By Spencer D Gear
It was 1973 and I stood at my father’s grave. A couple years before, my parents had sold their sugar cane farm near Bundaberg, Qld, Australia and moved into town, where Dad had obtained employment. We three children were off their hands and they were happily living in semi-retirement, planning to serve the Lord in short-term missionary activity.
In the morning, Dad kissed Mum good-bye, which was his daily custom when going to work. However, he never returned home. At 57 years of age, while carrying some goods at a local hardware store where he worked, he dropped dead of a heart attack.
As I stood at that grave, I was in deep grief. But it was not a sorrow of desperation, because 14 years prior to that, at a Billy Graham crusade rally at the local Show Grounds, my parents committed their lives to Christ (Billy Graham was in Brisbane and they were hearing his voice proclaim the Gospel through the loud speakers at the show grounds). Christ had changed them. My Dad was a vibrant witness for Christ. Witnessing was his way of life. I’m here today because Christ invaded our family back in 1959 and I eventually responded to Christ’s invitation to be saved.
While I was shocked at the sudden home-call of my father, I was confident I would meet Dad again because of my own faith in Christ alone for salvation.
I know there is hope beyond the grave because God had revealed—in Scripture—what happens to Christians who die. In the words of Paul to the Corinthians, it is ‘away from the body and at home with the Lord’ (2 Cor 5:8). Paul to the Philippians said, ‘I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far’ (Phil 1:23). I knew Dad was in a better place. At that grave side, I had the wonderful assurance of the passage we are studying (1 Thessalonians): those who are believers, whether they are alive physically or have died in Christ, will join the Lord in the air one day and be with the Lord forever at his second coming.
But I’m jumping ahead of myself.
A. Explanations of terms
1. The Millennium: ‘The term millennium comes from the Latin mille and annus, and means a thousand years. It is not found in Scripture, but the term “a thousand years” occurs six times in Rev. 20:2-7. The Greek term chiliasm, frequently occurring in theological literature, denotes the doctrine that Christ will come [at his second coming] and set up an earthly kingdom for a thousand years’ (Thiessen 1949:469).
2. Pre-millennialism: Those who believe that Jesus Christ will return prior to the Millennium are known as pre-millennialists or pre-millenniarians.
3. Post-millennialism: This is the teaching that Christ’s second coming will involve a visible and personal return, but it will not be until after the Millennium.
4. A-millennialism: Matt Slick explains,
Amillennialism is the teaching that there is no literal 1000-year reign of Christ as referenced in Revelation 20. It sees the 1000-year period spoken of in Revelation 20 as figurative. Instead, it teaches that we are in the millennium now, and that at the return of Christ (1 Thess. 4:16 – 5:2) there will be the final judgment and the heavens and the earth will then be destroyed and remade (2 Pet. 3:10) (Slick 2014).
5. The great tribulation
This teaching comes from Matthew 24:21, ‘For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be’ (ESV). This is referring to the period around the time of Christ’s second coming. But that introduces two more terms associated with the great tribulation:
Pre-tribulation rapture refers to ‘the taking up of believers into heaven when (according to this view) Christ returns secretly, prior to the great tribulation’ (Grudem 1999:491).
Post-tribulation rapture indicates ‘the taking up of believers after the great tribulation to meet with Christ in the air just a few moments prior to his coming to earth with them to reign during the millennial kingdom (or, on the amillennial view, during the eternal state’ (Grudem 1999:491).
What is the Christian understanding of the rapture?
B. The rapture
‘Rapture’ in the English language has the meaning of exhilaration or excitement, in my contemporary understanding. The Oxford dictionaries give the meaning as, ‘A feeling of intense pleasure or joy’. The plural, raptures, means ‘Expressions of intense pleasure or enthusiasm about something’. However, this dictionary also gives this understanding, ‘North American (according to some millenarian teaching) the transporting of believers to heaven at the Second Coming of Christ’ (Oxford dictionaries 2014, s v rapture).
