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Why didn’t the rapture happen? Will it ever?

It is May 22nd 2011. According to widely circulated reports originating from an elderly US Pastor, Harold Camping, yesterday was supposed to be the end of the world. As we can see, it wasn’t. Others elsewhere have analysed Camping’s arguments that he used to predict this date, and no doubt, there will be another press released explaining why his original calculations were incorrect.

So why didn’t it happen? And will it ever? The obvious Biblical statements state that ‘no one knows the day or hour’ (Matt 24:36) and that the day of the Lord will come unexpectedly (1 Thess 5:2). But I want to propose that the whole idea of the rapture is misguided and based on poor Biblical interpretation. Make no mistake, I am not suggesting that Christ will not return – he will, and that day should hold no fear for Christians. I am suggesting that a pre-return rapture of believers (like what Camping was suggesting for yesterday) will not happen as it is not mentioned in scripture.

The following is an analysis of the Biblical texts which are most often used to justify the notion of a rapture, taken from the excepts of an essay I wrote a few years ago. I will analyse them in order and look at each in context.

1 Thess 4:13-17

This is the most quoted proof-text for the rapture. Proponents of the rapture assert that this passage cannot refer to Christ’s second coming but to a pre-coming at the rapture. Consequently, the implication is that Christ will descend halfway to earth in order to meet his followers ‘in the air’, then all will turn around and return with Him to heaven.

The Greek word at the centre of the dispute, apantesis, translated ‘to meet’ in 1 Thess 4:17 has only three other occurrences in the New Testament. One of these is also part of a larger eschatological context (Matt 25:6). The virgins, who were waiting inside for their groom to arrive, hear him coming and go outside to meet him halfway. Similarly, Paul is met on his way to Rome by a group of believers who leave Rome specifically to greet him (Acts 28:15). In both cases, however, it is the greeting party who turn around to accompany the traveller to his original destination. Due to this and some other uses in non-Biblical Hellenistic Greek, apantesis is regarded as a technical term describing a welcoming party who meet a visitor halfway, turn around, and continue on to the visitor’s destination. Therefore, Christ will meet the believers “in the air”; at which point they will turn around and follow Christ to earth as part of his triumphant entourage. Thus this interpretation of 4:17 describes Christ’s second coming, not the rapture.

A closer look at the wider paragraph backs up this interpretation. In 1 Thess 4, who is Paul taking about? The group “we who are still alive, who are left” (15), can be identified with the group “we who are still alive and are left” of verse 17. They are the same group (the 2011 NIV translation has cleared this up). Hence, the “coming of the Lord” (15) and being “caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord” (16) refer to the same thing: Christ’s coming (15) with his being met by those who are alive in Christ. This coming will be accompanied by a loud command, the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet call of God (2:16). It will be a worldwide event, so it is very difficult to see how this could be a secret rapture.

Such a reading does not undermine the emphasis of the greek word harpazo, which means being caught/snatched up. This word describes the moment, the ‘twinkling of an eye’ (1 Cor 15:52), when all shall be changed.

The emphasis of this passage is undoubtedly on both the dead and living believers united with the Lord, not on the method or location of that meeting. Paul is reassuring them that those that have died in Christ will not miss out on his re-appearing.
Given the pastoral nature of the verses, Best is right in asserting that it should not be used to imply a secret rapture. Thus, building a doctrine solely on this verse would be unwise. But what about the other verses? From here the case for a rapture looks equally as flimsy.

2 Thess 2:3; 6-8

The argument for this verse being a reference to the rapture, relies on a different interpretation of the word apostasia. Instead of the usual translation of ‘rebellion’ or ‘apostasy’, some prefer the use of the word ‘departure’, not used in English translations since the Geneva Bible in 1608. The argument goes that that in most other New Testament usages, its meaning is linked to a departure from places or people, or a falling away from something. Consequently,  some event called ‘the departure’ is being referred to which, proponents of the rapture believe, refers to the rapture.

However, most Biblical scholars prefer the translation of ‘apostasy’ or ‘rebellion’ (as is used in 2:3), removing any interpretation of the rapture from the passage. With this translation, the sense of the text is clear (2:1-8). Paul is teaching that the gathering together of believers (2:1) will not occur until the falling away/apostasy (2:3) occurs which will reveal the ‘man of lawlessness’ (2:3). By the ‘splendour of His coming,’ Christ will overthrow the ‘lawless one’ (2:8). (Who the lawless one is is another discussion). It implies the second coming of Christ, not a secret coming for the rapture. There is no reason to suppose that this verse is speaking of a different ‘coming of Christ’ to at 1 Thess 2:17.

