I think that, by now, most are aware of recent predictions that the ‘rapture’ was supposed to take place on 21 May 2011, which was yesterday. I don’t want to join in with all the bashing of Harold Camping. We claim that Camping is making Christianity look nuts. But we must remember that we can contribute to such an outlook from the world as we participate as well. Anyways….moving on.
Still, amongst many Christians, I do recognise somewhat of an askew perspective on biblical eschatology (this word simply means ‘a study of last things’). I’m not claiming to have all the in’s and out’s figured out, all my i’s dotted and t’s crossed. But there are some more basic concepts that we need to remember, which I will try and lay out below.
1) Not super-scary
For many, the word apocalypse has left a very scary image in their minds, as in, ‘The apocalypse is coming. Prepare for war. Run and hide!’ I think Hollywood has also taken up this image and utilised it very well to make a few sales.
It’s true, the word leaves some scared, even conjuring up images of nuclear war. So we approach the newspapers as if the headlines represent fulfilment of certain ‘Bible prophecies’. Personally, I believe this approach is very unhealthy.
The reality is that the word apocalypse (coming from the Greek, apokalupsis), simply means revelation or unveiling. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s maybe comparable to a drama-play that’s preparing to start, but the curtains are still closed for the moment. But as the actors launch into Act 1, the curtains are opened and, lo and behold, we have an unveiling of the characters and scene. We just had an apocalypse.
Such is a bit more down-to-earth, but a helpful image nonetheless.
We actually get our English word, revelation, from this word apokalupsis. Hence, the title of the final book of the New Testament. So, from its basic root, the word is not given to stir scary images, per se. It rather has to do with God unveiling, or revealing, something about himself and his purposes.
And in the book of Revelation, such unveiling comes forth in a lot of ancient Jewish prophetic visions. We cannot read John’s words (nor Daniel’s or Ezekiel’s) with a 21st century mindset. Ezk 1 is not speaking of UFO’s. Rev 9:7-11 is not speaking of helicopters. We are not looking for fibers controlled by the sun’s solar rays, all to fulfil Rev 12:1.
I don’t desire to communicate these things to ridicule. And, of course, these are some extreme interpretations. Still, nonetheless, a lot of this leads to a fear-filled eschatology. I am of the opinion that is unhealthy and creates wrong approaches to the biblical text and the world in which we live.
2) Not an exit
Normally, when one considers the word rapture, one can think of terrible things about to happen on earth and, thus, the ‘church’ exits to be with the Lord for a certain period of time (normally identified as 7 years) while all these horrific prophecies are fulfilled on the earth.
There are quite a few Bible verses utilised in building such a perspective, not to mention particular theological perspectives. But I want to focus in on 2 very pertinent passages that come up in the discussion, at least 2 of them from the New Testament. From my perspective, I believe both of these are greatly misunderstood.
The first is Matt 24:37-43:
For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.
The italicised words highlight the verses I want to consider.
What we normally think is that the one taken away is the person who will be part of the ‘rapture’. Thus, this passage in some way or another is speaking of the ‘rapture of the church’. But that’s actually not what the passage is teaching.
Why do I suggest such? Because Jesus is comparing it to the days of Noah. So the question we have to ask is – What happened in the days of Noah? Who was left and who was taken?
Those ‘left behind’ were the righteous, Noah and his family. Those ‘taken away’ were the wicked. That’s what happened then, and that’s what will take place.
Noah and his family were left to inherit a kind of newly restored earth. The Noah-account is actually quite a prophetic picture of what we read at the end of our book of Revelation. It speaks of a restoration of all things, summed up in a new heaven and new earth. Not a new heaven, as in ‘the place where God dwells’. But a renewal of all creation (including the heavens/cosmos). That is the real goal of God. And we find that the people of God, the one people of God, are enjoying that new heaven and new earth. We aren’t floating beings ‘up there’. We are real, authentic, perfect flesh-and-bone human beings enjoying a real, authentic, perfect creation.
The second passage to touch is the well-known 1 Thess 4:13-18:
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. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 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. 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. 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. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
I want to focus in on vs17, the italicised words.
Oddly enough, in this section, Paul’s words end with, ‘Therefore encourage one another with these words.’ Again, the ‘rapture’ is not so much about initiating scary events for the earth. Such ideas go against the intent of Paul’s own words. Let’s remember that.
But for starters, we get our English word rapture from the phrase ‘caught up’. The word is derived from the Latin, raptus, coming from the Latin translation of the Bible known as the Vulgate.
The second important bit of terminology to look at is the phrase ‘to meet’. This comes from the Greek phrase eis apantēsis. Now, all Christians believe (or should believe) in this ‘meeting in the air’ with our Lord. The question is: What do we believe about it?
In my study, I have come to understand this weird Greek phrase, eis apantēsis, as meaning: to leave a place in order to go and meet one who is coming toward you. It is similar to the practice in ancient times when nobles of a city would go out to meet an important dignitary coming to visit their city. And, after meeting the dignitary, they would escort him back to the city.
You see what’s going on here?
I believe Paul is communicating that Christ will come for his bride, we will go meet the bridegroom ‘in the air’, and then we will escort him back to earth (the place where he was already headed). I suppose a bride-to-be might do the same exact thing upon seeing her beloved approach from afar. And from this, I would expect the whole imagery of the marriage supper of the Lamb to take place as an inauguration of the recreation of all creation, including the bride of Christ being clothed in immortality.
3) Not two events
I think that, by reading my words above, one can tell that I don’t see the ‘rapture’ and the second coming of Christ as two distinct events. I believe they are one and the same event. There is one apokalupsis (revealing), one parousia (coming), one epiphaneia (appearing) of the Lord. Therefore, when Christ comes for his saints (1 Thess 4:15), he will also come with his saints (1 Thess 3:13).
If you want to pin me down as an amillenialist or partial preterist (if you know those terms), it is quite fine. But the terms are not as important as trying to uncover a proper biblical theology.
I personally find myself appreciating varying facets of both amillenial and postmillenial perspectives. I am adamant that Christ is currently seated on his father, David’s, throne, which now exists at the right hand of the Father. His reign is not chiefly future. It is present now, but not a full reality just yet. All authority has been given to the Son (Matt 28:18-20). But I also appreciate some of the more ‘positive’ aspects of postmillenialism. The goal is not an abandoned earth, but an earth where the glory of God fills it as the waters cover the sea (Hab 2:14). A perspective where the chief mountain in the earth becomes the mountain of the house of the Lord (Isa 2:4). This is where we are headed!
I also believe the goal of Christ is to marry a prepared and mature bride, rather than one that is defeated and must be rescued. This is central to Paul’s point in Eph 4:11-13 – unity and maturity. That is what Paul laboured for (Col 1:28-29).
So the ‘rapture’ did not take place on 21 May 2011. I personally did expect such, as you probably didn’t either. And I am not sure it has to do so much with the reality that no one knows the day or hour (though I am fine if people want to argue such). Rather I think there is a little more (or a lot more) to accomplish amongst the body of Christ as well as in the earth as we move towards to goal of God’s kingdom rule covering the earth.
A very mature and level-headed perspective, Scott.