From First Thessalonians:
The Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Thess. 4:16-17 (NRSV) – December 8, 2012.)
During this season of Advent, we are confronted with many visions of the end of time as we prepare for the Messiah’s return, and today we read a very popular one, a vision of the faithful flying through the sky in defiance of gravity to meet Jesus who is apparently swooping down like Superman! A vision of “the Rapture”!
OK. I have to admit . . . without a little study and background, I would have not the vaguest idea what Paul is talking about. Verse 16 makes perfect sense; it’s a description of the general resurrection. It’s fine. But verse 17? What is that all about? “We . . . will be caught up in the clouds . . . to meet the Lord in the air.” Say what? Is he really predicting Jesus as Superman?
Well, I let me assure you that I’m pretty sure that he’s not. I don’t believe he’s talking about “the Rapture” at all . . . in fact, I think Paul would have been appalled at the whole nonsensical, made-of-whole-cloth silliness that has become a mainstay of modern American conservative evangelical Christianity. That theology (if it can be called that) was cobbled together by an Irish clergyman named John Derby in the 19th Century from disparate and unrelated passages of Holy Scripture ripped from their contexts and stitched together with nothing. Paul would reject it out of hand.
What I think Paul’s use of “clouds” here is all about has to do with the glory of God. The Greek word is nephele. It is the same word used in the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures dating from the 3rd Century BCE) to describe the cloud into which Moses entered when he met with God; it is the same word used to describe the Shekinah, the pillar of cloud which led the Hebrews through the desert. In the New Testament, it is used in all of the Synoptic Gospels to describe the cloud which overshadowed Peter, James, and John when they witnessed Christ’s Transfiguration. So when Paul says that we will be “caught up in the clouds,” I believe he meant that we would be caught up into God’s Presence in the Shekinah, as were Moses, James, John, and Peter. What had been an experience of the Glory of God exclusive to them will be shared by all of us.
Which brings me to the end of the sentence where Paul avers that we shall “meet the Lord in the air.” Here the Greek is aer. As common a word as “air” is, it is suprising to find that aer appears only seven times in the New Testament, and while it is usually used simply to mean the atmosphere, one wonders if here Paul might have meant something else. In the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume (Eerdemans: 2003), one learns that in Greek philosophy the terms pneuma (“breath” or “spirit”), aer (“air”), and psyche (“soul” or “breath”) were “equated as the comprehensive life-principle that integrates all things.” (pg. 878) Because Paul does use pneuma much more frequently to mean “spirit” (either the spirit of a human or the Holy Spirit of God), it is an admitted stretch to suggest that he is here using aer as a synonym, but it’s at least something to think about. It certainly makes more sense to hear Paul predicting that we will enter into God’s glory and meet the Lord in spirit than to think he expected us all to fly up into the sky to meet Jesus swooping down like Superman over Metropolis!
During this season of Advent, we are confronted with many visions of the end of time as we prepare for the Messiah’s return, but I don’t really think that Paul intended us to believe that Jesus is going to return swooping through the sky like Superman! Really. I don’t.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.