Growing up in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, things were not looking very good. The Cold War with the U.S.S.R., the Islamic Revolution in Iran with American embassy staff held as hostages, and runaway inflation were on everyone’s mind. So when I first heard Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” I really resonated with the message:
life was filled with guns and war
and everyone got trampled on the floor
i wish we’d all been ready
children died the days grew cold
a piece of bread could buy a bag of gold
i wish we’d all been ready
there’s no time to change your mind
the son has come and you’ve been left behind
a man and wife asleep in bed
she hears a noise and turns her head
i wish we’d all been ready
two men walking up a hill
one disappears and one’s left standing still
i wish we’d all been ready
Based on Matthew 24:36-44, Larry Norman was singing about the coming Rapture, where all living Christians would be taken up into the air to escape the approaching seven years of the Great Tribulation, prior to the Second Coming where Jesus Christ sits in judgment as the righteous King and to rule the earth for a one thousand year millennium (previous Veracity post). While most of my Christian friends were hesitant to guess any particular dates, the general sense was that Jesus would definitely come within my lifetime. I was so taken in by this message that for the first few working years out of college, I never bothered to participate in my company’s 401K plan to save for the future. Why should I plan for the future when Jesus is definitely coming back so soon?
Years later, I now wish I had given greater thought to how my view of the EndTimes had impacted my life as a young person. Even more so, I wish I had learned that the Rapture theology narrative I had so readily embraced as being identical with the very Word of God is actually a bit more complicated. Let us dig a little deeper into what the Bible teaches on the subject.
Rethinking the Biblical Basis for the Rapture:
Here is what I mean: this standard Rapture theology that I learned taught that to be “left behind” in the Rapture is a bad thing. The Christians who truly trust in Jesus will be “taken” away and ascend towards Christ. The Rapture itself is not a sign of God’s judgment. Rather judgment will come later, but first those “left behind” will experience the terror of living through the Great Tribulation. At the end of this blog post, you can view a video by the gifted Southern California expository Bible teacher, John MacArthur, giving the basic approach to and thoughtful defense of this popular understanding of the Rapture.
However, some other Bible teachers note that there is a problem with this narrative. Ben Witherington, a Wesleyan New Testament scholar at Asbury Seminary, argues that the context for Matthew 24:36-44 actually argues for something quite different. In this passage, Jesus is drawing a parallel between the days of Noah and the days of the coming of the Son of Man. In the Noah story, it was the ungodly neighbors of Noah who were “taken” and swept away by the great floodwaters to perish in judgment while Noah and his family were “left behind” to survive on the ark. For Witherington, if you follow the logic that Jesus is using, to be “left behind” is actually a good thing. Those who are not “left behind” will undergo judgment, contrary to what traditional Rapture theology teaches, as you will see in Witherington’s following video below.
What makes this controversy even more complicated is that there are some more sophisticated proponents of Rapture theology who argue that Witherington is indeed correct about how to interpret Matthew 24:36-44, but that he is still wrong about denying the Rapture. For example, perhaps the leading intellectual dean of Rapture theology in the latter part of the 20th century was Dallas Theological Seminary’s John F. Walvoord. Walvoord had argued that the passage in verses 40-41 is actually about the judgment to come, at Christ’s Second Coming, after the Great Tribulation, not the Rapture coming before it:
Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left (ESV).
In other words, Larry Norman and the whole generation who saw this passage as teaching the Rapture have simply been wrong in how they interpreted this passage! So, if the Rapture is still to be believed and accepted, what then is the Biblical basis for the doctrine?
That is a good question. Various scholars differ on the answer.
Walvoord still believed that the Bible teaches the Rapture but he based his reading on the teaching of the coming bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:51-57, a passage of teaching from Jesus in John 14:1-3, as well as the classic “Rapture” passage in 1 Thessalonians 4 (note: in fairness, MacArthur follows Walvoord on this point regarding Matthew 24, but if you read the text from the Corinthians and John texts, I find it difficult to see how you can definitively derive a Rapture event as being completely distinct from the Second Coming based solely on these texts. 1 Thessalonians 4 still appears to be the linchpin text in the whole theology).
Yet note in the following video how Witherington claims that Rapture theologians like John MacArthur and John Walvoord have mishandled 1 Thessalonians 4! In verses 13-18, the Apostle Paul talks about the believers being “caught up” to “meet the Lord in the air.” For MacArthur, the idea of going up to meet the Lord and then only to come back down immediately for Christ’s Second Coming makes no sense. But for teachers like Witherington, this makes absolutely perfect sense if you understand the context for the passage.
