Surprised by Hope: The Rapture

The Second Coming is a doctrine we struggle with in the Churches of Christ. Years ago, in the 1940s and thereabouts, the Churches split over premillennialism. Almost all the Churches rejected the doctrine, with Foy Wallace making belief in the Rapture into damnable heresy. As a result, we know we don’t believe in it, but we are left with little idea how to interpret the verses that seem to teach a Rapture.

Thus, when the Left Behind books came out, many taught that they are heresy. Others found them guilty pleasures. For years, when someone asked me about such things, I said (and meant it), “I don’t care how the end comes, just that I wind up in the right place.” But Wright has begun to convince me that eschatology (the study of the end times) matters.

But I always felt a certain unease with the notion that the Bible traces the last 1,000 years of church history in great detail — enough to allow someone to write a series of novels! — while also repeatedly saying that no one knows when it will happen!

And yet there are denominations that speak of little else besides the Rapture and the 1,000-year reign, and all that. I can’t imagine that God meant for the Bible to move us to spend our Sundays trying to predict the future rather than trying to make a better present for a lost and hurting world!

Now, these speculations have a huge impact on American politics. Much of the religious right supports Israel out of a conviction that God is restoring Israel’s fortunes as a working out of the End Times, now fast upon us. To support Israel is thus to support God in his fulfillment of prophecy. (Although I wonder why God would need our help and, if he does, where he asked for it.)

Meanwhile, many a Christian argues that we need have little concern with this world or the environment because it’ll all burn and we’ll all be taken up to be with Jesus. Our hope is in heaven, not here. And so we need not much concern ourselves with this world.

Here’s the central proof text for the Rapture —

(1 Thes. 4:15-17) According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming [parousia] of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.

Although we see the familiar coming of Jesus from heaven, we are also told that the saved will be caught up into the clouds to meet him. We don’t see the Christians taken into heaven or returned to earth. Surely, we don’t stay in the clouds!

Parousia also appears in —

(1 Cor 15:23) But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.

Wright says that, when used of deity, the word was commonly used by the pagans to refer to discovering the presence of a god, such as when a prayed-for healing occurred. Josephus refers to God’s parousia when God saves Israel miraculously from the Assyrians during the reign of Hezekiah.

The second meaning is when a person of high rank visits a subject state, particularly when a king or emperor visits a colony or province. Hence, parousia refers to a royal presence.

In neither case does parousia refer to the collapse of the space-time universe or someone flying on cloud. Rather, the idea is that Jesus is bodily absent today, although present spiritually, but will one day be present again bodily.

Wright notes that in Paul’s lengthier discussion in 1 Cor 15, we also have a trumpet blown and people transformed, but no lift off into the skies.

(1 Cor 15:51-52) Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed– 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

Wright thus disagrees with the conventional interpretation of 1 Thes. 4:15-17 –

Paul’s description of Jesus’ reappearance in 1 Thessalonians 4 is a brightly colored version of what he says in two other passages, 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 and Philippians 3:20-21: At Jesus’ “coming” or “appearing,” those who are still alive will be “changed” or “transformed” so that their mortal bodies will become incorruptible, deathless. This is all that Paul intends to say in Thessalonians, but here he borrows imagery — from biblical and political sources — to enhance his message. Little did he know how his rich metaphors would be misunderstood two millennia later.

First, Paul echoes the story of Moses coming down the mountain with the Torah. The trumpet sounds, a loud voice is heard, and after a long wait Moses comes to see what’s been going on in his absence.

Second, he echoes Daniel 7, in which “the people of the saints of the Most High” (that is, the “one like a son of man”) are vindicated over their pagan enemy by being raised up to sit with God in glory. This metaphor, applied to Jesus in the Gospels, is now applied to Christians who are suffering persecution.

Third, Paul conjures up images of an emperor visiting a colony or province. The citizens go out to meet him in open country and then escort him into the city. Paul’s image of the people “meeting the Lord in the air” should be read with the assumption that the people will immediately turn around and lead the Lord back to the newly remade world.

Paul’s mixed metaphors of trumpets blowing and the living being snatched into heaven to meet the Lord are not to be understood as literal truth, as the Left Behind series suggests, but as a vivid and biblically allusive description of the great transformation of the present world of which he speaks elsewhere.

Farewell to the Rapture” (2001). Well, I’ve never thought the Rapture theory made much sense. Or maybe I’m just tired of the “In case of Rapture, this car will have no driver!” bumper stickers. They just seemed a little smug, you know?

If our bodies are transformed in the twinkle of eye to bodies like Jesus’, and if Jesus was able to ascend into heaven in his new body, then it’s only natural that we would go up into the clouds to meet Jesus as he comes to earth. I would!

Matthew 24 is also seen as a prophecy of the Rapture —

(Mat 24:29-34) “Immediately after the distress of those days “‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

30 “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.

32 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

Jesus is actually speaking of his resurrection and the fall of Jerusalem, in language borrowed from Daniel 7 —

(Dan 7:13-14) “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

Wright is anxious to point out, however, that although that “Rapture” texts are about the destruction of Jerusalem, this doesn’t meaning the Second Coming was fulfilled in AD 70. There will be a Second Coming. It just won’t happen as described in texts describing the fall of Jerusalem.

