The doctrine of the “rapture of the church” commonly means that there will be two different returns of Jesus: one to take away the most faithful part of the church and bring it to heaven for a certain time, and another to establish his kingdom at the end of the great tribulation. This doctrine is widely held at the popular level, but almost totally rejected among scholars. They reject it mainly for three reasons, which we will define as historical, theological and exegetical.
Eminent scholars and historians of Christianity, such as N.T. Wright1, the most valued historian of early Christianity, emphasize that this particular doctrine is totally absent from historical documents prior to the 19th century. Indeed, in the Christian literature of the first centuries, the concept of “rapture” was not even mentioned as we understand it today, that is, a striking event in which millions of people suddenly disappear, but they spoke simply about the “coming of the Lord”. Even the greatest non-believer New Testament critic and historian of Christianity, Bart Ehrman, says the same thing.2
The doctrine of the “rapture” began to become popular around 1830 thanks to J. Nelson Darby, the father of dispensationalist theology, and Edward Irving, a famous Scottish charismatic preacher very close to Darby. They were most likely influenced by the alleged prophecies of a 15-year-old Pentecostal preacher named Margaret Mcdonald, who attended Irving’s congregation in London. It was then that they began to talk about two different comings of Jesus. Darby’s teachings were then widely spread in America by Cyrus Ingerson Scofield, with his famous annotated Bible, published in 1909, and consequently worldwide. In today’s times, the idea of the “rapture” has become practically viral because of the famous American movies, which portray apocalyptic scenes in which millions of people suddenly disappear, leaving in their place only the clothes (for example Left Behind, with Nicolas Cage).
Primarily, the churches that today defend this doctrine are those strongly dispensationalist, those Pentecostal and those where the gospel of prosperity is preached, because they consider a possible period of trial and suffering, such as the great tribulation, to be fundamentally unacceptable.
It should also be underlined that, in recent years, the supporters of the rapture have pointed to two possible allusions to a secret return of Jesus, one of Victorinus of Pettau (between 3rd and 4th centuries AD) and one of Ephrem the Syrian (4th century AD). However, both quotes are very questionable. The one of Victorinus of Pettau is unfortunately untraceable, and it is clear that in his commentary on Revelation he speaks explicitly of a final return of Jesus, without distinguishing two comings.3 That of Ephrem the Syrian is equally controversial among scholars, both in terms of dating and paternity. But even if they were authentic, and indeed referred to a rapture of the church in heaven, it is clear that their impact on Christianity would have been substantially imperceptible, if not null. Even so, in all the Christian literature of eighteen centuries, these controversial half passages would be the only allusions to a rapture!
In short, the fact that an extravagant idea, such as that of the “rapture”, spread only in the 19th century should already give rise to some suspicion. But above all, it was important to quote this “historical reason, to show how Christians have always interpreted and understood the text as if it were simply speaking of the “coming of the Lord”. This paragraph can therefore be considered as a “trampoline” to argue that this concept of rapture is not deduced from the biblical text.
Finally, we would like to point out that the intent of this short article is not to attack the doctrine of the pre-tribulation rapture, but precisely the concept of rapture itself, that is, the idea that when Jesus comes, he will take the church to heaven for a certain time. Many Christians clash over whether the rapture will occur before or after the tribulation, and no one has yet been able to find a solution that will make agreement with both sides. But this is normal, because the rapture of the church in heaven will not happen either before or after the tribulation, it will not happen at all!
What we will call the “theological reason” is due to the progressive ‘platonization’ of Christians, that is, to the fact that they, from the Fathers of the Church onwards, have more and more exalted the heavenly bliss and the immortality of the soul, at the expense of the final resurrection of the bodies and the earthly kingdom of the Messiah son of David. The theology of Christians has become increasingly platonic-pagan, to the point of forgetting that the goal is not heaven, but the final resurrection (see the dedicated article).
For millennia God has promised his people the advent of the Messiah and the consequent establishment of the kingdom. Since this part of prophecies is yet to be fulfilled by Jesus, in the New Testament there is a constant recall to await a kingdom of the Messiah Jesus on earth with his faithful. Summarizing some of the most significant prophecies in chronological order, since Genesis, we read passages such as the followings: “Then Jacob called for his sons and said: ‘[…] Judah, your brothers will praise you; your hand will be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons will bow down to you. […] The sceptre will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations shall be his” (Genesis 49:1-10). More than a thousand years later David writes: “The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed [= Messiah], saying, ‘Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles’. The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, ‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain’. I will proclaim the Lord’s decree: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father. Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery’” (Psalms 2:2-9). Likewise, Solomon, speaking of the Messiah says: “May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor. May he endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations. […] In his days may the righteous flourish and prosperity abound till the moon is no more. May he rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. May the desert tribes bow before him and his enemies lick the dust. […] May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him. […] Long may he live! May gold from Sheba be given him. May people ever pray for him and bless him all day long. […] May his name endure forever; may it continue as long as the sun. Then all nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed” (Psalms 72:4-17).
