The Rapture is a controversial religious belief, held by some Christians, that claims that at the end of time when Jesus Christ returns, descending from heaven, the living elect of the church will be physically caught up or lifted up from the earth to meet Christ in the air. This lifting up is called the "rapture," and it derives from a literal reading of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 in the New Testament: "Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them [i.e., the dead in Christ] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord."
Those who believe in the rapture usually belong to premillennialism that holds that Christ will return and bring the rapture before he inaugurates the millennial kingdom to take over rulership of the world for a thousand years. There is much disagreement over when the rapture will occur in relation to the tribulation, a seven-year period that also precedes the millennial kingdom. Four different views predominate. The first is that the rapture will take place prior to the tribulation (pretribulationism). The second is that it will take place midway through the tribulation (midtribulationism). The third is that it will take place before the wrath of God at an unspecified time during the second half of the seven-year period (the prewrath view). The fourth view is that it will take place after the tribulation (posttribulationism). Historic premillennialism, which was widespread during the first three centuries of the Christian era, was posttribulational, although it did not use the word rapture.
Belief in the rapture gained popularity in the 1830s, and more recently in the 1970s, with proponents of the first view, i.e., pretribulational premillennialism that was expressed in dispensationalism. In 1995, the doctrine of the preribulation rapture was further popularized by Tim LaHaye's book series, Left Behind, which sold tens of millions of copies and was made into several movies. The doctrine of the rapture continues to be an important component in fundamentalist Christian eschatology today, which holds that world conditions point to the return of Christ, the rapture, the tribulation occurring soon.
One basic criticism of the doctrine of the rapture is that when Paul talked about the being caught up of the living believers of the church, he did not mean their rescue from the tribulation itself but rather their reunion with Christ. If being caught up is unrelated to the tribulation, then the use of the word rapture may be unnecessary. And, disagreement among the four major views over when the rapture will occur in relation to the tribulation may disappear. The meaning of being caught up may be broader than proponents of the rapture think.
"Rapture" is an English translation of the Latin word raeptius in the Vulgate, which in turn is a translation of the Koine Greek word harpazo, found in the Greek New Testament manuscripts of 1 Thessalonians 4:17. In many modern English translations of the Bible, harpazo is translated "caught up" or "taken away."
There are four main views on the timing of the rapture relative to the tribulation: pretribulationism, midtribulationism, prewrath view, and posttribulationism. Although they all belong to premillennialism that believes that the return of Christ, bringing the rapture, takes place prior to the millennial kingdom, nevertheless they differ from one another in regard to the timing of the rapture relative to the tribulation that immediately precedes the millennial kingdom. Pretribulationism, midtribulationism, and posttribulationism respectively hold that the rapture, being brought at the return of Christ, happens before, at the midpoint of, and after the tribulation. The prewrath view, which is a bit more complicated, believes that the rapture takes place before the wrath of God at an unspecified time during the tribulation which this view thinks covers only the second half of the seven-year period.
In the prophecy of 70 weeks from the Book of Daniel (Daniel 9:24), between the 69th and 70th weeks there is a break, lasting some amount of time. Thus, the 70th week of seven years has not yet occurred. This seven-year period will mark the end of the current dispensation, and is referred to as the tribulation.
The pretribulation (or "pre-trib") rapture occurs before the beginning of the seven-year tribulation period. In other words, Christ invisibly returns before the tribulation period to secretly take up the church into himself through the rapture. According to this view, the church that existed prior to that tribulation period has no vital role during that period, and is therefore removed. So, the church does not suffer the tribulation (1 Thess. 5:9; Rev. 3:20), and only non-Christians suffer it. After the tribulation is over, Christ now visibly and triumphantly returns with the church to reign the millennial kingdom. Thus, there are two stages in the return of Christ. The pretribulational view is the most widely held position among American evangelical Christians. It has become popular in recent years around the world through the work of dispensationalist preachers such as J. Vernon McGee (1904-1988), J. Dwight Pentecost, Tim LaHaye, Chuck Smith, Chuck Missler, Jack Van Impe, and Grant Jeffrey.
Some who believe in the pretribulation rapture warn that the rapture is imminent, saying that all of the prophecies concerning the latter days have been fulfilled to the extent that the rapture could take place at any moment. Others suggest that certain requirements must first be met before a rapture can occur, such as these:
Others state these events will happen after the rapture.
