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Leaving Behind Left Behind: Pt. 3


In my previous two posts (part of a small series of posts), I have been critiquing the incredibly popular but heavily flawed rapture theology of Left behind I continue that critique here. So, what follows is exactly that.

As you will remember, I have already pointed out the ways in which the Left Behind crew has twisted Matthew 24 and totally misinterpreted it. Of course, that is one of their foundational passages. There are, however, two more so-called foundational passages: 1 Thessalonians 4.16-18 and Revelation 4.1-2. What I want to do is put these passages in context for you and show you how the rapture theologians, one again, have twisted them to fit their agenda. I begin with 1 Thessalonians.

As I mentioned in my post “Meteora and Monasticism,” a few months ago my wife and I traveled to Turkey and Greece. Well, one of the other places that we visited was Thessaloniki. While there are few ancient ruins there to visit, one site stands out above all. This site is an ancient castle. Now, the castle is not from the times of Jesus or Paul, it is much later. However, when the castle was built, it was definitely built in the spirit of the earlier structures of the city that had been there. What I mean by this is that the castle was completely walled (that is, it had a wall all around the entire perimeter) and inside the walls is where the actual city was located. So, it was more than a castle; it was a walled city! So too, was the city in Paul’s day! This is important to know because when we read Thessalonians, we must keep this in mind.

Of course, the city was walled largely for protection purposes. It goes without saying that in the ancient world, entire cities were often attacked and plundered. So, Thessaloniki needed to protect itself. At one point in the wall there was located an enormous gate with towers near it that watchmen worked in. When rival armies or other important persons were approaching, such as a king or an emperor, these watchers would alert the city officials about it. In fact, there are a number of ancient documents that speak of the emperor visiting Thessaloniki. Here’s a brief picture of how that would have looked:

Imagine the watchmen sitting in the tower and all of a sudden a few delegates or forerunners approach the gate. Out of breath they say, “Hail, hail, make way, the Lord Caesar is coming.” In a frantic, the men alert the city officials and preparations for the emperor get underway. As the chariot approaches, the large entourage stirs up dust clouds and all of a sudden the watchmen toot their bugles and trumpets. Everyone inside (and outside) of the city knows what is going on. A few men strain to push the gates open and the town welcoming committee (yes, they had those) ran out and bowed down before the chariot and said something akin to, “Our Lord, we welcome you.” What happens next? They stand up and escort the emperor into the city.

Now, with the ancient context in mind, let’s read 1 Thess. 4.6-18 but as we do, take note of all the “emperor-like” language used: “For the Lord Himself will come down from Heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of an 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.”

Now, for many, when that is read, they automatically think: “rapture.” Yet, what is going on is no description of a rapture event. Instead, Paul, writing to people who lived in a walled city, is describing the return of Christ in terms of the arrival of the emperor—a scene the people could relate to! If you read closely, you will notice that a rapture-in-reverse takes place: Christ comes down (assumedly with the New Jerusalem). Now, just as the emperor’s chariot stirred up clouds of dust and the welcoming committee escorted him into the city, so will Christians go out and greet Jesus in the clouds. However, He will not take them up to the sky, instead, they will meet Him there and simply escort Him back down to earth where He will establish His throne and transform all that is in Him. You see, the chief reason Paul wrote his Thessalonian letters in the first place was to comfort believers who had actually thought they had been left behind; their friends and relatives had taken by death but they had not. Yet, Paul says that they need not worry because being left behind is not a bad, but rather a good thing; Christ will come down here and make His dwelling and in fact, you may even be one of those who get to go out and greet Him and escort Him back to the very earth that He will transform. Notice the comments in chapter 5 about not being “asleep” but instead being “awake and sober” at all times. Why? So that when Christ does come down, you will recognize Him and be able to welcome Him and give honor to Him.

So, once again, you can see how the Dispensationalists have totally ignored the context out of which Paul was writing and have instead, made up their own way of reading, understanding and interpreting such passages. Another place they do this is Revelation 4.1-2. There, John says, “After this, I looked and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.’ At once, I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it.”

Now, at first glance, this passage might seem like John was “raptured” but rest assured, he was not. What we have to keep in mind is that all throughout Revelation, John repeatedly tells his audience that all of what he has “seen” he has simply seen in a vision given to Him by God and God’s angel (as chapter 1 especially notes). Further, when John says, “I was in the Spirit” that is simply another way to say that the Spirit (e.g. God) is giving Him a vision (e.g. 1.10; 4.2). In short, John is not taking a literal journey into heaven; instead, He is describing what is being shown to him as God gives Him insight while he looks into the heavens, the skies. To put it differently, as some have noted, John did not get “beamed up” to heaven; instead, as he tells his audience at the beginning of his letter, while he was on the earthly island of Patmos (1.9), he received insight from a heavenly being!