As the centuries progressed, the figure of this mysterious Messiah son of David developed, but always keeping at the centre his close relationship with the promised glorious kingdom. In fact, Isaiah writes: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him […] He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the cobra’s den, and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his resting place will be glorious” (Isaiah 11:1-10). Finally, it will be with Daniel that the peak of the expectations of this Redeeming Messiah, identified then with the superhuman Son of Man, will be reached: “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. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples 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” (Daniel 7:13-14); “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever” (Daniel 2:44).
Therefore, these were the expectations of God’s people: a glorious Messiah who would establish a global (earthly, of course!) kingdom. And does Jesus spiritualize everything in the Gospels? Does he say that those prophecies were to be understood in a symbolic way? Does he say that he will take us all to heaven? Certainly not! Jesus confirms that on his return he will establish this glorious kingdom: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world’” (Matthew 25:31-34).
On the contrary, Christians often seem to forget the necessity of the advent of the earthly kingdom of the Messiah, ending up waiting for a bliss of the soul in heaven. With this platonic and anti-Jewish mentality, it is much easier to end up believing that Jesus will come back to take us all to heaven. It is good to keep this point in mind as we go to analyse the passages inherent in the coming of Jesus.
The most loved passage by the supporters of the rapture is 1Thessalonians 4:13-18, as it is the only one where the alleged rapture is explicitly mentioned: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. […] According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 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. 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. Therefore encourage one another with these words”. Before we say anything about this passage, let’s look at the other two most significant parallel passages written by Paul. The first one is in 1Corinthians 15:22-53: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. […] When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. […] So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. […] I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 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. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality”.
The second passage is in Philippians 3:20-21: “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior FROM there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body”. The apostle Paul writes the entire chapter 15 of 1Corinthians to fight the reluctance of Greek believers to accept the resurrection of bodies. Even in his preaching at the Areopagus of Athens we can see the extreme hostility of Greek-minded people to accepting the resurrection of bodies (Acts 17:32). It is therefore evident that the central point of these writings of Paul is not to teach a rapture in heaven, but the resurrection of bodies, that is, the transformation of mortal and corruptible bodies into immortal and incorruptible ones, in order to then reign forever with the Lord Jesus. Note that the apostle emphasizes this concept in all three passages, and going to see also ALL the other passages of the apostles concerning the Lord’s return, there is NEVER any mention of a rapture in heaven (see 2Pet 3:3-12; 2Thes 1:7-10; 2:1-10; 1Cor 15: 22-53). Therefore, even in the notorious passage of 1Thessalonians 4:17 the meaning is the same, as we will explain more fully in the next paragraph.
To conclude the “theological reason”, the aim of the apostles is to make it clear that Jesus will come to establish the long-awaited kingdom of the Messiah («for he must reign»!, 1Cor 15:25) and that the bodies of believers must be transformed, to enter first into the millennial kingdom of the Messiah and then into that of God the Father (1Cor 15:24), that is, into eternal life, which will not be in heaven with the soul, but on a restored earth, just like the bodies of the redeemed (2Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1).
Why then does Paul write 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”? (1Thes 4:17).
There is a very simple and well comprehensible interpretation to the readers of that time, which is shared by all the great scholars I have consulted: by the most technical, such as N.T. Wright5 (who I mentioned earlier) and William Lane Craig6 (philosopher, theologian, apologist, one of the most esteemed evangelical scholars in the world), and also by the most popular (but at the same time highly esteemed by the evangelicals), such as John Piper7, Martin Lloyd Jones8 and Gregory Koukl9. The ancients lived mainly in small and scattered villages; they also moved on horseback, but mostly on foot. If someone came from outside, it was easy to know in advance or see him when he was still far away, so people would go and meet him, for example with fresh water or to help him carry his luggage. There are many examples in the New Testament of this fact: the father of the Prodigal Son saw him from afar and went to meet him (Luke 15:20); Martha and Mary went to meet Jesus when he went to see them (John 11:20-29); when Paul went captive to Rome, the believers heard of it and went to meet him to accompany him in the last 60 km (i.e. about 37 miles) (Acts 28:15)! Even more significant are the examples of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Mat 21:1-11) and the arrival of the bridegroom in the parable of the ten virgins (Mat 25:1-13); when Jesus was going to Jerusalem, where he would be acclaimed as king, a crowd went and met him, and accompanied him in the last stretch of the route in an exceedingly festive way; in the parable of the ten virgins, when the bridegroom was coming, the virgins ran to meet him, to accompany him and to enter into the wedding.