The midtribulational (or "mid-trib") view holds that the rapture happens at the midpoint of the seven-year tribulation. The church will go through the first half of the tribulation, which is the less severe part. When Christ returns at the midpoint of the tribulation, the church will be raptured to be removed from the second half of the tribulation period, which is the more severe part. Upon the completion of the second half, Christ will triumphantly return with the church to reign the millennial kingdom. The midtribulational view, therefore, has two stages in the return of Christ, like the pretribulational view. The midtribulation rapture is supported by Daniel 7:25, where it is stated that the saints will be given over to the tribulation, "given into his [i.e., the antichrist's] hands," for "a time, times, and half a time," which is interpreted to mean the first 3.5 years. Half way through the seven years of the tribulation, the antichrist commits the "abomination of desolation" (Dan. 9:27; Matt. 24:15) by desecrating the Jerusalem temple (to be built on what is now called The Temple Mount). But, the saints will be delivered from this abomination of desolation through the midtribulation rapture. Midtribulationism emerged in 1941 with the publication of the book, The End: Rethinking the Revelation by Norman B. Harrison. Although it is a minority view, it has been supported by conservative evangelicals such as Harold Ockenga (1905-1985), Gleason Archer (1916-2004), and Mary Stewart Relfe.
The prewrath rapture view is that the rapture will happen before God's wrath, i.e., before the "pouring out" of "God's wrath" to the earth (Rev. 16:1), sometime during the second half of the seven-year period. Although the antichrist starts making a covenant with many people from the very beginning of the seven-year period (Dan. 9:27), the real tribulation of the church begins at its midpoint, when the antichrist makes himself known with the abomination that causes desolation for the second half of the seven-year period (Dan. 9:27; Matt. 24:15). The duration of this tribulation, however, is not exactly known, except that it ends during the second 3.5 years. References to "those days" to be "shortened" in Matthew 24:22 and Mark 13:20 are used as evidence that this tribulation will be cut short by the return of Christ to deliver the righteous through the rapture (Matt. 24:29-31), which will occur after the sixth seal is opened and the sun is darkened and the moon is turned to blood (Rev. 6:12). However, by this point many Christians will have been slaughtered as martyrs by the antichrist. After the rapture takes away the righteous, God's wrath will fall upon the remaining unbelievers on the so-called "Day of the Lord." The wrath of the Day of the Lord against the ungodly will follow for the remainder of the second 3.5 years. The antichrist will be defeated in 30 days after the end of the second 3.5 years (Dan. 12:11; Rev. 19:20). After another 45 days, Christ will start to reign the millennial kingdom (Dan. 12:12). The prewrath rapture view was presented by people such as Robert Van Kampen (1938-1999) and Roy A. Reinhold, but it was popularized with Marvin Rosenthal's 1990 book, The Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church.
The posttribulational (or "post-trib") view believes that the rapture, being brought at the return of Christ, takes place after the tribulation period, based on Matthew 24:29-31, which says that "the Son of man" comes "after the tribulation" to gather "his elect" who are present during the tribulation. Another supporting scripture is John 17:15-16, where Jesus prays that the Father not take his (Jesus') disciples from the earth, but that he (the Father) would nevertheless "keep them from the evil one." These passages are taken to preclude a pretribulational or a midtribulational rapture to heaven at any time. From this perspective, Christian believers will be on the earth as witnesses to Christ during the entire seven years, until the last day of the tribulation period. When Christ returns at the end of the tribulation, the living believers will be raptured to meet him in the air, but they will immediately come back to the earth with him victoriously to reign the millennial kingdom. So, there are no two stages in the return of Christ. The posttribulational view brings Christ's "appearing" and his "coming" together in one all-encompassing, grand event. Pat Robertson describes the end times this way in his 1995 novel The End of the Age. Prominent authors supporting this view are George Eldon Ladd (1911-1982), Walter Ralston Martin (1928-1989), John Piper, Robert H. Gundry, and Douglas Moo. The historic premillennialism of many of the Church Fathers in the first three centuries was posttribulational, as Ladd himself recognizes, but it did not use the term "rapture" for the being caught up of the living believers of the church.
During the first three centuries of the Christian era, premillennialism, known as chiliasm, was prevalent because Christians expected the imminent return of Christ in face of persecutions in the Roman Empire. Premillennialism during that time was posttribulationism, believing that the return of Christ occurs after the tribulation. It seems, however, that this historic posttribulational premillennialism did not feel the need for the use of the term "rapture" due to its belief that immediately after the faithful people in the church are caught up to meet Christ, they will come back to the earth with Christ.
After Christianity was legalized as the state religion of the Roman Empire, persecutions toward Christians ceased to exist. So, premillennialism became less popular, and amillennialism became more popular. Amillennialism, which was already developed by Alexandrian scholars such as Clement (c.150-215) and Origen (c.185-c.254), was now systematized by Augustine (354-430). Amillennialists did not feel the need for the use of the term "rapture," either.
