(This is an expanded version of a sermon, “The Rapture: Rescue of the Saints or Return of the King?” preached at Friendship Community CRC, April 18, 2010. This sermon has also been preached as “What’s Wrong with the Rapture?” on numerous times.)
You may have heard of the rapture. The rapture is part of a very popular theology about the End Times, especially popular in North America. It’s popularized by the Christian media, like famous TV & Radio evangelists, the Left Behind series of books and movies, and all sorts of Christian books, such as Are You Rapture Ready? and the Scofield Study Bible, which probably popularized this theology back in the 19th century. There’s even a website called raptureready.com.
So, what exactly is the rapture? And what difference does it make if we believe it or not? What’s the big deal? In this post, I want to take a look at this popular teaching about the rapture and look at some of the negative implications of this belief. And then I want to show from Bible passages how this understanding of the rapture is actually mistaken, and what is the more likely scenario that the Bible is pointing to.
Popular Rapture Theology
So, let me start by briefly explaining this popular rapture theology.
Popular Rapture Theology Slide (click on link to see a powerpoint diagram, click “back” button on your browser to return here or you can right click and select “open in new tab”)
In this theology, Christ’s second coming is seen as a two-stage event. The first stage is the secret rapture. “The rapture,” according to raptureready.com, “is an event that will take place sometime in the near future. Jesus will come in the air, catch up the Church from the earth, and then return to Heaven with the Church.” Most rapture theologians believe that this secret rapture will take place before a period of great suffering known as the tribulation. All Christians, the whole church, are raptured into heaven, leaving only non-Christians, Jews, and perhaps those Christians who are not very good and who were not rapture-ready. So, these will suffer through the great tribulation as the raptured saints watch safely in heaven. At the end of this tribulation, which is often seen as lasting seven years, Christ’s second coming stage two will happen. But this won’t be secret but a glorious coming where everyone in the world will see. Christ will reign for one thousand years on earth, literally ruling from the throne in the physical city of Jerusalem as Israel’s king. This one thousand years period is known as the Millennium, where all the Old Testament promises to Israel will be literally fulfilled, and all of Israel will become Christian during this time. At the end of the millennium, Satan and his forces will rise up in full force to challenge Christ and the final battle will be Armageddon, which is often seen as a nuclear war of world destruction proportions. All of this – millennium, Armageddon – will happen with the Raptured Christians watching in heaven. And then, the final judgment will occur and the new heaven and new earth will be created to replace the old earth that was destroyed in the nuclear fallout. This, in very brief summary, is the most popular version of rapture theology.
So, in this theology, the rapture is seen as rescuing the saints from the impending tribulation and destruction of planet earth. As the book Are You Rapture Ready? explains, “The Rapture will be a double blessing to all believers. It will bring them into the splendorous heavenly realm, where God has prepared great riches for His children, and it will also allow them to escape the horrors of the Tribulation.” (73) This paragraph was printed under the heading, “Escape from Planet Earth”.
Implications of Rapture Theology
So, what are the implications of this theology? What’s so bad about it? Well, it’s part of a bigger theological system and worldview that I don’t have time to get into details in this post. But here are some general unhealthy trends that I notice among these Christians.
1) Too much emphasis on “Going to Heaven”. Rapture-ready Christians see this world as not their home and they are only a passing through. All they are doing in this life is to lay up treasures for heaven. Becoming a Christian gets you into heaven, but being a good Christian earns rewards, literally, for your eternal life in heaven. Again, I quote the book, Are You Rapture Ready?: “After choosing to make Jesus the Lord of their life, too many Christians … neglect to realize there are levels of rewards in Heaven that relate directly to good deeds performed in this life. … When believers leave this earthly abode, they instantly lose the ability to make any improvements to their eternal standing. It’s fascinating to ponder whether saints a thousand years from now will still be kicking themselves for not being more active in striving after God’s favour.” (164-165) This ends up being a very selfish spirituality, when you come to think of it. We do good works to earn personal rewards in heaven, not out of gratitude for God’s grace.
2) Low regard for Planet Earth & Environmental Issues. This overemphasis on heaven leads to a de-emphasis on planet earth. Why bother being environmentally friendly when the world is going to be blown up anyways? Why bother when you are going to be raptured as an escape from planet earth? Most of these rapture-ready Christians tend not to care about environmental issues. There’s very little motivation for them to do so.
