Some of our evangelical or pentecostal neighbors occasionally speak about "the Rapture" as one of the events leading up to Christ’s Second Coming. By this they mean the physical removal from earth of the true believers in Christ in preparation for the "Great Tribulation," a seven-year period of unparalleled calamity which will herald the end. (A few advocates say that the Rapture will follow the Tribulation. Most who believe in it, however, contend that it precedes the Tribulation.) The Rapture’s purpose, according to its advocates, is to safeguard the righteous during that horrible time. Its most familiar champions are Hal Lindsey (author of The Late, Great Planet Earth and other books), John T. Walvoord (of Dallas Theological Seminary), and the late Cyrus Scofield (author of The Scofield Reference Bible).
These ideas are popular with groups who are enchanted, even obsessed, with speculation about the Second Coming and who have convinced themselves that they see in current events signs that His return is near. These speculations form part of a broader ideology called "dispensationalism." Dispensationalists come in all shapes and sizes and what we say about one may not apply to all. Still we can list some general characteristics which virtually all dispensationalists share. The name comes from their division of history into eras or "dispensations." They believe that the Bible outlines the whole course of mankind’s religious history. Each stage in God’s program is a dispensation, and in each dispensation God relates to the world and His chosen peoples in a different way. Some dispensationalist schemes encompass all human history; others include only Christian history since the time of Christ. Most often these systems are based on a symbolic interpretation of the "letters to the seven churches" of Revelation 2 and 3, with each church standing for the Christianity of a particular period. Dispensationalism presents a detailed program of events leading up to the Second Coming. Two of the events in this master plan are the Rapture and the Great Tribulation.
Proponents of the doctrine of a pre-Tribulation Rapture claim that it rests on Scripture and has always been a part of Christian teaching. The truth is that it dates from about 1830 and was largely the creation of John Nelson Darby, a one-time Anglican priest and founder of a sect called the Plymouth Brethren. He contributed much to the dispensationalist scheme, and in particular he was the first to include the Rapture among the catalogue of phenomena of the last times. The Rapture’s recent origin is one of the things which should make us skeptical. Neither the Apostles nor the Fathers expounded any such teaching. Even Darby’s circle, although they claimed to find support for their teaching in the Bible, did not maintain that they had arrived at this doctrine through study of the Scriptures, but that they had received it through a revelation. According to its supporters the pre-Tribulation Rapture is an extremely important part of the Christian message. Yet it was unknown before 1830.
The Rapture’s supporters derive their opinions ultimately from a single Scripture verse, I Thessalonians 4:17, "Then we who are left alive will be carried off together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord." Less popular but often cited is Matthew 24:40-42, "Then there will be two in the field. One will be taken and the other left. Two will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left. Therefore, be vigilant, for you do not know on what day your Lord will come."
The paragraph which contains the first verse quoted above, I Thessalonians 4:17, forms the Epistle reading for funerals in Orthodox worship. The passage begins with 4:13. In preceding verses St. Paul has spoken of the necessity for holiness of life and for brotherly love among Christians (4:1-12). With verse 13 he turns to another topic, the fate of Christians after death. Misunderstandings on this issue had apparently caused needless distress and apprehension in the church at Thessalonika. It seems that some people believed that Christians who died before Christ’s return would somehow miss out on that glorious event. St. Paul seeks to calm their fears (vs. 13). He points out that as Christ returned from the dead at His Resurrection, so also, at the end of time, His followers who have died in the interim will be restored through resurrection (vs. 14). At the Second Coming, the Christian dead will be raised (vs. 16). Then they and the faithful who are still alive will be caught up into the clouds to welcome Christ as He descends (verses 15,17). Paul then discusses other matters relating to the Second Coming, beginning with the date it will occur.
