A Farewell to the Rapture? Problem Texts for Holistic Eschatology, Part 3

In a previous post I addressed 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 as one of the “problem texts” that seems to contradict the idea of the renewal of creation in New Testament eschatology. Although this text is usually typically taken to teach the “rapture” of believers to heaven when Christ returns, I tried to show that it teaches no such thing.

In this post I will address the other standard proof text for the rapture in popular eschatology, namely Matthew 24:37-41 (along with its parallel in Luke 17:35-37). I hope to show that this text too has been seriously misinterpreted.

Although Brian Walsh and I addressed this misreading in The Transforming Vision (pp. 103-104), we presented only a brief analysis; there is much more that needs to be said. Indeed, it turns out that many dispensationalists agree that Matthew 24 // Luke 17 doesn’t teach the rapture. And some even doubt that it is taught anywhere in the Bible.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Understanding of Matthew 24:37-41 in Popular Eschatology

In Matthew 24 (as part of the so-called Olivet discourse) Jesus explains what will happen when the Son of Man returns. According to Matthew 24:40-41: “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”

Luke 17:34-35 is similar: “I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.”

The common assumption of much Christian eschatology is that the one “taken” in Matthew 24 // Luke 17 is the believer, going to heaven to be with the Lord. And this is identified with the “rapture” of 1 Thessalonians 4:17.

The Importance of Reading Texts Carefully

The problem is that we do not typically read the Bible very carefully. So let us pay close attention to the comparison Jesus makes in Matthew 24.

Jesus begins by describing what life was like in the time of Noah, when people did not expect the flood. His point in verse 39 is that the people of Noah’s time “knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

Note who is taken away, according to Jesus. The phrase “swept them all away” clearly describes judgment on the wicked; it was Noah and his family who were “left behind” (if we might put it so); they remained on the earth after the flood.

Thus, when Jesus introduces the eschatological equivalent to the days of Noah (in vv. 40-41), it is evident from the analogy he draws between the two events that the ones taken are the unrighteous; they are taken to judgment.

The two Greek verbs Jesus uses in Matthew 24:39-41 (airō for the time of Noah and paralambanō for the coming of the Son of Man), are translated as “swept away” and “taken” in the NRSV. They are rendered as “taken away” and “taken” in the KJV, and also in the NIV. The similarity of these verbs in the KJV and NIV should have made Jesus’ point even more obvious for those reading these translations.

The fact that so many have misread who is taken and who is left, despite such clear verbal clues (not to mention Jesus’ analogy between the flood and the eschaton), is a powerful example of how our assumptions about what a text says can predetermine what we see in the text.

Luke 17 Clarifies Where They Are “Taken”

If we doubt this interpretation of Matthew 24, we need only turn to Luke’s version of this text, for he follows the narrative of one taken and one left (in 17:34-35) with a question from the disciples in verse 37. The ask, “Where, Lord?” That is, where are they taken?

Jesus replies, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” This is clearly a reference to judgment; the image is certainly not of “heaven.”

The image Jesus alludes to is the valley of Ben-Hinnom (gai ben-hinnom or Gehenna), southwest of Jerusalem, which had become the city dump in the Second Temple period, used for incinerating garbage, dead animals, and executed criminals. In the Old Testament the valley of Ben-Hinnom is associated with idolatry and child sacrifice (by burning) to Baal or Molech.

We should not be surprised that those taken from the earth are being judged. After all, the same Jesus who taught about the last days in Matthew 24 proclaimed in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5).

Most Dispensationalists No Longer Think Matthew 24 Teaches the Rapture

Although Matthew 24:37-41 is a often used to support the rapture in popular eschatology, it is significant that these words of Jesus are not typically appealed to by dispensationalist theologians and Bible scholars (even though the rapture is a distinctively dispensationalist doctrine).

Even Hal Lindsay’s bestseller, The Late, Great Planet Earth, which resolutely emphasizes the rapture, never appeals to this text about being “taken” in Matthew 24 or Luke 17.

These verses are also notably absent from the discussion in both the first and second editions of Three Views of the Rapture (1984; reprint. 1996; and 2010) published by Zondervan in their Counterpoints series; indeed, when the introduction to the second edition (2010) lists texts that either explicitly or implicitly teach the rapture, Matthew 24:36-42 is not on the list.