3) Low fear of Nuclear War & low motivation for World Peace. Nuclear war, in the form of Armageddon, is inevitable in rapture theology, so why bother trying to prevent it? One of their pastor-professors in Idaho said: “Although Armageddon will be an awesome and terrifying experience for the world, it should be welcomed by the child of God as the day of vindication of our holy and sovereign Creator. … What should be the believer’s attitude to the destruction of the world by fire? First of all, he should welcome it and pray for its nearness.” (From Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in a Modern America, Harvard UP, 1992, p.135, quoted in Head and Heart: American Christianities, 377-378). If rapture-ready Christians are encouraged to pray for the world’s destruction by fire, why should they do anything to prevent nuclear war in the meantime? Especially since they themselves won’t be around to suffer the consequences: “One pastor wrote in 1967: “Thank God, I will get a view of the Battle of Armageddon from the grandstand seat of the heavens. All who are born again will see the Battle of Armageddon, but it will be from the skies.” (From Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in a Modern America, p.136, quoted in Head and Heart: American Christianities, 378).
Finally, … 4) Low motivation for Social Reformation and Social Justice. Why make the world a better place when it will inevitably go from bad to worse, to tribulation, to Armageddon and world destruction? Besides, when all the good Christians are raptured from the earth, there won’t be any Christians left, or not enough of them left, to stop the evil folks from tearing down all the good that has been set up. In fact, most rapture-ready Christians are suspicious of people who are into social justice and social reforms. To quote C.I. Scofield, who wrote the Scofield Study Bible that originally popularized the rapture theology: “The true mission of the church is not the reformation of society. What Christ did not do, the Apostles did not do. Not one of them was a reformer.” (Head and Heart: American Christianities, 369) And in the Left Behind series, the Anti-Christ is portrayed as a political social reformer, among other things.
I don’t know about you, but for me these implications are somewhat scary and serious. But in addition, rapture theology, in my mind, is a wrong interpretation of the Bible. So, let’s take a look at two bible passages that Christians have misinterpreted to support a rapture theology.
Matthew 24:39-41 (Luke 17:26-35 parallel passage)
“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.” (TNIV – Today’s New International Version)
This passage is actually not talking about a rapture of Christians. When you read the context, you actually realize that it is the bad folks who are raptured away to be judged and the good Christians are left behind! Remember, Jesus was making a parallel analogy with the flood of Noah’s day. As it was in the days before the flood, people were doing their regular things and they knew nothing until (verse 39) the flood came and took them all away. In the flood, who was left behind? Noah and his family, and those in the ark – the good guys, right? And “that is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.” Two men will be in the field; one will be taken – away into judgement – and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken – away into judgement – and the other left behind. Those left behind are not the bad folks but the good folks, just like Noah and his family. Left behind on earth. So, far from supporting a rapture theory, this goes against the rapture theory! In any case, Jesus’ main point here is not to teach about rapture or no rapture but to emphasize that people will be surprised at his Second coming. Just as they were not ready for it when the flood came, so it will be at Christ’s return. Everyone will be going about their normal business and then, judgement will come.
1 Thessalonians 4:15-18
“According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.” (TNIV)
On the face of it, this passage looks like it clearly teaches a rapture theology. Starting at verse 16: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, … and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up – that’s the word rapturo in Latin where we get the word “rapture” – will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”
First of all, we need some understanding of Greek and historical context. There are two important Greek words in this passage: “parousia” (coming/to come) in v. 15 – we who are left till the coming, the parousia, of the Lord – and “apantesis” (meeting/to meet) in verse 17 – we will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet, apantesis, the Lord. These two words of coming and meeting, together, refer to the scene, familiar in much of ancient Greek and Roman writings, of a king or emperor coming to visit a city or a province. As the king approaches, the citizens go out to meet him at some distance from the city, not in order then to hold a meeting out in the countryside, but to welcome him and to escort him into the city. “Meeting the Lord in the air” is not a way of saying, “in order then to stay safely away from the wicked world doomed for destruction.” Rather, it is a welcoming party of the king’s triumphant return to earth. Hence, we will be with the Lord forever on earth. That’s the implied meaning here.
This is how the original Thessalonian Christians would have understood this passage. That all Christians, dead or alive, will go and greet the Lord Jesus when he returns, as a welcoming party normally goes out to meet and escort an emperor or royal dignitary, to welcome and then escort Jesus as he come down to earth to rule and to judge. So, this is my alternative scenario of Christ’s second coming.
Alternative End Time Scenario (click on link to see a powerpoint diagram, click “back” button on your browser to return here or you can right click and select “open in new tab”)
Our 1 Thessalonians passage tells us that the rapture is not a rescue of Christians to escape from the doomed planet earth, but is a welcoming party to escort the return of Christ the King who will then judge and remove the evil in the world, as our Matthew 24 passage tells us, leaving behind all that is good for the renewed heaven and earth.
Now, some of you may say, “But didn’t Peter wrote in 2 Peter 3 that ‘the Day of Judgment will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat’?” Let’s take a quick look at 2 Peter 3:3-7,10-13.
