Rapture? Part 2
(This series was begun in the previous issue of The Dawn).
Let us summarize what we have found so far. St. Paul does speak of a sort of rapture, in the sense of a carrying up into the sky of the righteous at the time of the Second Coming. The Fathers generally agree on that . But St. Paul and the Fathers see this as an event which accompanies Christ’s return and immediately precedes the Judgment and the establishment of the Kingdom. The Rapture which Darby and Scofield taught and which Lindsey, Walvoord, and others still teach is different from that. They talk about it as a separate happening, part of a decades long program of events leading up to Christ’s Coming. The dispensationalists see the Rapture as the disappearance of the faithful from the earth before the Great Tribulation and many years before the Judgment. This is foreign to the Apostle and to the Tradition. St. Paul mentions no period of affliction and persecution following the Rapture.
In an effort to forge a link between the Rapture and the Tribulation, supporters turn to Matthew 24:40-42, quoted above (in part 1, September’s Dawn). Certainly we have here references to a time of horror and suffering, and 24:21 even speaks of “great tribulation” (but not “the Great Tribulation”). Matthew 24 and 25 comprise a long discourse by Jesus. The occasion for this teaching is the first days of Holy Week, when Christ and His disciples were in Jerusalem on that last visit which ended in His death and resurrection. The Lord and His entourage have been in the Temple. As they leave, one of the company remarks on the structure’s splendor and grandeur (24:1-2). Jesus replies by prophesying its coming destruction, which took place some 40 years later (70 AD). The group proceeds to the Mount of Olives, across the Kedron Valley from the city. They halt at a place which even today offers an admirable panorama of the Old City and the Temple site. The disciples, perhaps alarmed by Christ’s words, ask when “these things,” meaning the Temple’s destruction, will happen and what will be the signs of Christ’s return.
Christ’s sermon is His response to these questions. In order to understand it properly we must remember that there were two questions, one about disasters which would befall Jerusalem during the Roman-Jewish War of 66-72, the other about the end of time. Parts of the speech address one concern, some the other. Much of what Christ says is intended to keep His followers from confusing the two events, taking the horror of the Jewish War as a sign of the Second Coming. We see this in the warnings He gives: that the Gospel must be preached in the whole world before the end comes (vs. 8), that many deceivers will arise claiming to be Him (verses 23-26), that no one knows “the day or the hour” except the Father (vs. 36), and many more. Christ is concerned that His followers not confuse the impending disasters in Judea with the cataclysms of the end. To make His point clear He emphasizes the suddenness and unpredictability of His return.
We must interpret 24:40-42 in light of Christ’s insistence that He will return “at an hour you do not expect” (24:44). It would seem strange if Christ were to make this point over and over in the early verses of chapter 24, then in verses 40-42 describe an occurrence which would certainly tip everyone off that something was about to happen, and all the more peculiar if that tip-off were to happen seven years before His appearance, as the dispensationalists assert. The key to understanding the passage is the Greek word normally translated “taken.” The word (“paralambano”) has two meanings. The first we might render “to take,” but not in the sense of “to lift up,” the meaning which the dispensationalists give it. It means instead “to bring along,” as in English we might say that someone takes a friend to the movies. That does not seem to fit the use of the word in Matthew 24, so we turn to the second meaning, “to accept” or “to choose.” Either of these words would be better in these verses than the imprecise “take.” This second meaning fits with what the Lord has been saying in the passage in question, that His followers must be ready for His coming lest they be caught off-guard like the world, unprepared for the Judgment. Some will have heeded His commandments, will face the Judgment in confidence, and will be “accepted” into the Kingdom. Others, though living and working with the first group, day by day, will not have lived the life of the Gospel and will not be chosen or accepted by Christ when He returns. These verses form part of Christ’s exhortation to all who hear Him to respond to His message and thereby avoid condemnation at the End. The verses do not supply the idea of the Rapture.
What conclusions can we draw from our discussion? As we have seen, neither of the two passages upon which advocates of the Rapture rely mean what they say they do. Both refer to Christ’s final return. Those who support this doctrine neglect the context of the verses they use, distort the meanings of words and verses, and, in one case, take advantage of a loose translation. We must approach the Bible with more reverence. We must avoid pulling verses out of context. Instead, look at the surrounding verses to see what the Biblical writer is talking about and how that may affect your interpretation of a problem verse.
