So, yesterday was the Rapture, apparently. And I missed it.
I was even at church last night. Not one of us was snatched up towards the heavens. All were left behind. Damned, I suppose.
Among the many things the church in America (I don’t know that the idea has spread much beyond our borders) has got to get over is the idea of “rapture” and “the apocalyptic end of the world.”
Supposed biblical support for a rapture comes, primarily, from 1 Thessalonians 4, where Paul is trying to comfort Christians in Thessalonika grieving over loved ones who had died. The relevant passage goes thusly, in the ESV:
13 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. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 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. 16 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. 17 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. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 The 4:13-17).
First and foremost, we ought to keep in mind the main point. Evidently, some believers in the community had died, and the survivors were concerned about their status. How could God vindicate those who had already died? Paul assures them, just as God had raised Jesus from the dead, so will these believers be vindicated. Death is no obstacle for the Creator. That’s the main point. In the final resurrection, both the living and the dead who have placed their trust in Jesus will be justified.
Secondly, the imagery in this passage does not at all imply some kind of literal rapturing of people into the sky. The picture is taken from the Greco-Roman world of the 1st century (Paul’s own day). When a figure of political authority came to a city, his approach would be heralded with much fanfare (loud cries and trumpeting and so on) and the people of the city would rush out to meet him on the road. They would not then hang out in the countryside, but the people would escort the dignitary in past the city gates.
Put simply, Paul is just saying that there is coming a day when what Jesus inaugurated – God’s setting the world to rights in and through the Spirit-filled people of God – will be completed. And when it is, even the dead will benefit.
Plus, there is no “end of the world” here. The idea is that when the people of God greet the Christ, they will return with him to govern the world justly. No one will be hanging out in the clouds watching the created order burn like one large marshmallow. They will remain on the earth to right all that’s gone wrong, which, by the way, we ought to be doing in the meantime as well.