The Rapture and the Bible – John Martignoni

What is the rapture?  Is the Left Behind series of books on the rapture scripture based?  Will you be “left behind”?  Do you want to be “left behind”?  The answers to these questions and more can be found in the notes that follow.

1 Thessalonians chapter 4 verses 15 to 17 Paul writing to the Thessalonians “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 with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God will come down from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise first.  The he who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  Thus we shall always be with the Lord.”

This is the first verse that rapture enthusiasts point to when making their case for the rapture.  This event of people being caught up in the clouds in the air to meet the Lord is known as the rapture.  The word “rapture” comes from the Latin word rapturo which means to be caught up.  This passage has been interpreted to mean that Jesus Christ at some point in the not too distant future will come back and take all the Christians, all true believers in Christ, all those who have accepted Jesus Christ into their hearts as their personal Lord and Savior, off the earth and up to heaven with Him.  These folks will just disappear off the face of the planet.  This is why people have bumper stickers that read “In case of the rapture, this car will be unoccupied.”  The driver believes that he is “saved”, he is a Christian, and when the rapture happens he is simply going to vanish before he has a chance to park his car.  In the Left Behind series of books, they portray a scenario of plane crashes and automobile accidents and other catastrophes all over the world.  If this is true and you fly and you are among the less fortunate that get left behind, this means you don’t want your pilot to be a Christian!  

In rapture theology, the rapture is just the beginning of the end times.  After the rapture occurs, a seven year period known as the tribulation begins.  This time will be characterized by wars, rumors of wars, famine, pestilence, and earthquakes all resulting in the death of a great number of people.  There will also be a number of false prophets and false messiahs.  Then in the middle of this tribulation the antichrist will be revealed and he will come to power over all the nations of the earth.  With this antichrist in charge, the last three and one half years of the tribulation is much worse than the first three and a half years.  At the end of the tribulation, Christ returns and slays the antichrist and his armies at the great battle of Armageddon.  The antichrist is then thrown into the lake of fire (hell) after which Jesus will establish a physical kingdom here on earth and reign for one thousand years with the saints at His side.  After a thousand years, Satan is let loose from his bottomless pit, he gathers armies from the four corners of the world and wages war on the saints, though he and his armies will be destroyed by fire from heaven.  Then Satan is thrown into the lake of fire.  This is followed by a resurrection of the dead, a final judgment, and the end of the world as we know it.  This is the most common scenario among rapture enthusiasts, though with research you will find that there are a variety of ways in which those who believe in the rapture play out this series of events.  The doctrine of sola scriptura is the source of this confusion.  Sola scriptura says that each of us can read the bible for ourselves and decide for ourselves what is “true doctrine”.  The authors/sources for each of the many scenarios claims as the basis of their theology, their interpretation of scripture alone.  This most common scenario where the rapture occurs prior to the tribulation is known as the “pre-tribulation rapture”.  However, there are also those who believe that the rapture will occur in the middle of the tribulation period which is known as the “mid-tribulation rapture”.  Still others, believe that the rapture will occur at the end of the tribulation which is known as the “post tribulation rapture”.  Each of these groups point to the bible as the sole source for their beliefs.  If agreeing on when the rapture will occur isn’t difficult enough, there is disagreement as to the number of raptures that will occur.  Some believe two, others three, and still others four.  Then you have those who have changed their position on which of the many combinations of options for when and how many raptures will occur.  Now you have to wonder if there new position will not change yet again at some point in the future based upon a “new and better” interpretation of the bible.  This makes clear the problem of a lack of authority on biblical interpretation for Protestants.  Where in all of this is the Church?  The Church of 1 Timothy 3 verse 15 which scripture says “is the pillar and bulwark for the upholder and defender of the truth”.   For Protestant’s, it is “every man for himself”!  Forget your pastor and forget theologians for each person is to interpret scripture for themselves.  This allows some Protestant’s to not believe in the rapture.

