I grew up as a good Evangelical. I held to the doctrine of eternal torment for the wicked, a fairly literal reading of Scripture, and the always terrifying—at least for me—rapture theology. I say it was terrifying for me because I assumed I would be one of the ones left behind. How could I not? As a youth, I cussed, got in scuffles at school and at home, and, if I may be perfectly frank, was all too curious to see the naked female body. This did not bode well should Jesus come back.
Fast-forward to today and the rapture does not seem as scary (I will get into why in the paragraphs to follow). However, those at the forefront of disseminating this theology to the masses are. Those the loudest seem insistent that judgment is coming soon to a “Christian” nation near you. Whether it is the 15th, 23rd, or 24th of September matters not—people like John Hagee and Jonathan Cahn are convinced this is the end of the world as we know it.
God has had enough and the smiting is about to commence.
Before I discuss the rapture specifically, let me at least offer a concession. You may need to sit down for this. Hagee and Cahn may be correct. Something may happen this month. It may be bad. It may involve blood and death and mayhem. But, it will be due to our incessant use of retributive violence, propensity to scapegoat others, and our destruction of a planet the Hebrew writers describe as “very good.”
Let me be clear!
If something horrific happens in the coming month, it will be due to the violence that structures our “powers and principalities.”
That being said—and to the main point of this piece—is that this sort of apocalyptic doom Hagee and Cahn prophesy seem to always accompany a rapture theology. This rapture—whether prior, during, or after the “tribulation”—is primarily derived from 1 Thessalonians 4:15 – 17, which read:
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. 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. 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.—NRSV
First, this is not teaching what the dispensationalists would have you believe. The Thessalonians are questioning where to find their hope. What happens to those who die prior to the coming of “his Son from heaven (1:10)”? Will they be seen again? Paul’s answer in 4:14 is “yes,” because “since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” Our hope not to be snatched away from this “evil earthly realm”—a fundamentally Gnostic belief by the way—but it resides in the bodily resurrection upon Christ’s return.
The second thing I want to point to is that Paul uses language and imagery his listeners would be familiar with. In verse 16, when he writes the phrase “with the sound of God’s trumpet,” he is referring to Moses’ descent from Mt. Sinai with the Law. The reference to being “caught up in the clouds together” comes from Daniel 7:13 – 14, which reads:
13 I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
14 To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.
This passage is about exoneration. N.T. Wright puts it as follows: “The image from Daniel [is] about the son of man ‘coming on clouds,’ that is, coming upward in vindication.” (Wright, Surprised by Scripture, 100–101) In Girardian terms, Jesus is innocent victim—the scapegoated son of man who models what being the True Human is all about. He was sarcastically declared “king” on a Roman Cross, but “in the clouds”—that is to say where true authority comes from—is where his true kingship resides. What this passage is not about is some of us literally blasting off into the clouds to escape this hell-hole of a planet. We certainly do not find that here.
The final thing I will mention vis-à-vis to this passage in 1 Thessalonians is the use of the Greek word apantésis, or “to meet.” This “meeting,” in verse 17, refers to how the citizens of a town would greet a high-ranking official and usher him into the city. The citizens of heaven don’t head off to some remote part of the universe and party with Jesus; they greet him and bring him in for food and wine.
So, what is the second coming all about?
To quote N.T. Wright once more:
The point is that Jesus will reign on the earth, and at his royal appearing the faithful will go to meet him, like the disciples on the road to Jerusalem only now in full-blooded triumph, and escort him back into the world that is rightfully his and that he comes to claim, to judge, to rule with healing and wise sovereignty. (Wright, Surprised by Scripture, 102)
I place a lot of emphasis on this in the final chapter of my forthcoming book, All Set Free. Our mindset, as followers of Christ, is not to view conflicts and wars as something that must happen in order to be “rescued by Jesus.” Sure, these conflicts have happened and continue to happen, but that fact is hardly to be used as some sort of proof of a correct eschatological worldview. The mindset to have is that we are to work diligently toward ushering in the kingdom of heaven—a kingdom where the bows of war are cut off and swords are beaten into plowshares. (See Zechariah 9:10 & Isaiah 2:4 respectively) We are well past due for these prophecies to start being fully fulfilled.
“On earth as it is in heaven” is a common prayer known by (hopefully) all Christians. However, it seems a bit paradoxical when contrasting it with a rapture theology. Bringing heaven to earth is rather difficult if the mainstream body of Christ is off dreaming of the day in which they can “leave this dreadful place.” Assuredly, that is not going to happen. And thank God, really! Once Jesus is recognized as “Lord of all”—once he is met and ushered into the city, so to speak—nobody will be able to help but “give praise to God” in the end (Romans 14:11). What an exciting—and more biblically sound—conclusion to the story!
O the depth of riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!—Romans 11:33
 I have heard allusions to these dates as the specific dates in which judgment is coming.
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