You Found the Key: Deus Ex Machina and the Inconvenient Truth About the Rapture (1 Thess 4, Matt 24 and Matt 13)

Any gamer worth their salt should be quite familiar with the concept of “Deus Ex Machina”, even if they are unfamiliar with the term.  The literal Latin translation is “God in the machine”, and if you ever played a video game, watched a tv show or movie, or read a comic book you have seen this play out.  It is a reference to when a previously hopeless situation is miraculously solved through a unique and typically improbable solution that just happens to present itself.  It happens every time you reach an impenetrable area in a game only to find that the exact key you need to progress is hidden in the room you are currently in.  It shows up in every tv show to provide viewers with a happy ending by having long-lost Uncle Danny show up just in time to watch the kids, or when Spock explains that he can save everyone by pushing a button that nobody had considered pushing until the show is almost over.  When an X-Men character develops a superpower on the spot that is the perfect response to their current predicament or when the romantic leads of any romance movie magically bump into each other at a random coffee-house to rekindle their relationship before the credits roll, you are witnessing deus ex machina in action.  We have come to expect tidy resolutions to most of our entertainment through an eleventh hour surprise, and we accept the result regardless of how incredibly unlikely the endgame scenario is because it sends us home happy.  I know I personally appreciate when a plot device in a game or movie is at least grounded within the rules of the universe it was inhabiting, and I am typically frustrated when the climax of the story comes of as too convenient mostly because it destroys the stakes that had been built up to that point.

I believe in taking the advice of the Apostle Paul to avoid contentions and promote unity within the body of Christ by evading theological traps that serve only to generate conflict and division, but the roots of this particular topic are entwined deeply both in our doctrine and our culture and as I progressed in my study it became clear that there is a very relevant and critical discussion to be had here.  I ask that regardless of your pre-disposition that you approach this with an open mind to let the Scripture speak for itself.  If you do, I have faith that you will find yourself challenging some of your deepest engrained beliefs on this subject, just as I myself was.

The word “rapture” is one of those evangelical Christian terms that found its way into the mainstream, and it’s easy to see why.  It has popped up in several games such as Bioshock and Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture, and is the subject of multiple books and movies such as the Left Behind series.  It is an exciting and dynamic concept complete with massive worldwide disappearances, driverless cars careening off the road as airplanes fall from the sky, and it is often depicted as the precursor to the Tribulation period and Armageddon.  But how Biblical is this well-known and widely accepted doctrine?  As I mentioned before, we are going to let the Word of God do the talking and interpret itself, so let’s buckle up because a whirlwind of Scripture is going to help us make sense of this.

Rapture theory has its heart in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and through chapter 5, where Paul takes an aside in his conversation to encourage his audience who had concerns regarding the final state of those who had passed away. Starting at 4:16, He explains how the resurrection of the dead will occur.  First, Christ will descend from heaven with a shout accompanied by the voice of an archangel and the sounding of the trumpet of God.  Immediately after this, all of the dead in Christ will rise followed by all who remain alive at His second coming to meet him in the air, and from that time forward we will forever be with Him.  So far, so good.  So the question becomes not whether we leave this earth to join Christ, but WHEN.  Is this a great escape from the trials that are about to be unleashed?  One thing is clear, the return described here is not a flash of light followed by everyone vanishing.  Let’s find out what Jesus Himself says about the date of His return…

In Matthew 24 Jesus is asked very directly by his disciples about the end of the world and the circumstances regarding His return.  And Jesus did not disappoint… starting at verse 15 he begins to describe the great tribulation period and the murderous reign of the antichrist. Note that His advice to his disciples is not for everyone to get ready to be raptured, but rather He dispenses practical advice on getting away from the danger.  Also, notice that he is not speaking to unbelievers, but to His FOLLOWERS here.  As a matter of fact, in verse 25 he states the days of the tribulation are being cut short specifically for the sake of His elect. Why would the days be cut short for our sake if we were no longer here?  This is clearly advice for us. And as for a secret Rapture?  Verse 27 reveals that he references how lightning that occurs in the east is plainly visible in the west, comparing His coming to an event that will be plainly visible to all regardless of location.

