In some Christian circles a great interest is placed in the rapture, but many other Christians have never even heard of it. The purpose of this article is to attempt to define the meaning of this word by considering the places where the event is described in various places in the N.T., with a particular focus on the passage in 1 Thessalonians chapter four. This will be followed by a consideration of what tribulation is, and the relation that the rapture has with it.
The word “rapture”
The word “rapture” is not found in any of the over twenty English versions of the Bible I have looked at, but is derived from the Latin “rapiemur” used in the Vulgate Bible in 1 Thess 4:17 (“deinde nos qui vivimus qui relinquimur simul rapiemur cum illis in nubibus obviam Domino in aera et sic semper cum Domino erimus”). Most English translations of this verse either use “caught up”, or “taken”. Wycliffe used the word “snatched”; Tyndale, the KJV and the NIV versions use “caught up”. The NRSV gives this translation: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever”.
The Greek word in 1 Thess 4:17 is a future passive form of the verb “harpazo”. In Strong’s concordance it is word number 726, and is given the meaning, “to seize, catch (away or up), pluck, pull, or take (by force)”. This is the only place in the N.T. where this word is used to describe the event when the believers are caught up to meet the returning Lord Jesus, so this is a very important passage to consider carefully.
This verb is also used in a number of different places in the NT, and each time has the meaning “to catch up” or “to seize by force”. Some of these describe a miraculous event or spiritual experience: After baptising the Ethiopian eunuch, Philip was snatched away by the Spirit and found himself some distance away (Acts 8:39). Paul described a person (presumably himself) who had been caught up to the third heaven and caught up into Paradise (2 Cor 12:2,4). After his birth the male child (Jesus) was snatched away from the dragon and taken to God and his throne (Rev 12:5).
Other uses describe a more natural event: After feeding the five thousand, the people tried to take Jesus by force to make him king (Jn 6:15). The soldiers took Paul by force from the Jewish Sanhedrin (Acts 23:10), and Paul was seized in the temple (Acts 24:8). Jude urges his readers to save others by snatching them out of the fire (Jude 23). Jesus declared that the violent take the kingdom by force (Mt 11:12), and spoke of plundering (seizing) the property of the strong man (Mt 12:29). He also promised that no one can snatch his sheep out of his or his Father’s hand (Jn 10:28,29). In the parable of the sower the evil one snatches away the word sown on the path (Mt 13:19), and the wolf snatches and scatters the sheep (Jn 10:12).
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
In this passage, Paul is giving his response to a pressing pastoral issue in the church. The believers are worried about their loved-ones who have already died, wondering whether they will miss out on the second coming of Jesus. He refers to the dead, as “those who are asleep” (v13), because death is not the end for the believer. The purpose of Paul’s teaching in this passage is that they may not grieve like pagans, who do not have any hope (v13), because Jesus will bring them with him at his second coming (v14). Dead believers are already with Jesus, and will certainly not miss his second coming (v15), so there is no need for Christians to be concerned about them. This means we can have great hope and confidence for the future.
Paul then gives one of the fullest descriptions of the second coming that can be found in the NT. However, only a few details are actually given. His purpose is not to satisfy our curiosity by giving a detailed or ordered description of events of the end, but to give pastoral comfort to a real concern in the church. At his coming, Christ will descend from heaven, with a cry of command, the archangel’s call, and the sound of God’s trumpet (v16). This the triumphant return of the king, at which time the dead in Christ will rise first, so they will see him before those who are still on earth. This again answers the original concerns of his readers in Thessalonica. There is no need to be worried about them, as they will actually be in a better place than those are still here.
Those believers still alive on earth will then be caught up in the clouds, together with the dead in Christ, to meet the Lord in the air, with the result that we will be with the Lord forever (v17). This verse describes what is often called the rapture of the saints, as they are taken up to meet the returning Jesus, together with the saints who are already in glory.
It is very difficult, if not impossible, to justify the teaching of a secret rapture from this passage, as this appears to describe a very noisy public event, with a cry of command, the archangel’s call and the sound of God’s trumpet (v16). Calvin described it like this: "As a field marshal gathers his armies to battle by the sound of the trumpet, so Christ will summon all the dead with a voice that rings and resounds throughout the whole world" (Commentary on 1 Cor 15:52). It also gives no suggestion of a separation of the rapture from the second coming. In this passage both appear to take place at the same time. It is describing a single event.
The word used to meet the Lord in the air also has a very significant meaning. The Greek word is “apantesis”, which is the word used to describe a “meeting”, particularly for the arrival or visit of a dignitary, like the emperor, to a city. The citizens would go out of the city for a “meeting” (apantesis) with the person, then ceremonially escort them back to the city. It is only used a small number of times in the NT. One time is when the believers in Rome went out of the city to the Three Taverns for a “meeting” with Paul (Acts 28:15). They then escorted Paul, together with Luke and the other brothers, back into the city. The use of the word in 1 Thess 4 would give the picture of the Christian dead and living going to meet the Lord in the air as he appears, then to form a procession to escort him back to earth.