What does the Catholic Church teach on the rapture?  Catholics do not believe in a rapture of all believers that happens at any time other than the final coming.  This is the second and final coming of Christ that occurs at the end of time.  Catholics do not believe in a literal and physical one thousand year reign of Christ on earth after the tribulation.  The Catholic Church teaches the following:

–          There will be a great tribulation that will occur before the return of Christ.  This tribulation is one in which the members of the Church will suffer terrible trials and persecution and during which many people will be led astray by the false religion of the anti-Christ.  There will be an anti-Christ.  All of this is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) paragraphs 675 thru 677.

–          There will be a mass conversion of the Jews back to Christ.  (CCC paragraph 674)

–          At the end of the tribulation, Christ himself returns and wins a victory over the “final unleashing of evil”.  (CCC paragraph 677)  This will be the second coming of Christ with His first coming occurring at the incarnation.  At this second coming, evil is once and for all defeated and vanquished. 

–          Upon the return of Christ the dead will be resurrected and our bodies will be changed or transfigured into incorruptible bodies.  (CCC 988 and 997 thru 1001)

–          Then there is the final judgment after which the good enter the eternal kingdom and the wicked enter eternal damnation.  (CCC 678, 679, and 1038 thru 1041)

–          The old heaven and earth are replaced by a new heaven and a new earth and the kingdom of God comes in its fullness as the new Jerusalem and the righteous reign forever with Christ.  (CCC 1042 thru 1050)

Now let’s look at what the Bible actually says?  Non-Catholic Christians don’t care about what the Church teaches or what the pope says, they want to see it in the Bible.  In 1 Thessalonians chapter 4 verses 15 to 17 (as referenced above) indicates that some will be “caught up” to greet Jesus in the air.  The Catholic Church agrees with this, however, it will be at Christ’s second coming at the end of time not before.  This passage is describing an ancient custom.  In the ancient world, when someone important like a king or a general would come to a town or city, many of the people, at least those looking forward to the arrival, would go out and greet this important person outside of town and accompany them back into town.  It was an insult not to go out and extend this type of greeting.  This type of thing still happens today.  If the president arrives at an airport, a lot of people go out to greet him and his motorcade is escorted back to town.  St. Augustine and St. John Chrysostom in their writings interpret this passage in just this manner.  This passage does not say that when Jesus is greeted, He turns around with them and goes back to heaven.  How do we know this?  Revelation 21 verses 1 thru 3 state “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.  The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of the heaven from  God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race.  He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God”.  As the Lord descends from heaven the New Jerusalem descends with Him.  The scripture doesn’t say anything about the New Jerusalem returning to heaven with Him, nor does it say anything about Jesus returning to heaven.  Rather, it states that Jesus brings heaven with Him.  All the angels and saints are descending with Him.  The New Jerusalem comes where we shall dwell with God!  Revelation 11 verses 15 thru 18 states “Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet.  There were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdom of the world now belongs to our Lord and to His Anointed, and He will reign forever and ever.’  The twenty-four elders who sat on their thrones before God prostrated themselves and worshiped God and said: “We give thanks to you, Lord God almighty, who are and who were.  For you have assumed your great power and have established your reign.  The nations raged, but your wrath has come, and the time for the dead to be judged, and to recompense your servants, the prophets, and the holy ones and those who fear your name, the small and the great alike, and to destroy those who destroy the earth.”  Note that the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord.  Jesus returns and the earth and the heavens are transformed.  There is a new heaven and a new earth and the dwelling of God is with men.  Therefore, this biblical evidence along with the writings of early Church fathers refutes the idea of the rapture.

