Summary: An exposition of the two primary texts from which the doctrine of the rapture is drawn, distinguishing what the Bible actually says from common ideas.
The rapture is an intriguing subject and at the forefront of much Christian thought. What is it? This is the teaching that the church will be "caught up" or raptured in the clouds with Jesus and the resurrected believers and be with the Lord forever. That much is taught very plainly in 1 Thessalonians 4:17: “Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord” (NASB).
The word “rapture” isn’t specifically found in the text, so how did this event come to be so called? The English word rapture currently means “to be swept away with joyous emotion,” but it comes from a Latin word, rapere, that simply means “to be seized or snatched up.” And this very word is used for that meaning in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 in the Latin Bible. So both the original and the current meaning of “rapture” accurately describe the scene of the church being blissfully “caught up” to meet the Lord in the air.
The Popular View.
The wondrous fact that we will be snatched up from this sin-stained planet and transported away by Jesus is to be anticipated with every ounce of our being. However, there is cause for reservation about the popular conception of the rapture, especially in regard to the time element and manner in which it is commonly believed it will take place. Warren Wiersbe, a widely published, influential, and often insightful Bible teacher explains his view of the rapture:
"Jesus Christ will return in the air, and this is where we shall meet him. Suddenly, millions of people will vanish!….Just think of what effect this event will have on a lost world!….When Jesus Christ returns in the air, He will call to Himself only those who are saved through faith in Him. This is called ‘the first resurrection’ or ‘the resurrection of life.’ At the end of time, just before God ushers in the new heaven and earth, there will be another resurrection. This is called ‘the second resurrection’ or ‘the resurrection of judgment.’ Between these two events, I believe that the Tribulation on earth and the 1000-year kingdom will occur." (This is from his Bible Exposition Commentary set, commenting on this passage.)
It is clear from Wiersbe’s comments that he believes in two future “comings” of Jesus—one in the air, which only Christians will witness and participate in--“the rapture”-—and another, years later, in which Jesus will actually step foot on earth and set up a political kingdom in Israel. This is the view of the rapture that is probably most widely held today. Those who subscribe to it basically differ only in when they believe the rapture will occur in relation to the last great tribulation—whether before, during or afterwards. The idea of an invisible rapture has been popularized by several major Christian book publishers, including Tim LaHaye’s big-selling series of fiction novels (Left Behind and other titles).
Contrary to appearances, not everyone in evangelical churches understands the rapture that way. Many well-respected, internationally acclaimed Bible scholars and commentators do not. Let us proceed to take an honest, open-minded and careful look at the texts from which the popular concept of the rapture has been drawn.
Reexamining 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is the critical text in forming the doctrine of the rapture. The apostle Paul is clearly writing about the second “coming of the Lord” (v. 15). Notice the way Paul describes this coming of Jesus. It will be one of glory and majesty and tremendous noise! It will be accompanied by a “shout,” the “voice of the archangel” and the “trumpet of God” (v. 16). The objective reader has to be puzzled how this is to be understood as a secret coming, unheard and unseen by the world at large. Nothing at all in the passage indicates anything like that.
Leon Morris is a Bible scholar who is highly respected in many circles in the religious world. Objecting to the common conception of the rapture as drawn from this passage, Morris makes these remarks in his commentary on 1 Thessalonians:
"It is difficult to see how he could more plainly describe something that is open and public. I do not doubt that, if He so wished, God would make the voice of the archangel, the shout, and the trumpet call to be inaudible to unbelievers. But I do greatly doubt whether that is what Paul is saying."
What Paul describes is a battle cry. This is what ancient armies did when they charged towards their enemy in order to strike fear into their hearts. What reason is there in the text to suppose that this battle cry will only be heard by Christ’s saints?