With claims a number of months ago about a predicted rapture and the hugely popular Left Behind series from a few years back, the concept of the rapture has hit the mainstream. What are we to make of the rapture? I grew up Anglican and we never talked about anything about the return of Jesus or end of the world. Then I became a Pentecostal and suddenly these things became core issues. People expected the rapture any moment. There was no question of there being a rapture, the debate was only about the timing with relation to the seven year tribulation. Needless to say, I was surprised when I heard a number of highly respected evangelical biblical scholars and theologians claim that there was no such thing as a rapture (usually in reaction to Left Behind). So, will there be a rapture or will there not?
It depends on what you mean by the rapture. If you mean the form of the teaching that has been popular since the 17th century, there is some question. Many Christians see the rapture as the source of their hope, the central thing to look forward to. Yet, there is very little in the New Testament that speaks of it. I am highly suspicious of the detailed and complex end-time scenarios. “Prophecy experts” put forth plans with an antichrist, tribulation, rapture and tribulation as if it was all clear from Scripture. The truth is these images are spread throughout the New Testament and it is relatively recently that they have been pieced together the way they have been today.
Does that mean there will not be a rapture? The word rapture comes from the Latin rapere which means to be caught up. The primary passage is this:
“For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 4:15–17 ESV)
What Paul is describing here is the resurrection. He has a similar description in 1 Corinthians.
“Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall 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 shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” (1 Corinthians 15:51–53 ESV)
If you asked Paul what he was teaching on here, he would not say rapture, he would say resurrection. The hope of the Christian is not that God will snatch some of us out of here so we don’t have to experience the discomfort of death. The hope of the Christian is the resurrection of the dead. The resurrection is found throughout the New Testament and is a central teaching (see my book Finding a New Land). The resurrection of the dead is the main thing but for practical reasons, some people will have to experience the resurrection without having died first. If someone wants to call that transformation the rapture, since it involves some how meeting Jesus at his return, go for it. There is nothing wrong with the word. The only thing that is wrong is holding to a hope of a rapture that is meant as an escape from this world. As far as I can see, as soon as we meet Jesus, we come back with him to earth, so it is not much of an escape. The central hope for Christians should not be the rapture but the resurrection.