Thursday, July 30, 2009

Struggle with St. Paul's "rapture" imagery

The Thessalonians were questioning over the fate of the dead Christians. They wondered what will happen to deceased saints when Christ returns. This betrays the underlying question that was troubling them was what would happened to them if they died before Christ returns (Paul Achtemeier, et al, Introducing the New Testament, p.434).

And St. Paul replied:

Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words
. (1 Thessalonians 4.13-18)

And it's here rapture theology is derived.

The New Testament class today touched on this subject. Our lecturer was astute when it comes to eschatology. His ph.D dissertation was on the Book of Revelation, and he had spent 20 years studying the Bible's perspectives on the last things. Yet it is on this subject that I respectfully disagree with him, just as he respectfully disagrees with his faith heroes. And I'm glad that he is open to disagreements and other views.

My take is that the idea of Rapture is dubious.

First, the imagery of an archangel blowing the trumpet and meeting with Christ in the air is an echo of the conventional custom of emperor's visitation. When the emperor visits a city, the city's citizens will go out to greet the emperor and escort him back into the city. (N.T. Wright, Resurrection of the Son of God, p.569)

Second, the language of 'heaven', 'air', and 'cloud' are loaded terms which have particular meanings to the ancient people. The people at that time thought that heaven is cosmologically somewhere up there in the sky. But we now know that there is nothing up there except outer space astronomical objects. Though we know very little about heaven as a different dimensional existence, yet we can be certain that the ancients' language to describe heaven or the ethereal is highly deficient.

Paul Achtemeier et al has something to say about the language of 'air' and 'cloud':

Being caught up in clouds and meeting Jesus "in the air" communicated far more to the original readers than we are likely to see there. Clouds were regular accompaniment of the divine presence in both OT and Christian tradition (eg. Exod 19.9; Mark 9.7). So their presence here guarantees God's presence at this event. In the Greco-Roman worldview the "air" was the region between the earth and the moon that was inhabited by evil spirits, who fomented evil and harm on earth and sought to hinder the souls of the dead from ascending to the moon, where their evil deed could be purged by the winds so the souls could return eventually to the eighth heaven. Thus, the point here is not that in some rapturous event, gravity will be overcome and Christians will fly among the clouds. Rather, Paul reports a tradition that speaks of God's presence with the newly resurrected to protect them from the harmful spirits inhabiting the region of the air, so that nothing can then separate them from the divine presense
. (p.435)

Third, the fact that St. Paul himself did not have a clear understanding of Christ's return and the ethereal world. He thought Christ will return in his life-time, as hinted at 1 Thes 4.17. He wrote with anticipation, "After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air." But Christ did not return in his life-time. St. Paul was deluded.

In 2 Corinthians 12.1-4, St. Paul wrote about his experience being "caught up to paradise". And here he was very cautious and reserved in his language. He emphasized his ignorant over the out-of-the-world experience by asserting twice "I do not know" (v.2, 3). Here, he did not elaborate the ethereal as readily as in 1 Thessalonians.

The using of the phrase "harpazo" (caught) in both 1 Thes 4.17 and 2 Cor 12.4 points to St Paul's identifying both events in some similar ways. But why was St. Paul so readily and casually talk about the ethereal when he was addressing the Thessalonians? And when it comes to narrating his own past experience of the real ethereal to the Corinthians, why was he so cautious and reserved?

Knowing the date of both the letters help in our conjecture. Let's take a conservative dating for both letters. D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo dated 1 Thessalonians to 50 A.D.; while 2 Corinthians to 56 or 57 A.D. (An Introduction to the New Testament, p.448, 543).

Retrograding from the composition date of 2 Corinthians, we know that St. Paul was being "caught up" to paradise in the year 42 or 43 A.D (v.2). So St. Paul would have had the experience by the time 1 Thessalonians was written. And comparing the soberness of 2 Corinthians to 1 Thessalonians, there is a sense that his account in the latter was rather unfasten. And why such unfasteness?

Given all three observations above, it is likely that the eschatological passage in 1 Thessalonians was St. Paul's envisioned mental image of the eschaton. The fundamental structures underneath the image were his earlier "caught up" experiences and his theology on Christ's resurrection (1 Cor 15). The emperor reception custom and the Graeco-Roman cultural perception on the spiritual realm were interweaved to serve as an illustration of the image.

