Friday, January 13, 2017

What is the Rapture?

A little while ago, I was asked to discuss the concept of the Rapture in one of these articles. It is fairly difficult to do that, not because of how little there is to say but because of how much. My writing is already a bit long for the internet, but discussing the Rapture fully (if such a thing is possible) would take a book. I cannot do that at the moment. Nor can I ask you to read it off a webpage. Instead, I am going to go the opposite direction and attempt to hit the high notes. Oftentimes, I try to give at least some insight on or description of positions with which I disagree on a debatable issue. Today, suffice it to say there is a debate, and what I say here is simply my side of it.

Defining “Rapture”

Still, I do have to lay at least a little groundwork. It is possible that some people who read or listen to this will never have heard of the Rapture previously. Before trying to explain what it will be, I need to define what it is.

The word “rapture” probably does appear most often in a religious context, even though it does not appear anywhere in the Bible. When used in a secular sense, it means “ecstasy.” An older, even less frequent usage is “to be carried away.” The Christian concept of the Rapture is a combination of these meanings. It is the belief that Jesus Christ will someday return to gather His followers and take them to be with Him in eternal bliss.

So you can see why this event would be an important one for Christians. It is what we are waiting for, the moment when the world falls away and God’s promises will be fulfilled. Most of those who claim to believe in Jesus also share a basic belief that this gathering will occur. It is once you get into its specific details that things start to get fuzzy.

Explaining the Rapture

Time to get personal, then. Though the word “rapture” does not appear in the Bible, I still build my understanding of it on biblical passages. In the first place, there is John 14:1–3. Here, Jesus promises that even though He is going away, He is going to come back for His people and take them to the place He has prepared for them. Now that can be taken pretty generally. It could just mean that the soul goes to heaven when the body dies. Certainly, that is also a Christian position, most notably stated by Paul in Philippians 1:21–23. But the Rapture goes a bit further than that.

The Resurrection of the Saints

In the New Testament, Christ offers more than just eternal life for the spirit. There will also be a new and unending life for the body. This is the concept of the Resurrection, and obviously ties into Jesus’ own return to life. As Colossians 1:18 explains, Jesus is the “firstborn from the dead.” It is a mark of His glory that He was the first to experience this new life, as well as the means through which He offers salvation to us. But obviously, if He is first, then it stands to reason there will be others to follow. 1 Corinthians 15 was written by Paul to counteract some who said there would be no resurrection, and goes into great length to declare its surety and describe its details. Verses 20–23 are particularly important for our purposes:

But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming.

Jesus will bring back to life those who believed in Him before death.

The Final Judgment

We still aren’t quite to the Rapture yet, though. The Resurrection is broader. In fact, Daniel 12:1–3 and Revelation 20:11–15 tell us that it is not only Christians who will be resurrected. Everyone who ever lived will be brought back to life. It is just that some of them will not stay that way. Those who do not accept the sacrifice Jesus made on their behalf, those who in essence say they want nothing to do with the life He offered while they were first on this earth, will be sent to eternal judgment rather than everlasting joy. That event, known as the Great White Throne Judgment, will be the very last moment in the history of the world.

The Rapture

The Rapture itself is something of an addendum to the Resurrection. For the clearest statement of it, we can now finally turn to 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18. Paul is again discussing the Resurrection of believers as a way to comfort his readers. Those who have died in Christ, the brothers and sisters we have lost, will one day live again. But they will not be alone. Whenever this Resurrection does occur, there will still be Christians living. Paul says that they will not be left behind. After the dead are raised, then the living who remain will also receive their resurrected bodies and be gathered to Christ and all His saints, as well.

The last point about the Rapture is the hardest to make and the most disagreed upon. However, it is also what makes it most unique. Besides being for the living as well as the dead, the Rapture is thought of as the first stage in the end of the world. If you read the passage from Daniel 12 that I cited earlier, then you saw there was a promise of a terrible time of trouble at the end of history, unlike anything that will have been seen before. Jesus also discusses this Great Tribulation in Matthew 24:15–31, where He stresses its terror and unprecedented nature. Paul further adds to the discussion in 2 Thessalonians 2:1–4, describing a “man of sin” who will rule the world in those days. And of course, most of the book of Revelation is dedicated to describing the judgments that will be visited on the world at that time.

The general death and destruction of those days will be terrible to behold, and the thought of their coming should inspire us to reach out to our neighbors with the words of hope so they might be saved. That is the other element of the Rapture. Back in Matthew 24, in verses 40 and 41 and after Jesus’ description of the Tribulation, He says that some will be taken and others will be left. And He does so in the context of comparing this moment to the Flood. My belief is that just as Noah and his family were lifted above the waters of the Flood that destroyed all those left behind, Christians too will be spared from the coming Tribulation. We will, in other words, avoid the worst of it as God closes the book on this world.  Tying this promise of Jesus into the words of 1 Thessalonians 4, we can take comfort in knowing that the Lord will not be leaving us behind.

That, then, is my view of the Rapture. It is an event at the end of history when all Christians, living and dead, will be perfected and united with our Lord Jesus Christ. It will be closely followed by, but will precede, the Great Tribulation. The promise of it should give us peace, while the knowledge of what it heralds should urge us to share the Gospel.


We are finished with what I wanted to say about the Rapture, but there are a few clarifications I think I should offer. Both have to do with timing. The first is about the timing of the Great White Throne Judgment that I mentioned earlier. The Rapture can be considered an End Times event because it occurs right before the Tribulation. As I interpret it, the Tribulation will last seven years. Then, at its end, Christ will return to reign on earth. He will do so for 1,000 years, at the end of which time there will be one final rebellion. It will be at this point that the Great White Throne Judgment happens, and evil will be vanquished once and for all (you can read about these things in Revelation 19–21). This means that from the Rapture to the end of history will be about 1,007 years. The Resurrection of the saints before the Tribulation will long precede the resurrection of all others and the ultimate determination of their eternal fate. But they are still united, the first and last sentences of the final paragraph of life on this present earth. 

The second clarification is the more vital one. Many people try to make guesses on when all of this will happen. But the consistent witness of Scripture is that it is literally unpredictable. Jesus promises in Matthew 24:36–44 that no one besides God knows when it will be. In verses 23 and 24, He even goes as far as to say that anyone claiming to know is a false prophet. Paul confirms this in 1 Thessalonians 5:1–10, where he says the Lord’s coming will be “as a thief in the night.” We can look for signs that give us a general impression that the end might be near, but we cannot know. We are not supposed to know, because we are to live as though it could happen at any moment. We should be in a state of constant readiness, so that Jesus finds us living as the lights He meant for us to be. If we knew, we would relax right up until that moment. It is better to be sure of the promises and unsure of the timing. It gives us a reason to keep living well. And on top of that, we all have seen the damage done when one of these false prophets gets a prediction wrong. We should not sully the Gospel by trying, and then inevitably failing, to set its expiration date.

Well, there you go. And that was the short version! I hope it gives you some encouragement, some challenge, or at least some food for thought. That is what I try to do here. And if anything does not make sense or you want more information, let me know. I am always eager for questions on this or any other topic related to the Bible. Your involvement puts the “together” in “Seeking Meaning Together.” Don’t be afraid to reach out.

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