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15 January 2024

In 1995, Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye published Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days. It became a New York Times bestseller. It was the first of a series of 16 books and had significant impact among evangelicals in America and elsewhere.

The series highlights interpretations of Bible passages from which ideas of a rapture are propagated, where believers will be taken away to heaven, leaving earth to undergo a great tribulation, followed by the return of Christ and the establishment of a millennial kingdom. Many of these ideas come from what is called dispensational theology that arose in the 19th century in the writings of John Nelson Darby and Cyrus Ingerson Scofield.

A Scottish teenager, Margaret McDonald, claimed in 1830 that she saw “a two-stage return of Jesus”. This idea was extensively developed by Darby in England and brought to America, where the Scoffield Bible became influential in spreading dispensational theology which was warmly embraced in America.

Dispensationalism is a relatively new view that teaches that history is divided into different stages of salvation history, and that Israel has a prominent place in the end times. It teaches that there will be a rapture (based on 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17) that will take place before the period of the great tribulation. The dispensationalists believe that after Christ returns, He will rule on earth literally for a thousand years.

The word rapture is derived from the Greek word harpazō (to be snatched, rescued) in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. Proponents of the rapture theory often refer to the Latin translation – rapturo. The dead in Christ will rise first when Jesus returns. Then the believers who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord and to be with Him forever (1 Thessalonians 4:17).

The dispensational premillennialists assert that Jesus will then return to heaven to let the earth go through a seven-year period of tribulation, after which He will return visibly. The meeting in the air is then a secret sort of return. But others disagree with this interpretation.

The other word to note is apantēsis (meet) in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. We will meet the Lord in the air. But will the Lord turn around and abort His descent to earth, or is there some other way we can interpret this verse?

There are only two other places where the Greek word apantēsis is used in the New Testament. First, “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’” (Matthew 25:6). The second occurrence is “The brothers and sisters there had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us” (Acts 28:15).

In both instances, apantēsis is translated as “meet”. We can see that the action of the visitor, be it the bridegroom or Paul and his friends, is to continue the original action. There is no turning back.

In reflecting on this, theologian and Bible teacher John Piper writes, “In both of these places, it is a group of people going out to meet someone and accompanying them back into the place you just went out from. All my thoughts about this being a rising to meet the Lord in the air and then returning to heaven for seven years evaporated. That’s just not the intention of that verse.”

When a Roman general returned home after a victorious mission, the people of the town would honour the returning general by going out of the town to meet him and to accompany him to their city. If we are to understand this and the way apantēsis is used in the New Testament, then we have to accept that there is no rapture as is popularly understood and that the coming of Christ is one continuous action from heaven to earth. An advance party will honour Christ to accompany Him to earth.

The proponents of the idea that believers will be raptured and others left behind often refer to the Lord’s teachings: “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left” (Mt. 24:40-41). However, that interpretation has been questioned by many.

Christians are taught that the way to rightly handle a Bible passage is to observe the context of the passage carefully. It is important in this case to notice the context in which Jesus mentioned verses 40 and 41. He was answering the question raised by His disciples on the timing of the second coming. He said no one (not even the Son and the angels) except the Father knew the answer (v. 36). He then proceeded to speak about the “days of Noah” as providing us with understanding how the second coming will be.

“For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man” (vv. 38-39, emphasis added).

What would happen at the coming of Jesus is that those who did not believe and accept the message of salvation will be taken away. The true believers will be left behind. This is the opposite of what is propagated by those who subscribe to dispensational theology.

The view that the return of Jesus will be one singular event when Christ will return to judge, establish His kingdom and rule over it, is, in my opinion, more plausible and biblical.

Bishop Emeritus Robert Solomon served as Bishop of The Methodist Church in Singapore from 2000-2012. He had served previously as a medical doctor, church pastor, principal of Trinity Theological College and president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore. He now has an active itinerant ministry of preaching and teaching in Singapore and abroad.