When we look at verse 17 in context, it is easy to see that is does not really support the doctrine of the Rapture. There is no reference to a Great Tribulation or to any other events preceding Christ’s Return. The verse refers to something that will happen as part of the Lord’s Coming. The course of events St. Paul presents is simple and straight-forward. At the time of the Second Coming, the dead will be raised, and all the faithful — the dead now restored and those still alive now transfigured — will ascend to be with Him as He comes down. This is the universal interpretation of the Fathers who see the verse as referring to the last days.
Why does St. Paul speak of an ascension of the righteous? The Fathers suggest at least three answers to this question. St. Gregory of Nyssa says that the ascension is a natural consequence of the purity of the transfigured resurrection body: "...this change which takes place...when the resurrection trumpet sounds which awakens the dead in an instant transforms those who are left alive to incorruptibility according to the likeness of those who have undergone the resurrection change, so that the bulk of the flesh is no longer heavy nor does its weight hold them down to earth, but they rise up through the air..." ("On the Making of Man" 22,6).
St. John Chrysostom and others say that it is to provide Christ with a proper escort for His appearance on earth and to demonstrate His favor toward the faithful. "If He is about to descend, why shall we be taken up? For the sake of honor. When a king enters a city, those who are in his favor go out to meet him, but the condemned await their judge inside. Or, when a loving father comes, his children, and also those worthy of being his children, are taken out in a chariot to see and kiss him, but the servants who have offended him remain indoors. So we are carried out upon a chariot to our Father...See how great our honor is? As He descends we go out to meet Him, and what is more blessed, we shall be with Him always" (Homily 8 on Thessalonians).
Let us summarize what we have found so far. St. Paul does speak of a sort of rapture, in the sense of a carrying up into the sky of the righteous at the time of the Second Coming. The Fathers generally agree on that. But St. Paul and the Fathers see this as an event which accompanies Christ’s return and immediately precedes the Judgment and the establishment of the Kingdom. The Rapture which Darby and Scofield taught and which Lindsey, Walvoord, and others still teach, is different from that. They talk about it as a separate happening, part of a decades long program of events leading up to Christ’s Coming. The dispensationalists see the Rapture as the disappearance of the faithful from the earth before the Great Tribulation and many years before the Judgment. This is foreign to the Apostle and to the Tradition. St. Paul mentions no period of affliction and persecution following the Rapture.
In an effort to forge a link between the Rapture and the Tribulation, supporters turn to Matthew 24:40-42, quoted above (in part 1, September’s Dawn). Certainly we have here references to a time of horror and suffering. Matthew 24 and 25 comprise a long discourse by Jesus. The occasion for this teaching is the first days of Holy Week, when Christ and His disciples were in Jerusalem on that last visit which ended in His death and resurrection. The Lord and His entourage have been in the Temple. As they leave, one of the company remarks on the structure’s splendor and grandeur (24:1-2). Jesus replies by prophesying its coming destruction, which took place some 40 years later (70 AD). The group proceeds to the Mount of Olives, across the Kedron Valley from the city. They halt at a place which even today offers an admirable panorama of the Old City and the Temple site. The disciples, perhaps alarmed by Christ’s words, ask when "these things," meaning the Temple’s destruction, will happen and what will be the signs of Christ’s return.
Christ’s sermon is His response to these questions. In order to understand it properly we must remember that there were two questions, one about disasters which would befall Jerusalem during the Roman-Jewish War of 66-72, the other about the end of time. Parts of the speech address one concern, some the other. Much of what Christ says is intended to keep His followers from confusing the two events, taking the horror of the Jewish War as a sign of the Second Coming. We see this in the warnings He gives: that the Gospel must be preached in the whole world before the end comes (vs. 8), that many deceivers will arise claiming to be Him (verses 23-26), that no one knows "the day or the hour" except the Father (vs. 36), and many more. Christ is concerned that His followers not confuse the impending disasters in Judea with the cataclysms of the end. To make His point clear He emphasizes the suddenness and unpredictability of His return.
