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21 August 2019

Resurrection or Rapture?

SYNOPSIS - The “Rapture” is an interpretation of a passage that is about the resurrection of dead believers at the return of Jesus – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Rapture - Photo by Arto Marttinen on Unsplash
Discussions on the doctrine of the “Rapture” center on when it will occur – Before, during, or at the end of the “Tribulation.” But this misses the point - Nowhere does the New Testament ever mention a future “Rapture," at least not with that term. By “rapture” is meant the removal of Christians from the earth and their transportation to "heaven."

As with the term, the New Testament never describes or mentions explicitly a day when believers will be removed from the earth and transported collectively to a nonphysical realm - Whether as resurrected saints or disembodied spirits, whether before, during, or after the “great tribulation.” This doctrine is dependent on an interpretation of a single passage found in the first letter of Paul to the church at Thessalonica.
  • (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) – “But we do not wish you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them who are falling asleep,—lest ye be sorrowing, even as the rest also who are without hope; For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also will God bring forth with him them who have fallen asleep through Jesus; For this unto you do we say by a word of the Lord,—that we, the living who are left unto the Presence of the Lord, shall in nowise get before them who have fallen asleep; Because the Lord himself, with a word of command, with a chief-messenger’s voice, and with a trumpet of God, shall descend from heaven,—and the dead in Christ shall rise first, After that we, the living who are left, together with them shall be caught away in clouds to meet the Lord in the air:—and thus, evermore, with the Lord shall we be! So then, be consoling one another with these words” – (The Emphasized Bible).
The purpose of the passage is to reassure believers concerning the fate of Christians who die before the “arrival” of Jesus - This is why the Apostle lays such stress on their bodily resurrection, which occurs at that time - (“The dead in Christ shall rise first”). Not only so, but the believers who remain alive will be reunited with their resurrected loved ones and, together, they will “meet the Lord in the air.” That day will change both living and dead Christians forever.

Does the passage state that Jesus then takes his saints back to “heaven” after “meeting them in the air?” In fact, it only ends with the statement - “And so will we be with the Lord forevermore.”

Paul never stated exactly where this happy condition will exist. In heaven? On the earth? On a renewed earth? Or will Jesus and the saints simply remain suspended “in the air” forever? Logically, based on what the passage says, any of these scenarios is possible. A conclusion that Jesus will return to “heaven” after this “meeting” with his saints in tow is an assumption.

When interpreting the passage, the larger context must be kept in mind. In the very next chapter, he warns that the unprepared will be overtaken by the events of this very same day - “Like a thief in the night.” The “arrival” of Jesus from heaven is also the time of the “Day of the Lord,” an event associated elsewhere, consistently so, with God’s judicial punishment of the wicked.

In his second letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle declared that when Jesus is “revealed from heaven,” the righteous will be vindicated but the unrighteous will receive “everlasting destruction” - Both events occur at that time - (1 Thessalonians 8:1-9, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10).

Elsewhere in the New Testament, Jesus is always said to be “coming,” NOT “going” - Returning, NOT “departing.” When any direction is provided, he is coming “from heaven” and descending to the earth. This pattern holds true regardless of which different Greek term is applied to the event, whether “coming,” “arrival,” or “revelation” - (For example - Matthew 16:27, 24:30, 25:31, 26:64, Acts 1:11, 1 Corinthians 15:23, Revelation 1:7).
And without exception, in every New Testament passage that refers to his return, the event is always in the singular number. That is, one and only one coming of Jesus is mentioned, never two (or more).
The most comprehensive list of the events on that day is provided by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. The “arrival” of Jesus will include:
  • The resurrection of the dead.
  • The cessation of death (the “last enemy”).
  • The transformation of living Christians into immortality.
  • The final subjugation of all hostile powers.
  • The consummation of the kingdom.
His return will mean the overthrow of the Last Enemy, Death, and the bodily resurrection of the saints. Nothing is said about their removal from the earth. In this same passage, Paul reveals that believers still alive on that day will be transformed from their mortal state into immortality. This is the same scenario portrayed in the first letter to the Thessalonians when the “dead in Christ” are resurrected to join living Christians and “meet the Lord in the air.” The point is not removal from the earth but resurrection and transformation:
  • Lo! a mystery unto you do I declare: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed; In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, during the last trumpet; for it shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible and we shall be changed.” – (1 Corinthians 15:20-28, 15:51-58).
The “arrival” of Jesus will produce the separation of the righteous from the unrighteous. That day will mean joy and reward for the prepared, but disaster and everlasting punishment for the unprepared. The latter will be overwhelmed like a “thief in the night” - (Matthew 13:30. 25:13, 25:31-46, Luke 12:33-39, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10).

At the “coming” of Jesus, the “man of lawlessness” will be destroyed by him, a day identified explicitly by Paul as the “Day of the Lord.” That “day” will produce the end of the old creation order and the inauguration of the new heavens and the new earth - (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, 2:1-10, 2 Peter 3:10-12).

What characterizes the events of that day is their finality. Death will cease forever. The old creation order will disappear and be replaced by the New Creation. Resurrected believers will be with the Lord “forevermore.” The unrighteous will receive “everlasting” punishment and separation from the presence of the Lord. And that day will mean “wrath” for the wicked - (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, 2 Thessalonians 2:5-10).

Christian hope is not found in escape from the earth or transportation to an invisible and immaterial realm but, instead, in the bodily resurrection and the New Creation. The gospel of Jesus Christ is about redemption, NOT abandonment, and this includes the bodily resurrection of the righteous dead - (e.g., John 5:29, Romans 6:5, 8:19-25, 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, Philippians 3:10, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).

Related directly to the bodily resurrection is the New Creation. Even now, the entire universe is groaning in anticipation of the resurrection of the sons of God. That day will mean nothing less than a newly created order - The “coming” of Jesus will produce a New Heaven and a New Earth - (Romans 8:19-25, 2 Peter 3:10).

In the book of Revelation, New Jerusalem DESCENDS from heaven to the new earth. The saints do not ascend to it - It comes down to them. In this city, the redeemed live forever in the presence of God and the Lamb, free from all sorrow and suffering - (Revelation 21:1–22:5).

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