More than just preparing for the Nativity of Christ at Christmas, the Church reminds us that during Advent we are also to prepare for Christ’s Second Coming on the Last Day. “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” [MT 24:36].
As Catholics we believe the Last Day will be preceded by a time of tribulation and suffering, from which on one will be spared. Some Protestant denominations, however, see things differently. They look forward to ‘The Rapture’ which they believe will precede the end times.
I live in an area of the country with a strong evangelical and fundamentalist presence, so any discussion of the last day or the end times almost always brings up the topic of ‘The Rapture’. As Catholics, we do not hold to this doctrine. Understanding what is meant by ‘The Rapture,’ is very helpful when talking about the end times with our non-Catholic Christian brothers and sisters. It’s really not Biblical teaching. As such, it’s even more helpful to know how to refute this novel idea with Scriptures.
What is ‘The Rapture’?
The rapture doctrine is primarily taught by Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, so not all non-Catholic Christians believe in the idea of ‘a rapture of believers.’ At the same time, it’s by no means exclusive to these denominations.
This novel doctrine is also fairly new. One of the earliest well-known proponents was a minister named John Nelson Darby who wrote about this idea in the mid-19th century. In the early 20th century, the rapture became even more popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible. Scofield’s footnotes further promoted Darby’s rapture doctrine.
More recently, the belief in the rapture has been spread by books and movies such as The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series. Well-known television evangelists such as Billy Graham, Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones, and other preachers inspired by these men, have also spread the rapture doctrine.
While there is some variability, the rapture doctrine generally teaches that at any moment, Jesus Christ will return to earth suddenly and invisibly. At this time, all believers will be taken up into heaven body and soul to be with Christ (“raptured”). The timing of this event is unknown but imminent. There will be no warning signs. He will come like a thief in the night and only those who are saved will be raptured. Unbelievers will be left behind to endure the time of the Great Tribulation with the reign of the Anti-Christ.
Is the Rapture Scriptural?
In discussions I have had with those who support the idea of the rapture, the most common verse used as Scriptural evidence in support of the rapture is 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17. In it Paul writes:
“For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.”
This passage does describe believers being taken up from earth and, when St. Jerome translated this into Latin, the word rapiemur (“to be caught up”) was used. Our English word rapture is derived from rapiemur. So Paul does describe believers being “raptured” into the air. But when looking at the full context, we see that this event occurs at Jesus’ Second Coming. It does not take place at a time prior to or remote from the Last Day.
Another key element in this passage is that when the rapture event is described, there is nothing secret or silent about it! Paul describes Jesus’ second coming in a very visible manner, obvious to all. He is accompanied with the sound of trumpets and visions of angels. Additionally, prior to the believers being caught up in the air, the dead will be raised from their graves! So the rapture Paul describes is remarkably different than the rapture doctrine taught by some Christians today.
One Will Be Taken, One Will Be Left
In another conversation with Evangelicals, I was given Luke 17:26-37 and Matthew 24:3-44 in support of the rapture doctrine. They claim these passages describe the rapture of believers and show how unbelievers will be left behind. In these passages, Jesus is giving a prophecy of a time that will come when people will be in the midst of their daily activities and suddenly, “One will be taken and one will be left.”
Looking at these verses alone, we do see people being suddenly separated. Is this the rapture as some Protestants hold? Why are some left behind? Are those who are left behind the unbelievers who will then have to endure the Great Tribulation as the rapture doctrine teaches? Again we need to look at the entire context for the answer to these questions.
In these passages, Jesus is speaking in response to a question from his disciples about His Second Coming. They have asked what “signs” would occur when he returns. Jesus’ response intertwines prophecies about the end of the world with prophecies about the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (which would occur decades later in 70AD). Throughout his warnings, Jesus emphasizes that his disciples need to always be ready and prepared because no one knows the time of these events (Matthew 24:44).
