'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.' ( I Thessalonians 4:17 )
I would say, without a doubt, that this is the first place that most Christians will point you to when you ask for a Scriptural basis for the 'doctrine' of the Rapture. There are other passages, as well, that are used to 'prove' that a 'rapture' will, or even did, happen at the end of the age, following immediately on the heels of the resurrection.
The number one definition given by the Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary for 'rapture' ( noun ) is, 'an expression or manifestation of ecstasy or passion'; other definitions involve a highly emotional, or mystical experience: only thirdly do they posit that is is 'the final assumption of Christians into heaven during the end-time according to Christian theology.' So what are we to make of all this talk of a 'rapture', mostly by dispensationalists, but in one for or another, by most futurists, and even purported by some preterists?
There are those, in the preterist camp that believe that I Thessalonians 4:13-17, along with maybe places like I Corinthians 15:52, teaches that there was a physically literal 'rapture' ( according to the modern Christian's definition of 'rapture'-see above ). I have made the point, in the past, that if we are to take Paul's language in I Thessalonians 4 in a physically literal way, then we must apply the same hermeneutic to similar language used elsewhere in Scripture, not just Paul's writings, but the words of Christ Himself, and even others of the apostles. Most dispensationalists, I'm sure, would have no problem doing that, and even many futurists, but as preterists, especially; we should know better! We know that Jesus' similar language in Matthew 24:31 is metaphorical of the gathering together into one 'place' of the Body of Christ ( think of the Genesis Creation here, and 'the waters under the heavens' ). It is also clear, using a historical and grammatical hermeneutic and especially keeping in mind the covenant context, that Jesus words, in fact all of the so-called 'New Testament', were nothing new. Taken in a physically literal way, though; it is easy to see where one could find support for the 'Rapture Theory', which I believe, was not revealed ( or held ) until back in the 19th century, to a young Scottish woman, and lately upheld by false prophets like Harold Camping.
I have often said that the most important part of that passage in I Thessalonians 4, comes in the last phrase, which, interestingly enough, echoes the words of the prophet Hosea ( Hosea 6:2b ); Paul wrote 'And thus we shall always be with the Lord'. No matter how we will, or have gotten there, or even where 'there' is; I believe that most Christians would agree that this is the whole point of our redemption/salvation, that, as in the Garden, Christians will be, or are, depending on where you are in your theology, with the Lord, enjoying His Presence forevemore. As believers in Fulfilled Eschatology; we realize that we are in that Presence now, but there are those who believe, from passages such as I Corinthians 5:6-8, where Paul wrote, 'So [ we are ] always confident, knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord. For we walk by faith, not by sight. We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.' that our physical bodies must expire before we can truly 'be with the Lord'. Paul's words in I Corinthians 15:50, that 'flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God', also seem to lend credence to this idea, that we cannot enter the Kingdom, or be in God's Presence until we pass from this physical existence. As I have reasoned before though, in a previous article; no one will argue, I believe, from Paul's statement in Romans 8:8, that 'those who are in the flesh cannot please God', that there is just no pleasing God until we shuffle off this mortal coil! That's just a silly, ridiculous idea, and one which could lead, who knows where! We should see that Paul's use of the word 'flesh' here, as in most other places, refers, not to our biological bodies, but to the old covenant body of death, which death, which body, was done away, was transformed ( Philippians 3:21 ) in Christ! So also, when Paul talks about meeting the Lord in the air; the first thing we should do is compare Scripture with Scripture, noting how this phrase is used elsewhere in the Bible!
'In the Air'
No; we're not discussing Phil Collins here, although we may discuss Genesis! When reading the phrase 'in the air', you might remember, again, Paul's words in Ephesians 2:2, about 'the prince of the power of the air'. This phrase is most famously, probably, used by those of the dispensational persuasion, when describing the workings of 'Satan'; to those I would remark, in an off-hand way, that Paul is, for one thing, reminding his brethren Who the real Power of the air is, and to show that though this 'spirit' held sway 'in the air'; it was there where the followers of Jesus would meet with Him and be in His Presence forever! In this; Paul was comforting his brethren, as in Romans 16:20 ( 'And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly. ' ), that no more did this 'spirit' have the power, but that Jesus' victory had wrested even what power he had from him.
We read in Genesis 1:26 that Adam was given the dominion over 'the birds of the air', which, by extension, might be said to be over the air itself. Another word that Scripture uses to define the air, or sky, is 'heaven', so when Paul related to the Thessalonian Church that they would 'meet the Lord in the air'; he might just as easily said that they would meet the Lord ( God ) in 'Heaven', or His domain, or realm! I must say that the Greek words here are a bit different, though not not all that much in actual meaning.
Those that purport a belief in a 'rapture'; when asked for old testament support for such a 'doctrine', might bring up the 'rapture' of Enoch and Elijah. Other than the fact that 'Enoch walked with God', for which reason 'God took him', and that 'he [ was ] not'; Scripture doesn't have a whole lot to say about 'the ascension of Enoch', but we can read a bit more detail about Elijah's 'rapture'. I wrote an article several years ago, where I mentioned this 'taking up of' of Elijah. II Kings 2:11 says that 'Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven'. In the article that I referred to; I mentioned the theory that this may not have been, as you will get from a purely physical understanding of this short passage, a physical event, an actual taking of Elijah into the realms of glory, as it was a physical manifestation of a spiritual truth, that of the glory of God, and His holiness, and that these 'chariots' were really just manifestations of cherubim ( I Chronicles 28:18 ). It is clear from the account that Elijah, like Enoch before him, was 'taken', but that he was transported to the Presence of God at that point; Scripture does not clearly say. There are places, like Hebrews 9:8, that indicate 'that while the first tabernacle was still standing', that are used to show that these realms were not opened to 'mere' men until Christ's Parousia ( Presence ), but the writer of Hebrews only said that 'the way into the Holiest of All was not yet made manifest', not that men could not enter previously. We can only speculate as to whether Enoch, Elijah, and probably Moses, were taken straight to the Presence, or whether, as is orthodox, I believe, among many believers in Fulfilled Eschatology, they simply waited in the grave until the Revelation of Jesus Christ. That, however, may be another subject for a later article.
As many wise people have noted; 'words have meaning'. The Free ( on-line ) Dictionary, not unlike Merriam-Webster's above, as the number one definition of the word 'rapture', gives this meaning; 'The state of being transported by a lofty emotion; ecstasy.'. Only thirdly does this dictionary bow to the un-orthodox traditions of men, and say that it is 'The transporting of a person from one place to another, especially to heaven.' With the main definition of the word being that it is simply an emotional high, of sorts, a euphoric feeling, if you will; how is it that so many Christians have gotten the idea in their heads that it is descriptive of our escape from this realm to another, better realm? Kinda gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, 'the grass is always greener........................' I wonder if the dictionary people have a bent against Christianity, since what many Christians describe as 'the Rapture', is really just a feeling of euphoria.
I think it was Fanny Crosby who penned the line 'But purer, and higher, and greater will be, our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see'!
Seeing Jesus, and enraptured with His grace,
Charles Haddon Shank