A recent series of text messages from a family member asking me about the rapture – an event in which God would suddenly snatch away into the clouds all Christians from earth before the end-time atrocities of the Antichrist – led me to reexamine what the Bible teaches about the subject.
The idea of the rapture was first introduced by Puritan preachers Increase and Cotton Mather in the 1700s, followed by theologian John Darby in the 1800s, then popularized in the 1970s by Hal Lindsey in his book, The Late Great Planet Earth, and by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins in their Left Behind series of books in the 1990s. It is also a doctrine by some evangelical preachers and denominations based on their interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, but also of Matthew 24:27-31; 1 Corinthians 15:51-53; and Revelation 20:4. (Wikipedia)
According to their interpretation of these passages, Christians will be snatched away to be with Christ in heaven before the tribulation happens, leaving behind unbelievers to suffer under the worldwide tyrannical and destructive rule of the Antichrist for seven years. Christ will then return to punish the Antichrist and his followers, and rule the earth for a thousand years, before pronouncing final judgment on all who have ever lived. This is known as the pretribulation rapture or premillennialism (before the one thousand years of Christ’s rule).
Besides pretribulation rapture, there are variations of beliefs on when the rapture will occur – midtribulation, prewrath tribulation, partial tribulation (all three happening during the tribulation), and post tribulation in which the rapture occurs at the second coming of Christ. (Wikipedia)
But 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 shows that the apostle Paul was writing about the resurrection of the Christian dead at Christ’s second coming (the first coming being his birth in Bethlehem). The Thessalonian Christians were worried about what would happen to their fellow believers who had already died before the return of Christ, so Paul assured them that:
“We who are still living when the Lord returns will not rise to meet him ahead of those who are in their graves. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the call of the archangel, and with trumpet call of God. First, all the Christians who have died will rise from their graves. Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and remain with him forever.” (1 Thess. 4:15-17, NLT)
I’ve highlighted key phrases that are important in comparing the other scripture passages with the above Thessalonian passage. For example, the phrase “caught up” in verse 17 was translated in the Latin manuscript as rapiemur, derived from raptus and raptura (a kidnapping, a carrying off, taken away). This Latin translation came from harpagisometha (caught up or taken away) used in the Greek version of 1 Thessalonians 4:17, while a shortened form, harpazo, is also used in Acts 8:39, 2 Cor. 12:2-4, and Rev. 12:5. (Wikipedia)
The Matthew 24:27-31 passage lists some of those same phrases and gives us a specific time when Christ will return – after the tribulation.
“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (Matt. 24:29-31, ESV)
So, along with Matthew specifying the time of Jesus’ second coming as happening immediately after the tribulations, the similarities in these two passages include:
• The Lord or Son of Man returning from heaven or coming down in clouds from heaven
• His arrival will be announced with loud trumpet sounds from his archangel and angels
• He will gather his elect – Christians both living and dead, with the dead raised first – and take them up into the clouds
These similarities are also seen in the 1 Corinthian 15 passage which adds one key phrase – the last trumpet:
“ But let me tell you a wonderful secret God has revealed to us. Not all of us will die, but we will all be transformed. It will happen in a moment, in the blinking of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, the Christians who have died will be raised with transformed bodies. And then we who are living will be transformed so that we will never die. For our perishable earthly bodies must be transformed into heavenly bodies that will never die.” (1 Cor. 15: 51-53, NLT)
The last trumpet is important because it links all three passages and their trumpet references to Revelation 11:15 (in which the seventh and last trumpet will announce the second coming of Jesus Christ) and Revelation 20:4 in which Christ resurrects the Christians martyred during the tribulation, and reigns with them (and the rest of his elect) for a thousand years.
So, these passages from I Thessalonians 4, Matthew 24, 1 Corinthians 15, Revelation 11 and 20 are unified in showing:
• Christ’s return occurring immediately after the tribulation
• He will come down in clouds from heaven
• His arrival will be announced with a seventh and last trumpet blast from his archangel and angels
• He will gather his elect – Christians both living and dead – and take them up into the clouds (in the same way that he was taken up at his ascension)
• His elect, including Christians martyred during the tribulation, will rule with him for a thousand years
There is one more passage – Matthew 24:40-41 – that is used by the rapture proponents to describe the snatching away of believers into heaven:
“Two men will be working together in the field; one will be taken, the other left. Two women will be grinding flour at the mill; one will be taken, the other left.” (NLT)
But this passage must be interpreted in light of the preceding verses 37-39 in which Jesus teaches that his second coming will be like in the days of Noah when the people did not heed Moses’ warning about the coming Flood and went about living life as usual. When the Flood came, it “took them away” or “swept them away,” depending on the various translations. It is this destructive sense that one must interpret the phrase “one will be taken” in verses 40 and 41. The ones that are left behind are the ones that are saved from destruction, as were Noah and his family.
The doctrine of the rapture, as an event in which God will suddenly snatch away all Christians from earth before the tribulation of the Antichrist, is a misinterpretation of these scriptural passages and, therefore, is not biblical.