Jesus says His Second Coming will be swift and unexpected and that it will also be accompanied by various signs. There will be wars, rumors of wars, famines, earthquakes, deception, false prophets, tribulation and lawlessness. Jesus also says His Second Coming will be accompanied by lightning and the blare of trumpets. So His Second Coming will be obvious and visible to all. He will even come down from heaven accompanied by angels.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus compares the time of the Second Coming to the days of Noah. People were going about their day to day lives despite Noah’s warnings. Then, Noah entered the ark and the floods came destroying all of the wicked people. As in the time of Noah, Jesus says on the Last Day people will be separated: there will be two – one will be taken and one will be left behind. But the key to understanding this End Times prophecy, is recognizing that in the days of Noah, it was the wicked who were taken from the earth – not the righteous!
The Complete Context
The Gospels give us even more context on this. When the disciples heard this analogy, they asked Jesus where those who were being taken away were going. Jesus responded by saying, “Where the body is, there the eagles (vultures) will be gathered together” (Luke 17: 37; Matthew 24: 28). The Greek word for the bird in both Gospels is “aetos” and this word is translated as either vulture or eagle. Interestingly, for the word “body,” Luke uses the Greek “soma,” (“body”), but Matthew uses the Greek word “ptoma” which in Greek literally means “corpse” or “carcass.”
Therefore, the context tells us Jesus is referring to a bird of prey. This is important because those being taken away are referred to as corpses. They are being taken to a place with flesh eating birds. Does it sound like Jesus is describing the righteous being taken away to this place? Not at all! It correlates with the analogy of Noah. Just as the wicked were washed away in the flood, Jesus is teaching that at his Second Coming, the wicked will be taken away to the fires of hell – separated from Him for all eternity.
The rapture doctrine suggests that when Jesus says “one is taken and one is left behind,” it is saying that the believers will suddenly be taken up. But this is clearly an incorrect interpretation of the entire passage. In reality, we should want to be left behind with Christ and not taken away with the wicked like in the days of Noah!
Other Challenges to Rapture Doctrine
The rapture doctrine also holds that when Christ comes secretly, he will take all believers body and soul to heaven – a resurrection of believers. But Scripture is clear that it is not until the Last Day that both believers and unbelievers will be resurrected body and soul.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18, quoted earlier, Paul says that before believers are caught up, those who have died in Christ will be resurrected. Only after this has taken place will the believers who are alive be raptured into the air. So what Scripture describes here is contrary to any idea that believers will be taken into heaven body and soul before the dead are raised on the Last Day.
The Gospel of John is also explicit that the resurrection will occur for both believers and unbelievers at the same time – on the Last Day. In John 5:28-29, it says, “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”
John is also very clear that believers will experience the resurrection of the body only on the Last Day. In John 6:40, it says “For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” And later in John 6:54, it says “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Tribulation and Suffering
I have heard people celebrating the idea of ‘the rapture’ because the common belief holds it will occur before the Great Tribulation – the event that will occur before the end of time. The thinking here is that believers will not have to endure intense sufferings. But looking at Scripture, this is clearly not what is being taught.
In Matthew 24:3-14, Jesus is explicit that believers will be delivered up to tribulation and will be killed. Despite this, he exhorts his disciples to persevere until the end to be saved.
Additionally, Christians are warned that we will be persecuted as our Lord was persecuted (John 15:20; Matthew 5:10) and we are commanded to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus daily (Luke 14:27). In Romans 8:17, Paul also tells us we will be “fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” And St. Peter wrote, “But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13).
Scripture tells us what we know from our earthly experiences – that suffering in this life is inevitable. God does not reveal that belief in Christ will allow us to escape suffering, like the rapture proposes. Instead Scripture shows us that our Christian faith guarantees it. But even knowing this, there is no need to fear or hold to a false notion like the rapture. Rather, if we are in Christ and unite our sufferings to His, suffering becomes redemptive and transformative. And in this truth we can truly rejoice!