My reason for writing this post, as well as the other ones before it, is to warn you against the incredibly popular but skewed teachings of Dispensationalism, especially Left Behind. While learning to read the Bible in context takes some work, in the end it is worth it because it helps us to get a truer and more Scriptural understanding of things. Sadly, those who teach and believe in a rapture come up short in this area. To arrive at such a teaching you have to not only overlook what Scripture actually says but twist it to fit your agenda. So, take this article as one of encouragement. If you are in the Christ, don’t fret about an end-time Armageddon (there will not be one, Christ has already won!), don’t worry about being left behind (you want to be—although, you don’t want to be taken) but rather learn to read the Scriptures as best you can and just live with the anticipation and excitement that, one day, you might just be one of those who gets to escort Christ and His heavenly entourage back to the earth that He will renew and transform! Praise God. Hallelujah.

7 comments

Jorge | June 27, 2007 at 8:27 PM

Michael,

The interpretation presented here of 1 Thess. 4:17 is an interesting way of looking at the passage, but doesn't seem to do justice to what is actually being said.

Those who are alive when the Lord returns will be "caught up" (harpadzo). This isn't a voluntary sprint out of the "city walls", so to speak. The verb is passive and indicates a being "snatched, carried off, dragged away, or seized."

Believers will join those who had died "in the clouds," and together they will meet the Lord "in the air." The use of both "air" and "clouds," coupled with the force of the verb "caught up" does not seem to fit with your interpretation.

Granted, the text doesn't say Jesus will then take everyone to heaven. Nor, for that matter, does it say they will come back down. They text leaves them up in the air, which is where I am with this passage right now!

Looking forward to the rest of the series.

T Michael W Halcomb | June 28, 2007 at 9:36 AM

Jorge,
Thanks for your comments, however, I must disagree; I do think it does justice to what it says. You say that you are "up in the air" with this passage right now. Well, part of the reason you feel that way (which also contributes to why you seen to think this reading does not do the passage justice) is because at this point, Paul does not finish the rest of the story. That comes in 1 Cor. 15. There, you read about the trumpets being blown, the king arriving (remember, "parousia" was a word used in teh anceint world to announce the arrival of a caesar or king or some dignitary--that is being applied to Christ here), the dead rising, etc. For Paul, that is how the rest of the story plays out.

As for John the seer, in Revelation, he adds even more details (e.g. the throne coming down etc., those all of these are not meant to be taken wooden literally). When you put the two accounts together (Paul and John), you begin to get a complete picture. I would also urge you to take into consideration some of the Old Testament context of the "coming on the clouds" and the "arrival of the king."

See, especially, Micah 1.3. That is a great picture of this all. You will notice all the "clouds" imagery. When the OT writers talked about God coming on the clouds, they were referring to a theophany or judgment, that is when God comes to exercise His judgment. See: Ex. 19.16, 40.34 and Psa. 97.2. I would also say, notice in these stories that it is God coming "down" not the people going up! Even though they go out to meet God in/on the clouds, they never, ever go up into a so-called "heaven." Rather, they go out to the cloud and then return to their place of dwelling. I would argue that the same type of thing is going on in the NT descriptions like Thessalonians I've been talking about. Yet, I would also argue that, there, an emphasis is also placed on Jesus replacing caesar.

You have to bear in mind that the NT writers were constantly taking caesar imagery and applying it to Jesus. Even the word "Gospel" (euangellion) was a tag word for the emperor. The same thing, as I have already pointed out, is true with the word "parousia."

As for the word "harpadzo," you are right, it does have the connotation of being "seized" or even "caught up." Surely it doesn't mean "dragged away" or "snatched" (unless you want to contradict head-on, what the text is saying; this especially contradicts Mt. 24 where those immediately snatched away are the sinful). Yet, all in all, this term is not problematic at all. I have no problem with believers being seized by the glory of the return of Christ or even being "caught up" to meet Him in the clouds, to return. Again, you are right, Paul seems to leave everyone in the air here. Yet, we have to go over to Corinthians to complete the picture (same thing with Revelation). The NT writers seem to imply that when Christ does return, the whole world will be SEIZED by His glory and in fact, will bow their knees and profess that He is "Lord" (again, another empire term).

