I’ve always been a bit skeptical about the rapture, even if it was pretty much the only option when I was younger. Yet on a visceral level, it seemed so…, so escapist. Yes, all those other folks are going to have to go through this horrendous tribulation, but not me! No, my tribe and I are special. God would never allow us to go through such a thing. So I guess all those letters that Paul, Peter and the unknown author of Hebrews wrote talking about remaining faithful through various trials and tribulations didn’t really pertain in the end. And if it’s all about escaping to some heavenly abode, then why is it that in the end of the book of Revelation, it’s about God coming down to Earth and not us going up to Heaven?
All those things bothered me. But like I said, there wasn’t much else out there if I took the Bible seriously, or so I thought. So I gave weak assent to the belief for many years. I even read a couple of the Left Behind books. (Ugh…. How did they ever sell so well?) At some point along my road away from Damascus, I started reading some different perspectives. I hadn’t really realized that this doctrine of the Rapture was a recent innovation from the 19th century. “You mean, that’s not what Christians have always thought?” But when I started reading N.T. Wright, I finally saw huge weaknesses in the way those who believe in a rapture read the Bible. (See, for example, Farewell the Rapture.)
There are actually only a handful of verses that can be used to justify the Rapture. Principle among them is 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17.
16 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. 17 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.
This, in combination with Jesus’ use of Daniel 7:13 in Mark 13:26 (cf. Matt 24:30, Luke 21:27) seem to make for an iron-clad case that Jesus will come in the clouds to take us all away at the end of the world.
Except, it’s not.
First off, lets take a quick look at the Daniel 7. In this chapter, Daniel has a frightful dream of terrifying beasts coming out of the sea with teeth of steal, big horns and a particularly boastful little horn. These beasts wreak havoc on the world until the Ancient of Days takes his throne and puts the boastful little horn to death while allowing the other beasts to live for a time and half a time (whatever that may mean). Then Daniel states that he saw one like a son of man coming on the clouds. Note that in Daniel, this son of man is actually going toward Heaven, to be before the Ancient of Days, and not coming to the Earth. After this, Daniel tells how the kings are judged and their rule is given to the holy ones of the most high. The point is that this son of man is actually the deserving ruler, not these beasts and by receiving dominion, he is being vindicated.
So who is the son of man? In Ezekiel, that is how the prophet is addressed. In the Gospels, this is how Jesus refers himself (contra Bart Ehrman at times, e.g., How Jesus Became God, loc 1600). The son of man is, therefore, one who God has sent to the nation to proclaim its judgment; one who is largely ignored, even scorned. But by picking up the Danielic imagery, Jesus is saying he is more than an ordinary prophet. He is using imagery portraying him standing before God (not returning to Earth!) where he will receive the rule accorded to him by his father and hence, proven in the right. Or in other words, completely vindicated.
If we see the imagery from Daniel 7 as describing vindication and not a literal coming or going on the clouds, there is one other interpretive benefit. There is a long standing problem with how to interpret Mark 13:30 (cf. Matt 24:34, Luke 21:32), “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” If we don’t think Jesus has already returned on the clouds, we have to figure just what this somewhat embarrassing verse means. Several of the more outspoken atheists point to it to demonstrate their contention that Jesus was a false prophet and therefore not from God. “He predicted he’d return right away,” they say, “but he didn’t.” Others say that this verse was fulfilled in that first generation and that Jesus has already returned but maybe nobody realized it. Still others attempt to tweak the meaning of “generation” so that it means something quite a bit longer than the usual 20-40 years that is common in the Bible. But if we think of Jesus’ use of Daniel 7 as an imaginative, biblical way of talking about being proven in the right, then we can see the destruction of the temple around 70 AD as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Mark 13:2, vindicating Jesus.
What does this have to do with 1 Thessalonians? The message of Daniel 7 is that the faithful in Israel will be vindicated when God judges the nations (the beasts) who are oppressing them. Likewise, Paul is letting the oppressed Christians in Thessalonica know that their faith in Jesus is justified; that they are in the right. In point of fact, Paul says those who have died will be the first to be vindicated because through Jesus, these deceased brothers and sisters will be raised first.
So, what else is Paul alluding to in this passage?
The trumpet here is likely an echo of Moses and Israel at the base of Mount Sinai. In Exodus 19:16, before God convenes with Moses on the mountain, there is a trumpet blast so loud that all the people of Israel tremble in fear. Shortly afterwards, God comes down to Mount Sinai and gives the Decalogue to Moses. The trumpet heralds God’s coming down to the mountain.