And those passages that speak most clearly of the New Heaven and New Earth, also speak of Jesus’ coming — a recurring theme of Rev 21-22. They see no inconsistencies between a “coming” and a renewed earth.


4 Responses

  1. “Surprised By Hope” is a great book. I agree with Wright about the importance of escahtology. I believe a proper view of eschatology will shape our doctrine of the church (ecclesiology). When we consider the fact that first, Jesus did not fail to establish God’s kingdom but instead this kingdom is an eshcatological kingdom that has ‘already’ been established but is ‘not yet’ fully experienced and second, that the church is the community of people who live under God’s kingdom rule and thereby demonstrate/proclaim God’s kingdom to the world so that its borders continue to advance, the nature and purpose of the church should change. Thus, The church is a future community who exists in the present as the representation of God’s finished work of redemption. We do this by proclaiming the gospel and living the gospel reality out in our life.

    If I am correct (and I believe I am), this should change a lot about our mission. I will mention only a few of relevant changes that I see as imperative. First, the old question of evangelism vs. social justice is a moot question. Our task is to help those living under the slavery of this old world to experience the grace of the new world (God’s kingdom rule). All people are sinners and need to experience the redemption from sin that exist in the new world. But if they find such redemption but our still enslaved to an addiction or still our being drowned in a sea of poverty, they have not totally experienced the new world in fullness. Likewise, a person feed from an addiction but still living in slavery to sin has yet to experience the new world in its fullness. And though in one sense, no one will experience the new world in fullness until the second coming of Jesus, this does not excuse the church its duty as though we can apathetically say God will take care of it all in the end.

    Second, if we are living as a future community under the reign of the Lord, we must question much of contemporary Christianity’s (especially in the Evangelicalism) wholesale endorsement of state sanctioned war and support for the state. The state is a fallen power that belongs to this old world. Why would we want to defend and support something that, eschatologically speaking, is already dead? Though I am a pacifist, this does leave open the possibility that there is such a thing as “just war.” As the church, living under the reign of the resurrected and soverien Lord (who has already given us life and the power to overcome), supporting and participating in violence in order to maintain the fallen powers of this old fallen world have no place. Nor is there any place for violence and aggression being used as a means to overcome the fear of being persecuted. Can anyone imagine a New Testament writer telling the church to organize a militia because the Roman Government is going to oppress them.

    The last change has to do with the Churches of Christ specifically. If the nature and purpose of the church is as I have suggested above, then the purpose of reproducing the pattern of the first century church is way off base. We neither live in their culture nor live under the same circumstances as they do. What is necessary is not treating the New Testament as a constitutional manual (law) for everything we can and cannot do. What is necessary is for us as a community of faith to live out the life of Christ which is the full expression of God’s kingdom reign. This quite possibly might look very different from the first centurty, apostolic church just as it will look different for a church in North American versus a church in Asia or Africa. So much more needs to be said on this last point but my friend and former professor John Mark Hicks has been discussing this hermeneutical question on his own blog (

    Grace and peace,


  2. Very thoughtful and insightful comment. (I actually typed “inciteful” and had to fix it. But maybe I was right the first time!)

  3. I am just now reading these posts…so I am a little behind.

    “we know we don’t believe in it (the rapture)”

    I could be misunderstanding your statement here – I disagree with it. I know many in the Church of Christ who believe “the rapture” will occur. Many of these people are not in “pre-millennial” congregations. There are in all types of congregations and take a more literal interpretation of these passages.

    Wright makes an excellent case for rich metaphors instead of literal interpretation. * There are, however, what I consider to be stranger things in the Bible that came true literally and not metaphorically, so I hesitate to lessen the belief in literal description.

    * What I like most about Wright’s comments is the loving manner in which he makes them. So much of the pain in the disagreement about the rapture (and anything else) among Christians is not in the disagreement but in the comments about “those people” who “disagree with us.”

  4. This is the order of events:
    1. Read John 14, Jesus will come and TAKE us back to his Father’s house w/ many rooms.
    2. The same rooms mentioned in Isaiah 26 (read it)
    3. Read 1st Cor 15:51, we will be changed into glorified bodies… an inter-dimensional body that can exist in the super natural realm (where Jesus is NOW.
    4. Read 1st Thes 4:16-17, we be gathered with the formally dead Christians and meet Jesus in the clouds (just as the text says)
    5. Now, Jesus will take us to the rooms as he mentioned in John 14 and the same rooms in Isaiah 26.
    6. Continue to read Isaiah 26… what does the Lord do after we shut to the doors to our room? He goes back to earth to exert his wrath!
    7. After 7 years, Daniel 9’s final week of years (the 70th week of years (that is 7 for folks who do not know what a week of years is), Jesus returns with his bride
    8. Read Revelation 19, Jesus and his bride (the church) are in Heaven and he begins his return to earth to fight the armies of the anti-christ.
    9. Read Revelation 20
    10. Read Revelation 21
    11. Read Revelation 22

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