The scriptural case for rapture is a three-legged table, meaning it is founded on three scriptural "legs" (though its proponents try to amass many more). A serious look at these three legs causes the table to fall. But first, enjoy some preliminary rapture facts.
If you have never heard of California pastor Tim LaHaye and his “Left Behind” series of popular books (and less popular movies), then you may not know what I mean by the term rapture. One should never presume. So before we move into the three primary scriptures that are used to support the rapture, let me attempt a simple history and definition.
The rapture, or more precisely, the rapture of the church, is an event that a few Christian writers popularized in the 19th century, and it is still popular and strongly held by some Christians today, thanks in no small part to LaHaye’s recent books. Actually, one of those books is entitled “The Rapture.” It is a prequel to “Left Behind,” and was released on June 6, 2006 to suggest a connection to 666, a number assigned to a beast in Revelation 13. Pretty slick marketing!
This event that LaHaye and others call “the rapture” is a U-turn return of Jesus Christ; that is, Jesus is expected soon to come partway from “heaven” to earth to remove Christians from the planet, then he makes a U-turn and takes them all back with him to heaven. He kind of “beams them up” like Scotty did to Kirk and Spock on Star Trek, if you will. Then he holds them in a tractor beam—to stick with the Star Trek metaphor—and tows them to heaven.
If you are a Christian airline pilot, for example, and you are “raptured” while flying your plane to Albuquerque, that means that you are suddenly beamed out of the cockpit, thus leaving your plane pilot-less. Of course your plane crashes unless you have an “unsaved” co-pilot “left behind” to land the plane. If not, then hopefully you have no “unsaved” passengers because the plane is going down.
Believers in the coming rapture have confidence it will happen soon. Yet many of their leaders have predicted dates that have come and gone. You may remember the book by Edgar C. Whisenant, “88 Reasons Why the Rapture is in 1988.” He followed up that book with another: “The Final Shout: Rapture Report 1989!
In spite of repeated prediction failures, believers in the rapture abound today, not so much in mainline denominations, though acquaintances of mine knew of it growing up in a Southern Baptist congregations. But I, a United Methodist all my life, learned about rapture from Baptist friends and religious radio and television. I have never heard it espoused in Methodist circles except for the few individuals here and there who had transferred into Methodism having come to believe in rapture elsewhere previously.
Among Christians of all varieties there is wide agreement on the return of Christ at some unknown point in the future; Jesus’ return on judgment day is scriptural, too. And on “that day” there is expected to be a general resurrection and judgment. What sets apart the rapture-believers from resurrection-believers is one, Jesus’ double-coming, first for the Christians in a U-turn rescue, and again seven years later for judgment/resurrection day; two, the soon-ness of this first coming event they call rapture; and three, an ongoing preoccupation with discerning the rapture’s details and its date. Those who believe in it seem to hold rapture as a central doctrine of their faith.
In the 1820s a Presbyterian minister in London named Edward Irving began calling for the need of a renewal of speaking in tongues and other prophetic experiences, it began happening, and this outpouring is identified as the beginning of modern Pentecostalism. The movement reached the lowlands of Scotland in 1830, influencing Ms. Macdonald who was ill in bed at the time of her experiences. Her account of seeing a double return of Christ--one for believers and then another later for judgment--impressed Darby who believed it, and then went in search of scriptures that he believed supported it. Then in 1908 the Johnny-come-lately doctrine of rapture, having crossed the Atlantic, was further advanced by an American evangelist, William Eugene Blackstone (apparently unrelated to the contemporaneous magicians Harry Blackstone Sr. and Jr.), in his book, “Jesus is Coming.” It sold more than a million copies. Then his book was included within the pages of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909. Millions read it there. Many books followed Blackstone’s, but it was Hal Linsey’s “The Late Great Planet Earth” in 1970 that set the stage for LaHaye and the popularity of rapture in church and culture today.