But you say, “All very well and good, but in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, it’s quite clear that believers go up to the clouds to meet Jesus and be with him forever. So, nothing you’ve said contradicts the Rapture.” Yes, yes, this doesn’t contradict the rapture, but it does start to give us a bit of context. The real question is, what is Paul talking about when he talks of meeting the Lord in the air?
This is where translations fail us, because it’s not about words, it’s about images. If I refer to “a day that will live in infamy,” as an American, you should immediately recognize what I’m talking about. When we hear those words, in our mind’s eye we see black and white images of smoke pouring from decimated ships slowly sinking into the oily harbor. If I say “9/11,” it’s not the numbers that are important, but what it represents. We see planes hitting the twin towers; the explosions; the buildings collapsing; we remember where we were when we first learned of it. In both cases, the words have meaning well beyond mere vocabulary. Their power is in the images they conjure up within us and that’s what Paul is doing when he talks of meeting Jesus in the air.
Even today, in the Middle East, it is the custom to go out and meet important dignitaries outside the city when they come to visit. The more important the dignitary, the further one goes outside the city to meet them. This custom has ancient roots, going back to biblical times. For example, the Jewish historian Josephus, describing how the citizens of Rome greeted Vespasian as their new emperor says,
as this good will to Vespasian was universal, those that enjoyed any remarkable dignities could not have patience enough to stay in Rome, but made haste to meet him at a very great distance from it (The Wars of the Jews, VII.4.68).
From there, they would accompany the victorious Vespasian back into Rome. The farther you went out, the more respect it showed.
Here is where a couple of obscure verses in Acts that we almost always skip over when reading should cause you to pause, if not rock your understanding of the Rapture. Toward the very end of the book, Luke briefly narrates an event when Paul is heading into Rome (Acts 28:14-15).
… And so we came to Rome. 15 The believers from there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us.
It turns out that the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns were as much as 30 miles(!) outside of Rome. We don’t pick up on it because that’s not our custom, nor are we familiar with the geography, but Luke is emphasizing just how important Paul was! If traveling more than 30 miles, by foot, to meet Paul outside of Rome showed his importance, how much more important must the Lord be if believers meet Jesus in the air? The imagery, then, that Paul is evoking in 1 Thessalonians is that of a returning dignitary or even the emperor himself, coming back to his home country and being greeted by his faithful citizens.
Now to be sure, some have found weaknesses in this argument. While Erik Peterson, in his book Die Einholung des Kyrios (1930), provides much supporting documentation as to this custom, he neglects key differences between what Paul describes here and the formal Hellenistic receptions documented in ancient literature. According to Michael R. Cosby there are several key differences in Paul’s account, including: The unexpected nature of the return; the lack of special garments; the lack of a herald and that there was no collection taken up for the dignitary. However, I would argue almost all of these are actually present in Paul’s description.
The most obvious is the supposed lack of a herald. The archangel fills this role when he cries out as well as God’s trumpet sounding out. Second, Jesus’ return in itself is not unexpected; it’s the exact moment that’s unknown. We should be careful to remember that in an era long before radio, TV, cell phones and the internet, one would know that the dignitary was coming, but not the exact moment, hence Josephus’ comment about those of high rank growing impatient. This is no different then the situation the Christians found themselves in during Paul’s day, expecting the Lord’s return but not knowing the exact moment. Not coincidently, Paul addresses this very concern subsequently in chapter 5. As for the garments, Paul seems to allude to this in 1 Corinthians 15:53 where he says, “For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” Therefore, contra Cosby, there is ample imagery in Paul’s words to stimulate the connection for his audience in Thessalonica. And considering that we have inscriptions from the time of Augustus that declare, “Caesar is Lord,” it seems that when Paul says that we will “meet the Lord in the air,” it would almost certainly bring to the minds of the believers in Thessalonica a picture of a formal reception to meet their returning sovereign, the Lord.
To sum up, then, Paul is mixing and matching three distinct images in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. One, he evokes the trumpet at Mount Sinai in Exodus but this time, it heralds Jesus’ return. Two, he is utilizing the Danielic imagery for vindication, with the son of man coming in the clouds to the Ancient of Days. Finally, by employing common imagery for greeting an important dignitary, or even the emperor himself, Paul draws upon the cultural imagination of his audience in Thessalonica to see themselves as going out to meet their Lord and returning triumphantly to Earth (not Heaven!) with him.
What role does the rapture play in your faith? If it’s not an accurate understanding of the Bible, how does that affect your faith?