It is significant that this word is also used in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Mt 25:1ff). The ten virgins went for a meeting with the bridegroom (v1), and at midnight they were called to come out for a meeting with him (v6). The arrival of the bridegroom in the parable represents the second coming of Jesus, when the virgins, representing the believers, go out to meet him.
The conclusion of Paul’s teaching is that believers will always be with the Lord (v17), whether we die before the second coming, or if we are still alive on earth when he comes. There will be a reunion with those who have already died. Therefore he can end with an exhortation to encourage one another with these words (v18). Teaching on the second coming should always bring hope and encouragement to believers, rather than fear and confusion.
In many popular books and films on end-times, there is an expectation that the believers will be “raptured” - taken up to heaven, before the tribulation, which is expected to last for seven years. This teaching is known as a “pre-tribulation rapture”, that the rapture comes before the tribulation. Before attempting to critique this teaching, it is necessary to determine what the New Testament says about tribulation, and what that word actually means. Then we can attempt to determine whether it describes a specific period of time in the future, or whether tribulation is something experienced by believers today.
The word “tribulation” is a translation of the Greek word “thlipsis”. In Strong’s Concordance it is word number 2347, and is given the meaning, “pressure, affliction, anguish, burden, persecution, tribulation or trouble”. Webster’s dictionary gives a medical meaning, of compression, as in taking someone’s pulse, the constriction of vessels by an exterior cause. In the NT it is used over forty times, and is translated into English using one of the different words listed above. In these places it refers to persecution or suffering which is currently experienced by believers, rather than describing a particular period of suffering in the future. These are just a few of the many examples: In the parable of the sower, the seed that falls on the rocky ground represents those who receive the word with joy, but fall away when trouble or persecution (thlipsis) arises on account of the word (Mt 13:21). Paul told the believers in Galatia, “It is through many persecutions (thlipsis) that we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22), and warned the Thessalonians that they will suffer persecution (thlipsis) (1 Thess 3:4). Jesus also warned his disciples that in the world you face persecution (thlipsis) (Jn 16:33). Paul wrote that we boast in our sufferings (thipsis) (Rom 5:3). Each of these passages is describing a current experience, rather than a distinct future period of history.
Views of the rapture and tribulation
The three differing views of the timing of the rapture are mostly an issue within the pre-millennial, and particularly the dispensational view of end-times. This is whether the rapture comes before, during, or after the end of the seven year tribulation. It is not such an issue in other views of the millennium. For an explanation of the different views of the millennium, please look at the Millennium article on the NT Studies page.
The most common view is of a pre-tribulation rapture, that the believers will be secretly taken up to meet Jesus, together with those who have died in Christ, before a seven year period of tribulation. At the end of this period, they will return to earth with him at his second coming. This creates a two-stage second coming: once “for his saints”, and a second time “with his saints”.
Others say that the rapture will take place half way through the seven year tribulation, making a mid-tribulation rapture. This view is again mostly held within the dispensational understanding of end-times. This again separates the rapture from the second coming, this time by three and a half years.
Some say that the rapture will not take place until the end of the tribulation, making a post-tribulation rapture, happening at the same time as the second coming of Christ. This view would particularly be held by those believing the historic pre-millennial view, and by a minority who support the dispensational view.
The a-millennial view would also say that tribulation is a present experience throughout the span of church history, from the first century until the second coming, and that the taking of the saints will take place at the same time as the second coming of Christ.
History of the pre-tribulation rapture
The origins of the teaching of a pre-tribulation rapture are rather interesting, and should caution us from believing this viewpoint. This view had not been taught until early 1830, when it was started by a teenager called Margaret MacDonald, who was a member of the Catholic Apostolic Church, led by Edward Irving in Scotland. She claimed to have had a revelation in a vision of a secret rapture which would take place before the coming of the man of lawlessness (2 Thess 2:3-10). As far as we know, this was the first time in church history there was any suggestion of a separation of the coming of Jesus for his saints (the rapture), from his second coming, when every eye will see him. The view soon became widespread within the Catholic Apostolic Church. John Nelson Darby of the Brethren visited the MacDonald family later in 1830, and soon started teaching that there will be a two-stage second coming. The pre-tribulation rapture became a central aspect of his dispensational teaching. His views were made popular, particularly in the USA, through the footnotes in the Scofield Reference Bible, and continue to be widely taught in popular books on end-time prophecy.
Danger of the pre-tribulation rapture teaching
The belief that believers will be taken up to heaven before the tribulation can have the effect of leaving Christians unprepared for persecution, believing that before times get really bad they will be taken up to heaven. At no time did Jesus or any the NT writers say that we will not experience tribulation (thlipsis), in fact they stated the complete opposite. Many of the books in the NT, including Revelation, were written to encourage believers to be strong and to persevere in a period of persecution, and so that they will know that even if they are martyred they will be with the Lord forever in glory. Persecution (or tribulation) has certainly been the experience of multitudes of Christians through the centuries, from the first century to modern times.