For the above reasons, the idea of rapture was not referred to by any of the early Church Fathers. But, some proponents of the pretribulation rapture today such as Grant Jeffrey think that the early church espoused pretribulational premillennialism in favor of the rapture. They maintain that the earliest known extra-biblical reference to the pretribulational rapture is from a sermon falsely attributed to the fourth-century Church Father Ephraem the Syrian (306-373), which says: "For all the saints and Elect of God are gathered, prior to the tribulation that is to come, and are taken to the Lord lest they see the confusion that is to overwhelm the world because of our sins." The interpretation of this writing as supporting the pretribulational rapture, however, is debated, and it is usually believed that no Christian believed in the rapture for the first 1,800 years of the Christian era.
There exists at least two eighteenth-century pretribulation references: 1) in a book published in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1788, and 2) in the book The Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty, written around 1791 by Emmanuel Lacunza (1731-1801), a Chilean Jesuit priest, but later published in London in 1827. The book by Lacunza influenced Edward Irving (1792-1834), a Scottish Presbyterian who helped to found the Catholic Apostolic Church, and in 1830 a 15-year-old Scottish-Irish girl named Margaret MacDonald, one of his followers, made claim of her visions on the pretribulation rapture.
The popularization of the rapture is associated with the teachings of John Nelson Darby (1800-1882), prominent among the Plymouth Brethren, who under some influence of Edward Irving championed a new type of pretribulational premillennialism called dispensationalism in English-speaking churches in the nineteenth century. The doctrine of the rapture was further popularized by an evangelist named William Eugene Blackstone (1841-1935), whose 1908 book, Jesus Is Coming, sold more than one million copies. The theological use of the word "rapture" also appeared in the Scofield Reference Bible of 1909.
In 1957, John Walvoord (1910-2002), a theologian at Dallas Theological Seminary, authored a book, The Rapture Question, that gave theological support to the pretribulation rapture; this book eventually sold over 65,000 copies. In 1958, J. Dwight Pentecost authored a book supporting the pretribulation rapture, Things to Come: A Study in Biblical Eschatology, that sold 215,000 copies.
During the 1970s, the rapture became popular in wider circles, in part due to the books of Hal Lindsey, including The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), which has reportedly sold between 15 million and 35 million copies. Lindsey proclaimed that the rapture was imminent, an idea that he based on world conditions at the time. The Cold War and the Europe an Economic Community figured prominently in his predictions of impending Armageddon. Other aspects of 1970s global politics were seen as having been predicted in the Bible. Lindsey suggested, for example, that the seven-headed beast with ten horns, cited in Revelation, was the European Economic Community, a forebear of the European Union, which at the time aspired to ten nations; it now has 27 member states.
In 1995, the doctrine of the pretribulation rapture was further popularized by Tim LaHaye's Left Behind book series, which sold tens of millions of copies and was made into several movies. The doctrine of the rapture continues to be an important component in fundamentalist Christian eschatology today. Many fundamentalist Christians continue to feel that world conditions point to the rapture, tribulation, and return of Christ occurring soon.
Many of the premillennialists today are however still posttribulational, following the posttribulational premillennialism of the early church. While the rapture is mentioned as the posttribulation rapture among them, there is also a tendency not to use the term any longer just like in the early church. Needless to say, the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and mainstream Protestant Churches have no rapture tradition and reject the doctrine, because they usually adhere to amillennialism.
Generally, believers in the rapture of the church no longer make predictions regarding the exact timing of the event itself. The primary scripture reference cited for this position is Matthew 24:36, where Jesus is quoted saying; "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone" (NASB). Gary DeMar has jokingly challenged "date setters" to sign a contract turning over all their assets to him on the day after they claim the rapture is to occur. As a postmillennialist, he has written a book, Last Days Madness, endorsing the preterist position and challenging many of the popular ideas of Bible prophecy.
Any individual or religious group that has dogmatically predicted the day of the rapture, referred to as "date setting," has been thoroughly embarrassed and discredited, as the predicted date of fulfillment came and went without event. Some of these individuals and groups have offered excuses and "corrected" target dates, while others have simply released a reinterpretation of the meaning of the scripture to fit their current predicament, and then explained that although the prediction appeared to have not come true, in reality it had been completely accurate and fulfilled, albeit in a different way than many had expected.
Conversely, many of those who believe that the precise date of the rapture cannot be known, do affirm that the specific time frame that immediately precedes the rapture event can be known. This time frame is often referred to as "the season." The primary section of scripture cited for this position is Matthew 24:32-35, where Jesus is quoted teaching the parable of the fig tree, which is proposed as the key that unlocks the understanding of the general timing of the rapture, as well as the surrounding prophecies listed in the sections of scripture that precede and follow this parable.