According to scholars like Witherington, in ancient times. when a visiting or returning king would approach a city, the people of the city would rise up from behind the walls of the city to go out and greet the king. Then the people would escort the king back through the city gates as part of a well-established protocol that would have been clearly familiar to the Apostle Paul. Paul himself , as a great leader among the apostles, was greeted in a similar manner himself when he was brought to Rome and met by the Christians outside of the city (Acts 28:15). Likewise, according to this understanding, the so-called “Rapture” passage in 1 Thessalonians 4 is teaching that the believers are “caught up” to go out to greet Jesus as the returning King and then escort Him back to earth to proclaim his rule and reign (see N.T. Wright on this issue as well).
What To Make of This “Rapture Rumble” Among Scholars?
I will leave it to the Veracity reader to evaluate which is the most responsible interpretation of these controversial texts. However, there are four things to learn from this little venture into Rapture theology. First, the study of Bible prophecy can be a dangerous thing. So often the popular mindset about what the “Bible teaches” on this subject can find itself challenged by both scholarly opponents to a particular doctrine being examined as well as scholarly supporters of the doctrine! This is partly why we should regard our various positions regarding the “End Times” with a little more generosity towards believers with whom we differ. The second lesson is that when some are exposed to information like this, the entire premillennial dispensational framework of their faith verges on collapse… an unnecessary tragedy. On the other hand, others find that their belief in Rapture theology is instead strengthened by a closer look at the Bible texts. Not everyone thinks the same way. No matter what position you take on the Rapture, one should not make their particular understanding of the “End Times” a critical part of their view of Christian salvation! There are more important issues in the life and thought of the Christian than trying to figure out the “right” view regarding the Rapture. The third thing I have learned is that if I had done a little more homework in studying the Bible, instead of just following the popular voices of those around me, I might have started saving for the future at an earlier age. The fourth thing is the most important: Jesus is still coming back! Everything else that Christians debate on this topic is simply a matter of details.
Are you persuaded by John MacArthur’s (and John Walvoord’s) arguments for the pre-tribulation Rapture of the church, or does Ben Witherington effectively show that the Bible undercuts those arguments? Whether one believes in a separate Rapture of the church or not should not deter the Christian’s confidence in the ultimate return of Jesus Christ to set things right at the end of this earthly age, but it can have some impact on how we to hope for and prepare for Christ’s coming. At the very least, as Christians we should all be prepared for Jesus’ return at any moment, but that does not mean that we should foolishly fail to prepare for the future.
Is being “left behind” a good thing or a bad thing? Enjoy these videos (John MacArthur first, then, Ben Witherington) and search the Scriptures yourself:
How is it that so many Christians over the past thirty or forty years came to believe that Matthew 24:36-44 taught the Rapture? Back in the 1970s, one of the first popular Christian movies on this theme was A Thief in the Night. Nearly every conservative evangelical youth group kid during that era saw this film, long before Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins penned their blockbuster Left Behind novels. Within the first few minutes of the film, you will hear the singing of Larry Norman’s anthem about the Rapture endorsing this particular view. The media, even Christian media, can be a powerful tool for shaping ideas. The Matthew 24 reference to the Rapture happens within the first 4 minutes of the film:
UPDATE October 28, 2014:
I listened recently to an UpForDebate broadcast put out by Moody Radio on the topic ‘Is “Left Behind” Accurate?’ It is a fascinating discussion, but it just goes to show just how many endless rabbit trails you can go down on this topic. For example, Dr. Kevin Zuber from Moody Bible, one of the debaters, argues that the reference to the believers going out to meet the Lord, such as the people going out to “greet a dignitary” is based on a single piece of research written in German in the 1930’s that made its way into Kittel’s Theological Dictionary, a standard work for theology students for decades. Zuber argues that this research on the Greek word apantesis for the English “meet” in I Thessalonians 4:17 is essentially flawed. Zuber argues that the term “meet” here does not fit the description given by scholars like Ben Witherington. However, the counter argument is that this term “meet” is in fact used in the way Witherington describes in every other instance within the New Testament, namely Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:5. So why would the usage in I Thess. 4:17 be any different?? Does the immediate context require a different reading?? (UPDATE: March 24, 2018 … the hyperlink to UpForDebate is dead now. You might want to try a different interview with Dr. Zuber here.)
For a discussion between Dr. Michael Brown and Dr. Craig Keener, this is a good source of material to explore the debate.
Whew! … and on and on the discussion goes…. Is your head spinning now?
For an academic discussion, looking at three different views of the “Rapture,” you may want to read Three Views on the Rapture, part of the Zondervan Counterpoints series.