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St. Paul and the “Rapture”

Posted on 03 December 2014, 10:12

There was a time in my ministry when I associated with Charismatic Christians, people who in song and prayer and speaking in tongues felt the power of the Holy Spirit. One of the things that led me away from that, was constant talk of the Rapture, the being caught up into the clouds to meet the Lord. Some took it all so literally that we had the famous bumper-sticker: “Warning: In Case of Rapture, This Car Will Be Unmanned.”

Last blog I quoted Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15 with his emphatic distinction between the physical and the spiritual bodies. We bury an animal body, a spiritual body is raised. If the dead are not raised with spiritual bodies, neither would Jesus. But if Jesus thus rose, so do we. All this is entirely in line with modern psychical research or consciousness studies, whatever we want to name it.

1 Corinthians was not the first letter that Paul wrote. 1 Thessalonians is the first of Paul’s letters that have survived, and in it he seems not so clear about the two kinds of bodies, we find these words:

“1 Thess 4.13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For 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. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 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.”

Where did Paul get that from? Have a look at the book of the prophet Daniel, Chapters 11-12.  At the end of chapter 11 we have a kind of local Armageddon described, and at the height of the distress, there is a heavenly apparition, not of Jesus, but of the archangel Michael.

Chapter 12: “At that moment Michael shall appear, Michael the great captain who stands guard over your fellow countrymen, and there will be time of distress such as has never been since they had become a nation…
But at that moment your people will be delivered… many of those who sleep in the dust will awake, some to everlasting life, and some to the reproach of eternal abhorrence.”

The book of Daniel ends with him being told, “go your way and rest, and you shall arise to your destiny at the end of the age.” [NEB trans.]

We are dealing with everlasting life in this physical world. We have to do with an earthly kingdom.  In my previous blog I noted that Bishop N.T. Wright was saying something similar. (As do the Jehovah’s Witnesses.] I noted that the story of the Empty Tomb is hard to understand if we accept Paul’s equating our bodies with that of Jesus, “sown a physical body, raised a spiritual body.” In line with the Empty Tomb story, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel Chapter 27:52 we read : “and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.” The implication is that as Jesus’ tomb was empty and his physical body was somehow resurrected, so did the tombs of many holy people open and they are raised to (physical) life.

The Jewish idea of a resurrection and eternal life on this physical world is opposed to the eternal life with spiritual bodies.  In spite of Jesus saying “My kingdom is not of this world,” Matthew is at this point suggesting a material heaven on earth.

Thus we can find in the Bible a Jewish materialistic understanding of eternal life on this Earth, and the Christian seeing Eternal life as primarily belonging to the world of Spirit.  We can see traces of the materialistic view in the New Testament. St Paul does not seem to have entirely shaken off the materialistic view in Thessalonians, but after that he seems very firm on the spiritual understanding. Perhaps though in Thessalonians Paul was writing a kind of poetry.

In my Afterlife Teaching from Stephen the Martyr you will find me expressing disbelief in the whole Rapture business.  But Stephen had this to say:

“I say this then, for this is what I believe: That the experience of the coming again of the Lord will be to each and every one, an experience which leaves nothing but awe and wonder. For it will unmistakably happen, and each of us will know.

Paul would have known how cities in his day greeted kings and great personages.  Most people had seen triumphant arrivals of great lords and kings. People did indeed, in those days, come forth. You will have had similar experiences yourselves. People do come out. They make every effort to come and see a marvellous spectacle. And of course, if it were God who was arriving, then he would not come to our lowly home, but we would go to meet him. It is not surprising that Paul gave such a comparison.

Let me also give a Pauline concept that you might understand: Suddenly from out of the sky a great light comes, with an enormous ship. We know that this ship is to take us to the Father, we know that all we have need of will be supplied, that there are no fears and dangers any more, that we are come up and the ship and the light from it would cause us to rise up into it, when he had all come, to take us away from our tribulation. We might readily understand this concept; but it is a concept only, that we might think and that we might understand the breathless emotion, the exaltation that we will feel. That the dead will rise, for we can say: I am one of the dead. I too will feel this, and will know. We will rise together. We will understand truly that we are all one and brothers, and this love, that we cannot now feel for each and every one that we meet, or have experience of. We will find that we are given this love for all things, and then we will be able to return this love. We could neither receive all of this love now, and we could no more give what we have not received, than we could [demand] this and take away from somebody what they do not have. I say that Paul is right, for he speaks only of the triumph that he can conceive. I find this conception most helpful to me.”

I said, “The picture of Paul is one thing, and the picture as if of a UFO, to use some people’s concepts, conveys to me the feeling in some little measure. But we would not expect to see precisely a UFO to take us to the Father, as we might conceive of it in the physical.”

Stephen answered, “Many of those that Paul spoke to and explained this to, did not feel Paul’s feeling, also. But they believed and formed their own concept. I say this now, because in your talk before there was a certain dejection, and feeling of hopelessness, that there can be no improvement. If on the day that the Lord arrived, you had this hopelessness, your joy would be much greater. It has been promised, it is part of what is planned and which must happen. It is the plan that gives us in the best way, that we might understand, the joy that we have been promised. It will be, as Paul said, a wondrous time and a wondrous joy. Do not let us use concepts that cause us to be despondent. Do not let us analyse our environment and ourselves until in our minds we conceive an inevitable life or death of mundane happenings. For this cannot be so.”

With the eye of faith, I can accept Stephen’s words. With the eye of experience I see how these days we are gradually being lifted out of our houses of tribe and belief, through the internet, the growth of the “global village.” I see much to fill me with fear, as well as hope.

“Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God is One.” [Deut. 6:4]

The Second Coming I see as a saving from our separateness, that we may know the joy of participation in the God who is in all, through all, and above all.

Michael Cocks edits the journal, The Ground of Faith.
Afterlife Teaching From Stephen the Martyr by Michael Cocks is published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.
His forthcoming book, Into the Wider Dream will be published Winter/Spring 2015 by White Crow Books.

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Afterlife Teaching from Stephen the Martyr - Michael Cocks

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