“Then we who are alive, who are left, 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.” (1 Thessalonians 4:17)
Rapture is a word not found in the Bible. The term is derived from the Latin translation of the Greek word harpazo (“caught up,” verse 17), the Latin word being rapiere.
The modern concept of the rapture is bodies floating up into space to meet Jesus in the “air.” It was seldom understood in this way by Christians prior to John Nelson Darby, the guy who popularized the modern rapture theory and dispensationalism in the 1830’s. It is based on an erroneous understanding of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and other passages.
While there is room for disagreement among Christians on eschatology, I am going to describe very briefly here a different view that will shock most evangelical Christians. But I believe it is honoring to God’s word. I ask the reader not to dismiss this out of hand. Check it out against Scripture; test all things (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
There are three important Greek words in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18: HARPAZO (“rapture”), AER (“air”), and APANTESIS (“meet”). The word HARPAZO does not necessarily mean physical removal. It can mean “to seize on, claim for one’s self.” An interesting example of another use of HARPAZO in the New Testament is 2 Corinthians 12:2-6. Paul tells how he was “caught up [HARPAZO] to the third heaven.” We do not know exactly what happened in this experience; perhaps he was in a trance (Acts 9:7; 22:9, 17). But we do know that Paul remained on earth to tell the story. The term “caught up” in these contexts is closer to what we might say, “I was so caught up in the novel that I saw myself in the story.” The normal usage of HARPAZO in the New Testament is it being a spiritual reality rather than a physical reality (Matthew 11:12; 13:19; John 10:12, 28-29).
Interestingly, there are two words for “air” in Greek—AER and OURANOS. OURANOS means the upper atmosphere, while AER means the lower atmosphere, thus the air that we breathe. Paul specifically used AER in this passage. AER may have a spiritual connotation (see Ephesians 2:2). Your feet don’t have to leave the ground to be in the AER.
When Paul said Christians would “meet” (APANTESIS) the Lord in the air, this means the exact opposite of what modern rapturists think. The destination is earth! The Greek word APANTESIS is found in only two other places in the New Testament. In Acts 28:15, believers from Rome went out to “meet” Paul and escort him back to their city. Similarly, in Matthew 25:1-10, the virgins went out to “meet” the bridegroom and escort him back to the wedding hall. Thus, the image evoked in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 is that of believers being spiritually caught up to go out to meet and escort Jesus back to earth to begin his rule on earth. The idea of believers being physically transported to heaven in a literal rapture is foreign to the text.
Many Christians think that the purpose of the rapture is to escape the Great Tribulation. But Jesus made it clear that the tribulation was close to them in time in the first century—and matched perfectly the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 66-70 (Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21). Jesus told his first-century readers that they could escape the tribulation by retreating to the mountains.
The text of 1 Thessalonians also mentions that Christians would be caught up in the “clouds.” This also needs clarification. In the Bible, clouds are used SYMBOLICALLY to portray God’s presence, judgment, or proclamation. Riding on clouds is God’s figurative abode or figurative mode of travel, and is a biblical sign of deity. Consider these passages: Exodus 19:9; 34:5; Leviticus 16:2; Numbers 11:25; Deuteronomy 5:22; Psalm 18:9-12; 97:2; 104:3; Isaiah 19:1; Daniel 7:13-14; Joel 2:1-2; Nahum 1:2-3; Zephaniah 1:14-15 (cf. Matthew 24:27-31). In these passages God is on EARTH effecting change, but nobody actually saw Him—though they saw what He did.
One cannot read 1 Thessalonians 4 and miss the fact that Paul was teaching that the events he was describing would HAPPEN TO HIS CONTEMPORARIES. It would make no sense to the Thessalonians for Paul to be describing events that would happen thousands of years later.
Also consider, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2 where at least some Thessalonians thought that the Day of the Lord had already happened. Obviously, the Thessalonians did not understand the last days events in the same way as modern Christians—with the cosmos going up in flames, people in their graves being restored to their original fleshly bodies, and Jesus in his original “five-foot-five Jewish body” descending to earth where literally every eye would see him, etc. If they understood these things the way most moderns do, nobody could have convinced them that they had already happened. They thought these things could be missed!
It is also noteworthy that 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-17 follows Matthew 24/25 point by point: Christ’s coming with a shout on clouds of glory, with angels and trumpets, and the gathering of the saints, etc.—all of which Jesus promised would happen in HIS generation (Matthew 24:34). There is obviously something wrong with the modern interpretation of the end times. Either, Jesus and the writers of the New Testament were false prophets, or the rapture and related events did in fact occur while some of them in the first century were alive. We must consider seriously that modern Christians have misunderstood how to interpret these prophecies.
Did Jesus ever say anything about a rapture? Actually, Jesus prayed against any rapture in the sense of physical removal! In John 17:15 we see his prayer to the Father, “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one.” If Jesus asked for such, would the Father deny his request?
Who gets “left behind” in such passages as Matthew 24:37-39 and Luke 17:26-27? It is not the damned, as rapturists, believe. It is the faithful. Consider:
“For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and TOOK THEM ALL AWAY; so will the coming of the Son of Man be.” (Matthew 24:37-39)
“And just as it happened in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man: they were eating, they were drinking, they were marrying, they were being given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and DESTROYED THEM ALL.” (Luke 17:26-27)
In these texts, Jesus was comparing what will happen at the Great Tribulation to Noah’s flood. Who is “THEM” in this text? It was not Noah and his family, but rather it was all the wicked people. They were the ones taken/destroyed! Compare these texts to Luke 17:28-30 where it was the EVIL people in Sodom and Gomorrah who were taken/destroyed. Similarly, in Matthew 13:39-40, it was the UNRIGHTEOUS who were taken/destroyed. So, who was “left behind?” In all of these texts, it was the RIGHTEOUS who were LEFT BEHIND?” The rapturists have it backwards.
The Bible teaches that Jesus would return in some sense to claim victory (Romans 16:20; Revelation 12:7-12; 20:10), to redeem his people (Luke 21:28; Romans 8:18-23; 13:11-12; Ephesians 1:13-14; 4:30; Hebrews 1:14; 9:26-28; 1 Peter 1:3-21; Revelation 12:10), and to be with us forever (Revelation 21:3). And it would happen while some of the first-century disciples were still alive (Matthew 10:23; 16:27-28; 26:64; Luke 21:22, 27, 28, 32, 36; etc.). Indeed, there are over 100 passages in the New Testament that set the timeline for the fulfillment of the eschatological events as the first-century. The rapture is describing these same events.
Modern rapturist eschatology would have us believe that we are now somehow separated from the Lord, and only after our removal from the planet will we be with Him forever (1 Thessalonians 4:17b). This must mean we are now serving an absentee Lord! Contrary to what the rapturists are forced to conclude, Christians are now indeed with Christ in a very real sense here on earth. This is great news for both Christians and for us today!
If I have aroused your interest, I invite you get a copy of my book CHRISTIAN HOPE THROUGH FULFILLED PROPHECY: IS YOUR CHURCH TEACHING ERROR ABOUT THE LAST DAYS AND SECOND COMING? For details and to purchase your copy, go to at Amazon.com.
 The rapture concept and dispensationalism were not completely unknown prior to Darby. Darby seems to have been influenced by another nineteenth century man named Edward Irving (1792-1834). Irving was influenced by a vision of a 15-year old Scottish girl who had a vision about a secret rapture. These links may be helpful in understanding the history and doctrines of dispensationalism: