The Revelation: Riddles and Enigmas (the Rapture)

lion-dove-lamb-yeshuaI’ve mentioned earlier that I managed to grow up in church and attend Lipscomb University and not know what the “Rapture” is. Such was the authority of Foy Wallace in Tennessee and north Alabama in those days. We were so against the Rapture that we didn’t even bother to study why it was wrong.

But a large portion of the Protestant world believes in Rapture theology. Even many in the Churches of Christ believe in the Rapture; we just don’t call it that. Indeed, our hymn books often speak of meeting Jesus in the sky.

Some bright morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away
To a land on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away

Chorus:
I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away
When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away

Just a few more weary days and then, I’ll fly away
To a land where joy will never end, I’ll fly away

In fact, we in the Churches of Christ have two competing, inconsistent theologies of the afterlife.

Theology 1: When we die, our soul flies off to heaven, leaving our bodies behind. Hence, we go to heaven immediately upon our deaths and our “resurrection” is nothing like Jesus’ — as he left an empty grave.

Theology 2: When Jesus returns (the Second Coming or Parousia), we’ll arise from our graves with resurrection bodies and fly up to heaven to meet Jesus and then be taken to heaven, leaving this world behind.

Now, 1 and 2 are obviously very different, and yet both are taught, sometimes in the very same sermon. So we go to heaven both when we die and when Jesus returns.

The inconsistency is sometimes resolved by assuming that we fly away at death to a temporary waiting room in the sky, pending Judgment Day. The saved go to Paradise and the damned to Tartarus. This theory is based on a tract written about 100 years ago called “Where Are the Dead?” This tract was adopted by several denominations as biblical truth, and has been a very popular teaching in the Churches of Christ.

I’ve never bought the theory. After all, if the damned and saved wait in two different places for Judgment, well, they’ve obviously already been judged. The saved wait with the saints and martyrs in a well air-conditioned, luxuriant garden. The damned wait with Hitler and his ilk in an overly warm waiting room with nothing but daytime TV to watch for millennia. Surely those present know how Judgment Day is going to turn out for them — and yet Jesus pictures people being surprised when their verdict is announced (Matt 25:37, 44).

Of course, for premillennialists, the Rapture is not just the resurrection, but the resurrection of the saved with the damned left behind. And that’s just not found in the Bible. The Revelation doesn’t even mention a “Rapture.”

The key passage is —

(1 Thess. 4:14-17 ESV)  14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.  15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.  16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.  17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 

The question not directly answered by the passage is: what happens next? Do we then ascend with Jesus back to heaven? Or do we descend with Jesus down to earth? Or do we all stay in the air?

An impressive array of commentators agree that Paul is using the language associated with the visitation by an emperor or other dignitary to a city. The residents would go outside the city walls to meet the dignitary and escort him into the city. Thus, the saved will be transformed and receive their resurrection bodies, allowing them to meet Jesus in the air as he descends to be with his people. They will then descend with Jesus to the ground as the heavens and earth are joined as described in Rev 21.

Moulton and Milligan observe that “the word (apantēsis) seems to have been a kind of technical term for the official welcome of a newly arrived dignity” (p. 53; cf., e.g., Cicero, Ad Att. 8.16.2; 16.11.6; Matt. 25:6; Acts 28:15; the term used for the arrival was parousia; see disc. on 2:19). …

We are not told what will follow that meeting in the air, but the imagery suggested by apantēsis (see above) points to the earth as their final destination (the citizens, who had gone out to meet him, escorting the new arrival back to their city). Paul, however, is not concerned to answer our questions as to what will follow, except to say that the saints will be with [syn] the Lord forever (cf. 2 Cor. 13:4; Phil. 1:23 for the same use of syn to mark our eternal companionship with Christ).

David J. Williams, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 85.

The purpose of the catching away underlines this divine/human encounter, to meet the Lord in the air. To meet (eis apantēsin) was almost a technical term that described the custom of sending a delegation outside the city to receive a dignitary who was on the way to town.

In Acts 28:15 Luke utilizes this word in his description of the way a delegation of Christians from Rome went out to receive Paul and his companions when he approached the imperial city, “The brothers there had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us” (eis apantēsin). The customary procedure was for the delegation to return to the city with the visiting dignitaries (Acts 28:16; also Matt. 25:6).