Another problem with the use of 1 Thessalonians chapter 4 verses 15 to 17 as evidence for a rapture is that these verses state that the dead are caught up with the living.  John chapter 6 verse 54 states “He who eats my flesh and dinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day.”  Whether taken literally or symbolically, Jesus is talking about those who believe in Him and He says that they will be raised “on the last day”.  There are no qualifiers in these words from Jesus, instead He is very clear in stating “on the last day”.  John chapter 6 verse 39 states “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given Me, but raise it up on the last day.”  Yet again from John chapter 6 verse 44 “No man should come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him and I will raise him up at the last day.”  John 11 verse 24 has Martha speaking to Jesus “I know that he (Lazarus) will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”  Why would Lazarus have to wait until the “last day” if there were a rapture prior to the last day?  Because there is no rapture prior to the last day!  These verses from John shoot big holes in a rapture theology.  If all of these passages state that the dead will be raised “on the last day”, then how can 1 Thessalonians chapter 4 verses 15 to 17 represent anything other than the last day given the statement for the raising of the dead?  Any suggestion that this is a day other than the “last day” cannot be supported with other biblical passages because there are none.  In John chapter 12 verse 48 we have a verse indicating that the “last day” is just that.  It states “Whoever rejects Me and does not accept my words has something to judge him; the word that I spoke, it will condemn him on the last day.”  No rapture theology suggests that a judgment occurs at the time of the rapture.  Protestant’s often refer to this as the great white throne judgment which their theology states will occur at the end of time.  Therefore, verse 48 from John contradicts their rapture concept.  The last day of which Jesus is speaking will be when He comes again for the second and final time, when the dead will be resurrected, when the followers of Christ both living and dead are caught up in the air to meet the Lord in His coming, when final judgment is rendered, when the kingdom of God is brought to its fullness, and the old heavens and the old earth give way to a new heaven and a new earth, and Christ reigns eternally in the New Jerusalem with the saints by His side.  This will all occur on the same day!

Let’s look at some other scripture passages that people use to justify rapture theology.  Matthew chapter 24 verses 37 thru 41 states  “As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.  In those days before the coming of the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark.  They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.  So it will be also at the coming of the Son of Man.  Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left.”  Rapture enthusiasts suggest that those “taken” are Christians that have been caught up in the rapture.  There is a similar passage in Luke chapter 17 verses 26 to 36.  “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Son of Man; they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage up to the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.  Similarly, as it was in the days of Lot; they were eating, drinking, buying, selling, planting, building; on the day when Lot left Sodom, fire and brimstone rained from the sky to destroy them all.  So it will be on the day the Son of Man is revealed.  On that day, a person who is on the housetop and whose belongings are in the house must not go down to get them, and likewise a person in the field must not return to what was left behind.  Remember the wife of Lot.  Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses it will save it.  I tell you, on that night there will be two people in one bed; one will be taken, the other left.  And there will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken, the other left.”  People who see the rapture in these verses are overlooking an important detail.  The coming of the Son of Man with some people being taken and some people being left is being compared to the days of Noah and the days of Lot.  If we think about that for a minute, after the flood – who was left behind?  The good guys!  Noah and his family!  Who was taken away?  The bad guys!  After Sodom was destroyed – who was left behind?  Lot and his daughters.  The bad folks were destroyed.  So if there is a rapture you don’t want to be taken away!  Maybe we need bumper stickers that say – In case of rapture, I am staying!

Still more scripture gives us yet further insights.  Matthew 24 verses 3 thru 13 states “As he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples approached him privately and said ‘Tell us, when will this happen, and what sign will there be of your coming, and of the end of the age?’  Jesus said to them in reply, ‘See that no one deceives you.  For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and they will deceive many.  You will hear of wars and reports of wars; see that you are not alarmed, for these things must happen, but it will not yet be the end.  Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be famines and earthquakes from place to place.  All these are the beginning of labor pains.  Then they will hand you over to persecution, and they will kill you.  You will be hated by all nations because of my name.  And then many will be led into sin; they will betray and hate one another.  Many false prophets will arise and deceive many; and because of the increase of evildoing, the love of many will grow cold.  But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved.”  Verses 21 thru 24 continue “For at that time there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will be.  And if those days had not been shortened, no one would be saved, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.  If anyone says to you then, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ of ‘There he is!’ do not believe it.  False messiahs and false prophets will arise, and they will perform signs and wonders so great as to deceive, if that were possible, even the elect.”  Who are the elect in this verse?  Aren’t the elect gone having been raptured? 