What is the Christian theological understanding of rapture? Is it a biblical reality or false teaching? Is it truth or bunk? It is this latter dictionary definition to which the evangelical Christian understanding of rapture refers. Simply stated, it is what happens at Christ’s second coming when believers are caught up to meet the Lord in the air, particularly with a reference to 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, which states:
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord (ESV)
The origin of the biblical use of, ‘rapture’, in the English language is explained this way:
The word “rapture” does not occur in our English Bibles. We get the word by way of St. Jerome (c. 347-420 A.D.). In his work of revising the Latin New Testament from the Greek New Testament, he translated the Greek word [harpazw] into the Latin “rapiemur.” The Latin verb form is “rapio” and means to be “caught up” or “taken away.” From these Latin words come our English word “rapture.” While Paul used the word [harpazw] only once (1 Thessalonians 4.17), he taught the doctrine of the Rapture in other places using other expressions. The Greek word [arpazw] means to “seize” or “snatch away.” It is used 13 times in the following verses: Matthew 11.12, 13.19; John 6.15, 10.12, 28-29; Acts 8.39, 23.10; 2 Corinthians 12.2, 12.4; 1 Thessalonians 4.17; Jude 1.23; Revelation 12.5. (doctrine.org, ‘The Rapture’)
Henry Thiessen, a pre-millennial theologian, explained Jesus’ second coming in the air:
The clearest statement of this is 1 Thess. 4:16, 17, where we are told that Christ will descend from heaven and that the believers will be caught up to meet Him in the air. 2 Thess. 2:1 speaks of our gathering together unto Him. This same idea is expressed in John 14:3: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” Hints of the same thing may be found in several other places. In Matt. 25:6 the virgins “go forth to meet him.” And in Luke 19:15 the Nobleman first called for His servants when He returned, and then dealt with His adversaries, and only after that he set up His kingdom. Some would also refer Luke 17:34-36 to this aspect of His coming. We see, then, that the first aspect of His coming is with a view to His own (Thiessen 1949:449).
C. The public arena: The rapture is hogwash!
It is not unusual to hear comments like this from an a-millennialist on a Christian forum on the Internet:
My response was that I wouldn’t be so sure that there are no hints of a rapture of the church in relation to end times in the early church fathers. The statement, ‘nowhere to be found in Christian history’, is absolutistic. I asked this person, ‘Have you read every word of the church fathers and early Christian documents to be so confident about your statement?’
What is the meaning of ‘rapture’ as applied to New Testament eschatology? See the definition above.
D. Examples from the Church Fathers
Here are a few of examples from the Church Fathers. I’ve incorporated the rapture, tribulation and Millennium references.
1. Papias (ca 60-130).
Eusebius reported that Papias wrote that
there will be a period of some thousand years after the resurrection of the dead, and that the kingdom of Christ will be set up in material form on this very earth’. Eusebius’s comment on this view was, ‘I suppose he got these ideas through a misunderstanding of the apostolic accounts, not perceiving that the things said by them were spoken mystically in figures. For he appears to have been of very limited understanding, as one can see from his discourses. But it was due to him that so many of the Church Fathers after him adopted a like opinion, urging in their own support the antiquity of the man; as for instance Irenaeus and any one else that may have proclaimed similar views (in Eusebius 1890:3.39.12-13, emphasis added).
2. Irenaeus of Lyon (ca 120/140-200/203).
His most famous publication was, Against Heresies (written about AD 185). In it he wrote:
Those nations however, who did not of themselves raise up their eyes unto heaven, nor returned thanks to their Maker, nor wished to behold the light of truth, but who were like blind mice concealed in the depths of ignorance, the word justly reckons “as waste water from a sink, and as the turning-weight of a balance-in fact, as nothing; ” so far useful and serviceable to the just, as stubble conduces towards the growth of the wheat, and its straw, by means of combustion, serves for working gold. And therefore, when in the end the Church shall be suddenly caught up from this, it is said, “There shall be tribulation such as has not been since the beginning, neither shall be.” For this is the last contest of the righteous, in which, when they overcome they are crowned with incorruption (Against heresies, 5.29.1, emphasis added).
3. Cyprian of Carthage (AD 200-258)
In one of his Treatises he described the last times of tribulation. He predicted and said that wars, and famines, and earthquakes, and pestilences would arise in each place; and lest an unexpected and new dread of mischiefs should shake us, He previously warned us that adversity would increase more and more in the last times….
And this, as it ought always to be done by God’s servants, much more ought to be done now — now that the world is collapsing and is oppressed with the tempests of mischievous ills; in order that we who see that terrible things have begun, and know that still more terrible things are imminent, may regard it as the greatest advantage to depart from it as quickly as possible. If in your dwelling the walls were shaking with age, the roofs above you were trembling, and the house, now worn out and wearied, were threatening an immediate destruction to its structure crumbling with age, would you not with all speed depart? If, when you were on a voyage, an angry and raging tempest, by the waves violently aroused, foretold the coming shipwreck, would you not quickly seek the harbour? Lo, the world is changing and passing away, and witnesses to its ruin not now by its age, but by the end of things. And do you not give God thanks, do you not congratulate yourself, that by an earlier departure you are taken away, and delivered from the shipwrecks and disasters that are imminent? (On the mortality, Treatise 7.2, 25, emphasis added)
4. Chrysostom (ca 347-407). In his exposition of 1 Thess 5:1-2, he wrote,
‘If Antichrist comes … how is it “when they say Peace and safety,” that then a sudden destruction comes upon them? For these things do not permit the day to come upon them unawares, being signs of its coming’. But ‘the time of Antichrist … will be a sign of the coming of Christ, but Himself will not have a sign, but will come suddenly and unexpectedly’ (Homily on I Thessalonians 5:1-2).
