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.