2 Peter 3:3-7, 10, 12-13
“Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.’ But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. … But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. … That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.” (TNIV)
There are two clues to understand what Peter means about the new heaven and new earth. First clue: there are two words in the original Greek language for “new”. One is “neos” and the other is “kainos”. Neos means new in time, that which has not yet been, that which has just made its appearance. Babies are neos new. New inventions are neos new (e.g. when the car was newly invented). Kainos means new in quality, that which is better than the old, or new in nature. It implies more of new and improved (e.g. new car models). Peter used kainos when he talked about the new heaven and the new earth. It’s not that God will create a brand new earth, but God will improve and restore this present earth, so that it will become new and better than the old. New and improved, not new and original.
The second clue is that Peter referred to the Flood. Just as the old world was deluged and destroyed by water, so the present heaven and earth are reserved for destruction by fire. Now, was the world really destroyed by the flood? No, it was the same earth but put through the clean and rinse cycle, so to speak, washed all the dirt off, and it’s new and improved. It’s restored to its original goodness. So, the fire that Peter says will destroy and melt the earth is probably a refining fire, fire that burns off all the impurities, so that only pure gold or pure silver is left behind.
For Reformed Christians, this is not a new theology. The 16th century Belgic Confession, an old Reformed Christian statement of beliefs, said about the Last Judgment: “Finally, we believe, according to the Word of God, that … our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven, [and] will declare Himself Judge of the living and the dead and set this old world afire in order to purge it” (Article 37).
Thus, the Last Judgment as a purging and renewal of planet earth rather than as a destruction of planet earth is a theological idea that has been around for centuries. Even Jesus spoke of renewal or restoration of the world: “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.” (Matthew 19:28 TNIV)
So, the whole world will be restored. Not just humans, not just our souls, but also the animal kingdom, all human structures, the whole environment. If you still need more convincing that rapture-ready Christians have got it backwards, take a look at Revelation 21.
“Then I saw ‘a new heaven and a new earth,’ for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.’ … He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’” (TNIV)
The Greek word for “new” here in the new heaven and earth is kainos new, not neos new, just as it was in 2 Peter. It is probably better translated as a renewed heaven and a renewed earth. In Revelation 21, the apostle John did not see Christians being taken up into heaven, but he saw heaven coming down to the new earth (v. 2): “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God”. And verse 3: “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.” God is making the new earth his home. He is going to live here with us! Finally, in verse 5: “I am making everything new!” The “new” here is once again, kainos, renewed, not neos.
When we celebrate Easter every year, we are celebrating the physical bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. The physical material body matters to God. This material world, the planet earth, matters to God. God will renew the world – perhaps it needs an extreme makeover – but this world is our home that God has created for us. To care for this world, to be involved in social reform, to bring justice in this lifetime, all of this is to co-operate in God’s renewing of this world. All these good things – far from being futile – are what will remain, left behind, after God removes evil.
How we view the future affects how we live in the present. Our Christian lives are not a long wait for a rescue-us-from-suffering rapture. I dare say that the New Testament Christians were expecting to go through suffering rather than escape it. Suffering as Christ suffered was a profound part of their Christian spirituality. Our Christian lives are not opportunities for piling up rewards in heaven but are joining in God’s mission of cosmic redemption or cosmic renewal. And as co-workers of God’s cosmic mission, we do long for that day when Christ the King returns to complete the mission – for that day when we will see all our efforts bear fruit at last. Until then, we work as faithful and wise servants, being vigilant, watchful, and longing for Christ to return to his throne.
Furthermore, what kind of view of our world do we have, if we see being left behind as a form of punishment? In rapture theology, this earth is, at best, a hotel, a temporary residence, and, at worst, a prison. In biblical theology, however, this world is our home, our permanent residence, and heaven is, so to speak, our hotel! The dead in Christ are now with Christ in heaven, not to be there for eternity, but to wait for the resurrection of their bodies, for the time when Christ returns to the world to renew it, so that we can all be with the Lord forever in our home, the renewed heaven and earth, as it was in the days when God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Being left behind is a reward, not a punishment.
I will end with these quotes from Gordon Spykman: “We are indeed called to ‘set [our] minds on things that are above’ (Col. 3:2), remembering, however, that this command is not … telling us ‘where’ to live our lives, but … telling us ‘how’ / ‘in whose Name’ to do so. The best way to seek the things above is to participate in God’s mission in his world. … ‘Holy worldliness’ is what counts, not an obsessive concern with our own anticipated ‘state of eternal bliss.’ … Nothing in the gospel forbids [Christians] to be faithful to life, to the earth, to culture. Rather, the gospel urges us to accept life for the time God gives us to enjoy it – as active peacemakers, earthkeepers, advocates of justice, and agents of neighborly love.” (Reformational Theology, Eerdmans, 1992, p. 530)
May we all cultivate this “holy worldliness” and see a concern for the earth, for culture and for social reform as part and parcel of our three-dimensional (3D) Christianity.