Do all believers in the rapture agree on the timing of the event? Not in the least. This is the point at which you will hear proponents arguing about whether there will be a pre-tribulation rapture or a post-tribulation rapture. The people in these two camps disagree on whether the rapture will occur before or after the seven years of tribulation that they believe are predicted by one badly misused verse in the Book of Daniel.
Daniel 9:27 He shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall make sacrifice and offering cease; and in their place shall be an abomination that desolates, until the decreed end is poured out upon the desolator.
The abomination that desolates is mentioned in Daniel 8, 9, and 12. Daniel is widely interpreted to be referring to the 2nd century B.C. Jewish War of Independence from the Seleucids, one of four kingdoms to come after Alexander the Great. Is the “he” in Daniel a future antichrist as rapture supporters say? Is the one week in Daniel equivalent to seven future years of tribulation? Or did Daniel have an historical event in mind that has already occurred?
In his campaign of Hellenization, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes caused an altar to be erected on the altar of burnt-offering of the Second Temple on which sacrifices were offered to the god Jupiter. (If you research this yourself, see also Chanukah and Maccabees.) This is the abomination that desolates. Never mind that most scholars disagree with them, the rapture proponents insist that Daniel is referring to a seven year future period of tribulation that will be initiated or completed by the rapture of the church. Most rapture supporters believe in a pre-tribulation rapture. Others believe in a post-tribulation rapture. But pre-trib and post-trib, as they are called, are not the only options, though they are the most popular.
This common sticker led to others. I saw one that read, “Come the rapture can I have your car?” Then this one: “Warning: In case of rapture this car will swerve violently as my mother-in-law takes the wheel.” And the latest rapture sticker reads, “Get right or get left.”
No Legs On Which to Stand
Let us turn as I promised to the three scriptures on which rapture stands, or I should say attempts to stand. Here is the first and most important of the three:
1 Thessalonians ..4:17.. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. (emphasis mine)
The italicized words “caught up” are the key. It is the translation of the Greek word harpazo (pronounced har-pad'-zo). Here is what you need to know about harpazo and rapture:
- The word “rapture” is not in your Bible. Not in English. Not in the original Greek. Harpazo does not translate into English as rapture. I can find no translation of the New Testament into English including the KJV that translates harpazo as “raptured.”
- The term “raptured” is derived from the Latin Vulgate. Harpazo is translated into Latin as rapiemur. The Latin verb is rapere. The adjective is raeptius. From this we get the English term rapture. In Latin it literally means “carried away,” but in English it means being carried away emotionally or sensually. In English we mean by rapture being taken away in ecstasy or intense pleasure, like in the bathtub crystals TV commercial: “Calgon, take me away!”
- In English translations of the Bible, harpazo is most often translated “taken up” or “caught up.” But literally it means “to sieze,” “to snatch away,” “to suddenly grab or take by force,” “to steal away.” Harpazo is the action of thieves or wild animals! I checked a half-a-dozen Greek lexicons. It is true.
These facts are important, obviously, to our examination of this leg of the table. Rapture is in no Greek or English Bible; rapture derives from the Latin Vulgate; and the original Greek word in question, harpazo, means to snatch away, as done by a thief or hyena. Now look at the New Testament’s use of harpazo so you can see for yourself its true meaning in context.
Matthew 13:19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away (harpazo) what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path.
John ..6:15.. When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take (harpazo) him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
John 10:12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away -- and the wolf snatches (harpazo) them and scatters them.
John 10:28-29 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch (harpazo) them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch (harpazo) it out of the Father's hand.
Acts ..23:10.. When the dissension became violent, the tribune, fearing that they would tear Paul to pieces, ordered the soldiers to go down, take (harpazo) him by force, and bring him into the barracks.
As you can see, the New Revised Standard Version, in agreement with all other major English translations of the Bible, renders harpazo as “snatch” or “take.” It is used for attack, thievery, or arrest.