While not especially referring to the rapture by name (the catching away of believers), there is a statement that the coming of the Antichrist with signs of destruction will precede the sudden and unexpected coming of the Lord. This is a post-tribulation view of the second advent.
5. Augustine of Hippo (ca 354-430),
‘he who reads this passage [Daniel 12:1-3], even half asleep, cannot fail to see that the kingdom of Antichrist shall fiercely, though for a short time, assail the Church before the last judgment of God shall introduce the eternal reign of the saints’ (The City of God, 20.23).
Augustine is definite about how the church will be assailed (trashed, maltreated, persecuted, abused) by the kingdom of Antichrist before the last judgment by God and the eternal reign of believers.
Examples from the Church Fathers and the statement of humbug from a member of the public are not enough to convince me of the genuineness of the Rapture and of Jesus’ second coming. I turn to the authoritative Scripture for that. Here’s what I find:
(theheavensdeclare.net, public domain)
E. THE CATASTROPHIC CLIMAX OF WORLD HISTORY (I Thessalonians 4:16-18)
16 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. 17 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. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. (NIV)
That great drama will be the coming of the Lord and the rapture of the saints will be involved. What will be the sequence of events?
1. First, ‘The Lord Himself Will Come Down from Heaven’ (v. 16).
Remember when Jesus ascended into heaven? Those who were looking intently into the sky as he was going up were told by ‘two men dressed in white’ (angels), ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven’ (Acts 1:11).
While I was in high school, I only ever remember one school teacher who actively opposed my Christian faith – I met more in university. My science teacher’s only objection was: ‘I cannot believe that your Jesus went into the sky and will return the same way. That’s impossible, scientifically’. Impossible or not from the human perspective, that’s exactly what will happen. The God of Scripture and the God whom I serve is the supernatural Lord of the universe who created this universe, raised Lazarus from the dead, and was himself supernaturally raised from the dead in his resurrection from the tomb after his death. The Lord God Almighty is the God who performs miracles – in spite of my science teacher’s objections to the supernatural.
The Lord who went to heaven will return ‘in the clouds’. It will be a personal return. Jesus, who died for us and ascended to heaven, will personally come back. It will not be a phantom or some substitute, but Jesus Christ Himself.
2. Second, This Descent Will be Accompanied by Some Awe-Inspiring Events (v. 16).
The Lord Himself will come down from heaven, according to v. 16,
(a) ‘With a loud command’.
Bible commentator, William Hendriksen, states that originally, this was ‘the order which an officer shouts to his troops, a hunter to his dogs, a charioteer to his horses, or a ship-master to his rowers’. Although it is not stated whose command it is, it sounds pretty much like the command of the Lord as he leaves heaven, for the dead in Christ to rise. Jesus is returning as the Mighty Conqueror. Christ has conquered, is conquering, is going to return as Conqueror—that is the thread running through the Book of Revelation (Hendriksen 1955:117).
Also, v. 16 says there will be
(b) ‘The voice of the archangel’
Literally, there will be ’a voice of an archangel’. We do not know who the chief angel is, and it is futile to speculate.
Third, there will be
(c) ‘The trumpet call of God’
The Salvation Army believers with their brass bands will be really at home here, in more ways than one – especially the trumpeters of Salvation Army bands. It is very fitting that there should be a trumpet blast here.
In the O.T., when God ‘came down’ to meet with his people, this meeting was announced with a trumpet-blast (see Ex. 19:16-19).
When the marriage of the Lamb and his bride reaches its culmination (cf. Rev. 19:7), this trumpet-blast is most appropriate.
So also, this is most appropriate—the final trumpet-blast, the signal for the dead to arise, for the living to be changed, and for all the Christians to be gathered from the four winds (Mt. 24:31).
‘From all this, it becomes abundantly clear that the Lord’s second coming will be open, public, not only visible but also audible’. Nobody will miss him. What forces of nature will be used to produce this sound? We are not told. ‘One fact has now become evident: for believers this sound will be full of cheer. This is God’s trumpet! It is his signal. It is sounded to proclaim his deliverance for his people…. It announces the coming of his Son’ (Hendriksen 1955:117).