Although early dispensationalists such as John Nelson Darby and William E. Blackstone cited this text in arguing for the rapture, as early as 1925 dispensationalists had begun to back off using it as part of their argument. And by the mid-twentieth century the majority of dispensationalists had come to the conclusion that Matthew 24:36ff. did not address the rapture at all, conceding instead that it referred to events after the tribulation.

Thus dispensationalist John F. Walvoord critiques those who use this text to support the rapture, emphatically noting: “Those taken away were taken away in judgment” (Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation: A Historical and Biblical Study of Posttribulationalism [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976], 89).

Why Do Evangelicals Think Matthew 24 is a Rapture Text?

For the popularity of the contemporary rapture interpretation of Matthew 24 // Luke 17 we need to turn to Larry Norman’s famous 1969 song, “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” which was released on what is usually regarded as the first Christian rock album (On this Rock, Capitol Records, 1969). After evoking the Great Tribulation in verse 1, the second verse of the song is a poetic restatement of Luke 17:34 and Matthew 24:40:

A man and wife asleep in bed,/ She hears a noise and turns her head he’s gone;/ I wish we’d all been ready.

Two men walking up a hill,/ One disappears and one’s left standing still;/ I wish we’d all been ready.

The song clearly understands the person who is “gone” (or who “disappears”) as having been taken to heaven. Perhaps it is significant that according to Norman, the song “talked about something I had never heard preached from a pulpit as I grew up” (Larry Norman comment from 1969).

Because of Larry Norman, many of us have since heard this preached from the pulpit—and beyond the pulpit. Indeed, the chorus (“There’s no time to change your mind,/ The Son has come and you’ve been left behind”) arguably generated the title of the Left Behind series of books and movies.

Rapture Agnosticism and the New Creation among Some Dispensationalists

Beyond even John Walvoord’s assertion that Matthew 24 // Luke 17 does not teach the rapture, it is significant that some dispensationalists no longer affirm the rapture as a doctrine at all. One such is R. Todd Mangum, who has impeccable dispensationalist credentials (a doctorate from Dallas Theological Seminary and recipient of the John F. Walvoord Award for outstanding work in eschatology).

Yet Magnum admits that “little good has come of dispensationalists’ emphasis on a pre-tribulational rapture up to now; there is promise for even less good to come of such emphasis in the future.” He even suggests that dispensationalists adopt a posture of “rapture agnosticism,” both because of the doctrine’s negative ethical effects (it detracts from legitimate Christian concern for the earth) and because it is not clearly taught in Scripture (Mangum, “High Hopes for 21st-Century Dispensationalism: A Response to ‘Hope and Dispensationalism: An Historical Overview and Assessment’ by Gary L. Nebeker” [paper presented to the Dispensational Study Group of the Evangelical Theological Society, Nashville, Tennessee, November 2000]).

Magnum proposes instead an “inaugurated kingdom ethic”(the kingdom of God has already begun on earth, to be consummated at Christ’s return), which is more in line with the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament

New Testament scholar Darrell Bock also emphasizes the this-worldly nature of the kingdom. In an extended study, Bock examines the biblical basis for the inaugurated kingdom of God in the midst of history, while also affirming the kingdom’s culmination not in heaven, but in “the cosmos as a whole” (Bock, “The Kingdom of God in New Testament Theology,” in Looking into the Future: Evangelical Studies in Eschatology, ed. David W. Baker [Evangelical Theological Society Studies; Baker Academic, 2001], 48).

Both Magnum and Bock fit the category of what dispensationalist theologian Craig Blaising calls “progressive dispensationalism,” a term that does not refer to “progressive” in opposition to “conservative,” but rather to an understanding of how the dispensations unfold. According to Blaising, there are three stages in the development of dispensationalism—which he names classical, revised, and progressive (Blaising, “The Extent and Varieties of Dispensationalism,” in Craig A. Blaising and Darrell L. Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism [Wheaton, Ill: Bridgepoint, 1993], 9-56).

As a representative of progressive dispensationalism, Blaising himself has articulated a clear distinction between what he calls a “spiritual vision model” of eschatological escape to heaven and the biblical “new creation model,” which “expects the earth and the cosmic order to be renewed and made everlasting through the same creating power that grants immortal and resurrection life to the saints” (Blaising, “Premellennialism,” in Three Views of the Millennium and Beyond, ed. Darrell L. Bock [Counterpoints: Exploring Theology; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999], 163).

A Farewell to the Rapture?

What’s the world coming to when dispensationalists are agnostic about the rapture? Or when they affirm the renewal of the cosmos as the goal of eschatology?