There will be an anti-Christ.  2 Thessalonians chapter 2 verses 1 thru 12 states “We ask you, brothers, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling with him, not to be shaken out of your minds suddenly, or to be alarmed either by a “spirit,” or by an oral statement, or by a letter allegedly from us to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand.  Let no one deceive you in any way.  For unless the apostasy comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one doomed to perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god and object of worship, so as to seat himself in the temple of God, claiming that he is god – do you not recall that while I was still with you I told you these things?  And now you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed in his time.   For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work.  But the one who restrains is to do so only for the present, until he is removed from the scene.  And the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and render powerless by the manifestation of his coming, the one whose coming springs from the power of Satan in every mighty deed and in signs and wonders that lie, and in every wicked deceit for those who are perishing because they have not accepted the love of truth so that they may be saved.  Therefore, God is sending them a deceiving power so that they may believe the lie, that all who have not believed in the truth but have approved wrongdoing may be condemned.”  Daniel chapter 8 verses 17 thru 25 states “When he came near where I was standing, I fell prostrate in terror.  But he said to me, ‘Understand son of man, that the vision refers to the end of time.’  As he spoke to me, I fell forward in a faint; he touched me and made me stand up.  “I will show you,’ he said, ‘what is to happen later in the period of wrath; for at the appointed time, there will be an end.  The two horned ram you saw represents the kings of Medes and Persians.  The he-goat is the king of the Greeks, and the great horn on its forehead is the first king.  The four that rose in its place when it is broken are four kingdoms that will issue form his nation, but without his strength.  After their reign, when sinners have reached their measure, there shall arise a king, impudent and skilled in intrigue.  He shall be strong and powerful, bring about fearful ruin, and succeed in his undertaking.  He shall destroy powerful peoples; his cunning shall be against the holy ones, his treacherous conduct shall succeed.  He shall be proud of heart and destroy many by stealth.  But when he rises against the prince of princes, he shall be broken without a hand being raised.”  Finally, Daniel chapter 7 verse 25, “He shall speak against the Most High, thinking to change the feast days and the law.  They shall be handed over to him for a year, two years, and a half-year.”  Notice that in these passages the anti-Christ destroys the elect, the saints, the followers of Christ.  These passages are why some people switch from being a “pre-tribulation” believer to a “mid” or “post-tribulation” believer.  Scripture is very clear that the anti-Christ is going to persecute and kill Christians.  However, if all of the followers have been raptured, then who are these people that receive this persecution and death?  Pre-tribulation enthusiasts argue that after the rapture there will be new believers coming forward and this is who gets persecuted and killed.  Nowhere in the Bible does it state that a new set of believers is somehow established.  The obvious question is that if all previous believers are raptured, who is going to teach these new believers their faith? 

Still more scripture, 1 Corinthians chapter 15 verses 20 thru 24 state “But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came also through a human being.  For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ Jesus shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order:  Christ the first fruits; then, at His coming, those who belong to Christ; then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to His God and Father, when He has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power.”  Notice that the dead in Christ will be raised at His coming – His one coming – a singular coming!  It doesn’t say that there will be multiple comings or that His followers will be raised at various times.  This singular coming occurs at the end of time.  Hebrews 9 verses 27 and 28 state “Just as it is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment, so also Christ, offered once to take away the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to take away sin but to bring salvation to those who eagerly await Him.”

