It is my contention that rational dialogue and meaningful conversation are the lifeblood of truth pursuing activities within the diverse community of God. So therefore, I offer you the opinions of N. T. Wright (FYI, that is said with humorous intent, but seriously, I believe he’s right on track and far from alone in the world of NT scholarship regarding the opinion expressed here).
In his book Surprised by Scripture, N. T. Wright made the following comments pertaining to the perspective generically known as the “rapture,” which represents the belief of many Christians today:
“It isn't a matter of simply deconstructing the massive 'left behind' theology that has been so powerful in North America in particular, though we must do that if we are to think biblically. We must focus on one element of particular. The word parousia, 'royal appearing,' was regularly used to describe Caesar's 'coming' or 'royal appearing' when visiting a city, or when returning home to Rome. And what happened at such a parousia was that the leading citizens would go out to meet him, the technical term for such a meeting being apantçsis, The word Paul uses here for 'meeting,' as in 'meeting The Lord in the air.' But when the citizens went out to meet Caesar, they didn't stay there in the countryside. They didn't have a picnic in the fields and then bid him farewell; they went out to escort their Lord royally into their city. In other words, Paul's picture must not be pressed into the nonbiblical image of the 'Second Coming' according to which Jesus is 'coming back to take us home' – swooping down, scooping up his people, and zooming back to heaven with them, away from the wicked earth forever. Revelation makes clear in several passages, with echoes in other New Testament books, the point is that Jesus will reign on the earth, and at his royal appearing the faithful will go to meet him, like the disciples on the road to Jerusalem only now in full-blooded triumph, and escort him back into the world that is rightfully his and that he comes to claim, to judge, to rule with healing and wise sovereignty.” N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (HarperOne, 2014), 101-102.
Within the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures there are metaphors the writers used for communicating a picture. For example, in the NT – with regard to what is called “atonement theology” – Jesus is called a “Lamb” by John, a “High Priest” by the writer of Hebrews and referenced as the culmination of Israel and the Isaianic suffering servant in varying other places. Well, which is it? How can he be both the sacrifice (in some interpretations) and the priest who mediates it? Can both pictures be valid in different ways, without having to be harmonized? Did the writers have the literary freedom to choose their own illustrations, metaphors and have their own set of interpretations for the purpose of communicating to differing audiences and/or for different theological motifs? There are distinguishable reasons as to why they used the metaphors they did, and generally they are rooted in the Hebrew Scripture.
Now back on topic. There are historical grids sometimes put in place for the sake of governing interpretations as to what the NT writers meant with respect to Jesus’ anticipated return. One such example is the somewhat elusive “Jewish wedding.” While the practice of betrothal, separation for a time, immanent appearance of the husband for his bride, then leading her from her father’s home to his may be evidenced somewhere, this does not mean it was by any means the predominant practice of all Jews everywhere for all time. Actually, it is attested to infrequently.
(For more information, see Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life; The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Hendrickson; The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, v. I, Bride of Christ, Eerdmans; Evans and Porter, Dictionary of New Testament Background, Marriage, IVP; Metzger and Coogan, The Oxford Companion to the Bible, Marriage, Oxford; Werblowsky and Wigoder, The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, Betrothal, Oxford; Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, Marriage, Baker Book House).
This particular custom has become a favorite of some due to its parallel in rapture interpretation: Jesus became betrothed to the Church, went away for a time and at some unknown point in the future, he will return to usher his people back to heaven (i.e. his home and now theirs for eternity, which will be consummated by the “Marriage Supper of the Lamb” found in Revelation).There is no question that the NT portrays an image of betrothal and marriage between God and his people, albeit in the NT, it is through Jesus as the intermediary. This is covenant speech, possessing the same imagery found in the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically in the Torah and Prophets. This imagery was used to describe the relationship between God and the covenant people (e.g. Hosea and Ezekiel).
Merely saying something or other is the “Jewish” way (such as a wedding) may sound impressive but doesn’t mean anything. What “Jews”, where and when? Customs and practices changed and evolved throughout their history as surely as it has in our own. Having a model of betrothal or marriage that may have been used at a particular place or time is not justification for allowing it to govern our hermeneutics in relation to what the gospel writers or Paul was trying to communicate.
I don’t have a problem with the term “rapture,” referencing a general “catching away,” but rather have difficulties in the sub-modern divorcement of it from the “day of the Lord” and the “resurrection,” both of which are found in the NT. If there is a rapture to catch away believers “somewhere else” before the restoration of the Kingdom of God upon the earth, it means that:
1. Jesus must return twice, once to snatch away God’s people to “heaven” (i.e. somewhere other than earth) and also at his restorative coming.
2. The saints have to be evacuated to some “other” place. Where do the Scriptures speak of going to heaven in an ethereal, quasi-spiritual existence or being anywhere but on earth, where we were created to inhabit? The rapture theology teaches that we are swept off “somewhere else” while the earth goes up in smoke, which is something other than a renewed, restored and declared good earth. This is akin to Gnostic doctrine. The popularized rapture theory (as commonly believed) does not square with the scriptural definition of resurrection.
In addition to the Jewish perspectives, there is also evidence of varying points of view within the writings of the Church Fathers, such as Justin Martyr’s contention in Dialogue with Trypho (LXXX) saying:
“For if you have fallen in with some who are called Christians, but who do not admit the truth of the resurrection and venture to blaspheme the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; who say that there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their soul when they die are taken to heaven: do not imagine that they are Christians.”
To be clear, I have no difficulty with those who express this opinion, but am only pointing out that it does not hold up to a sound and thorough exegesis of NT literature with the OT framework the prophets had been declaring for ages. Regardless of what the Ante-Nicene and proto-orthodox apologists believed does not validate or invalidate what the NT documents describe on those merits. If a half-way thorough search of their (the patristic fathers) writings were done, it would reveal a disunity of opinions and beliefs that most Christians would no doubt find disturbing, even outrageous. This is why when scholars refer to those people groups and sects, they do so in a plural sense, “Judaisms,” “Christianites,” etc.
“‘When Christ shall come,’ we sing in a favorite hymn, ‘with shout of acclamation, and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.’ What we ought to sing is, ‘When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation, and heal this world, what joy shall fill my heart.’ In the New Testament the Second Coming is not the point at which Jesus snatches people up, away from the earth, to live forever with him somewhere else, but the point at which he returns to reign not only in heaven but upon the earth.” N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues (HarperOne, 2014), 102.
Don’t think that the story of the Bible is about abandonment and evacuation. Christianity has been falsely led to believe this. We are to be restorers, peace-makers, care-takers and stewards now, of this place with the hope of resurrection and ultimate renewal. Don’t be so heavenly minded that you are no earthly good. You were created to be good on earth, this is your home.
I did a podcast on this subject here.
I've also written on this topic before.