I began attending church in the eighth grade. My parents had just divorced, and my brother and I went to my dad’s house each weekend. He began going to church during this time, and he took us with him.
The pastor of our small Southern Baptist church was a powerful, engaging preacher. I heard the gospel weekly. I gave my life to Christ and was baptized there. But my most vivid memory about that church was the continual focus on the rapture and the end times. As I’ve grown up in the church since my teen years, the rapture—particularly the timing of the rapture—has remained a hot-button issue among evangelicals.
I’m not opposed to trying to deal with vague texts (at least, vague in our eyes) about the return of Christ. I have more than one book on my shelf dealing with various views of the rapture and the millennium. It’s an interesting topic.
The problem is, many evangelicals spend more time talking about rapture than resurrection. One is the focal point of the New Testament. One is not.
The word rapture is likely derived from the Latin Vulgate’s translation of ἁρπαγησόμεθα (1 Thess. 4:17) as rapiemur, which means “caught up,” “taken away,” or “snatched up.” So, essentially, the Bible uses the word rapture once. And the connection points for this doctrine are based on only a handful of other verses. Once these verses are connected, the determination of the timing is still head-scratching.
Again, this is not to say we shouldn’t care about the existence or timing of a rapture when Christ returns. Is it before the great tribulation mentioned in Matthew 24 and Revelation 7? Are there multiple raptures? No raptures? If the Bible talks about it, we should care about it.
We should be quick to insist that the certainty of Christ’s bodily return is non-negotiable, that our future resurrection is an essential hope. One day our graves will be empty, too. We just need to remember that the timing of the rapture is an ambiguous doctrine that, in the end, doesn’t majorly affect the core tenets of our faith. At least, I think, we should agree on that.
Forgive me for stating the obvious here, but contrary to if or when a secret snatching occurs, the resurrection of Christ—and in turn, our future resurrection—is the central theme of the New Testament. As Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 15:
But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.
More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
Translation: the resurrection is the basis for our faith. If Jesus died and remained in the ground, his death would be of no saving importance. But he didn’t. Three days later, his heart jump-started, blood coursed through his veins, and he left the tomb empty. And Paul’s final point in the chapter is this: Don’t believe those who say otherwise. It’s not up for debate.
The word resurrection occurs more than 40 times in the New Testament. It’s the telos of Jesus’s ministry in the Gospels, and the soil in which the biblical authors plant their arguments. It’s significance cannot be overstated.
Major on the Majors
Let’s not overreach and say this is common among evangelicals. I don’t know any evangelicals who would place the rapture above the resurrection—at least not explicitly. But I’ve heard too many sermon series that focus on the rapture all year long, yet only focus on the resurrection at Easter. This isn’t common, perhaps, but still too common.
Rapture talk can distract us from resurrection talk. Debating the hard questions is often more fun than heralding the settled ones. I’ve been guilty of that. But perspective is key.
Regardless of when we’re resurrected, the hope of the eschaton is that we will be resurrected, just like our King. May we, with Paul, hold fast to the resurrection. It’s our hope, our promise, our life. We must continually point people to the bloody cross and empty tomb, since it’s there that the hope of life—endless life—is grounded.
When the rapture debate occurs, it’s not wrong to be serious about your biblical convictions. Go for it. Tell people why they should leave behind Left Behind (or not). Just remember not to take it too seriously. After all, it’s not a matter of eternal life and death.