Harpazo occurs only thirteen times in Scripture. Here are the exact verses, should you like to read them all: Matt. 11:12; 13:19; John 6:15; 10:12, 28f; Acts 8:39; 23:10; 2 Cor. 12:2, 4; 1 Thess. 4:17; Jude 1:23; and Rev. 12:5.
Five of these thirteen are quoted in full above. I am skipping here a discussion of the 2 Corinthians 12:2 and 12:4 uses of harpazo because I already wrote about it in my blog, PAUL DIDN'T GO TO HEAVEN. These verses involve Paul’s claim that he was “snatched” up to a third heaven.
Now that you know about the word at issue here, let us return to 1 Thessalonians 4:17. But this time let us put it in context too. (What a novel idea!)
13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15 For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up (harpazo) in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. (emphasis mine) (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
So let us straighten this out. First, some church members in Thessalonica (a lovely town on the northern Aegean coast of Greece) asked the Apostle Paul (in person or by letter) a question about something that was bothering them. They wanted to know whether Grandma (and other deceased loved ones), who did not get the chance to hear about Jesus, will be OK when Jesus returns to raise the dead. Grandma served her family faithfully. She loved her grandchildren. They loved Grandma deeply and her absence in death had left a hole in their family and in their hearts. They are afraid for her because she died before having the chance to hear the gospel Paul preached. So they asked Paul about their dearly departed loved ones’ fates.
Their question is a resurrection question. And the New Testament affirms a “general resurrection” when all people are raised bodily at the same time. This resurrection is a central belief of the church. Basic scriptural beliefs of the church were very early on condensed into affirmations of faith. The two most recognized and popular are the so-called Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Here is the final line of each:
“I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.” Apostles’ Creed (Roman Catholic, Anglican, and United Methodist versions are identical at this point.)
“We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.” Nicene Creed (Amended with this and other phrases at the First Council of Constantinople in 381. The Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran versions use “I” instead of “We.” Ecumenical versions retain the “We.”)
First, clearly in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 Paul is referring to the day of resurrection. It is not about rapture as popularized beginning in the late 19th century.
Second, have I dinged my head, or does not Paul say very clearly that he is giving the Thessalonians an answer to their resurrection question about Grandma in order for them to encourage one another? Once more:
Therefore encourage one another with these words. (emphasis mine) (1 Thessalonians 4:18)
That word “encourage” is most often translated into English as comfort. Comfort one another with this assurance: Fear not. Grandma will be raised too. In fact, she will be ahead of you in line!
16 . . . the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive . . . (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17)
Comfort one another, he says. All your loved ones are dead in Christ whether they heard of Jesus or not. They go first, then you the living.
The Greek word for comfort and encourage is parakaleo (pronounced par-ak-al-eh'-o). "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” Jesus said in the Beatitudes of his Sermon of the Mount in Matthew 5:4. Same word. Parakaleo. Comfort or encourage.
Here is an important question. What is comforting about pilotless planes falling out of the sky? Crashing driverless school busses? Train collisions? Cars careening out of control with no one at the wheel? Does this scenario comfort you? Is it intended to comfort you?
Those who hold to the doctrine of rapture do more than just get it biblically wrong. They use the gentle thoughtful words of comfort in 1 Thessalonians to do the opposite. They misuse Paul’s words of comfort to frighten. Rapture offers you only two choices: Either you are beamed up by a U-turn Jesus or you are pinned in a burning car.
Paul comforts church members who are worried about their dead loved ones. What will happen to them? Grandma never met or heard of Jesus. Will she be OK? And Paul as tenderly and confidently as humanly possible says, Yes, comfort yourselves, for Grandma will not only be OK, but you are really going to enjoy her rising first!
I really appreciate the heartfelt intent of Paul’s simple, reassuring answer. What I do not appreciate is the rape of this tender teaching by the rapture proponents. I do not appreciate the way it is used on purpose to scare people. It seems outrageous to me. The rapture doctrine uses Paul’s kindness to kill. It perverts Paul’s intention. It contradicts his tone and purpose. In context it is plain to see. How is it even possible to read such tender words—especially the words near the end of the letter that are explicitly written to help them comfort one another—and still propagate a forecast of chaos and carnage?
