Harry Whittaker
The Last Days

Chapter 12 - The Rapture Of The Saints

The word is not well-chosen, for its normal usage denotes a burst of irrepressible joy, like the “first wild careless rapture” of the dawn chorus in early Spring. But there is also the idea, suggested by the Latin original, of being snatched away — that of sudden bodily transportation. In this sense the word has become part of the jargon of some of the sects with a strong eschatological bent, and inasmuch as there is no obvious alternative available, it must be put up with.[14]

The most commonly held idea is that Christ comes, gathers the saints together, and takes them away to heaven whence (by a most unscrupulous man-handling of a very plain Scripture) they are to be “kings and priests, and reign over the earth’’[15] (Revelation 5:10). A basis for this grossly mistaken notion is sought in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 and John 14:3.

The first of these speaks of the saints as “caught up with them (the dead, now risen) in clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so shall we ever be with the Lord”.

But there is no mention of heaven here, only of the air. And since this extends, according to the scientists, a mere sixty miles or so above the earth’s surface, there is here at best only a possible suspension of Christ and the saints in orbit above the earth — a thing which no one has any intention of believing.

The verse calls for re-translation with the phrases in a different order: “caught away in clouds (for the purpose of meeting the Lord) into the air”. The meeting place is not specified in this passage, but it is clearly enough established elsewhere by the Scriptures which make it plain that Christ comes to sit on the throne of David and to reign in Jerusalem. If the saints are to be “ever with the Lord”, then they too must be on earth, and not in heaven.

“I will come again and receive you unto myself, that where I am there ye may be also” (John 14:3). Again the words are made to prove more than they say. The context: “I come again” and the abundant Bible evidence that Jesus is to come to the earth and is to reign on the earth should settle once and for all the destiny of those whom he blesses with his eternal presence and fellowship.

But having set aside the various wrong interpretations of the famous words of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, the question still remains: What exactly did Paul mean?

“Caught up in clouds into the air” has been taken to mean, “snatched away in groups” to be “exalted in the Aerial”.
Here the Greek verb is correctly translated, inasmuch as there is no suggestion of upward movement, but only that of being taken suddenly (and perhaps forcibly) away (e.g. Acts 8:39). Then the interpretation moves into the realm of the figurative. “Clouds” are taken to be metaphorical “clouds of witnesses”, and “the air” is first replaced by a synonym (?) “heaven”, which is then also given a figurative meaning: “a condition of political exaltation or power” (equivalent to being “kings and priests reigning on the earth”).

There are several unsatisfactory features about an interpretation of this nature:

  1. There is nothing in the context to suggest a figurative meaning. Indeed when some verses further on, Paul does moves into the realm of figure and type, he says so plainly: “as a thief in the night . . . as travail upon a woman with child”
  2. The only place where “clouds” is used as a metaphor, the Greek word is a different one (Hebrews 12:1). The word used here always means a literal cloud.
  3. The Bible evidence for “air” being taken as symbolic is, to put it mildly, hardly conclusive. To quote such a dubious passage as “the prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2) is in itself an open admission of a weak case. And Revelation 16:17 is no help at all, since no one can be sure that he has his finger on the precisely correct interpretation of the details of the Seventh Vial. The context of wickedness and divine wrath in both of these supporting passages is anything but helpful or appropriate to 1 Thessalonians 4:17.
  4. What special purpose is there, conceivably, behind the transportation of the saints in “clouds” or groups? If a first-Century preacher of the gospel can be thus transported individually (see Acts 8:39) why not a twentieth-Century preacher? And, further, what of those who may be isolated from their nearest brethren in the Faith by hundreds of miles?
  5. Lastly, this figurative interpretation is self-condemned by the length of time it takes to explain it, and by the dim comprehension of those who have had it thus explained to them. This is written out of experience of many personal discussions on the matter.
A better alternative, it is submitted, is to let the words mean precisely what they say, namely, that the saints will be literally caught up in literal clouds, into the literal air, to meet the Lord who has come to Jerusalem.

To adopt this simple and adequate point of view is to remove at a stroke many tortuosities of uneasy exegesis and to prepare the way for a quite delightful and wholly satisfactory extension of a familiar Biblical theme. The last paragraph carefully and deliberately used the words “literal clouds”. But these, it is now suggested, will not be ordinary clouds.

When Israel were delivered from Egypt, they were protected from their enemies by “a cloud and darkness” which came between the two hosts, and yet gave Israel light by night. This pillar of cloud was the sign of God’s Presence with them. By it He guided them through the wilderness, and brought them to the Land of Promise.

The same cloud of the Shekinah Glory is traceable through the history of Israel, and then becomes a feature of the New Testament narrative. This Cloud, called “The Glory”, appeared associated with Moses and Elijah on the mount of Transfiguration, but in the course of that incident it transferred itself from the Law and the Prophets and instead it overshadowed Jesus and the Apostles (Luke 9:30-34). It is demonstrable that this Fiery Cloud was also manifested at the crucifixion. It was this Cloud which “received Jesus out of their sight” above the mount of Olives, and it will be in this same Shekinah Glory that Jesus will return: “Behold, he cometh with clouds . . . coming on the clouds of heaven . . . in the glory of His Father” (Revelation 1:7; Matthew 26:64 and 16:27).

Then what more appropriate than that the saints who are to be heirs with Christ in his exaltation and majesty should have the same divine and royal entourage in their progress to the Holy City? Could anything be more fitting?

[14] The more readily, one hopes, since our own community has also shewn a flair for coining its own jargon. What about disfellowship, responsibility, immortal emergence?
[15] It is perhaps worthwhile to point out that the same Greek phrase comes many times in Revelation (e.g. 6:10 and 11:10) always as "on the earth".

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