Some think that the image was not St. Paul's own mental image but his reception of Christ's depiction of the eschaton by alluding to 1 Thes 4.15, "According to the Lord's own word." For theological reason, I think the Lord's word refers to the equality between the deceased and the alive, and stops there. What followed was St. Paul's own fallible illustration of the eschaton. If not then the Lord would have lied to St. Paul by telling the latter of the former's return in the latter's life-time.

Disagreement welcome.


Israel Lee said...

Josh, I think you might want to consider the impact of Christ's ascension, the tradition that Luke has written down, as a possible strong influence on Paul's imagery.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Israel, thanks for the tips. But that would be very troublesome for several reasons:

1) We are not sure when Luke's gospel was written. The usual date is that it was written after Paul's letters' time in the 60 - 70 AD and onwards. If that's the date, then it hardly had influenced Paul.

2) If Luke got the tradition about the ascension from Paul, then it might be helpful to understand how such theology played in Paul's theology. But I can't establish such relation out of vacuum and by mere guesswork unless question 1 can be answered. But it can't be answered with certainty. So, can't establish the relation.

Bernard said...

Hi, if you struggling with rapture.. what about heaven and hell mention in Book of Revelation. figurative?
enlighten me.


reasonable said...

qutoed from SZ's blog-post: "St Paul's own FALLIBLE illustration of the eschaton"

I love the above statement :)

Very true. And I usually go on further to say the bible's status of AUTHORITY is in such a way that is consistent with it containing inaccuracy, misinformation, inconsistencies and wrong views held by various authors due to the imperfection and limitations they faced in their culture, time and being human.

God uses imperfect persons and imperfect scripture to accomplish his purpose. This is wiser than those who know only how to use perfect tools and perfect persons to do a job.

"After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air."

I have not checked a literal translation but if the above statement is a good English translation, then it can mean "Those of us who are still alive will be caught up..." and this means it need not mean that Paul was assuming that he would be alive, but Paul simply making a general statement that those of us who happened to be still alive would be caught up.

Me also do not think the passage is about what some Christians called Rapture.

Hopefully we can one day say "farewell to the rapture".

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Bernard,

I was concerned only with the derivation of 'rapture' theology from the 1 Thessalonians passage. So in a strict sense, the post has nothing to say about heaven and hell in the Book of Revelation, or in other NT books.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi reasonable,

I guess you will love that statement when you read it. And I was right!

On the translation of 1 Thes 4.17, I have thought about the differences that you pointed out. And I think it makes sense only if St. Paul includes himself in the statement "we who are still alive".

2 reasons:

St. Paul was giving assurance to his readers. And by including himself together with his readers who are still alive, it helped his readers to feel his sympathy.

Secondly, St. Paul, in his later letter Phillipians, shows a keen expectation for the arrival of the "day of the Lord" for his readers (1.6, 3.20).

Israel Lee said...

Hi Josh, actually I was referring to Acts instead. ;-)

I am actually quite happy to accept a literal form of rapture, BUT not the LEFT BEHIND pre-tribulation kind of thing which I believe do no justice to the believers who patiently endured pain and death throughout history.

Israel Lee said...

Josh, just missed out something.

I was thinking that the ascension tradition has somehow reached Paul (like the last supper) and he might have related it to Luke who confirmed it through existing eyewitnesses. I think Paul would have no qualms taking it literally since he saw the risen Lord in such a mystical and miraculous way.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Israel,

I take both Luke and Acts in the same way. What Paul relate to Luke on this issue is mere guesswork, as we dont have any evidents for or against it. So, it's difficult to speculate or mark any significant point down.

The Hedonese said...

I agree with Israel on this point. In many cases, people over-react to dispensational, pretrib rapture scenarios that they overcompensate it throwing the baby out with the bathwater... I'm comfortable with a GE Ladd kind of position here

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Dave,

You keep me sleepless without telling what's G.E. Ladd's position on 1 Thessalonians 4!

haha.. thanks for sharing. If you have time (I know the new father is super busy now) do share a bit more.

Irv said...

I recently came across several stunning articles on the web. They are "Famous Rapture Watchers - Addendum," "Pretrib Rapture Diehards," and "Pretrib Rapture Dishonesty" - all written by journalist/historian Dave MacPherson who reportedly has focused on pretrib rapture history for 40 years. Would love to hear reactions to them.