of events at the Second Coming not before (e.g. pre-trib/mid-trib). As Blomberg says,
Some have seen a “secret rapture” in view here (in which believers mysteriously disappear from earth, leaving everyone else to wonder what happened), which often leads to absurd scenarios (e.g., the modern-day notion of cars suddenly without drivers). But the only coming of the Son of Man described so far has been the climactic universal return of Christ in v. 27 (Matthew, 366).
Secondly, if we take the logic of who was taken away at the time of Noah, it is the unbelievers who are clearly swept away in judgment when Christ returns not the Christian. The Christians are preserved by God through the judgment. The Christian then is the one “left behind.” Blomberg rightly states,
There will be no mystery then; Matthew 25:31–46 will describe the worldwide judgment of humanity that occurs next. In fact, “taken” in vv. 40–41 (though a different verb in the Greek) parallels “took” of v. 39 and suggests that those taken away are taken for eternal judgment (not “raptured”), while those left behind remain with Christ (Blomberg, Matthew, 366).
This picture fits with other passages of judgment in Matthew when Jesus returns and unbelievers and believers are judged with those who are not believers destroyed in hell (e.g. Matt 13:30, 40–43, 49–50; 25:31–46). Further, it fits with Matthew’s view of a restored world most clearly seen in Matt 19:28: “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (cf. Matt 17:10).
Luke’s version of this event is found in Luke 17. Luke’s Jesus refers to the future coming of Christ. He speaks of false predictions, of which there have been many including in our time (Luke 17:22–23). He speaks of the coming as a cosmic event like lightening which must be preceded by Jesus’ suffering and death (Luke 17:24–25). Then he parallels the event with the flood. Like Matthew’s version, people are going about their daily business when the flood hits. While Noah is in the ark, “the flood came and destroyed them all.” Then Luke’s Jesus parallels it with the story of Sodom. Those in Sodom were going about their lives as normal when fire and sulphur rained down from heaven and “destroyed them all.”
These two events are paralleled with Jesus’ return. In vv.34–35 two pairs are again mentioned, a couple in bed and two women grinding coin. In both situations “one will be taken and the other left.” If the parallels to the flood and destruction of Sodom are taken seriously, it is the unbelievers who are taken, swept away and destroyed. The believers are those who will be preserved and live on. Further, this happens at the massive cosmic event of the second coming that lights up the sky and not before in some pre-return rapture.
This fits with Luke’s wider theology of restoration. This is seen most clearly in Acts 3:21: “Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” This fits with Isaiah’s vision of a new heavens and earth (Isa 65–66), Paul’s theology of creation released from its bondage to decay (Rom 8:19–23), and the new (renewed) heaven and earth in Rev 21–22. God is not going to blow the world up and start again, he is restoring it. Its physical restoration will be complete at his return.
Some would argue that 2 Peter 3 speaks of the world being destroyed by fire. However, 2 Peter 3 also uses the story of Noah as parallel to the culmination of history. People are scoffing at the so-called return of Christ (2 Pet 3:4). Peter then speaks of the story of the flood when the world was “deluged and destroyed” (2 Pet 3:6). Similarly, the world today is being reserved not for flood, but “the judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Pet 3:7). The day of the Lord will come and there will be destruction by fire. If we find the parallel in the flood as does Peter, this is not the complete destruction of the cosmos, but a picture of judgment and the destruction of the ungodly. The new heavens and earth then are not something completely new, but the purification and healing of the world.
1 Thess 4:17
The only other passage that might be used to defend a so-called rapture is 1 Thess 4:17. Here Paul outlines the events around the second coming. Jesus will return (v. 16) dramatically with a loud angelic command, the trumpet call of God. This is not something preceding the return, a rapture, but Christ returning. It will be sudden and for many unexpected (1 Thess 5:2–3). It will be preceded by a rebellion and “man of lawlessness” (2 Thess 2:1–10). However, it will not be secret; rather it will be noisy and seen!
At Christ’s return the believing dead will rise. Those believers at a time will join them meet “the Lord” (Jesus) in the air. This is a rapture in a sense, but it is not secret and before or in the middle of some tribulation. Rather, it is a rapture that happens at the time of Christ’s return.
Believers “meet” the Lord in the air. “Meet” is apantēsis which was a “technical term for a civic custom of antiquity whereby a public welcome was accorded by a city to important visitors” (E. Peterson, ἀπάντησις, in TDNT, 1.380). The technical use is found in Acts 28:15 where the Christians of Rome came out to the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to “meet” Paul who was then escorted into Rome. This is not a rapture away from the world, but to meet Christ who is then welcomed “home” to his world as “Lord” of the world.
Witherington sums this all up nicely (1 and 2 Thessalonians, 138–39).
This imagery is pursued further in v. 17 with the use of the term apantesin. For example, Cicero says of Julius Caesar’s victory tour through Italy in 49 B.C.: “Just imagine what a meeting/royal welcome (apantesis) he is receiving from the towns, what honors are paid to him” (Ad. Atticus 8.16.2; cf. 16.11.6 of Augustus: “the municipalities are showing the boy remarkable favor.… Wonderful apantesis and encouragement”). This word refers, then, to the actions of the greeting committee as it goes forth from the city to escort the royal person or dignitary into the city for his official visit.
Who is left behind? Unbelievers? No, it is the believers who are left behind. Is there a secret rapture where Christians are whisked out of life suddenly leaving behind chaos? Not in the NT. Is there anything like a rapture? No if you mean a secret one. But, there is a rapture at the time of Christ whereby believers are taken up to meet Christ and welcome him home as Lord of the world. They live forever with him in a restored world set free from its bondage to decay in which we will experience the healing of the nations and our suffering will be washed away. Come Lord Jesus.