Where does the concept of a millennial reign come from?  It comes from Revelation 20.  After Christ defeats the false prophets and the anti-Christ, this chapter starts with Satan being seized and bound, and thrown into a bottomless pit for a thousand year period.  Beginning in verse four we hear about the souls of martyrs coming to life and reigning with Christ for a thousand years.  After this thousand years, Satan is loosed from his prison and makes war on the saints.  However, in verse nine he and his army are destroyed.  Christ then appears on the great white throne for the final judgment.  The events of the book of Revelation are not easily fit on a linear timeline.  For example, in verses 7 and 8 from this chapter, there is a war in heaven and Satan and his followers are thrown out of heaven.  Hasn’t this already occurred a long time ago?  Then in Luke chapter 10 verse 18 Jesus says “I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven.”  Does this suggest that Satan is kick out of heaven more than once?  The book of Revelation is not historical narrative.  It uses a lot of symbolic language more like poetry than as historical narrative.  That is not to say that it is not describing real historical events – it is!  As a reader of scripture you have to dig for the meaning of any given passage.  Sometimes after significant attest at digging, the meaning may still be unclear or that there may be several acceptable meanings to a single passage.  What comes into play here is the difference between a literal interpretation of scripture and a literalist interpretation of scripture.  Catholics interpret scripture in a literal manner.  This means that we look for the meaning that the author intended to convey.  A literalist interpretation of scripture says that whatever is written in the verse is what it means!  Here is an example: if you picked up a book and it says that it was raining cats and dogs, the literal interpretation would get you to an understanding that it was raining hard and/or heavy.  In the literalist interpretation, dogs and cats are falling from the sky like rain.  Most of us understand what was meant, however, 2000 years from now when that expression may no longer be used, how will a reader interpret it?  Without some study about our idioms, our culture, and our language they may not get the correct meaning.  This is the type of work needed to properly understand much of scripture and certainly the book of Revelation.  For example, 1 Corinthians chapter 15 verses 23 thru 26 state “For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ Jesus shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order:  Christ the first fruits; then, at His coming, those who belong to Christ; then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to His God and Father, when He has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power.  For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”   Here Paul equates the resurrection of the dead, the dead being made alive in Christ with the defeat of the last enemy which is death.  This then is the end!  You can’t fit a rapture with the resurrection of the just in here before the end.  The moment folks are raised from the dead, the last enemy, death, has been defeated and this immediately precedes the eternal reign of God not a one thousand year reign of God unless this thousand year reign is symbolic of the eternal reign.  After all scripture says that a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years is as a day.  Which is it?  Most likely it means a “really long time” which would be representative of eternity.  Then we have Revelation chapter 11 verses 15 which states “Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet.  There were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdom of the world now belongs to our Lord and to His Anointed, and He will reign forever and ever.’”  This does not say for a thousand years – rather forever and ever!  So what does this one thousand year period represent?  The book of 1 John tells us that the spirit of the anti-Christ is already loose on the earth.  We know that the kingdom of Jesus is already present here on earth in the form of the Church though not in its perfected form.  We know that Jesus is reigning in hearts and minds as king of all those who believe in Him.  In the Church the last Sunday before Advent each year we celebrate the feast of Christ the King.  We do know that the saints in heaven are already reigning in glory with Christ.  We do know that Satan has already been tossed down and is being restrained from running totally amuck and has been defeated by Christ’s death on the cross.  Could the passage from Revelation chapter 20 be referring to some of these things?  Many theologians look at the book of Revelation as being a chronicle of sorts for all the events that happened to the Church from the resurrection of Christ until the end of the world.  This is a very plausible interpretation.  Rapture enthusiasts have started with a premise and then attempt to match scripture to it, which then provides the variety of rapture options. 

What is the history of rapture theology?  A few of the early Church fathers actually wrote about a literal one thousand year reign of Christ on earth.  However, this millennial kingdom was not accompanied by a rapture of believers occurring before the last day and this position was never adopted by the Church as a whole.  This position of a literal one thousand year reign had been rejected by the end of the fourth century.  Teachings on the rapture appeared here and there in the 18th and 19th centuries gaining widespread influence as a result of an Englishman by the name of John Darby.  He preached this concept throughout England, the United States, and Canada between 1850 and the 1870s.  So most current teaching on the rapture is about 150 years old.  One obscure writing from about the fourth or fifth century by an unknown author seems to have a passage in it suggesting some sort of “pre-tribulation”.  Some rapture believers hang their hat on this one statement suggesting that it was an early Christian belief.  However, there are three problems with this.  First, the exact meaning of the passage is open to dispute because in that passage there is no mention of Christ coming in glory with His angels.  Second, St. Ephrem whom some suspect is the author of the obscure writing did not believe in a pre-tribulation rapture.  Third, one obscure writing about the rapture is held as true by these believers when other writings of the Church Father’s are not.

A rational review for most people shows that the rapture theology, particularly as presented in the Left Behind books, is not logically defensible, is not biblically defensible, and is not historically defensible.