Any clearer? What do you think?

T Michael W Halcomb | June 28, 2007 at 9:46 AM

On a different note and on the topic of "no rapture in church history," someone has pointed me to this little link with a few excerpts from early writers, which shows that there was no room for a rapture. Interesting to say the least:

www.pretribulationrapture.com/pretrib/article25c.htm

Jorge | June 28, 2007 at 10:58 PM

Michael,

You have brought up some interesting OT allusions, NT passages, and background information; yet I still feel you are reading a little too much into the text of 1 Thess. 4:17. Let’s examine what the text says and doesn’t say.

Verse 16 tells us that the Lord will “descend from heaven” and that the dead in Christ shall “rise first.” Verse 17 continues saying that “we…will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”

Although Christ descends from heaven, the text does not place him on the earth, for believers meet him in the air. In fact, it isn’t the believers themselves who physically decide to go out and meet him. They are “snatched, caught up, seized” in the clouds to meet Jesus in the air. I don’t see how they’re being “snatched” contradicts the passage “head-on.” This is what the text says. It is an action that is done to them not by them.

As far as the “clouds” are concerned, I agree that this is used as a metaphor in many cases for judgment. The closest parallel I find is the image of the Son of Man in Daniel 7:13 (cf. Matt. 24:30; Luke 21:27). But in Acts we are told Jesus ascended and a “cloud took him out of their sight” (1:9). And the two angels speaking immediately after this event say to the disciples that Jesus would return “in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (1:11). I don’t think the cloud here represents judgment does it?

By the way, I’m not arguing for or against a secret “rapture” here. I’m simply trying to allow the text to speak for itself. You know what, the text does leave us hanging “in mid air” here, but to get us down we have to look elsewhere (Paul's other letters) and not read into it too much of what's simply just not there.

T Michael W Halcomb | June 29, 2007 at 10:02 AM

Jorge,
You make some good points.

I am not suggesting that every time God and clouds are mentioned together, it is a sign of judgment. You might recall the OT passages where God journeys through the wilderness with Israel while at the same time, He is "clouded." Sometimes, though, the imagery does permit this.

As I read and think about this passage more and more, I realize just how much the "parousia" language runs through it. In other words, this has to be read as a passage about the arrival of Jesus as a king (again, it is spoken of in the context of ancient kings arriving to cities).

Yet, I wonder if you (and maybe even me) are reading the passage too literally. I'm not so sure that Paul was being literal here, but rather using exalted and powerful (and common) imagery to speak of the magnificance of Christ's return. Maybe there is not a "set order" but rather these things happen contemporaneously. Or even more, what if things don't happen exactly this way but they are just images that Paul uses to speak of the grandeur of the parousia of Christ?

But, as for letting the context speak, you have to situate it in the context of the Greek word "parousia" because that is what undergirds the whole passage. When you do that, there is no way to deny the paralells. Furthermore, when you take into context the walled city, it makes so much sense.

Maybe, just maybe, our literalistic tendencies fool us. Mabye Paul wants his audiences to focus more on the majesty of Christ and not necesarrily the order or the details. This, though, you probably disagree with.

T Michael W Halcomb | June 29, 2007 at 11:33 AM

Jorge,
Here are a few quotes I came across:

Notice the term "apantesin" in 1 Thess 4.17. Cicero wrote: "Just imagine what a royal welcome (apantesin) he is receiving in the towns, what honors are paid to him" (Att. 8.16.2).

Also, a little later, Chrysostom wrote in his commentary on this passage, "For when a king drives into a city, those who are honorable go out to meet him; but the condemned await the judge within. And upon the coming of an affectionate father, his children indeed, and those who are worthy to be his children, are taken out in a chariot, that they may see him and kiss him; but the housekeepers who have offended him remain within" (Hom. 1 Thess 8).

For another good picture of all this, see Psalm 24.7-10.

Jorge | June 29, 2007 at 7:25 PM

Michael,

I agree with you that Paul is probably more concerned with the fact that Jesus is coming (in all his glory) than with the particular mechanics of it. I have not yet studied this passage in depth, and haven't really made up my mind about what exactly is going on. The background information you provided is certainly worth looking at, and I have made a mental note to do so in the future. Thanks for the discussion and congratulations on your blog.

A brother in Christ.

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