There is a widespread belief amongst the ‘evangelical’ churches that the righteous will be caught up into heaven at Christ’s return (the rapture). This belief is often associated with the idea that the earth will then be destroyed. We see in Digression 9 that this is an impossibility. We have also shown in Study 4.7 that the place of reward is earth, not heaven. These erroneous beliefs are based around a mistaken interpretation of 1 Thes. 4:16,17: “The Lord himself will descend from heaven...and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord”.
Apart from the evident danger of basing such a major belief on just one passage of Scripture, it should be noted that there is no mention here of the righteous being caught up to Heaven. Christ descends from heaven before the believers meet him. Christ will reign forever on David’s throne in Jerusalem, and we will be with him, here on earth. It is therefore impossible that we should spend eternity with him suspended in mid-air. ‘The air’ extending only a few kilometres above the earth’s surface means that it cannot refer to Heaven, the dwelling place of God.
The Greek phrase translated “caught up” really means to be snatched away; it does not carry the idea of any specific direction. It occurs in Lev. 6:4 and Dt. 28:31 in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) to describe the ‘snatching away’ of goods in a robbery. It also occurs in Acts 8:39: “The Spirit of the Lord caught away Philip, so that the eunuch saw him no more...But Philip was found at Azotus”. This records how Philip was miraculously transported from one place on earth to another.
When Christ comes, the responsible will be gathered together to the place of judgment; they will not be left to make their own way there. It is possible that our means of transportation to that place will be literally through the air.
Jesus said that “in the day when the Son of man is revealed...two men will be in the field: the one will be taken and the other left” (Lk. 17:30,36). This gives the same picture of a sudden snatching away. The disciples earnestly asked, “Where, Lord? So He said to them, ‘Wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together” (Lk. 17:37). As the eagles fly instinctively through the air and then land on earth where the carcass is, so the responsible will be brought to the place where they will meet their Lord in judgment.
We must again emphasise the importance of the doctrine
of the judgment seat of Christ; the responsible must first appear there,
before the righteous amongst them are rewarded. A superficial reading of 1
Thes. 4:16,17 could lead us to conclude that all the responsible will be
snatched up into the air, and remain there with Christ forever. Instead, we
know that the responsible will be gathered to the place of judgment,
possibly by being transported through the air, and then receive their