The Christian belief in “The Rapture,” made famous by the Left Behind series and various doomsday predictions, comes from two Scriptures in the Bible which speak about the resurrection of the dead. In neither place is it specifically called “the Rapture” although you can find the Latin word for “rapture” in there if you use the Latin Vulgate Bible. In fact, the Latin is where we get the term, and the term simply applies to the event described in I Corinthians 15:51-52 and I Thessalonians 4:15-17. And since saying “The Rapture” is easier than saying “The-Event-Described-In-1st-Corinthians-15-51-52-and-I-Thessalonians-4-15-17” or T.E.D.I.1.C.1.15.52.A.I.T.4.15.17 for short…
Most of us just say “the Rapture.”
Anyway, the Rapture is basically a simple concept. In both places, the Bible (Paul was the writer) is talking about what happens to believers in Jesus who are still alive when the resurrection happens. Obviously, God’s not going to strike them all dead so He could raise them up at that moment. Instead of that morbid method, the Bible says we will be “caught up” to Jesus in the air (I Thessalonians 4) and changed “in the blink of an eye” into immortality (I Corinthians 15). Part of the reason Paul wrote about it in I Thessalonians was to give people hope. It is a rather exciting thought to consider. And assuming you believe in God and Jesus in the first place, it makes sense. I mean, if Jesus returned and raised the dead into eternity, it’s only natural to ask what would happen to those who are still alive at the time. The Rapture is the answer for that question.
But we still manage to have huge arguments over it. Those debates are generally over whether to take it seriously in the first place, or if you believe in a resurrection, the argument is over when exactly the Rapture part of it happens.
THE “WHEN” ARGUMENTS
The “Left Behind” books and movies took a very common position on the WHEN part, by saying The Rapture would occur before the beginning of a 7 year period of Tribulation on the earth. I know, I know… Harold Camping and his band of merry…uh… people… just said there would be a 5 month period of judgments and that’s it.
But contrary to popular assumptions, Harold didn’t take the Bible literally all that much. He did when it suited him, but Harold Camping’s prediction was his own interpretation, and his own idea of figuring out what he believed was a mathematical formula the Bible was hinting at. If instead, he had taken Bible prophecy literally, he would have had to stop where Jesus says “no man knows the day or the hour.” After all, that literally would mean it would be highly unlikely for Harold to know the end was coming on Saturday (the day) at 6pm (the hour).
But as I was saying, the Left Behind books by Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins took a position that is probably the dominant one in most churches in the Baptist, Assemblies, and Pentecostal traditions. Many non-denominational churches are in that boat, too. That idea is the Rapture will occur about 7 years before the end of the world, and during those 7 years God will unleash judgments on the earth. A great many Christian authors, teachers and preachers believe this, but there are quite a few who don’t, too.
On the other side are those who believe the Rapture will take place at the end of the world, and that these Scriptures do not represent a initial catching away of Christians, followed by judgments, and then another resurrection or two down the road. Many churches from the Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, independent Christian, and Church of Christ traditions would take the view that the Rapture is merely part of the greater resurrection that happens when Jesus comes back.
Both sides believe that there will be people who are still alive when the (or “a”) resurrection takes place, and they will be “changed” in the “blink of an eye,” but as you can see, they differ over when exactly this happens.
THE “WHETHER IT HAPPENS AT ALL” ARGUMENTS
There is a third group that doesn’t take it seriously at all. The Emergent churches are in this category, and guys like Rob Bell who recently decided not to take a literal hell seriously either. These pastors and churches take the passages about the Rapture in an ENTIRELY symbolic way as they do most prophetic Scriptures. Kurt Willems article is a good example. This group preaches the social Gospel, that God has called us, not so much to a heaven out there beyond the universe, but to create a heaven here on earth by helping the poor, ending oppression, taking care of the planet and generally showing the love of Christ.
Kurt says, “Physical / earthly realities such as social injustice, violence, hunger, preventable sickness, and the destruction of nature are invitations to the church of Jesus to get our hands dirty and proclaim that this world matters (even in its broken state)! Christ will complete creation upon his return, uniting heaven and earth for the life of the age to come! ”
Some of what Kurt said there is good stuff, but to come to the conclusion that Christ “will complete creation upon his return,” or to conclude as he does elsewhere that God will not destroy the planet, REQUIRES that you don’t take the Bible literally in many places. As expected then, Kurt takes I Thessalonians 4 and says that the last trumpet is an allusion to God when He gave His Law to the Israelites and Moses came down off the mountain with the blast of a trumpet. The clouds represent “the power and authoritative judgment of God about the rescue of His people” and being caught up to meet Jesus in the air alludes to the people going out to meet the Roman Emperor when he visited a city in order to usher him in.
In other words, everything means something besides what it sounds like it means.
SOME THINGS TO CONSIDER IN THE MIDST OF THE CONFUSION
Ok, so who to believe? Well, since everyone claims the Bible is on their side -including Harold Camping who missed another prediction- then let’s say a few things to give the Bible some credit and throw some grains of salt on all of our “interpretations” about the Rapture.
Just because there are some symbolic meanings, doesn’t mean it’s not real.
There is symbolism for the number three. It’s the number of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Yet I still maintain that Jesus was in the grave for 3 days. In fact, when Jesus said he would be in the grave for three days, He compared it to Jonah being in the belly of a fish for 3 days. But Jesus wasn’t merely alluding to Jonah so the disciples would understand that He was going to suffer and be in a “spiritual dark and stinky place”… No, Jesus was talking about actually being dead and buried in the ground.
