Many popular books, movies and websites have told us, based on 1 Thess 4:16-17:
1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 (King James Version)
King James Version (KJV)
[A Public Domain Bible] [KJV at Zondervan] [Zondervan]
16 For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:
17 Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.
The teaching is that Christ will come to snatch the true believers away in something called the Rapture (Rapture, of course, is just the English translation of the Latin “harpazo”, meaning “caught up”). Are they right? The way it is imagined, suits of clothes, cars, airplanes and the like will all suddenly lack drivers. The true believers will have disappeared. A simple surface reading of the text does seem to support what they say.
The assumption here, is that the believers go to Heaven and stay there with Christ. Is it valid?
Scolar N. T. Wight says this: “… Paul conjures up images of an emperor visiting a colony or province. The citizens go out to meet him in open country and then escort him into the city. Paul’s image of the people “meeting the Lord in the air” should be read with the assumption that the people will immediately turn around and lead the Lord back to the newly remade world.”
Placed in the cultural context of Paul’s audience, the teaching that we will be snatched away leaving empty suits of clothes for our unbelieving friends and family to find seems unlikely to be what Paul intended.
A useful guide for Scripture interpretation is available in the Rule of St. Vincent.
A General Rule for distinguishing the Truth of the Catholic Faith from the Falsehood of Heretical Pravity
I HAVE often then inquired earnestly and attentively of very many men eminent for sanctity and learning, how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical pravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That whether I or any one else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church.
But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason, – because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.
Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “Catholic,” which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.