And now for the timing… in verses 29 and 30 He clearly states that AFTER the tribulation His sign will appear in the sky and the entire world will see Him coming.  And observe how He describes this coming:  He will send His ANGELS, with the great sound of a TRUMPET, and they will gather the ELECT from the four winds.  That sounds identical to the gathering described in 1 Thessalonians 4, but this is not an escape from the tribulation but rather a description of the final day.  And how do we know that?  Keep reading… verses 36-44 continue describing His coming as similar to the days of Noah, and this is a very critical comparison that will help interpret what He says next.  Many people are aware of the phrase “one will be taken, and the other left” and use this as yet another Rapture reference, but to do that removes it from its context.  In verse 36 Christ begins comparing His second coming to the time of Noah and the great flood.  In verse 39 He explains that the flood was a surprise not to the believers (Noah and his family), but to the rest of the world.  Look at the language here… the flood came and “took” them all away.  Then He continues to explain how one will be taken and another left.  Who was taken in the flood and who was left?  It was the “wicked” who were taken and it was the righteous Noah and his family who were left.  This is not a reference to a secret Rapture event either, contrary to what I was taught growing up.

And if we needed one more proof of Jesus’s end time doctrine, let’s move to Matthew 13.  After the very popular parable of the sower, Jesus launches into the slightly less well-known parable of the wheat and the tares (or weeds).  From verses 24-29 He spins the yarn of a field that has been sown with good seed and was subsequently infested with weeds thanks to the spreading of these seeds by an enemy.  When the servants request permission to remove these vile plants, they are given the instruction to let them both grow together so the good plants are not damaged by the uprooting and in the end they will both be harvested, first the weeds to be burned and then the wheat to be reaped.  Now you may stop me here and say what does this have to do with the rapture?  Move down to Christ’s interpretation of His own parable, starting at verse 37 and through 43.  He clearly states in verse 40 that the harvest is the end of the age, the harvesters are His angels, and that they take the WICKED first to judgement, and then the righteous inherit eternal life.  There is not a reference anywhere to an early departure plan in any of His discourses to His followers.  As a matter of fact, to fail to inform them in such a manner of this pending event would almost seem duplicitous on His part, wouldn’t it?  Why would Jesus have so many clear opportunities to inform His disciples and us about this massive event and simply ignore it?  Unless… it wasn’t true.
Now for the simple truth.  Rapture theory has only existed since the early 20th century as a proposition by a small group that included their theory into the notes of their printed study Bible.  At this point it began to be considered a fact in many circles in spite of a lack of direct Scriptural support.  I grew up in an environment where this was established as an equivalent doctrine as Armageddon itself and it was many years before I chose to do my own research and come to an entirely different conclusion.  And now to save the best for last, the end times book itself, the book of Revelation.  With all of the dense details and incredible depth of exposition, surely there is a direct reference or at least a hint of the rapture found in one of its chapters?  Alas, a thorough read through will not support a “great escape” for the people of God, but rather support the true second coming of Jesus in all His glory for the world to see.  At its heart, the rapture requires a THIRD coming of Christ, with the second one a pseudo-return that gets by on a technicality since He only comes halfway, I guess.  But this is clearly not Biblical, as the angels clearly state upon Christ’s ascension that He will return just as we saw Him go.  No reference to a tiny return… just the real one.

I know that some of you may already have done this research and found this truth for yourselves, but many others may have found themselves challenged by this column and what it implies.  The rapture doctrine provides a “deus ex machina” miracle that is simply not promised to us, and when saints are challenged to endure the tribulation many may lose faith because they thought there was a miraculous escape plan that did not come to pass.  I encourage each of you to do this study for yourself and come to your own conclusion.  As both Noah in the flood and the Israelites in the time of the Egyptian bondage found, God does not remove His people from the battle, but protects them THROUGH it.  The Israelites were present for the plagues, but they did not harm them or their belongings.  Noah endured the entire flood through the ark that God guided him to build.  And we will endure all that the future has for our planet thanks to His provision and protection as well.  Now, as Paul said, encourage each other with THESE words.  He WILL return, the dead in Christ WILL rise, and we WILL meet Him in the air as He returns to this planet for a second coming that will not be in secret, but will be clear to entire planet.  And at that point, and forever more, we will be with the Lord.

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