Last time, I began to explore the Rapture, a doctrine that says at some point Jesus will come back and take all the Christians to Heaven. I looked first at the most ‘obvious’ Rapture passage, 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17.
I argued that when Christians meet Jesus in the air, we don’t go back to Heaven, but rather back down to Earth.
This Raptured-to-Earth Rapture is very different than the Rapture most of us know. Is it consistent with other Biblical pictures of the End?
Do you want to be Left Behind?
Probably the other most influential ‘Rapture passage’ is Matthew 24:36-42. This is the passage that granted the Left Behind book series its name:
No one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows.
When the Son of Man returns, it will be like it was in Noah’s day. In those days before the flood, the people were enjoying banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat. People didn’t realize what was going to happen until the flood came and swept them all away.
That is the way it will be when the Son of Man comes. Two men will be working together in the field; one will be taken, the other left. Two women will be grinding flour at the mill; one will be taken, the other left. So you, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know what day your Lord is coming. — Matthew 24:36-42 (NLT)
The song that shaped how my teenage imagination of the Rapture
From the lips of Jesus himself comes what sounds like a clear endorsement of Rapture theology. Two people will be together and one will be taken, while one will be left behind. The imagery is powerful, and has inspired books, art and music. (Notably from my teen years, DC Talk’s remake of “I Wish We’d All Been Ready”) This single passage – and really, just a couple of verses (40-42), has birthed most of the images that make the Rapture so unpalatable and horrifying for many of us.
What does Jesus really say about the Rapture?
To read the passage, it’s hard to deny that the images are justified. Isn’t this an indisputable argument for the Rapture?
Well, no. Not really. Look closely at what Jesus is saying here. First, he’s primarily addressing the timing of the End. The disciples asked (back in v3) how they would know when he was coming back. And Jesus gave them some signs, but then concludes his list with a warning: no one knows when this is going to go down. So be careful.
And his warning draws from a Biblical story: “it will be like it was in Noah’s day.” Consider what happened in the Genesis 6-8 flood story: God warned that judgment was coming, so Noah built an ark while everyone else partied. Noah and his family got into the ark. And – as Jesus points out – the judgment came and swept away all the wicked. Noah and his family – the righteous people – got to stay on the (recreated) earth. Jesus says the same thing will happen at the End. Two people will be standing together, and one will be taken away. That’s not disputed. The question is who gets taken? And who gets left?
If the story of Noah is our guide, then the wicked are those who will be taken away. The righteous get left behind to enjoy a new, restored world. This is an anti-Rapture.
Again, we have this story backwards. 1 Thessalonians isn’t about God taking us away from Earth, but reclaiming the Earth. And here in Matthew, Jesus promises to return, not to abandon the Earth, but finally and ultimately to save it.
So will Christians be ‘raptured’? Technically, yes. Sort of.
To be clear: according to the Scriptures, believers will be caught up into the air to meet Jesus. But we will not return to Heaven. Rather, we will join him in reclaiming the Earth, in finally saying No to injustice and evil. While the unrepentant are finally taken away, we will be left behind with God to enjoy a beautiful, restored creation (cf. Revelation 21-22’s vision of the New Jerusalem).
Does what we believe about the Rapture actually matter?
This is probably the major difference between Rapture theologies and the Biblical picture. Is the Earth something to be used up and discarded? Or is it a place God loves and plans to reclaim?
Do we just abandon non-Christians to an ever-worsening torment as the Earth is destroyed? Or do we work with every last bit of energy in us to share with them the Good News that Jesus is coming back to reclaim his Earth and they can be part of that?
God has not abandoned the Earth. God is not planning to abandon the Earth. God has made this abundantly clear in the Scriptures.
Our theology ought to reflect that, as Peter Rollins’ rapture parable cleverly teaches us. We ought to be working to bring Heaven to Earth. We ought to be living as though the Kingdom of God is already among us. We ought to be telling everyone we know the Good News that Jesus has not abandoned us, that he is in fact coming back for us. And that we have no idea when that will be, so we should be ready at all times.
YOUR TURN: Does our ‘Rapture theology’ really matter that much? Is this an important discussion? Or is it just theological and biblical hair-splitting?