The OT texts where the verb is used are numerous, while in Greek and Roman culture the custom was well established, especially when persons of high political rank came to town. Polybius spoke of the great pomp of such occasions (5.26.8), and author after author described how not only certain officials but also all the population would file out of the city to meet the emperor in his parousia. Josephus, for example, tells how the citizens of Rome went out to meet Vespasian as their new emperor (who, by the way, had just come from leading the Roman troops in the battles to quell the Jewish rebellion that began in A.D. 66):

Amidst such feelings of universal goodwill, those of higher rank, impatient of awaiting him, hastened to a great distance from Rome to be the first to greet [hapantōn] him. Nor, indeed, could any of the rest endure the delay of meeting, but all poured forth in such crowds—for to all it seems simpler and easier to go than to remain—that the very city then for the first time experienced with satisfaction the paucity of inhabitants; for those who went outnumbered those who remained. But when he was reported to be approaching and those who had gone ahead were telling of the affability of his reception of each party, the whole remaining population, with wives and children, were by now waiting at the road-sides to receive him; and each group as he passed, in their delight at the spectacle and moved by the blandness of his appearance, gave vent to all manner of cries, hailing him as “benefactor,” “savior,” and “only worthy emperor of Rome.” The whole city, moreover, was filled, like a temple, with garlands and incense.

In this entourage, those who went out first to meet Vespasian were those of the highest rank, and we most likely hear an echo of this custom in vv. 16b–17a: “the dead in Christ rise first.” In formal receptions, the leaders of the city and all the population would go out, including the soldiers, the gymnasiarch and the students, and the priest with cultic objects, all dressed with special clothing and garlands. The city would greet the dignitary upon entry with songs, loud cries, and sacrifices. Cosby correctly observes that the characteristics of these receptions do not correspond one for one with the reception the Lord shall receive when the resurrected and the living are caught away to meet him. However, since the context of this formal reception is the time of the royal parousia of the Lord (v. 15), there remains little doubt that this custom formed the background of this teaching, although with some notable modifications (for example, the time of the day of the Lord is unknown—5:1–11).

Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.; Apollos, 2002), 226–228.

It should be clear from the beginning of v. 16 that Christ is said to come down out of heaven and meet his followers somewhere else, in this case in the atmosphere, where there are clouds. There is likely an echo of Mic. 1:3 here: “For behold the LORD is coming forth out of his place, and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth.” Clouds are regularly said to accompany a theophany, when God comes down to the human level, not when humans are taken up into the presence of God in heaven (see Exod. 19:16; 40:34; 1 Kgs. 8:10–11; Ps. 97:2). Trumpet blasts also accompany theophanies (Exod. 19:16; Isa. 27:13; Joel 2:1; Zech. 9:14). The meeting does not take place in heaven, so there is no rapture into heaven here.

Ben Witherington III, 1 and 2 Thessalonians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 141.

“Snatched into the air” does not mean into heaven. The Lord will descend to the earth (Job 19:25; Acts 1:11) where the judgment shall take place. It shall not take place in the air; nor shall the wicked, after being raised, be taken into the air. Revelation 21:1, 2 unites the new heaven and the new earth with the holy city; and the judgment will exclude the wicked from it. We read nowhere that the Lord will return to heaven after the Parousia, but rather that heaven and earth shall be one. Εἰς ἀπάντησιν is an idiom (it is also found in the papyri) that always occurs in this form and is like a compound preposition with the genitive, it is the German entgegen.

R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians, to the Thessalonians, to Timothy, to Titus and to Philemon, (Columbus, OH: Lutheran Book Concern, 1937), 337.

The three stories which Paul is here bringing together start with the story of Moses coming down the mountain. The trumpet sounds, a loud voice is heard, and after a long wait Moses appears and descends from the mountain to see what’s been going on in his absence.

Then there is the story of Daniel 7, in which the persecuted people of God are vindicated over their pagan enemy by being raised up on the clouds to sit with God in glory. This ‘raising up on the clouds’, which Jesus applies to himself in the gospels, is now applied by Paul to the Christians who are presently suffering persecution.

