A youth pastor walks into his church late this morning just as usual. He instantly notices that the secretary is surprisingly missing, the pastor is not in his office, and the worship pastor is nowhere to be seen. He wonders if it’s possible that he was the only one to remember the staff meeting. It’s not. Maybe it was cancelled? Maybe they all went to Starbucks without him? Maybe the rapture happened and he was left behind?
Then the staff jumps out from a closet and shouts, “April fools!” After an awkward laugh, he mumbles to himself, “there is nothing better than a prank to cause someone to doubt their salvation.”
I can’t say if that Youth Pastor should worry about his standing before God, but I can say that he doesn’t need to worry about the rapture. Here are five reasons it’s never going to happen.
1. It’s not actually taught in the Bible.
2. Christians went for 1800 years before the doctrine was “discovered.” This is not proof that the Bible doesn’t teach it, but it is important that we look to the saints of the past for wisdom. Why did the church fathers, medieval theologians, or reformers not understand the Scriptures to teach this?
3. The doctrine is based exclusively on the interpretations of one verse (I Thessalonians 4:17). We will get into this verse in a little bit. For now I think it’s important to say that doctrinal positions should not be based on one verse, but on the overall teaching of Scripture. People can take one verse to mean all sorts of things. For example, they can use a single verse to justify snake handling. But we must rely on what Scripture says as a whole. This is especially true when we expect a congregation or a denomination to sign on to this belief. Verses like Matthew 24:40 and other passages used for support, can only be linked to the Rapture if you are convinced that First Thessalonians supports it.
4. It seems out of step with the rest of the New Testament teaching that says God is bringing his broken (fallen and cursed) creation back to life. The most dominant eschatological theme of the NT is the resurrection of the dead (I Cor 15) and the corresponding restoration of God’s creation. This culminates in a vision of the New Heaven and Earth and the union of Heaven with Earth. In this new universe, God (as Jesus) lives forever with man (Rev 21). The overwhelming truth in Scripture is that Jesus is coming, heaven is coming, earth is being restored, and the dead are raised bodily, not that that we get to fly away to the sky and escape this terrible earth.
5. Its a misunderstanding of I Thessalonians 4:13-18. Let’s take a look at this passage:
13 And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died[a] so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died.
15 We tell you this directly from the Lord: We who are still living when the Lord returns will not meet him ahead of those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the Christians who have died[c] will rise from their graves. 17 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. Then we will be with the Lord forever. 18 So encourage each other with these words. (NIV)
It says believers will be “caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” Isn’t that the rapture?
Let’s back up and talk about the context. The first point to make is that this passage is an affirmation of the bodily resurrection of the dead. It is similar to I Corinthians 15 in that Paul is explaining that we have hope of our bodies being raised because Jesus’ body was first raised. The overall point is comfort. Dead Christians are not going to miss out on Christ’s return to earth, but will be raised when he does come.
Secondly, this passage doesn’t seem to support Christians being taken up to heaven because it is talking about Jesus returning (“coming down”) from heaven (verse 16). Verse 17 says we will be with the Lord which may be hard if he has come to earth and we are going up to heaven. Perhaps he is just coming to get us and then we are all going to go to heaven, but this doesn’t seem like a very triumphant second coming. The trumpet sounds, he comes back then we all just skip out of the world he created and is sovereign over. I’m not convinced.
The best interpretation I have heard is that this passage is using the imagery of the return of a general or king from battle. The King returns to his people and they go out to meet him and usher him in as part of the victory procession. After all, there is a trumpet call! If this is the case then the language of verse 17 about being caught up in the clouds is probably just figurative. The other option is that we do literally rise to meet him but descend with him in our glorified bodies. At that point, we are part of God’s new creation and will reign on earth with Christ (Rev 5:10). It is even possible that this is describing the same exact event as Revelation 21, the union of Heaven and Earth, the dwelling place of God with man through Jesus Christ.
The bottom line is this: When Jesus comes back to earth, he said that his people (dead and alive) would get to be with him. If he’s here, we’re gonna want to stick around.