We must interpret 24:40-42 in light of Christ’s insistence that He will return "at an hour you do not expect" (24:44). It would seem strange if Christ were to make this point over and over in the early verses of chapter 24, then in verses 40-42 describe an occurrence which would certainly tip everyone off that something was about to happen, and all the more peculiar if that tip-off were to happen seven years before His appearance, as the dispensationalists assert. The key to understanding the passage is the Greek word normally translated "taken." The word ("paralambano") has two meanings. The first we might render "to take," but not in the sense of "to lift up," the meaning which the dispensationalists give it. It means instead "to bring along," as in English we might say that someone takes a friend to the movies. That does not seem to fit the use of the word in Matthew 24, so we turn to the second meaning, "to accept" or "to choose." Either of these words would be better in these verses than the imprecise "take." This second meaning fits with what the Lord has been saying in the passage in question, that His followers must be ready for His coming lest they be caught off-guard like the world, unprepared for the Judgment. Some will have heeded His commandments, will face the Judgment in confidence, and will be "accepted" into the Kingdom. Others, though living and working with the first group, day by day, will not have lived the life of the Gospel and will not be chosen or accepted by Christ when He returns. These verses form part of Christ’s exhortation to all who hear Him to respond to His message and thereby avoid condemnation at the End. The verses do not supply the idea of the Rapture.
As we have seen, neither of the two passages upon which advocates of the Rapture rely mean what they say they do. Both refer to Christ’s final return. Those who support this doctrine neglect the context of the verses they use, distort the meanings of words and verses, and, in one case, take advantage of a loose translation. We must approach the Bible with more reverence. We must avoid pulling verses out of context. Instead, look at the surrounding verses to see what the Biblical writer is talking about and how that may affect your interpretation of a problem verse.
Beware, also, of interpretations which disagree with or attack the Tradition of the Church. As we saw in our discussion of 1 Thessalonians 4:17, the Fathers of the Church pointed the way to the proper understanding of the verse. We must investigate the origin of ideas which other groups advocate, especially when they seem to contradict Orthodoxy. The concept of the pre-Tribulation Rapture only appeared in England about 150 years ago. Orthodox Christians of great piety and learning have been reading the Scriptures for 2000 years. Would an important doctrine have escaped their notice? Very often these new doctrines do not really come from a careful reading of the Bible but from "special revelations"; their adherents have then ransacked the Scriptures for difficult or obscure verses which they can use to support them. Sometimes they arise when a reader tries to make sense out of hard-to-understand passages and does not succeed. Orthodox Christians have the living witness of the Holy Spirit who, as Christ said, will guide us to all truth (John 16:13), and we also have the tradition of the Fathers to help us in our search. These are not two different sources but one and the same thing. The Fathers knew and listened to the voice of the Spirit; they affirm that the Spirit lives in the Church even up to the present day; they are one of the ways the Spirit has chosen to continue His work of teaching and guiding. Trying to make the Bible support one’s own preconceived notions or insisting on one’s own limited understanding without seeking the guidance of Holy Tradition will not lead us to a true appreciation of what the Bible says or of what God says to us through it.
We must keep our perspective and not give less significant doctrines an importance they do not deserve. Dispensationalism generally places the greatest importance on the time-table of the Second Coming and on determining the order of events leading up to it.
This is not what is important to the New Testament authors or to Christ Himself, as His own words testify. Recall the passage discussed above from Matthew 24 and 25. Christ stressed that no one could predict when He would return. His primary concern was to exhort His followers (us) to be ready for His return. We must resist anything such as speculation about the end which distracts us from our salvation. Christ spoke often of the last days, but always with one purpose: to incite us to repentance and to encourage us to grow in His Gospel and to persevere in the Faith. If we respond to His exhortation, then, when He returns, we will go to meet Him in the clouds, escort Him to His Judgment Seat, and stand at His Right Hand with the prophets, the apostles, the martyrs and all the saints, ready to enter the glory of His Kingdom.