J.B. Phillips translates it: ‘One word of command, one shout from the Archangel, one blast from the trumpet of God and God in Person will come down from heaven’. This catches something of the vividness of the sequence of events. This is the fullest description of the actual Coming in the N.T. When we reflect on the little that is said here, we are warned against being too dogmatic about what will happen.
THE MAIN POINT IS THAT IT IS NONE OTHER THAN THE LORD HIMSELF WHO WILL COME. THE END OF THE AGE WILL BE USHERED IN BY GOD HIMSELF. THIS IS GOD’S GRAND CLIMAX TO WORLD HISTORY.
3. The Dead in Christ Will Rise First (v. 16)
Those Christians who have died, will rise before the believers who survive on earth at the time of Christ’s coming. Some Christians suppose that the reference here is to the first resurrection; that the dead in Christ, shall rise before the wicked who did not know Christ. That a thousand years—the Millennium—will intervene between the first and second resurrections (Rev. 20:4-5). This seems to be an unsubstantiated assumption because all that is stated here is that the dead in Christ will rise, before the living in Christ will be changed. Here, there is no contrast between the dead in Christ and the dead not in Christ. Nothing is said about the resurrection of unbelievers or the final judgment.
4. Those Christians Living on Earth Will be Caught Up (Raptured) in the Air to Meet the Lord (v.17).
It will be forceful, sudden. The irresistible power of God will be at work. The survivors on earth will be changed ‘in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye’ (1 Cor 15:52 NIV). The word, ‘rapture’ comes from the Latin language for ‘caught up’.
Then we will be
5. Together Forever (v. 17).
The living and dead in Christ will be in the presence of the Lord, and there will be no end to this relationship. What a meeting that will be! This will be a meeting without a parting. We will meet our loved ones who were believers.
Imagine what it will be like, joining saints like Moses, Joshua, King David, Daniel, Paul and Peter? I’m looking forward to meeting the great revivalists: Jonathan Edwards, John & Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, Charles Finney. Martin Luther, William Carey, William Booth.
What a day that will be when we meet together with the martyred saints throughout human history – Justin Martyr, Polycarp, Cyprian, Ridley, and Latimer. Those killed for their faith in the former Soviet Union, China, Jim Elliot, the Christians who were burned at the stake under the Roman Empire. The saints of faith in Heb. 11. Why don’t you take a read of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs to meet some of those you will meet if you love and serve Jesus (online)?
What a meeting that will be! And we will be together forever.
Someday God will bring my Dad and Mum ‘with Jesus’. Mum’s and Dad’s souls reunited with their bodies—new bodies. Once again, we’ll be able to converse together, but this time in the presence of the Lord. What a day that will be!!
All celebrations on earth will pale into insignificance. And it will be nothing like the celebration by the supporters of the rugby league team – the Canberra Raiders – who, according to The Canberra Times, ‘guzzled their way into the record books after demolishing a week’s supply of beer in one night’.
All believers will be together forever, with the Lord.
F. COMFORT EACH ANOTHER (v. 18)
Paul calls on the Christians, in the midst of this good news, not just to take heart, but to actively comfort one another–to encourage each other. Whether we live, or whether we die, we do not get away from God’s power.
In the face of death, that antagonist that no person can master, we can remain calm and triumphant. For we know that those who sleep, sleep in Jesus, and that there is a place for them in the great events at the end of the age.
G. ETERNAL QUESTIONS
The Moravians were known for their missionary zeal. They influenced John Wesley. Count Zinzendorf, the leader of the Moravians, had a motto he lived by—‘I have one passion, and it is He—only He’.
Martin Luther’s preaching aroused the church from a thousand years of sleep. It is easy to understand why, when we discover how Luther preached. He said, ‘I preach as though Christ was crucified yesterday; rose again from the dead today; and is coming back to earth tomorrow’.
If I had to preach your funeral sermon this week, I want to be sure I’m telling the truth about your eternal destiny. These are eternal questions: What is your personal relationship with Jesus Christ? Do you know Him? Do you have the hope I’ve been teaching? Repent and believe – receive – Christ today and be ready. But remember, to serve Jesus is costly, it costs you everything—total commitment. Full-surrender of your life to Him. You have no assurance that you’ll live another moment on this earth. You could die before you finish reading this article. You have no assurance that Christ might not come this very moment. Whether you die or whether you remain alive, you can—you should—be ready for Christ’s second coming. You will be if you know Him personally.