Beware, also, of interpretations which disagree with or attack the Tradition of the Church. As we saw in our discussion of 1 Thessalonians 4:17, the Fathers of the Church pointed the way to the proper understanding of the verse. We must investigate the origin of ideas which other groups advocate, especially when they seem to contradict Orthodoxy. The concept of the pre-Tribulation Rapture only appeared in England about 150 years ago. Orthodox Christians of great piety and learning have been reading the Scriptures for 2000 years. Would an important doctrine have escaped their notice? Very often these new doctrines do not really come from a careful reading of the Bible but from “special revelations”; their adherents have then ransacked the Scriptures for difficult or obscure verses which they can use to support them. Sometimes they arise when a reader tries to make sense out of hard-to-understand passages and does not succeed. Orthodox Christians have the living witness of the Holy Spirit who, as Christ said, will guide us to all truth (John 16:13), and we also have the tradition of the Fathers to help us in our search. These are not two different sources but one and the same thing. The Fathers knew and listened to the voice of the Spirit; they affirm that the Spirit lives in the Church even up to the present day; they are one of the ways the Spirit has chosen to continue His work of teaching and guiding. Trying to make the Bible support one’s own preconceived notions or insisting on one’s own limited understanding without seeking the guidance of Holy Tradition will not lead us to a true appreciation of what the Bible says or of what God says to us through it.
Sometimes too, the groups which support these new teachings are anti-Church. In their view the Church, and the Christian’s life in it, plays no part in preparation for the Second Coming and the Judgment. In fact, membership in most religious groups is a hindrance, since they have abandoned the Gospel. The dispensationalists emphasize the individual independent congregation, “where the Bible is believed and preached,” as they often say. They advise the Christian to shop around until he finds a congregation which, in his personal opinion, fills this criterion. The Rapture doctrine reflects this; it will reveal those who have been the true “Bible - believing” Christians (their people), because these will be the ones to disappear, leaving the rest to face the Tribulation. The dispensationalist view of the Church entraps us in circulation reasoning. Following it means you must look for a congregation where you can learn their “true Gospel,” yet you must know that Gospel in order to judge whether it is taught in that congregation or not. The individual, weak and ignorant and sinful as he or she is, becomes the final judge of truth. Doesn’t it seem more logical to turn instead to the institution which Christ founded to preserve and to propagate His Gospel and to cleanse and strengthen its members through His sacraments? As the Ethiopian said to St. Philip, “How can I understand if no one guides me?” (Acts 8:31) We have a guide, the Church, where we can still learn the Gospel which Christ taught, the Apostles proclaimed, the Fathers defined, and the Martyrs confessed with their last breath.
Finally, we must keep our perspective and not give less significant doctrines an importance they do not deserve. Even if the dispensationalist understanding of the Rapture were true, should we give it the emphasis that they do? Dispensationalism generally places the greatest importance on the time-table of the Second Coming and on determining the order of events leading up to it.
This is not what is important to the New Testament authors or to Christ Himself, as His own words testify. Recall the passage discussed above from Matthew 24 and 25. Christ stressed that no one could predict when He would return. His primary concern was to exhort His followers (us) to be ready for His return. What we must know about the Second Coming and the Judgment is not when it will be or what occurrences will precede it, but whether we are ready to face it. Have we committed our lives to Christ’s Gospel? Are you living lives of repentance and faith? Have we drawn near to Him in fervent prayer, diligent reading of the Scriptures and frequent and sincere reception of the Sacraments? Are we using the grace of the Spirit imparted to us by Christ to grow in the Father’s image and likeness? The answers to these questions are more important than whether the Rapture immediately precedes the Judgment or occurs seven years earlier. We must resist anything such as speculation about the end which distracts us from our salvation. Christ spoke often of the last days, but always with one purpose: to incite us to repentance and to encourage us to grow in His Gospel and to persevere in the Faith. If we respond to His exhortation, then, when He returns, we will go to meet Him in the clouds, escort Him to His Judgment Seat, and stand at His Right Hand with the prophets, the apostles, the martyrs and all the saints, ready to enter the glory of His Kingdom.
From The Dawn
Publication of the Diocese of the South
Orthodox Church in America