There is symbolism throughout the Bible. It’s everywhere. But if we decided that everywhere we find symbolism, it must not have actually happened, then the entire Bible would have to be discarded as meaning anything real at all. The creation story symbolizes conversion, the flood symbolizes baptism, the call of Abraham symbolizes our present faith, Abraham nearly sacrificing his son Isaac symbolized God the Father sacrificing His Son Jesus, and the ram that Abraham eventually used as a sacrifice also symbolized Jesus and on and on it goes. Deeper you go, the more that’s there. It’s amazing how many symbolic things fit together in the Bible like an inter-woven tapestry of incredible depth and meaning.
But the symbolism doesn’t negate the reality. God is capable of doing something on purpose to symbolize and teach us about something else. So Moses came down the mountain with a trumpet blast, and God sits enthroned above the clouds, and Emperors occasionally visited cities, but those things do not mean that Jesus won’t descend from Heaven like the angels said He would in Acts 1, and gather us to be with Him, just like He said He would in John 14.
The problem with symbolism is it’s in the eye of the beholder. If our symbols take the place of the plain sense meaning then we can symbolize and believe an unlimited amount of things. We can mold our own Bible into whatever image feels right to us. I would suggest always keeping in mind an old proverb: “If the plain sense make sense, don’t look for any other sense, lest you wind up with nonsense.”
(I think looking for another sense is fine, but just as long as you don’t discard the plain sense.)
Besides, when you look at the prophecies concerning Jesus’ first coming, you discover some extremely detailed prophecies that were literally fulfilled -where He was born, how many silver pieces He would be betrayed for, how He would die, etc… Why then assume that the prophecies of His second coming (at least some of them) might not ALSO be fulfilled exactly as they describe? Like for instance, the resurrection of the dead?
There’s No Where in the Bible Where It Claims the Rapture Occurs 7 Years Ahead of Time
-and just so you know, there’s no place in the Bible where it says it cannot be 7 years ahead of time either. The Scriptures used to support this idea are not clear, but vague. Not surprisingly, God left the whole timing issue vague. My guess is because He wanted us to be ready every day. There are Scriptures which are interpreted to mean the Rapture will happen before a 7 year tribulation, but as you can imagine, not everyone agrees with that interpretation anymore than everyone agreed with Harold Camping’s interpretation that the end would come exactly 7000 years after Noah’s Flood.
For instance, II Thessalonians 2 does mention something “being taken out of the way” which had been “holding back” an anti-christ sort of figure. This is interpreted by some to mean the Church or the Holy Spirit, and “taken out of the way” refers to being raptured from the earth. But it doesn’t come out and say that (and it certainly COULD have), nor does it say this happens 7 years ahead of time. There are all sorts of nuances to consider even if you take it very literally. The something “being taken out of the way” could literally mean an angelic being, or some spiritual force. The Bible describes God holding things back in several places in the Bible, including chaining up Satan in Revelation 20. Plus, even if the something IS the church, then what does it mean when it says this anti-christ sort of figure will be “revealed”? Revealed is the English word, but the original Greek word has a bigger meaning. In the Bible that word sometimes refers to something coming into the fullness of power, such as the day when Jesus is “revealed” in Luke 17:30. If that’s what Paul was getting at, then perhaps the anti-christ is “revealed” in the sense of coming into the fullness of his power, 3-4 years into the tribulation? Without getting too deep, the bottom line is the vague Scripture in II Thessalonians 2 is certainly open to interpretation.
There is another Scripture in Revelation where John is caught up to heaven where he sees most of the vision of Revelation. This is often interpreted to symbolize the Rapture. But again, it doesn’t say that. Some claim “the Church” is never mentioned in the book of Revelation after chapter 4, but the Church as a WHOLE isn’t mentioned before chapter 4 either. And besides, if the church has no mention, then who exactly is that in Revelation 12:17? the Church of Scientology? I believe the church is the church whether they accept Christ before, during, or after any Tribulation. Whenever they believe on Jesus and are baptized in His name, when the Holy Spirit indwells them, aren’t they the Church? And if the Holy Spirit is out of the world, then what of the New Covenant? Are we back to the Old? The same one that Hebrews called obsolete?
There are plenty of reasons to question the timing of the Rapture, whether you take the Bible in a plain sense manner, or take it more symbolically. Personally, I’m all for the 7 year idea. That would be wonderful and exciting! But my own view is that the Rapture takes place closer to the end, after the time of persecution spoken of in Revelation 13.
And since the Bible leaves that door open either way, it’s probably good to stay flexible on the timing issue. After all, sometimes our predictions don’t come true.
The Rapture Isn’t All That Crazy of an Idea Actually –
In the Bible, God judged the nation of Egypt with plague after plague while the Israelites were in their midst. There was no rapture out of Egypt. But when God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, He took Lot and his family out of the city first. There was a rapture there -so to speak. Certainly, God can choose to take people out of the way if He wants to, and He is capable of taking His people through a time of tribulation as well.
So maybe there will be a rapture 7 years ahead of time, or 3 years, or 3 minutes… Or maybe it’s just right there at the end? But however it unfolds, the Rapture is ultimately just the thing that happens to those of us who are still alive when the Lord returns. Mortal bodies don’t go into eternity Paul wrote in I Corinthians 15. Immortal bodies do. We will not all die, but we will all be changed he said. In I Thessalonians 4, he wrote that Jesus would descend from Heaven (like the angels said He would) with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, with the trumpet call of God and the dead will raise first, and we who are still alive will be caught up to be with Him.
At that moment, no one is going to care who figured it out perfectly. We’ll just be glad to be there.