Sometimes when I get a bit carried away with a descriptive passage in my writing, I remind myself of a helpful little adage a favorite professor once taught me: “Try to avoid driving while under the influence of metaphors.” As N.T. Wright suggests in his book “Surprised by Hope,” the Apostle Paul certainly liked his metaphors, and might have benefited from such advice. In fact, Wright asserts that it is a confusion of Paul’s many metaphors that has ultimately led to the popular idea of The Rapture.
Now, I believed in The Rapture for years. As a kid, I prayed just about every day that it would happen sometime before my dreaded swimming lessons at the Y started for the summer. Today, I have great respect for theologians on both sides of the eschatological debate, and I’m honestly not that bothered by the “Left Behind” series, (except from a literary standpoint, of course).
In recent years, however, I’ve found my enthusiasm for Rapture theology dwindling, and in Chapter 8 of “Surprised by Hope,” (our book club selection for the month of June), Wright does an excellent job of exploring the passages often used to support it.
As we have seen, Wright advocates a view in which Christian teaching focuses not on life after death but “life after life after death,” which includes the resurrection of the body and the redemption of the created order. According to Wright, the New Testament teaches that God will not destroy earth, but redeem it. The joining of the New Heaven with the New Earth will be marked by the presence of Jesus Christ Himself, who will come again.
It is this idea of “coming again” that brings up the subject of the Rapture. Wright explains that the Greek word parousia, which is usually translated “coming,” literally means “presence” and was often used in Paul’s day to describe either 1) the presence of a god or divinity, or 2) the visit of an emperor or person of high rank to a colony or province. Paul could have chosen to use the word “parousia” to invoke either of these two concepts.
(For example, Paul may have wanted to say that, “just as Caesar might one day visit a colony like Philippi or Thessalonica or Corinth…so the absent but ruling Lord of the world would one day appear and rule in person within this world.”) - p. 129
This sort of “parousia” should be kept in mind as we read the oft-quoted verses in 1 Thessalonians 4:
“The Lord himself will come down from heaven with a shouted order, with the voice of an archangel and the sound of God’s trumpet. The Messiah’s dead will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, will be snatched up with them among the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air. And in this way we shall always be with the Lord.” (I Thessalonians 4:16-17)
This passage has been used time and time again to support the idea of the Rapture. But according to Wright, Paul was not being literal, but was instead “finding richly metaphorical ways of alluding to three other stories that he is deliberately bringing together.” (132) These three stories include:
1) The story of Moses coming down the mountain, in which the trumpet sounds, a loud voice is heard, and after a long wait Moses descends to find out what the Israelites are doing.
2) The story of Daniel 7, in which the persecuted people of God are vindicated by being raised up on the clouds to sit with God in glory.
3) The typical story of an emperor visiting a colony or province, in which the citizens of the country would traditionally go to meet him at some distance from the city. According to Wright, “it would be disrespectful to have him actually arrive at the gates as though his subjects couldn’t be bothered to greet him properly. When they met him, they wouldn’t then stay out in the open country; the would escort him royally into the city itself. When Paul speaks of ‘meeting’ the Lord ‘in the air,’ the point is precisely not…that the saved believers would then stay up in the air somewhere, away from earth. The point is that, having gone out to meet their returning Lord they will escort him royally into his domain…” (133) This sort of story effectively employs a common understanding of the word “parousia.”
So is it a bit far-fetched to factor in all of these metaphors when interpreting this passage? N.T. Wright humorously addresses its feasibility:
“Paul was good at richly mixed metaphors,” he writes. “In the next chapter, 1 Thessalonians 5, he says that the thief will come in the night, so the woman will go into labor, so you mustn’t get drunk but must stay awake and put on your armor. As the television programs say, don’t try that one at home.”
Perhaps Christians should be a bit more careful of “interpreting while under the influence of metaphors.” What do you think?