This is an important and historic shift. But more important for our purposes is that neither Matthew 24 nor 1 Thessalonians 4 teaches the future escape of believers from the earth to heaven.

And if the two most cited proof-texts for the rapture don’t support this idea, we have no good reason to think that it is any part of biblical eschatology.

Special thanks to Steven L. James, doctoral candidate in theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, for introducing me to the literature on progressive dispensationalism.

Conference on “Toward an Evangelical Feminism” (this Saturday in Toronto)

I am updating an earlier post, where I mentioned a theology conference I’m planning on attending.

The conference is coming up this Saturday, so if you want to attend there is still time (you can register online in advance, or you can register on site).

Since the conference schedule has been changed slightly I have provided an updated schedule, as well as a link to the abstracts for all the papers.

Toward an Evangelical Feminism: Scripture, Theology, Gender

This is the (somewhat audacious) title of this year’s fall conference of the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association (CETA), to be held Saturday, October 18, 2014 at Wycliffe College in Toronto. The conference is co-sponsored by CETA, along with the Institute for Christian Studies and Wycliffe College.

A flyer for the conference is available, as well as the updated conference schedule and the paper abstracts.

The keynote address is by Marion Taylor (professor of OT at Wycliffe), on an evangelical feminist reading of Ruth, and the papers cover a wide range of topics. Some papers attempt to define evangelical feminism, while others are focused on reading the texts from the Old or New Testament that pertain to issues of the dignity and empowerment of women in God’s world.

Online registration is hosted by the Institute for Christian Studies (just scroll to the bottom of the page for the registration links).

Living Eucharistically: A Journey of Faith, Doubt, and Learning

This is the title of a talk I will give the day before the CETA conference (9:30 a.m. on Friday, October 17) at the Institute for Christian Studies (also in Toronto) in their “Scripture, Faith, and Scholarship” seminar. The seminar is primarily for doctoral students at the ICS, but is open to others.

As a past doctoral student at the ICS, I plan to share some of my own life journey, tracing how I initially moved towards a holistic biblical worldview, then—through a time of suffering and doubt–how I came to a second naivete by embracing lament and a deeper understanding of the gospel. I will end with a brief look at the journey ahead—in particular, the issues in human evolution and the Christian doctrine of the Fall that I’m currently working on (as part of a group research project with the Colossian Forum).

The fruit of the joint research project will first be a major conference called “Re-Imagining the Intersection of Evolution and the Fall” to be held at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary (of Northwestern University) on March 26-28, 2015. Then there will be a book of essays arising from the conference presentations, edited by Jamie Smith and Bill Cavanaugh (the co-leaders of the project).

What About the Rapture? Problem Texts for Holistic Eschatology, Part 2

In an earlier post I noted that my new eschatology book, A New Heaven and a New Earth, examines “problem texts for holistic eschatology”—passages from the New Testament that suggest that the earth will be destroyed at Christ’s return or that seem to teach a heavenly destiny for believers.

One of the most prominent ideas that pops into the heads of many Christians when they think of eschatology is the “rapture,” the event when Christ will (supposedly) snatch up all living believers from earth to heaven at his return. Technically, the function of the rapture in dispensationalist theology (which is where it originated) is to temporarily remove Christians from the earth while the rest of the human population is subject to the terrible sufferings known as the Great Tribulation. But in the minds of most Christians, the rapture serves to emphasize that we can expect a heavenly destiny, while the earth will be destroyed.

Two Rapture Texts

There are two main New Testament texts that are typically thought to teach the rapture (though, as we shall see, only one of them is typically used by dispensationalist theologians).

The first text is 1 Thessalonians 4:17, where the Greek verb for being “caught up” (which is what “rapture” means) is harpazō. The English word “rapture” is derived from the Latin verb rapio, which was used in the Latin Vulgate to translate harpazō in 1 Thessalonians 4:17.

There is also a second text that is often appealed to in popular contemporary eschatology as support for the rapture, though the term there is “taken” (paralambanō), not “caught up” (Matthew 24:40-41; and its parallel text Luke 17:34-35).

In this post I will examine 1 Thessalonians 4:17 in the context of verses 13-18 (which is the relevant literary unit). I will examine Matthew 24 // Luke 17 in the next post.

The Point of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

It is important to note at the outset that Paul’s point in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is pastoral (he does not intend to teach eschatology). This is why he concludes by saying: “encourage one other with these words” (v. 18). Specifically, Paul is addressing the question of whether those who have died in the faith prior to the return of the Lord will be disadvantaged at Christ’s return.

