For those who have not heard, Hollywood is rebooting the Left Behind series/movies, written by Tim LaHayne and Jerry Jenkins. These movies were very popular between the years 1995-2007. This recent release stars Nicholas Cage and it depicts (with some fantasy and special effects) the end of time according to dispensational theology. I never read any of the books, but I have seen a few of the old movies (especially the Tribulation Force Movies) and let me say they are intense. This recent release seems just as intense.
Let me first briefly discuss what Dispensational Theology is and how it relates to the movie. Dispensational Theology was developed from the writings of John Darby (Google him for more information). It was made popular in the United States through the dissemination of the Scofield Reference Bible that was given to many of the soldiers during WWI (mass dissemination). Dispensational Theology holds to a very distinctive eschatological end times, namely a premillennial eschatology and a pretribulation rapture. The movie Left Behind follows the events of the “rapture”- mankind is thrown into a world of chaos and judgment as people who are left behind face the 7 year tribulation period.
Premillennial dispensationalism makes for a great movie, but I think it deserves another look in terms of what the bible says. That brings me to the focus of this blog. There are many verses that we could discuss regarding rapture. However I just want to look at 2 very popular verses.
1. 1st Thessalonians 4:16-18 – “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. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
“Rapture” is derived from the Latin word rapiemur which translates “take or snatch away”. The Vulgate uses this word in place of Greek word harpazō (ἁρπάζω). (Most of you know that the original text was written in Greek, so that is our point of reference). There is a great deal of discussion surrounding the use of harpazō in other bible verses. Some of them are quite compelling. For more information on Greek syntax and word usage, google rapture. Anthony Hoekema (The Bible and the Future) has a great (however biased) discussion regarding the use of harpazō in other verses of the bible. See his chapter on premillennial dispensationalism. My aim is hermeneutical- how should we interpret what Paul is saying?
Before I dive in completely, let me first say this briefly. When it comes to doctrine, there are the essentials, and then there are the peripherals. I have divided these two broad areas into four categories- 1) absolutes, 2) convictions, 3) opinions, and 4) questions. The vast majority of absolutes develop the essentials to my doctrine- things such as: resurrection of Christ, supremacy, sufficiency, and inerrancy of Scripture, the trinity of God, etc. What I’m about to discuss may fall some where in between opinions and questions, which places it in the peripheral area. So don’t let this bother you too much- this is what I think the bible says.
The first step in the hermeneutical process is to look at the passage in its immediate context. Paul seats this discussion in a larger discussion regarding the second coming of Christ (1 Thess. 4:13-5:11). Apparently, the young Thessalonian church was unclear regarding what happened to Christians after they die. From the book of Acts, it maybe that Paul was unable to teach this because he was forced to leave (Acts 17:5-10). The Thessalonians did not have the understanding to cope with the recent deaths of some community members, and so they responded with bewildered hopelessness. However, Paul comforts the church, writing these words “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Paul exhorts them to not grieve as those with no hope grieve, those who have died in Christ will rise again when he returns.
These are the events of Christ’s second (and final/only) coming. This is understood by Paul reference to the Archangel and sounds of trumpets (v. 16). In the Old Testament, trumpets often signal the presence of the Lord. Furthermore, the “trumpet” was associated with battle, the day of the Lord, and the resurrection. This is pointing to the very end. Not all people will see the death of their physical bodies. Some will be alive when the Lord returns (Matt.16:28). Paul wants the Thessalonians to know that those who have passed will suffer no disadvantage from those who will be alive to see the Lord’s return. Dead Christians rise from their graves to the realm of the living, and then the living and the dead together are caught up from the earth. It is not about being “raised” out of this earth but being raised in our physically transformed bodies to this earth. At no point has Paul ever hinted to an idea of a “rapture” or exclusively taking away his church.
Finally, Paul is speaking to a specific people who have a specific culture that we need to recognize. Apantēsis (ἀπάντησις) “to meet” in the air is often used of an important dignitary’s reception by the inhabitants of a city. The city inhabitants come out to greet and welcome their honored guest with fanfare and celebration, then accompany himinto the city (ESV Study Bible). When a king or a lord would return back to his country after victory in war, he would be met at the city gates by his people or ambassadors, trumpets would be sounded, and the king would be welcomed back by his own people to rule and reign as the victor over threatening powers. Paul uses this same language to symbolize Christ’s return. He returns because he has finally and fully defeated evil, suffering, and death itself and he is fully establishing his Kingdom here on earth. This is very different for the rapture idea.
2. Matthew 24:40-42- “Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left.Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” With no context, these verses seem like great proof texts for the rapture. But when read in context, one can see that it is obviously talking about something completely different. These verses are seated right in the middle of Jesus’ discussion about the end of days and the second coming of the Son of Man. The idea of one being taken, and one left is a reference to the flood, which Jesus discusses immediately before these verses. Verse 39 says, “and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” He parallels the one “taken” to those that were swept away by flood waters. Those who were swept away by the flood waters were the one who were being judged- likewise with the one taken. In other words, it is a bad thing to be taken for they will see the judgment of the Lord.
There are other verses that could be discussed (1 Cor. 15:51-52, Matt. 24:30-36). Check them out for yourself. Remember to read in context. Grab a study bible as well (I would usually recommend John MacArthur’s Study Bible, but he is dispensational so with regards to these passages he will lean heavy towards rapture theory).
These second coming passages are exactly that- second coming. Rapture theology in my opinion suggest a third or a partial or intermediate coming of Christ, and I just do not see that any where in scripture. Once He returns, it will be permanently, to establish his Kingdom right here on the earth. What do you think? Write me a comment below and subscribe to my email list.