My reading of the church fathers (and I have read only a sample) is that there is some sprinkling of a post-tribulation, pre-millennialism among them where there is a rapture of believers after severe tribulation and trouble on the earth. However, I’m open to consider a pre-tribulation, pre-millennial rapture if that can be shown by more Scriptures than 1 Thessalonians 4.
However, my reading of 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 guarantees that Christian believers will be raptured at the Lord’s second coming. They will meet him in the air. What a day that will be! I’m looking forward to the reunion with my Dad and Mum.
What A Day That Will Be 
Words and Music by Jim Hill
“And Jesus said, I AM:
and ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power,
and coming in the clouds of heaven.”
There is coming a day when no heartaches shall come
No more clouds in the sky, no more tears to dim the eye.
All is peace forevermore on that happy golden shore,
What a day, glorious day that will be.
What a day that will be when my Jesus I shall see,
And I look upon His face,
The One who saved me by His grace;
When He takes me by the hand
And leads me through the Promised Land,
What a day, glorious day that will be.
There’ll be no sorrow there, no more burdens to bear,
No more sickness, no pain, no more parting over there;
And forever I will be with the One who died for me,
What a day, glorious day that will be.
For a couple Gaither vocal versions of this very appropriate song for this message, I invite you to take a listen to:
- Bill & Gloria Gaither (1) – here the composer of the song, Jim Hill, sings the song.
- Bill & Gloria Gaither (2).
For further details to challenge the pre-tribulation rapture teaching, see my articles,
What is the origin of the pre-tribulation rapture of Christians?
A pre-millennial, post-tribulation end times understanding
Cairns, E E 1981. Christianity through the centuries: A history of the Christian church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.
Eusebius Pamphilus of Caesarea 1890. Church history (online). Tr by A C McGiffert, in P Schaff & H Wace (eds), rev & ed by K Knight for New Advent, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, Bks I-X. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co. Available at New Advent http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2501.htm (Accessed 24 March 2014).
Grudem, W 1999. J Purswell (ed), Bible doctrine: Essential teachings of the Christian faith. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press.
Hendriksen, W 1955. New Testament commentary: Exposition of Thessalonians. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.
Justin Martyr 1885. Dialogue with Trypho. Tr by M Dods & G Reith. In P Schaff (ed), Ante-Nicene fathers (online), vol 1, ed by A Roberts, J Donaldson, and A C Coxe. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., rev & ed for New Advent by K Knight, available at New Advent http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/01284.htm (Accessed 26 March 2014).
Naismith, A 1963. 1200 Notes, quotes and anecdotes. London (U.K.): Marshall Pickering.
Oxford dictionaries 2014. Rapture (online). Available at: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/rapture (Accessed 30 August 2014).
Slick, M 2014. Amillennialism and premillennialism. CARM (Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry) (online). Available at: http://carm.org/amillennialism-and-premillennialism (Accessed 29 August 2014).
Thiessen H C 1949. Introductory lectures in systematic theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Wingren, G 2013. Saint Irenaeus. Encyclopaedia Britannica (online). Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/293911/Saint-Irenaeus (Accessed 30 August 2014).
 Ibid., OzSpen#20.
 Lifespan dates are from Cairns (1981:76).
 Lifespan dates for Irenaeus are from Wingren (2013). Irenaeus became a bishop in Gaul about AD 180 (Cairns 1981:110).
 Cairns wrote that ‘Cyprian was born of well-to-do pagan parents shortly after 200 in the same city as Tertullian and was given a good education in rhetoric and the law…. He became a Christian about 246. About 248 he became the bishop of Carthage, a position that he held for nine years until his martyrdom about 258’ (Cairns 1981:113).
 Lifespan dates are from Cairns (1981:141).
 Lifespan dates are from Cairns (1981:146).
 The title of this chapter 23 in Book 20 of The City of God, is, ‘What Daniel Predicted Regarding the Persecution of Antichrist, the Judgment of God, and the Kingdom of the Saints’.
 Cited at Congress, Canadian National Missionary. (2013). pp. 9-10. Canada‘s Missionary Congress. London: Forgotten Books. (Original work published 1909), available at:http://www.forgottenbooks.com/readbook_text/Canadas_Missionary_Congress_1000645147/33 (Accessed 30 August 2014).
 In A. Naismith (1963:158).
 Mum went to be with the Lord in 1997.
 Available at: http://www.jesus-is-savior.com/sounds/Hymns/what_a_day_that_will_be.htm (Accessed 30 August 2014).
Copyright © 2014 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 2 March 2019.