2 Thess 1:6-7

Pretribulationists claim that these verses refer to the Second Coming of Christ (after the Tribulation) when Christ will ‘pay back those who persecute you‘. Consequently, they believe that the rapture would have occurred seven years earlier. However, these verses leave no room for an earlier rapture. For example, in 1:7, the relief of the believers is a consequence of Christ’s coming. However, if an earlier rapture had taken place, believers would already be experiencing this relief. They will have been raptured to be with Christ seven years previously. This therefore cannot refer to a po

1 Thess 1:9b-10, 5:9

Pretribulationists accept this verse as a description of what Christ is to do through the rapture. That is, he will protect believers from the wrath of God which will manifest itself in the Tribulation. However, this interpretation relies on the concept of rapture being in place before the interpretation, so nothing can be inferred directly from it. Here, rapture is read into the text, not extrapolated out of it. One also cannot infer that the wrath mentioned speaks of the Tribulation (which as a period of time, is also theologically suspect).

Summary of Thessalonians

All the verses so far have come from Thessalonians. What are these books actually about? Paul’s emphasis in the first letter was to reassure the Thessalonians over the fate of the believers who had died before Christ’s return. They mistakenly supposed that the believing dead might miss out on Christ’s return, so Paul responds saying that both the Christian dead and those who are living will be united with Christ on his return. Thus, his emphasis was on the union, not the location of that union. However, his argument in 1 Thessalonians had led them to think that the day of the Lord had already passed (2:2). Paul counters this teaching in his second letter. Consequently, the rapture was not his concern.

If Paul had been teaching the doctrine of the rapture in his first letter (which he wasn’t), surely this would have changed the nature of his second letter. In this case,  his argument would have gone something like this: “It is obvious that the day of the Lord has not passed, as the rapture hasn’t occurred!”. Yet he doesn’t. Instead he warns them about the deceits of the antichrist (2:9-12) and encourages them to stand firm in the teachings they received from Paul (2:13-17). This would not have been necessary if the rapture would protect them from these events. Thus, the thrust of the letters is a pastoral response to Thessalonian misconceptions.

Matt 24:36-44

This section of Jesus’ teaching about signs and dates before his return is long and difficult. The little story that Jesus tells in verses 36-44 about people being swept away has often been thought of refering to the rapture – for example verse 40 “Two men will be working together in the field; one will be taken, the other left.” However, it is clear from the passage that those who are taken are the unrighteous – a direct reversal of the concept of the rapture where the righteous are taken to safety. Just like in the days of Noah, when people were tending to their everyday lives when the flood came, the Roman army could sweep through the country at any moment, taking some to their deaths, and leaving others. One definitely does not want to be taken. The passage is exhorting followers to keep watch, in essence to stay righteous, because the day of the Lord’s return in judgement is unknown. Wisdom and watchfulness are themes of the whole chapter. (In fact, in AD70 such scenes occurred as the Romans swept through Jerusalem, destroying the temple and dispersing the Jews)

Revelation

Revelation as a whole fails to mention the rapture explicitly at any point, although some argue that the letter to the church in Philadelphia contains a reference to it (3:10), but this is tenuous at best.

The traditional dispensationalist viewpoint places the rapture at the beginning of chapter four, because, after 3:22, the church is not mentioned again until 22:16. Consequently, the ‘door open in heaven’ (4:1) is thought to refer to the rapture, and the 24 elders surrounding Christ’s throne (4:4) refer to the leaders of the church around the world.

However, the beginning of Revelation 4 is a personal recollection of John’s vision; it does not speak of the church. “After this, I looked…” – the door is his window into the throne room of heaven as John responds to his personal invitation to see ‘what must take place’. It is a reassurance to all Christians that God is sovereign, setting the scene for the vision to come in the rest of Revelation. So the rapture cannot decisively be placed at 4:1 either.

It has to be said that given that proponents of the rapture place so much weight on determining the dates and order of the end times from Revelation, it seems very odd that the rapture would not be mentioned more clearly if it were to happen!

Evidence for the Rapture

Having examined the passages in question, the overwhelming conclusion is that there is very little evidence in scripture for a pretribulation rapture, so the doctrine must be dismissed. It can only be found by reading extra-biblical concepts into the passages. This helps explain why it only emerged as a doctrine relatively recently, originating from J.N. Darby, an English Puritan who faced opposition in the early 19th century. To those under persecution from others in the church, the idea of a secret rapture where God’s true followed would be kept safe had quite some appeal. The doctrine was later given more mainstream appeal by being included in the interpretation notes of the Schofield Study Bible of 1917, popular in evangelical America.

The rapture a recent invention that has not been part of Christian doctrine in the early church. However, it is worth noting that Jesus never rebuked those who falsely interpreted prophecy before his first coming. They were, however, rebuked for failing to notice who he was when he actually came. Consequently, whatever view is held, it should not be used as a test of orthodox belief. All are waiting for the return of Christ, and it is essential that all recognise Him when He eventually comes.