‘Left Behind’: Examining the ‘rapture’ texts

September 22nd, 2014

In part one of this two part series, I covered the historical development of "the Rapture" and suggested that despite incredible current popular belief in the doctrine, the notion of a "pre-coming" to the second coming is actually a recent development within the history of the church and, with that, primarily an American one (by the way, recall that there is a difference between the doctrine of "the rapture" and the doctrine of "the Second Coming," the latter of which is under no dispute!) I also briefly touched on the unfortunate escapism mentality which is central to that doctrine's view of eschatology, a term which means "last things" (learn this word and use it at your next dinner party—everybody will flock to hear your thoughts on life, politics, and celebrity romance!)

In this post, I want to focus on the "rapture" texts themselves, for it is logically true that a "recent" development does not guarantee is falsehood. To suggest that the origin of a belief deems it true or untrue is liable to what logicians call "The Genetic Fallacy." Of course, I think it's highly unlikely —though not entirely impossible — that for 1700 years the church just missed this whole "rapture" doctrine and that John Darby discerned something in the text itself that everyone else was missing. It's possible. Just unlikely. We must then, turn to the core of the argument which is not historical but, in the mindset of rapture proponents, scriptural. Are the rapture theorists correct in their interpretation of certain key verses?

There are, of course, dozens of texts which could be elaborated on (a process called "exegesis" —another term you should memorize for your dinner party), but I want to deal with what I see as the three main texts used to support a rapture-based end times model. These verses are probably the most appealed to texts for a rapture oriented eschatology and, at the same time, some of the most misunderstood verses in all of Scripture.

1 Thessalonians 4.15-16: This text, probably the most popular of all rapture appeals, talks about being caught up to meet Christ "in the clouds" at his return. When I believed in the rapture, this was always my go-to text, if for nothing else than it does give us a mental imagery of disappearing from this earth to the pinnacle of the troposphere. As a child, I always got excited on cloudy days because I thought "Hey, this could be the day!" (the world was a lot smaller as a child, of course).

But the meaning of this is actually not as simple as it first appears, primarily because after two millennia we find ourselves in a vastly different culture than Paul did (read that sentence again please). Paul is casting a vision of Christ's return wrapped in political overturns (he actually does this a lot!) You see, in Paul's day when a king or a lord would return back to his country after victory in war, he would be met at the city gates by his people or ambassadors, trumpets would be sounded, and the king would be welcomed back by his own people to rule and reign as the victor over threatening powers. Paul uses this same language to symbolize Christ's return: God is Victor, God is King, and when he returns it is because he has finally and fully defeated evil, suffering, and death itself and he is fully establishing his Kingdom here on earth. Quite the opposite of rapture oriented interpretations, 1 Thess 4.15-16 does not say that in Christ's return we will all fly away from this earth, rather, it testifies that Christ is coming to this earth and we — those alive and those currently passed on — will welcome this Kingdom as God's people, God's citizens, and God's ambassadors.

1 Corinithians 15.52: The very fact that this verse is used to refer to a pre-Second Coming coming is odd, primarily given that Paul has spent the entire chapter here talking about the final "resurrection" of the dead. As in the passage above, the "trumpet" is used to symbolize Christ's victory over death and, again just as the passage above suggests, this is not about being "raised" out of this earth but being raised in our physically transformed bodies to this earth. Christians often forget that the resurrection of the saints is a central orthodox belief of Christianity and has been since Jesus himself became the "first fruits." Christ's return will inaugurate the resurrection of believers and the transformation (not the dispensing) of both our bodies and this world. This will happen, of course, in the "twinkling of an eye" (meaning, we will not know when it will happen), but this verse or its surrounding context has nothing at all to do with a rapture which will fly away Christians prior to a worldwide tribulation.

Matthew 24.40-42: We dealt with this text briefly in the last post, so I won't belabor an explanation. As a reminder, the reference to "one will be taken and one will be left" is connected to verses just before this passage about Noah and the flood (vv 37-39). This is critical. Being "taken" is not a good thing (just ask Liam Neeson!) It was judgment. Jesus here is paralleling divine judgment to being swept away by flood waters. You didn't want to be taken. You wanted to be left.

What is clear, I hope, are two things: First, that sometimes Scripture needs to be informed by wider cultural understandings. The "plain reading of Scripture" is sufficient to the degree that one can meet Christ in its pages and find salvation, but it does not entail that you know anything about the context, history, genre, and background of any particular writing. These are not timeless writings written to us without concern for cultural, social, and political background. Every writer — whether it's Paul, Augustine, Wesley, or Bonhoeffer — writes within a context and it is to this context that responsible Bible readers must commit themselves to understanding, even at a rudimentary level (to answer the obvious, no I am not saying you need a history degree).

Secondly, out of the number of other texts used to support a rapture theology, most of these can be — and should be — understood in other ways. The Second Coming is often confused with the rapture and many of the verses utilized as "rapture verses" are really "Second Coming" verses. They only support a rapture based eschatology once extracted from context and placed into an already existing rapture theorem.

I want to conclude, too, with a caution to reading Revelation as a document written about 20th and 21st century events, as some might suspect that the timetable portrait of Revelation demands a rapture eschatology. But here's the thing (and by "the thing" I mean "THE thing" ... just in case you've been wondering what "the thing" was that everybody seems to talk about so much!): Revelation, when read within its social, cultural, religious, and political climate is not as much about the modern world as it is about Rome, the Emperor, the character of God, and our ultimate hope (Rev 21.5). To demand upon Revelation the sort of misunderstandings that rapture-based theology brings to the table is to extract it from its own particular climate and purpose. Though a verse by verse analysis of the book is beyond the scope of this post, Revelation should not be used as support for a rapture-based theology primarily because it is not concerned with the world once Christians exit it... it is concerned with the world in which Christians already live!

Part 1 of 2: Why ‘Left Behind’ should be ... left behind

Randall Hardman blogs at The Bara Initiative.

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