Lemme just be honest and upfront. I don't believe in the rapture. I don't believe that living Christians should expect Jesus to come down from the sky (wherever in the sky that may be) and then get whisked away with him when we literally fly up to meet him half way (is he coming or going? are we? where at in space?). Furthermore and more importantly, I don't believe that we're all going off to some luxury resort in the sky when Jesus comes back.
However (just in case my secular reader/colleagues thought I might finally be approaching some sense of sanity), I DO believe in a literal resurrection. I do believe in this literal place called heaven. I do believe that this guy sometime around the time of CE/AD 30 this Jewish teacher/rebel/Son of God named Jesus violently died for humanity and then was raised back from the dead three days later. I affirm the ancient Creeds, including the virgin birth and the judgment of both the quick and the terribly slow (yes, zombie joke).
But I also believe that we misread a lot of the Bible because it wasn't written specifically for us. The case of the rapture is a major misunderstanding that affects how we treat the world around us as well as our neighbors and, thus, needs major correcting. I don't think that I could possibly reverse the ball even in my court, but I think that I could do my part to raise consciousness of the erroneous thinking in concerning this theology.
I'm going to
Paul's letters are full of the future coming or appearing of Jesus (parousia) ... Parousia is... one of those terms in which Paul is able to say that Jesus is the reality of which Caesar is the parody. Paul's theology of the second coming is part of his political theology of Jesus as Lord [Jesus is Lord. Caesar isn't. He's a pretender to the true throne]. In other words, we have the language of parousia, of royal presence, sitting in a typically Pauline juxtaposition with the language of Jewish apocalyptic. This would not... have presented many problems for Paul's first hearers. It certainly has for subsequent readers, not least in the last century or so.
This is so especially when we read I Thessalonians 4:16-17:
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the Christians who have died will rise from their graves. Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever.
The point to notice above all about these tricky verses is that they are not to be taken as a literal description of what Paul thinks will happen. They are simply a different way of saying what he is saying in I Corinthians 15:23-27 and in Philippians 3:20-21:
I Corinthians 15
But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died. So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man... But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back. After that the end will come, when he will turn the Kingdom over to God the Father, having destroyed every ruler and authority and power.For Christ must reign until he humbles all his enemies beneath his feet. And the last enemy to be destroyed is death...
But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.
Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:“Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?
We are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control.
... In I Cor 15:23-27 Paul speaks of the parousia of the Messiah as the time of the resurrection of the dead, the time when the present but secret rule will become manifest in the conquest of the last enemies, especially death. Then in verses 51-54 he speaks of what will happen to those who, at Jesus's coming, are not yet dead. They will be changed, transformed. This is clearly the same event he is speaking of in I Thess 4; we have the trumpet in both, and the resurrection of the dead in both; but whereas in I Thess he speaks of those presently alive being "snatched up in the air," in I Cor he speaks of them being "transformed." So too in Phil 3:21, where the context is quite explicitly ranging Jesus over against Caesar, Paul speaks of the transformation of the present lowly body to be like Jesus' glorious body, as a result of his all-conquering power.
So why does Paul speak in this particular way in the I Thess about the Lord descending and the living saints being snatched up in the air? I suggest that he is finding richly metaphorical ways of alluding to three other stories that his is deliberately bringing together...
We must remind ourselves... that all Christian language about the future is a set of signposts pointing into a mist. Signposts don't normally provide you with advance photographs of what you'll find at the end of the road, but that doesn't mean they aren't pointing in the right direction...
The three stories Paul is here bringing together start with the story of Moses coming down the mountain. The trumpet sounds, a loud voice is heard, and after a long wait Moses appears and descends from the mountain to see what's been going on in his absence.
Then there is the story of Daniel 7, in which the persecuted people of God are vindicated over their pagan enemy by being raised up on the clouds to sit with God in glory. This "raising up on the clouds," which Jesus applies to himself in the gospels, is now applied by Paul to the Christians who are presently suffering persecution.
(Catch that? Being raised up on the clouds isn't literal. But it is important.)
Putting these two stories together... enables Paul to bring in the third story... When the emperor visited a colony or province, the citizens of the country would go to meet him at some distance from the city. It would be disrespectful to have him actually arrive at the gates as though his subjects couldn't be bothered to greet him properly. When they met him, they wouldn't then stay out in the open country; they would escort him royally into the city itself. When Paul speaks of "meeting" the Lord "in the air," the point is precisely not... that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord, they will escort him royally into his domain, that is, back to the place they have come from. Even when we realize that this is a highly charged metaphor, not literal description, the meaning is the same as in the parallel in Phil 3:20. Being citizens of heaven, as the Philippians would know, doesn't mean that one is expecting to go back to the mother city but rather that one is expecting the emperor to come from the mother city to give the colony its full dignity, to rescue it if need be, to subdue local enemies and put everything to rights. [Pages 131-133]
And for those that were really hoping to hear from Terry Taylor's children's "rap" music project from the early 80's, here you go.