A recent article on these pages discussed whether or not the Rapture is something that Christians can believe in. Here is my take on this topic.
The Rapture is the belief that when Jesus returns, those who are in Christ will be snatched up to meet the Lord in the air to be taken away to spend eternity in heaven with him. Meanwhile a Great Tribulation will afflict those left behind on Earth. The implication is that you don't want to be left behind.
Belief in the Rapture is a relatively recent phenomenon in Christian circles. For the first 1,800 years of the Church, there was no belief in a Rapture-type event.
So, what is the biblical basis for this belief? I will focus on the main passage that forms the essence of this doctrine, which is chapter four of Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians.
This passage is written in response to some in the Thessalonian church being confused and concerned about what had happened to their loved ones who had died. The consistent view in the early church was that Jesus would soon return, so the natural question when some believers died was "where are they now?"
Popular Rapture theology has spawned movies like the Left Behind series which are based on this and a few other passages where people will simply disappear and be 'caught up' in the air when Jesus returns.
But if we look at this passage in the context of what the rest of the New Testament says, we see that Jesus' return is actually about God putting the world to rights. It is not about us being snatched away to spend eternity in heaven; it is about God coming here to set up the kingdom on Earth.
In my view
To understand passages like this which talk about "meeting the Lord in the air", we also need to look at how it would have been understood by people living in the Roman Empire in the 1st century. New Testament theologian N.T. Wright says this about it:
When the Emperor came to visit a colony or province, the people would go out to meet him at some distance from the city. It would be disrespectful to have him arrive at the gates as though they his subjects couldn't be bothered to meet him properly. When they met him, they wouldn't then stay out in the open country; they would escort him royally into the city itself. When Paul speaks of 'meeting' the Lord 'in the air', the point is precisely not – as in the popular rapture theology – that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from.
The emphasis is on going out to meet the King to escort him back into the city. It is about Jesus coming to earth. This is a theme we see throughout the New Testament. When we celebrate Palm Sunday every year the week before Easter, what are we remembering? Jesus coming into Jerusalem. And what happens? People line the streets and put out palm leaves for him and welcome him into the city. At the end of Revelation, at the end of all things, what happens? The new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven to join with the Earth. This is all imagery of heaven and Earth coming together at last. It is the great Christian hope.
This is also not about Jesus literally coming down on a cloud. Just like we say that the sun rises and sets, yet we now know that the sun doesn't literally rise or set but that the earth moves in relation to the sun, we must read this passage about Jesus coming on the clouds of heaven as meaning him being present with us. The Greek word for this – 'parousia' – actually means 'presence'.
It is for this reason that working for the good of the world, to love the poor and do all we can to love what God loves, is central to Christian mission. They are not optional add-ons to the 'real' message of saving souls. God is coming back to put the world to rights and we are called to participate in this work. It is why Jesus prayed "may your kingdom come on Earth as it is in heaven".
With the law of love written on our hearts, and the Spirit of God overflowing out of us, our mission is to work for the bringing in of the kingdom on Earth as it is in heaven. This is the hope that we long for, that God is putting the world to rights. This is the essence of Christian mission.
Nils von Kalm is from Melbourne, Australia and has a passion for showing how the Gospel is relevant to life in the 21st century. He can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/nils.vonkalm and at http://nilsvonkalm.com
Nils von Kalm's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/nils-von-kalm.html