He affirms that they will not be disadvantaged. Indeed, the dead in Christ will have precedence over the living, since they will be raised first. “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” (1 Thess 4:17). Paul is thus encouraging the church in Thessaloniki, emphasizing that they don’t need to worry about those from their midst who have passed away before the second coming.

The Ambiguity of Where “We Will Be with the Lord”

Nevertheless, verse 17 certainly seems, at first blush, to support the idea of living eternally in heaven, since having met the Lord in the air, “we will be with the Lord forever.” It is intriguing, however, that the text does not actually say where we will be with the Lord forever. This has to be supplied by the interpreter from the tenor of the rest of Scripture. As I argue throughout the rest of the eschatology book, Scripture suggests this will be on earth.

This conclusion is confirmed when we explore the meaning of two loaded terms that Paul uses, both of which have political overtones.

The Significance of the Lord’s “Coming” (parousia)

First of all, Paul refers to the “coming [parousia] of the Lord” (1 Thess 4:15). As is now recognized by New Testament scholars, parousia often refers to an official divine or imperial visit—the “coming” of a god or a king to a city, which clearly makes sense in our text. The parousia in ancient times was a matter of great celebration, with much pomp and ceremony, thus Paul’s reference to the public announcement of Christ’s parousia by “the archangel’s call” and “the sound of God’s trumpet” (1 Thess 4:16), and also the important issue of who would meet the Lord first.

The Idea of “Meeting” (apantēsis)

Associated with the parousia is the idea of apantēsis (“meeting”), which Paul mentions in verse 17. The expression eis apantēsin or its variant eis hupantēsin (literally, “to a meeting” in the accusative case) is usually translated verbally, as an action (“to meet”). New Testament scholars have pointed out that this served as a quasi-technical term for sending a delegation outside the walls of a city to formally receive a dignitary. Note that at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, people “took branches of palm trees and went out to meet [hupantēsis] him,” acclaiming him the “King of Israel” (John 12:13).

The two related nouns hupantēsis and apantēsis are also found in Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins (or bridesmaids) in Matthew 25:1-13 (vv. 1 and 6, respectively). The wise ones, who were prepared for the bridegroom’s coming, “went out to meet him” (Matt 25:6) and then escorted him to the wedding banquet.

Paul himself experienced this sort of reception on his trip to Rome. “The believers from there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet [apantēsis] us” (Acts 28:15).

Paul’s Application of apantēsis to the Return of Christ

It was customary for people to vie for pride of place in meeting the coming dignitary, hence Paul’s assurance in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-16 that Christians who had already died would not be inconvenienced at this great event; rather they would rise first (and thus be the first to meet the coming King).

Since cemeteries were located outside city walls in the first century, often lining the main road leading to the city, Paul’s readers could vividly imagine the scenario of the dead in Christ being raised as the King passed by, before those in the city went out to meet him as he approached the city gates. This also makes sense of Paul’s statement that “God will bring with him [Christ] those who have died” (1Thess 4:14); this suggests that those raised from the graves, who have met the returning Lord, will then enter the city with him.

The most important point in the above scenario is that those who went out to meet the dignitary returned with him, escorting him in grand procession into their city. In this case, this clearly means an escort to earth.

Beyond the background custom of an imperial visit (represented by parousia and apantēsis) and the clear biblical teaching of the redemption of creation, there are further reasons to doubt that 1 Thessalonians means to teach the rapture, as classically understood.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Describes a Public Event

First, the rapture is supposed to be a secret event, yet the coming of Christ in 1 Thessalonians 4 is announced with great fanfare, “with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet” (1 Thess 4:16). This is similar to the sound of the trumpet in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, which describes the suddenness of Christ’s coming, accompanied by the transformation of living believers and the resurrection of those who have died.

“Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” (1 Cor 15:51-52)

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Is About the Resurrection and the Final State

Furthermore, in its most popular form, the rapture is meant to remove living believers from earth so that the Tribulation can begin (all dead believers are already in heaven). But in 1 Thessalonians 4 Paul speaks of both dead and living believers rising to meet Christ. The text is thus not about removal of believers from earth at all. Like 1 Corinthians 15, 1 Thessalonians 4 addresses the resurrection of the dead and transformation of the living that will accompany Christ’s decisive coming as Lord to judge the world and make all things new.

My analysis of Matthew 24 and the rapture is next.