Definition: The belief that faithful Christians will be bodily caught up from the earth, suddenly taken out of the world, to be united with the Lord “in the air.” The word “rapture” is understood by some persons, but not by all, to be the meaning of 1 Thessalonians 4:17. The word “rapture” does not occur in the inspired Scriptures.
When the apostle Paul said that Christians would be “caught up” to be with the Lord, what subject was being discussed?
1 Thess. 4:13-18, RS: “We would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep [“those who sleep in death,” NE; “those who have died,” TEV, JB], that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 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. Therefore comfort one another with these words.” (Evidently some members of the Christian congregation in Thessalonica had died. Paul encouraged the survivors to comfort one another with the resurrection hope. He reminded them that Jesus was resurrected after his death; so, too, at the coming of the Lord, those faithful Christians among them who had died would be raised to be with Christ.)
Who are the ones that will be ‘caught up in the clouds,’ as stated at 1 Thessalonians 4:17?
Verse 15 explains that they are faithful ones “who are left until the coming of the Lord,” that is, they are still living at the time of Christ’s coming. Will they ever die? According to Romans 6:3-5 and 1 Corinthians 15:35, 36, 44 (quoted on pages 314, 315), they must die before they can gain heavenly life. But there is no need for them to remain in the death state awaiting Christ’s return. They will instantly be “caught up,” “in the twinkling of an eye,” to be with the Lord.—1 Cor. 15:51, 52, RS; also Revelation 14:13.
Will Christ appear visibly on a cloud and then take away faithful Christians into the heavens while the world looks on?
Did Jesus say whether the world would see him again with their physical eyes?
What is the meaning of the Lord’s ‘descending from heaven’?
Could the Lord “descend from heaven,” as stated at 1 Thessalonians 4:16, without being visible to physical eyes? In the days of ancient Sodom and Gomorrah, Jehovah said that he was going to “go down to see” what the people were doing. (Gen. 18:21, RS) But when Jehovah made that inspection, no human saw him, although they did see the angelic representatives that he sent. (John 1:18) Similarly, without having to return in the flesh, Jesus could turn his attention to his faithful followers on earth to reward them.
In what sense, then, will humans “see” the Lord “coming in a cloud”?
Jesus foretold: “Then they will see the Son of man [Jesus Christ] coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” (Luke 21:27, RS) In no way does this statement or similar ones in other texts contradict what Jesus said as recorded at John 14:19. Consider: At Mount Sinai, what occurred when God ‘came to the people in a thick cloud,’ as stated at Exodus 19:9? (RS) God was invisibly present; the people of Israel saw visible evidence of his presence, but none of them actually saw God with their eyes. So, too, when Jesus said that he would come “in a cloud,” he must have meant that he would be invisible to human eyes but that humans would be aware of his presence. They would “see” him with their mental eyes, discerning the fact that he was present. (For further comments, see the main heading “Return of Christ.”)
Is it possible for Christians to be taken to heaven with their physical bodies?
1 Cor. 15:50, RS: “I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.”
Does the experience of the prophet Elijah contradict this? Not at all. It must be understood in the light of Jesus’ clear statement centuries later: “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man.” (John 3:13, RS) Although Elijah was seen as he “went up by a whirlwind into heaven,” this does not mean that he went into the spirit realm. Why not? Because he is later reported as sending a letter of reproof to the king of Judah. (2 Ki. 2:11, RS; 2 Chron. 21:1, 12-15) Before humans invented airplanes, Jehovah there used his own means (a fiery chariot and a whirlwind) to lift Elijah off the ground into the heaven where the birds fly and to transport him to another place.—Compare Genesis 1:6-8, 20.
Will faithful Christians perhaps be taken to heaven secretly, simply disappearing from the earth without dying?
Rom. 6:3-5, RS: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? . . . For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (What occurred in the case of Jesus set the pattern. His disciples as well as others knew he had died. He was not restored to heavenly life until after his death and resurrection.)
1 Cor. 15:35, 36, 44, RS: “Some one will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (So death comes before one receives that spiritual body, does it not?)
Will all faithful Christians be taken miraculously from the earth by the Lord before the great tribulation?
Matt. 24:21, 22: “Then there will be great tribulation such as has not occurred since the world’s beginning until now, no, nor will occur again. In fact, unless those days were cut short, no flesh would be saved; but on account of the chosen ones those days will be cut short.” (This does not say that “the chosen ones” will all have been taken to heaven before the great tribulation, does it? Rather, it holds out the prospect to them, along with associates in the flesh, of surviving that great tribulation on earth.)
Rev. 7:9, 10, 14, RS: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!’ . . . ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation.’” (To “come out” of something a person must go into it or be in it. So this great multitude must be persons who actually experience the great tribulation and come out of it as survivors.) (Regarding their being on earth, see pages 167, 168.)
What protection will there be for true Christians during the great tribulation?
Rom. 10:13, RS: “Every one who calls upon the name of the Lord [“Jehovah,” NW] will be saved.”
Zeph. 2:3, RS: “Seek the LORD [“Jehovah,” NW, AS, Yg, By], all you humble of the land, who do his commands; seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you may be hidden on the day of the wrath of the LORD.” (Also Isaiah 26:20)
Will all true Christians perhaps be taken to heaven after the great tribulation?
Matt. 5:5, RS: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
1 Cor. 15:50, RS: “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.”
See also the main heading “Heaven.”
Why are some Christians taken to heaven to be with Christ?
Rev. 20:6, RS: “They shall be priests of God and of Christ, and they shall reign with him a thousand years.” (Since they are to reign with Christ, there must be people over whom they reign. Who are these? See Matthew 5:5 and Psalm 37:29.)
See also the main heading “Born Again.”
Will those who go to heaven be returned later to the earth to live forever here in Paradise?
Prov. 2:21, RS: “The upright will inhabit the land [“dwell on earth,” NE], and men of integrity will remain in it.” (Notice that the scripture does not say that such upright people will return to the earth but that they will remain there.)
1 Thess. 4:17, RS: “And so we [Christians caught away to heaven] shall always be with the Lord.”
If Someone Says—
‘Do you believe in the rapture?’
You might reply: ‘I find that not everyone has the same idea as to what the rapture means. May I ask what your thoughts are about it? . . . On any matter, it is beneficial to compare our thoughts with what the Bible itself says. (Use the portions of the material above that are applicable.)’
Or you could say: ‘The rapture has been explained to me as an escape plan for Christians. Many feel that this is the way they will escape the coming great tribulation. Is that how you feel?’ Then perhaps add: (1) ‘We certainly want God’s protection at that time, and I find to be very encouraging some texts that show how we can benefit from it. (Zeph. 2:3)’ (2) ‘Interestingly, the Bible shows that God will safeguard some faithful ones right here on earth. (Prov. 2:21, 22) That is in harmony with God’s purpose when he first created Adam and put him in Paradise, is it not?’
Another possibility: ‘By the rapture you mean that Christians living at the end of the system of things are to be taken to heaven, is that not right? . . . Have you wondered what they will do when they get to heaven? . . . Notice what Revelation 20:6 (and 5:9, 10) says. . . . But over whom will they rule? (Ps. 37:10, 11, 29)’