Putting these two stories together, in a typically outrageous mix of metaphors, enables Paul to bring in the third story, to which we have already alluded. When the emperor visited a colony or province, the citizens of the country would go to meet him at some distance from the city. It would be disrespectful to have him arrive at the gates as though they his subjects couldn’t be bothered to greet him properly. When they met him, they wouldn’t then stay out in the open country; they would escort him royally into the city itself. When Paul speaks of ‘meeting’ the Lord ‘in the air’, the point is precisely not—as in the popular rapture theology—that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from.

Even when we realize that this is highly charged metaphor, not literal description, the meaning is the same as in the parallel in Philippians 3:20. Being citizens of heaven, as the Philippians would know, doesn’t mean that one is expecting to go back to the mother city, but rather that one is expecting the emperor to come from the mother city to give the colony its full dignity, to rescue it if need be, to subdue local enemies and put everything to rights.

These two verses in 1 Thessalonians 4, then, have been grievously abused by those who have constructed out of them a big picture of a supposed ‘rapture’. This has had its effect not only on popular fundamentalism, but on a fair amount of New Testament scholarship, which has assumed that Paul really meant what the fundamentalists think he meant.

Only when we put together the several different things that he says on the same topic does the truth emerge. This is a typical piece of highly charged and multiply allusive rhetoric. The reality to which it refers is this: Jesus will be personally present, the dead will be raised, and the living Christians will be transformed. That, as we shall now see, is pretty much what the rest of the New Testament says as well.

Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007), 144–146.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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12 Responses to The Revelation: Riddles and Enigmas (the Rapture)

  1. Ray Downen says:

    When Jesus returns, it will be to end this present world’s universe and start a totally new city in a NEW UNIVERSE, the NEW JERUSALEM described in Revelation. But if details about the exact nature of the city are sparse, we can recognize that it will be huge to provide accommodations for all the saved through all human history. And since many have lived long years on earth, it might be expected that many in glory will be no longer young. So the friends we had when WE were young but have lost touch with may likely not have the same appearance as when we last saw them. Can we trust Jesus to provide name tags? Will we be with “our” family in glory? Our father? Our mother? However God does Heaven will be right. The thought of us meeting Jesus in the air is hard to imagine. Folks long dead we do not recognize as people we know will form much of the welcoming crowd. And if it was to welcome Him into “our” city, many of “our” cities will be long gone and only alive in some memories. I’m guessing the city into which we will enter with Jesus is the NEW JERUSALEM rather than any earthly city. And where the judging will happen is problematic, for people of every age will be present, and would this universe contain all of us who have ever lived? Is it not true that “the dead in Christ will rise first”? It might seem that the judgment will not be on this present earth. Yet that IS what the “rapture” theories are guessing, I think.

  2. Chris says:

    Jay, I wondered when the dead in Christ were raised, what was the point if our soul was already in heaven? I was told that the soul is reunited with the new physical bodies which we receive when we’re resurrected. I always found that to be a forced explanation. Regarding your quantum mechanics/time theory (which I like), if when we die we immediately go to the judgement, how are these two time lines reconciled? In God’s time, judgement has already occurred, but in our time we’re going through the events as if they’re presently playing out? Just processing – I probably did a poor job of explaining.

  3. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Chris,

    If I’m following you …

    1. Think of time as a dimension. An arrow.
    2. God is not on the arrow but all around and outside and inside.
    3. Judgment Day is at the end of the arrow, bridging time and non-time. But it’s not on the arrow. It outside of time but there is a defined point in time that touches it.
    4. If someone dies, they are on the arrow — and the piece of paper the arrow is drawn on is bent so they pass from death (on the arrow) straight to Judgment Day (just beyond the tip of the arrow) — with hardly any distance at all traveled.
    5. If someone is alive at the Second Coming, they are at the tip of the arrow and need take but a step to cross out of time into timeless eternity — but they’ll do so with untold thousands arriving at the same place (time?) from further down on the arrow.
    6. God, being outside the arrow, sees it all. He knows the future without necessarily causing the future — although he can intervene in arrow-time and change outcomes closer to the arrow’s tip.
    7. Judgment is in God’s time-space, not on the arrow but touching the arrow. God doesn’t see Judgment Day in the future because Judgment Day is part of his existence — unbound by earth time. We have no idea whether he experiences his own form of time or even if time is a single dimension to God. We can only speculate — and only speculate meaningfully at the edges of our existence.

    Does this help?

    Here’s another way of looking at it: http://oneinjesus.info/2008/08/surprised-by-hell-a-heavenly-time/

  4. Chris says:

    That’s very helpful and thank you for taking the time to explain. Is this view expounded on in any writings, books, etc. that you’ve come across? If not, you need to write one!

  5. “The reality to which it refers is this: Jesus will be personally present, the dead will be raised, and the living Christians will be transformed.”

    And that agrees with the premillenialist view I have heard for decades. I don’t know what other premill view you are discussing that is all wrong.

  6. Andrew says:

    Jay,

    Thanks for your arrow illustration.

  7. Alabama John says:

    The story in the Bible of the Rich Man and Lazarus has caused more confusion of this than anything I know.
    Childrens stories we teach our children in Sunday School are to impress them for a lifetime so this one theory is understandably believed by so many.

  8. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Chris,

    Very kind of you, but several people have beat me to it. Barbara Rossing’s http://www.amazon.com/Rapture-Exposed-Message-Hope-Revelation/dp/0813343143/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1456267920&sr=8-1&keywords=barbara+rossing persuaded me that I’d been an idiot to ignore the Revelation. And then NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope told me that I’d been looking at everything wrong — which is why I could never make heads nor tails out of what little I did know.

    Both books are very readable. I disagree with Wright’s teachings on hell, but the other 95% of the book is powerful, wonderful stuff. Rossing’s book is largely a critique of Left Behind and similar theories with an introduction to a better reading of the Revelation.

    And, as the article shows, my understanding of the Rapture goes back at least to the 1930’s when Lenski’s commentary was written. In fact, my new heavens/new earth interpretation goes back as far as Irenaeus —

    It is fitting, therefore, that the creation itself, being restored to its primeval condition, should without restraint be under the dominion of the righteous; and the apostle has made this plain in the Epistle to the Romans, when he thus speaks: For the expectation of the creature waits for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature has been subjected to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who has subjected the same in hope; since the creature itself shall also be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the sons of God. …

    Thus, then, they who are of faith shall be blessed with faithful Abraham, and these are the children of Abraham. Now God made promise of the earth to Abraham and his seed; yet neither Abraham nor his seed, that is, those who are justified by faith, do now receive any inheritance in it; but they shall receive it at the resurrection of the just. For God is true and faithful; and on this account He said, Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Matthew 5:5

    Against Heresies (circa 180 AD), V.32. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103533.htm

    You’d think Irenaeus and I had been reading from the same authors.

  9. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Dwayne,

    Premillennialism assumes a Rapture before Millennnium. No Rapture means no Pre-millennialism. The 1000-year reign is another question, which I started on this morning.

  10. Jay,

    Perhaps I can try again..

    “The reality to which it refers is this: Jesus will be personally present, the dead will be raised, and the living Christians will be transformed.”

    And that agrees with the premillenialist view I have heard for decades. I don’t know what other premill view you are discussing that is all wrong.

    If you want to call this event a Rapture or Rupture or anything else, do so. But this event agrees with the premill view I have heard for decades. Stating that the premill view, whatever that is, does not agree with this event is not true.

    Perhaps I was raised in some sort of pseudo-not-quite-right premill teaching that doesn’t quite fit with the premill teaching you have heard.

  11. MARTIN 08032771024 says:

    THERE IS REALLY NO TIME, BRETHREN NO TIME TO WASTE. WE WHO REMAIN HOLY TILL THE COMING OF THE LORD WILL BE CAUGHT UP IN THE AIR TO MEET THE LORD SO SHALL WE EVER BE WITH THE LORD.1 THESSALONIANS 4:16-17. SINNERS HAVE TO REPENT NOW, BELIEVERS HAVE TO BE WATCHFUL ANF PRAYERFUL. PRAY UNTIL SOMETHING HAPPENS.

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