How do you turn “Be comforted: Grandma will be fine” into “Warning: In case of rapture this car will be unmanned”?
How warped is it for “Bible teachers” to teach the exact opposite of what the Bible says, and to interpret it in the reverse way the Scripture verse intends? Rapture doctrine does no less with 1 Thessalonians 4:17. Rapture doctrine says nothing about comforting the worried grandkids about their deceased relatives’ fates. It is instead about an ionospheric Jesus U-turn that results in the Lord abandoning you to suffer whatever carnage happens when your taxi driver, Manuel, gets beamed up while he is taking you to the burning airport.
That is not all, however. The rapture crowd seems thoroughly convinced that this is good news! Can you imagine? If they believe that this doomsday scenario is scriptural good news, then they cannot know what the real New Testament good news is at all. Rapture offers bad news and calls it good news. Rapture says exactly the opposite of what 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is saying. This false interpretation of a single Bible verse is peddled like it is the central gospel (good news) truth. And it is filling pews and selling an enormous amount of books.
Rapturites are asking you to believe the “good news” that Jesus will soon swing his U-turn by planet earth to beam a bunch of people away with him and abandon the rest to destruction. And they base this on Paul’s words of comfort about Grandma? I thought Jesus commanded us to love one another, not scare one another.
Some of these rapture believers are merely innocent and ignorant. Some of them, however, are fooling the innocent and ignorant because fear works to motivate church attendance and tithing. They are using people by abusing Scripture. And they are judging anyone who disagrees with them as being rejected forever by God, terrorized in a period of tribulation, and tortured forever in hell. Their ignorance and arrogance is staggering.
And people are believing them.
The Other Two Bad Legs
We have knocked the first leg of three out from under the table of rapture, which means it is headed for the floor. It was the critical leg to knock out, the 1st Thessalonians leg. That is why we knocked it out first. But, just to be safe, let us also go ahead and knock out the remaining two.
If you have heard any preaching about rapture, you will find these texts familiar. One is from Matthew and the other from Luke. They are probably two versions of one saying by Jesus. By that I mean that the wording is a bit different, but the teaching has the same meaning. So we will handle them together in this section: Matthew 24:36-44 and Luke 17:34-37.
36 "But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner 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. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (emphasis mine) (Matthew 24:36-44)
34 “I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. 35 There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left." (emphasis mine) (Luke 17:34-35)
You can see now that the rapture proponents are taking 1 Thessalonians’ harpazo (snatched) and connecting it with Jesus’ parables here in Matthew and Luke. Jesus speaks of the day of the coming of the Son of Man (also called day of judgment and resurrection). He describes some as being taken, and some not. The word Jesus uses here for “taken” is paralambano (pronounced par-al-am-ban'-o). Rapture promoters wrongly equate Paul’s harpazo with Jesus’ paralambano.
Paralambano means to bring someone along with you. That is not the same thing as snatched.
Look at Jesus’ arrest in Matthew 27:27 and John 19:16-17. The word paralambano is used to describe them moving him around from trial to execution.
27 Then the soldiers of the governor took (paralambano ) Jesus into the governor's headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. (emphasis mine) (Matthew 27:27)
16 Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took (paralambano) Jesus; 17 and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. (emphasis mine) (John 19:16-17)
It does not mean “taken up into the sky!” It means they took Jesus over to the Praetorian and they took him out to be crucified. They are escorting away a prisoner.
In exactly the same way, when Jesus’ parable says that there will be two in the field and one taken (paralambano), there is no sense in which this could mean levitation or transporter beam. It means to take someone away with you, or bring someone along with you.
Now get this. If Jesus had wanted to say taken up, that would have been easy. He could have said analambano (pronounced an-al-am-ban'-o). That is the exact word you want to describe taking up or ascending. Jesus’ ascension is described with this exact word in Mark 16:19 and Acts 1:2.
Mark 16:19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up (analambano) into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.
Acts 1:2 until the day when he was taken up (analambano) to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.
Jesus did not use analambano in these two parables, however, because he did not mean that the woman grinding will ascend. He is not describing her going upward into the sky. He uses paralambano to describe her as being led away as though she were being arrested.
One more detail before we get to the really important point that finally knocks these two legs out from under our teetering rapture table: There is, in favor of the rapturites, one similarity between harpazo in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 and paralambano in Matthew 24:36-44 and Luke 17:34-37. They both imply thievery!
Look for a moment at this verse from John’s Gospel:
28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. (emphasis mine) (John 10:28-29)
As you can see, the implication here of harpazo (snatched) is thievery.
Likewise look at the context of Jesus’ parables of paralambano, the ones about people in the field and grinding who are taken away. He said in Matthew 24 quoted above:
40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left . . . 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner 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. (emphasis mine)
The paralambano, the taking away of these people in the parable, sits in the context of a sister parable about a house burglar! Again it is thievery that Jesus wants to use as his metaphor. And in this sense, paralambano and harpazo have something in common. But not what the rapturites think!
Oh yes, and let us not forget this again: These are parables, for goodness sake! The rapture promoters are proving to be literalists too. Do not be fooled by their oh-so-serious literalizations of Jesus’ powerfully playful parables.
So, continuing with these two parables, these other two legs on which rapture tries to stand, they make essentially the same point. What is it? You will not believe what I am about to show you. I am certain that the authors and preachers of rapture do not see this.
You know the two workers in the field? And the two women grinding? One of the field workers is taken away (paralambano) and one of the two grinders is taken away (paralambano)? Well, Jesus says they are taken away exactly in the manner that the flood in the time of Noah swept all the evil people away. Do you see what I see?
37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.
On that day, when the Son of Man comes suddenly like a thief, there are evil people who will be swept away, and the people like Noah, the good guys, are the ones who will be left behind!
Rapturites have it exactly backward! They claim there will be a rapture that takes UP the good guys, and the bad guys are “left behind.” Conversely, Jesus says the bad guys are taken AWAY and it is the good guys who are “left behind.”
Luke agrees and adds to the Noah analogy another:
26 Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. 27 They were eating and drinking, and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed all of them . . . 28 Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, 29 but on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulfur from heaven and destroyed all of them 30 -- it will be like that on the day that the Son of Man is revealed. 31 On that day, anyone on the housetop who has belongings in the house must not come down to take them away; and likewise anyone in the field must not turn back. 32 Remember Lot's wife. (Luke 17:26-32)
Jesus again says just the opposite of believers in rapture. Noah and his family remain while all the baddies are swept away. Lot and his family (minus his wife who looked back) were left behind when the evil ones were taken out in Sodom. (Matthew 13:37-43, another of Jesus’ parables, makes the same point.)
These are parables in which the righteous are left behind. The rapturites have it exactly wrong. Theologian Larry D. Pettegrew agrees: “Just as the Noahic flood came and took away the unsuspecting and unprepared wicked, the judgments at the time of the second coming will come and take away the unsuspecting and unprepared wicked.”
The righteous are not beamed up prior to resurrection and judgment. The wicked are swept away unawares on the day of resurrection and judgment. Period.
That is it. All three legs on which rapture stands have blown out like a Joe Namath knee:
- 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is about resurrection/judgment day.
- Matthew 24:36-44 are parables about resurrection/judgment day.
- Luke 17:34-37 are parables about resurrection/judgment day.
For more reading on the Book of Revelation see my blogs 666, The Giant Flying Cube, The Millennium, Pearly Gates and Streets of Gold, Names In the Book of Life, and The Lake of Fire Defined.