Some notable rapture predictions include the following:
The rapture is often the plot of films. In these films, all of the Christians mysteriously disappear. Usually everyone wakes up one morning to find that millions of people have vanished without explanation. Often there is a news cast where experts debate what has happened. The rest of the film deals with those that were "left behind" as they realize that the rapture has happened and the world is consumed by evil forces and heads towards ultimate destruction.
The first full-fledged rapture movie was A Thief in the Night (1972) produced by Russell S. Doughten. That film was followed by three sequels: A Distant Thunder (1977), Image of the Beast (1980), and The Prodigal Planet (1983), and it set up the genre of the rapture film. With only a few exceptions, the genre died out by the end of the 1970s only to resurface again in the 1990s with films such as The Rapture (1991), Apocalypse (1998), Left Behind: The Movie (2000), The Omega Code (1999), Megiddo: The Omega Code 2 (2001), and Revelation (2001). In 2002, Dirk Been and Joel Klug starred in the movie Gone, which is about three lawyers who are left behind in the Philippines. The film was nominated for the "Best Christian Movie of the Year" by Christian Beats magazine and was seen on the Dove Awards on national TV. "Gone" was seen by an estimated 1.2 million people. It was written and directed by Tim Chey.
In 1950, the novel Raptured by Ernest Angley was published. It was a fictional novel based on the accounts foretold in the books of Daniel and Revelation. The story focuses on a man whose mother is raptured along with other Christians, while he is left behind in the tribulation period. In 1995, Tim LaHaye's Left Behind was published. The rapture is a major component of the premise of the book and its various spin-offs. The plot of the book was used as a basis for a 2000 movie and a 2006 video game.
In Mark E. Rogers' book, The Dead, published in 2001, those chosen for salvation disappear in a blinding flash of light. It is possible for people who have been left behind to redeem themselves in the eyes of God; those who do are immediately raptured. Sacrificing oneself to help others is one way of being redeemed. Some characters are actually under attack by reanimated corpses, or by Legion himself, at the time of their rapture. The blinding flash of light totally disorients the corpses who witness it, rendering them incapable of any action at all for a short time. The humans are literally "caught up" "in an instant" by God.
At the height of the Jesus Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the rapture figured prominently in popular songs by secular artists, such as "Are You Ready?" by Pacific Gas & Electric (#14 in August 1970) and "In The Year 2525" by Zager and Evans (#1 in July 1969). Also at that time, the song "I Wish We'd All Been Ready" was written and performed by Larry Norman, one of the founders of the nascent "Jesus Rock" movement in the early 70s. Other songs about the Christian end times include "Goin' by the Book" and "The Man Comes Around" by Johnny Cash and "Tribulation" by Charlie Daniels. Later popular songs based on the Apocalypse, if not explicitly the rapture, are "1999" by Prince and "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" by REM. Norman Greenbaum's song "Spirit in the Sky" is also related to the subject.
Those who believe in the rapture are usually premillennialists who hold that the return of Christ takes place before the millennial kingdom that he is going to launch. They all tend to take the Bible literally, and many of them do so with considerable enthusiasm about the rapture. But, their ways of interpreting the Bible regarding the timing of the rapture relative to the tribulation are quite different from one another. Hence the four different main views seen above. It has been observed, even by many of those who believe in the rapture, that these differences have caused confusion, division, and disunity among believers. Although believers' excitement about the expected return of Christ may be something one should probably understand and honor because of their sincere faith, nevertheless when they stick to their respective views which they believe are superior, further division arises. One critic says that this division or confusion exists because each view reinforces itself by simply utilizing biblical passages out of context for its advantage: "each [view] has scoured Scripture in order to find texts which may be plucked out of context, and has provided a meaning which can be used to score a point in support of [its] postulations."
In an attempt to erase the division among the different views on the temporal relationship of the rapture with the tribulation, people such as Cecil E. Maranville suggest that the being "caught up" of the living believers of the church has little to do with their rescue from the tribulation itself, being instead related primarily to their reunion with Christ at his return. Their suggestion is based on their more careful look at the broader context (1 Thess. 4:13-5:11) in which Paul presented his idea of being caught up (1 Thess. 4:17). According to them, Paul was not talking about the tribulation but rather addressing the Corinthians' concern about how those believers who had unfortunately passed away before the return of Christ would be able to reunite with Christ. If so, then there is no need for any division of the various views on the tribulation above. Just reunite with Christ! They also hold that being caught up, if it is not necessarily related to the tribulation itself, will not have to be called "rapture." Perhaps premillennialists (except those who adhere to historic premillennialism that does not talk about the rapture) should have dialogue with postmillennialists and amillennialists, who do not use the word rapture, and even many of whom do not believe in an upward physical movement at the time of reunion with Christ.
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