by Fr. Dimitry Cozby
Some of our evangelical or pentecostal neighbors occasionally speak about “the Rapture” as one of the events leading up to Christ’s Second Coming. By this they mean the physical removal from earth of the true believers in Christ in preparation for the “Great Tribulation,” a seven-year period of unparalleled calamity which will herald the end. (A few advocates say that the Rapture will follow the Tribulation. Most who believe in it, however, contend that it precedes the Tribulation.) The Rapture’s purpose, according to its advocates, is to safeguard the righteous during that horrible time. Its most familiar champions are Hal Lindsey (author of The Late, Great Planet Earth and other books), John T. Walvoord (of Dallas Theological Seminary), and the late Cyrus Scofield (author of The Scofield Reference Bible).
These ideas are popular with groups who are enchanted, even obsessed, with speculation about the Second Coming and who have convinced themselves that they see in current events signs that His return is near. These speculations form part of a broader ideology called “dispensationalism.” Dispensationalists come in all shapes and sizes and what we say about one may not apply to all. Still we can list some general characteristics which virtually all dispensationalists share. The name comes from their division of history into eras or “dispensations.” They believe that the Bible outlines the whole course of mankind’s religious history.
Each stage in God’s program is a dispensation, and in each dispensation God relates to the world and His chosen peoples in a different way. Some dispensationalist schemes encompass all human history; others include only Christian history since the time of Christ. Most often these systems are based on a symbolic interpretation of the “letters to the seven churches” of Revelation 2 and 3, with each church standing for the Christianity of a particular period. (Since dispensationalism is Protestant in origin its “Church history” is strictly Western. The dispensations take into account almost nothing of Orthodox history after the period of the early councils which we share with the West.)
The dispensational system includes the future as well as the past. Thus dispensationalism presents a detailed program of events leading up to the Second Coming. Two of the events in this master plan are the Rapture and the Great Tribulation.
Such opinions seem odd to Orthodox Christians. Still, strange as they are, we cannot turn our backs on them or their advocates. After all, the Orthodox Church too affirms that Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” (as we say in the Creed). The Rapture’s advocates claim to base their notions on the same Bible that we read, and they can sometimes be very persuasive, particularly since too many Orthodox are woefully ignorant of what the Bible really says. As a result, some Orthodox have been led astray by this doctrine. The Church’s teachings about the end of time (called “eschatology” by theologians) are important, though neglected.
Referring to eschatology, St. Athanasius wrote,
“When one knows properly these points, his understanding of the Faith is right and healthy; but if he mistakes any such points, forthwith he falls into heresy” (Against the Arians I 12,50).
We need to examine it, sift the true from the false, and put what is true into its proper place within the framework of the Orthodox Faith. We must explain the true meaning of the Bible passages in question as interpreted by the Fathers, the great Orthodox teachers of past ages. And we must put this doctrine in perspective and accord it its true importance. Our purpose in this article is to examine the Rapture doctrine and the Scripture passages on which it relies to determine the proper Orthodox approach and interpretation.
Proponents of the doctrine of a pre-Tribulation Rapture claim that it rests on Scripture and has always been a part of Christian teaching. The truth is that it dates from about 1830 and was largely the creation of John Nelson Darby, a one-time Anglican priest and founder of a sect called the Plymouth Brethren. He contributed much to the dispensationalist scheme, and in particular he was the first to include the Rapture among the catalogue of phenomena of the last times.
The Rapture’s recent origin is one of the things which should make us skeptical. Neither the Apostles nor the Fathers expounded any such teaching (nor, for that matter, did any of the notorious heretics of the past). Even Darby’s circle, although they claimed to find support for their teaching in the Bible, did not maintain that they had arrived at this doctrine through study of the Scriptures, but that they had received it through a revelation. According to its supporters the pre-Tribulation Rapture is an extremely important part of the Christian message. Yet it was unknown before 1830.
