Here’s the link to this article, the second in this series by Bart Ehrman. Here’s the first article (I encourage you to read first).
March 25, 2023
In my new book Armageddon (see below for additional information), which saw the light of published day just a few days ago, I talk about where the “rapture” came from, the evangelical belief that Jesus was soon to return to snatch his followers out of this world before a horrible time of Tribulation hits the earth.
That too will be the subject of a lecture, with Q&A, that I will be giving (unrelated to the blog) on April 15. For information about THAT, go to my website http://bartehrman.com/courses
I left off yesterday with a bit of a tease, indicating that the following passage, one of the main prooftexts for a rapture, is in fact not about the rapture at all. Here’s the passage, and then my explanation:
For we tell you this by a word of the Lord: we who are living, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not go before those who sleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God—and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are living, who remain, will be taken 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 4:15–18)
How can this not be referring to the rapture?
To begin with, it is important to read the passage, and all passages of the Bible, in context—a point I will be beating like a drum throughout this book. Paul certainly did believe Jesus would be returning from heaven and it would be soon. The key, though, is to understand Paul’s explanation of what will actually occur at that second coming.
Throughout his writings Paul insists that Christ will return in judgment. Jesus was crushed by his enemies at the crucifixion, but he is coming back to annihilate them. His return will bring destruction to everyone who has not accepted the good news of his salvation. The “saved” will survive the onslaught and be rewarded with glorious bodies that will never again be hurt, sick, or die; they will then live forever with Christ in the coming kingdom (see 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 1:9–10).
I want to pause here to discuss something seemingly small that will help us understand this passage, and every other passage in the Bible. Our Bibles today have chapter and verse divisions. These are extremely helpful, of course, since without them it is very hard indeed to tell someone where to find a passage. But the authors did not write in chapters and verses. One problem with our having them is that they make us think that the next chapter (or even verse) is changing the subject. But Paul would have written the first sentence of what is now 1 Thessalonians 5 right after the final sentence of what is now chapter 4 (quoted above) without skipping a beat. In these next words, he indicates that the coming of the Lord (4:13–18) will bring “sudden destruction” for those not expecting it (5:3). Christ will be like a “thief in the night” (5:4). This is not a reassuring image. The robber comes to harm, not to help. But the good news for Paul is that this harm will come only to those who are not among Jesus’s followers; his faithful will survive the onslaught, “For God has not destined us for wrath but for salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:9).
So what does Paul mean in 4:17 when he says that Jesus’s followers will “meet him in the air”? It can’t be a “rapture” that removes his followers from the world before the long-term tribulation. Jesus is not coming to provide an escape for his followers but “sudden destruction” for his enemies. Then why are his followers floating up to meet him?
Thessalonians, reading this letter in 50 CE, would have had no trouble understanding it. As scholars have long suggested, Paul’s description of Jesus, the “Lord,” coming to his “kingdom” uses an image familiar in antiquity. When a king or high-ranking official arrived for a visit to one of his cities, the citizens would know in advance he was coming and would prepare a banquet and festivities. When the long-awaited king and his entourage approached, the city would send out its leading figures to meet and greet him before escorting him back to their town with great fanfare.
For Paul in 1 Thessalonians, that’s what it will be like when Jesus comes. He is the king coming to visit his own people, who will go out to greet him. In this case, though, he is not coming with his entourage on horses; he is coming with his angels from heaven to destroy his enemies. And so, to greet him, his followers—all of them, not just the leaders—will be taken “up” to “meet him in the air.” But this escort will not remain in the air any more than, on earth, the king’s welcoming committee would remain outside the city walls. They will accompany him back to earth, where he will enter his kingdom and rule forever, in a paradise provided to his chosen ones, now that all others have been suddenly destroyed.
There is no “rapture” here, no account of Jesus’s followers being taken to heaven to escape a massive and prolonged tribulation on earth. The same is true of other passages used by fundamentalists who insist that the rapture is taught in Scripture. Another popular verse—we used to love this one—is Matthew 24:39–40:
So too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
We took the verse out of context as a pretty obvious reference to the rapture, where some will be taken out of the world and others abandoned for long-term misery. If we had read it in context, however, we would have seen that this is the opposite of what Jesus was teaching. In the verses right before the passage (Matthew 24:38–39), Jesus likens the coming of the Lord to what happened in “the days of Noah,” when only Noah and his family were saved in the ark when the flood took away—that is, drowned—everyone else. In this passage, then, it is the people who are “taken” who are destroyed; those “left behind” are the ones who are saved.
Both Matthew and Paul warn their readers that they need to be alert because Jesus is coming soon. But how soon? When Paul talks about this coming day of judgment, he speaks about the reward that will come to Jesus’s true followers, both those who have already died, who will be raised from the dead, and those who are still alive. Notice that Paul includes himself among the living at the time. When he speaks of the two groups, he refers to “those” who are dead and “we” who will still be alive. It’s a point worth emphasizing. These New Testament authors who speak of Christ’s return thought it was to happen in their own day.
Bart’s latest book:
A New York Times bestselling Biblical scholar reveals why our popular understanding of the Apocalypse is all wrong—and why that matters.
You’ll find nearly everything the Bible has to say about the end in the Book of Revelation: a mystifying prophecy filled with bizarre symbolism, violent imagery, mangled syntax, confounding contradictions, and very firm ideas about the horrors that await us all. But whether you understand the book as a literal description of what will soon come to pass, interpret it as a metaphorical expression of hope for those suffering now, or only recognize its highlights from pop culture, what you think Revelation reveals…is almost certainly wrong.
In Armageddon, acclaimed New Testament authority Bart D. Ehrman delves into the most misunderstood—and possibly the most dangerous—book of the Bible, exploring the horrifying social and political consequences of expecting an imminent apocalypse and offering a fascinating tour through three millennia of Judeo-Christian thinking about how our world will end. By turns hilarious, moving, troubling, and provocative, Armageddon presents inspiring insights into how to live our lives in the face of an uncertain future and reveals what the Bible really says about the end.