I've been invited by a group of students at Otterbein College to participate in their series Mythbusters, which, like the show of the same name, is an exploration of urban legends and old wives' tales. The myths that I'll be busting, however, are Christian ones, and my myth is the Rapture. As I've never believed in the Rapture, I'm quite excited to bust this pervasive and insidious false teaching. Below is an excerpt from my sermon where I deal with the "Rapture" passage from 1 Thessalonians.
Those who believe in the Rapture see here a clear reference to that event. “We who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” What else could this possibly mean? Rapture!
But maybe it’s not so clear cut as that. This passage is first and foremost about resurrection, not rapture. Look at the very beginning of this section: “We want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died….” Paul is addressing the concerns that Christians in Thessalonica had about their fellow believers who have died. If you interpret the teachings of Jesus ultra-literally, you would think that no one who trusts in him will ever die. And yet, Christians were dying (and have been dying ever since). How could this be?
Paul’s answer is resurrection. “…When Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died.” The resurrection of the dead goes hand in hand with the return of Christ. Resurrection, not Rapture, is the first and most important thing that happens when Jesus comes back.
But what about those believers who are still alive when Jesus comes back? Well they will meet Jesus in the air! So what does that mean?
If you’ve ever read the first chapter of the book of Acts, you know about the Ascension of Jesus. That’s when Jesus was lifted off the earth and enveloped in the clouds right in front of his disciples. And then they just stood there staring at the sky like idiots. I mean, I would too. Jesus just freaking flew into the sky!
But then some angels come along and say, “Dudes, why are you staring at the sky? Don’t worry about it. Jesus will come back, and when he does he’ll come the same way he left.” So that’s where Paul, and we today, get the idea that Jesus is going to come back from the heavens. And when he does we’re going to meet him in the air.
Sounds like the Rapture, right? But it doesn’t say that Jesus is going to come halfway then turn around. It doesn’t say that he’s going to come down and say, “Attention world, I’m back! Okay you, you, you, you and you come up here. Peace out! See you in seven years, suckers!” That’s just not here. That’s not Jesus.
But what’s even more damning for the case for the Rapture is what you discover when you learn a little bit of history. If the President of the United States were coming to your house, would you make him ring your doorbell? You probably wouldn’t say, “C’mon on in, it’s open” to the President. No, you and all your neighbors would line the street and wait for him. You would go out to meet him.
In ancient Roman culture this same sort of thing happened, but on a grander scale. When the emperor or an important dignitary came to your town, all the people of the town would go out to meet him while he was still a long way off. They would go out to meet him and then walk with him, usher him, back into their town.
Now that you’re armed with that bit of knowledge, what do you think is happening in this passage? A Rapture, or a royal welcome? This is a royal welcome for the one who comes to our home not from some distant land but from Heaven itself, the one who comes to take his rightful place as the King of kings. This passage is not about being snatched away to heaven. It’s about resurrection and showing Jesus proper respect when he returns.