In short, when a king arrives in a city you meet him to celebrate and welcome him, how much more will happen for the King of kings! Since the bridegroom of the parable of the ten virgins represents Jesus, we have another perfect image of what will happen: the arrival of the Bridegroom and the true believers (the wise virgins) who will go to meet him… and then all go to heaven? Certainly not, but the bridegroom will come accompanied on earth to reign and celebrate the wedding!
At his coming, moreover, Jesus will come with a great army to fight the battle against the most powerful forces of evil (Rev 19:11-21; 2Thes 1:7-10; 2:1-10). This work fits well with a betrothed who wants to prepare the environment for his bride-to-be, whilst getting married and immediately leaving for war is not only undesirable, but forbidden by the Bible itself (Deu 24:5). On the contrary, in the classical doctrine of the “rapture of the church”, Jesus takes away the believers to celebrate the alleged “wedding of the Lamb in heaven”, and then departs for the war against the Antichrist.
In conclusion, for more than eighteen centuries the church has never preached the concept of “rapture” in heaven as we know it today, for in all the passages of the New Testament where the text speaks of the return of Jesus it is NEVER mentioned (2Thes 3:3-12; 2Thes 1:7-10; 2:1-10; 1Cor 15:22-53)10, if not in that verse of 1Thessalonians 4:17. However, even in this last passage it does not speak in any way of a Jesus who comes to bring believers to heaven for a few years, but it simply speaks of going to meet him and then always being with the Lord, and we have seen well where the Lord will go next. We have also seen that in those passages the apostle Paul focuses attention on the resurrection and transformation of bodies, not so much on the fact of meeting him on the clouds. Therefore, if one does not already have in mind the doctrine of the “rapture”, it is impossible to find it in the TEXT ITSELF. Going to analyse the arguments brought by its exponents in favour of this doctrine, for example those in the rigorous essay of the great theologian P.D. Feinberg “The Case for Pretribulation Rapture Position”11, we soon realize that they are all extrabiblical reasoning, with little support of clear biblical passages and based on purely logical conjectures.
In the Bible, on the contrary, starting from Genesis, one anxiously awaits that glorious kingdom of righteousness of the Messiah promised by God; expectation which is then renewed in all the passages of the New Testament that speak of the return of Jesus, until reaching fulfilment in Revelation 19:6-7: “Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: ‘Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready’”.
Lastly, we have considered how the distorted concept of the return of Jesus is also the result of a progressive platonization of the thought of Christians, who ended up exalting heaven in place of the Kingdom, and the immortality of the soul in place of the resurrection of bodies, which were at the centre of the apostles’ preaching.
We can therefore say with certainty, in agreement with scholars, that the rapture of the church is not a biblical doctrine or, in other words, that the rapture is a fake news.
1 N.T. Wright on the rapture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iqYHeBdMqvU
2 Bart Ehrman: The Return of Jesus (Rapture?) in 1 Thessalonians https://ehrmanblog.org/the-return-of-jesus-rapture-in-1-thessalonians/
3 For instance, In Apocalypsin XII,4
4 See for example https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apocalypse_of_Pseudo-Ephraem
5 See note 1
6 William Lane Craig, Is the Rapture a Biblical Doctrine? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2476g_4YwMY
7 John Piper, What is the rapture? https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/what-is-the-rapture
8 Martin Lloyd Jones, Daniel 9 and the Secret Rapture https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtVLbjHzJFI&t=14s
9 Gregory Koukl, Is the Rapture Biblical? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyDiQw13OqM
10 Note that the concept of the secret rapture is often approached to the expression “The day of the Lord will come like a thief” (2Pet 3:10; 1Thes 5:2; Rev 3:3, 16:15), but when this appears in 2Peter 3:10 the verse continues as follows: “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare” (very similar to Paul’s description in 2Thes 1:8). Everything but a secret event! But we repeat, however, that the aim of this article is not to refute the arguments of the defenders of the rapture, but to challenge the approach in itself.
11 P.D. Feinberg, The Case for Pretribulation Rapture Position in G. Archer and P. Feinberg, D. Moo & R. Reiter, The Rapture: Pre-, Mid- or Post- tribulation?, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1984, pp.45-86. See also Wayne Grudem (PhD Cambridge University, DDiv Westmister Theological Seminary), Teologia sistematica (Edizioni GBU), pp. 1507-1539