My Catholic friends often ask me where this very recent novelty among Christians—the “Rapture” and its multiple accompanying beliefs—comes from.
The theory is elaborate. It espouses a secret snatching away of all true believers in the very near future, causing chaos throughout the world. (One can only imagine the numbers not just of cars but of planes, cranes, and every other kind of heavy machinery that will crash or careen out of control.) This will be followed by a seven-year tribulation period in which billions will die in a horrible persecution and war spearheaded by the Antichrist. Then there will be a judgment, then a thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ on Earth, followed by yet another and final judgment. Whew!
And all of this from folks who believe in the perspicuity of Scripture, mind you.
So where do these beliefs come from? Due to space limits I won’t deal with all of the accompanying beliefs surrounding the Rapture theory, but let’s focus on the three main proof texts most popular among Rapture theorists, verses that every Catholic should be familiar with and be able to exegete properly.
1 Thessalonians 4:15-17
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, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, 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, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.
Right off the bat, I always ask the question: “Does this really sound like it is going to be a secret?” In defense of the Rapture theorists, I should note that in one sense they agree that this event won’t be secret, because the whole world will have to explain (or explain away) this massive disappearance of millions. But it will be secret in the sense that Jesus himself will not reveal it to the world for what it is.
Nevertheless, I still can’t see how you get “secret” out of an event that is described as being accompanied by “a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.” The truth is, of course, there will be nothing “secret” about the Second Coming of Christ, and this is precisely what St. Paul is describing.
Notice there is no seven-year tribulation mentioned, no millennium. Just as we Catholics would expect, Paul describes this event as the end of all things. “So shall we always be with the Lord.” The end.
1 Corinthians 15:51-55
Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?”
I can’t tell you, when I was an Evangelical, how many sermons I heard (and preached!) on the Rapture that used this language of “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.”
Notice again the “trumpet of God”? This doesn’t sound like a “secret rapture,” either. And neither does it sound like some preliminary coming of the Lord. Just as with the prior passage, in this text Paul is describing the end of the world.
Notice in particular, “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?” In other words, at this point death shall be no more—and yet, according to Rapture theorists, death will be just beginning! They believe there will be millions if not billions killed during the tribulation and that death will continue even through the thousand-year reign of Christ on Earth. This contradicts the text, because the text actually describes the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time.
Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left. Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
This is the text (along with the parallel texts in the other synoptic Gospels) where the famous Left Behind series of books by Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins got their names. It is taken to mean that one day believers will be secretly “raptured” away and the rest will be “left behind.”
What’s the problem here, you ask?
First, if we read the three verses leading up to this text, we find this:
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 did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man.
It seems from the text that the folks who are being “taken away” are being “taken away” to judgment rather than to heaven. He says, “as in those days before the flood . . . they did not know until the flood came and swept them away.”
Secondly, and along these same lines, if we go to a parallel text, Luke 17:34-37, we find this:
I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together; one will be taken and the other left. And they said to him, “Where, Lord?”
If you asked any dispensationalist the question, “Where are those who are ‘taken away’ going?” They would respond, immediately with one word: “Heaven!” But what did Jesus say to the apostles when they asked him where these were going to be taken?
Where the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together.
The word translated “eagles” is the Greek aetoi, also translated “vultures” and signifying birds who feed on carrion.
That doesn’t sound like heaven, does it?