The Rapture’s supporters derive their opinions ultimately from a single Scripture verse, I Thessalonians 4:17,
“Then we who are left alive will be carried off together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord.”
Less popular but often cited is Matthew 24:40-42,
“Then there will be two in the field. One will be taken and the other left. Two will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left. Therefore, be vigilant, for you do not know on what day your Lord will come.”
Other passages are frequently quoted in connection with these (for example, I Corinthians 15:23-28), but even believers in a pre-Tribulation Rapture will admit that the other verses can be taken to refer to that doctrine only if interpreted in the light of the I Thessalonians passage, their principal support.
The paragraph which contains the first verse quoted above, I Thessalonians 4:17, forms the Epistle reading for funerals in Orthodox worship. The passage begins with 4:13. In preceding verses St. Paul has spoken of the necessity for holiness of life and for brotherly love among Christians (4:1-12). With verse 13 he turns to another topic, the fate of Christians after death. Misunderstandings on this issue had apparently caused needless distress and apprehension in the church at Thessalonika. It seems that some people believed that Christians who died before Christ’s return would somehow miss out on that glorious event. St. Paul seeks to calm their fears (vs. 13). He points out that as Christ returned from the dead at His Resurrection, so also, at the end of time, His followers who have died in the interim will be restored through resurrection (vs. 14).
At the Second Coming, the Christian dead will be raised (vs. 16). Then they and the faithful who are still alive will be caught up into the clouds to welcome Christ as He descends (verses 15,17). Paul then discusses other matters relating to the Second Coming, beginning with the date it will occur.
When we look at verse 17 in context, it is easy to see that is does not really support the doctrine of the Rapture. There is no reference to a Great Tribulation or to any other events preceding Christ’s Return. The verse refers to something that will happen as part of the Lord’s Coming. The course of events St. Paul presents is simple and straight-forward. At the time of the Second Coming, the dead will be raised, and all the faithful (the dead now restored and those still alive now transfigured) will ascend to be with Him as He comes down. This is the universal interpretation of the Fathers who see the verse as referring to the last days.
Why does St. Paul speak of an ascension of the righteous?
The Fathers suggest at least three answers to this question. St. Gregory of Nyssa says that the ascension is a natural consequence of the purity of the transfigured resurrection body:
“…this change which takes place…when the resurrection trumpet sounds which awakens the dead in an instant transforms those who are left alive to incorruptibility according to the likeness of those who have undergone the resurrection change, so that the bulk of the flesh is no longer heavy nor does its weight hold them down to earth, but they rise up through the air…” (“On the Making of Man” 22,6).
St. John Chrysostom and others say that it is to provide Christ with a proper escort for His appearance on earth and to demonstrate His favor toward the faithful.
“If He is about to descend, why shall we be taken up? For the sake of honor. When a king enters a city, those who are in his favor go out to meet him, but the condemned await their judge inside. Or, when a loving father comes, his children, and also those worthy of being his children, are taken out in a chariot to see and kiss him, but the servants who have offended him remain indoors. So we are carried out upon a chariot to our Father…See how great our honor is? As He descends we go out to meet Him, and what is more blessed, we shall be with Him always” (Homily 8 on Thessalonians).
The third opinion is that St. Paul’s words should be taken symbolically. St. Ambrose and St. Jerome, for example, suggest that the verse does not speak of a real physical ascent at all, nor does it even refer to the Second Coming. What the Apostle means is that the righteous, even when living in the body, are already with Christ in heaven.
St. Methodius of Olympus presents a more acceptable symbolic interpretation. He agrees that the passage refers to the Second Coming, but he contends that “the dead” and “the living” do not mean different types of people. The dead, in his view, are our bodies; “those who are alive” are our souls. These will be reunited at the resurrection and then carried up to meet Christ.
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.
(Fr. Dimitri Cozby studied at Holy Cross Orthodox Theological Seminary, received his Ph.D. from Duke University and has done a considerable amount of study in the area of eschatology.)