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The Rapture

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What is the rapture?

The Rapture is believed by many -- perhaps most -- born-again Protestants. They are certain that they, alone, will engage in a mass migration in the near future. They believe that those born-again Christians who have died will have their bodies reconstituted and will ascend through the air, and meet Jesus Christ in the sky. This will be followed by a second mass migration of the born-again who are currently living.

The word "Rapture" comes from the Latin word "Rapare" which means to take away or to snatch out. This would be a remarkable event. Pilots would disappear from planes, truck drivers from their trucks; people from automobiles, etc. Some born-again Christians believe that a family will be eating dinner, when some of the members will rise from their seats, pass through the roof and keep rising through the air.

An associated event is Christ's imminent return (also known as the "second coming" and "parousia"). This has been expected by many Christians for almost 2 millennia. It was described by the Greek word "parousia" (coming, arrival, presence) during the 1st century CE. Justin Martyr introduced the term "second coming" in the 2nd century.

Ever since Christ's death, many Christians have been expecting the second coming in their immediate future. Most Fundamentalist and other conservative Christians believe that The Rapture will occur when Christ first returns towards earth. Most believe that Christ will not actually land or stay on earth at this time; the "real" second coming will occur later, when he returns on a horse leading an army on horseback who will exterminate one third of the earth's population in a massive genocide. It will be numerically the largest mass extermination of humans in history. In terms of the percentage of humans to be killed in a genocide, it will be second only to the flood of Noah.

The rapture concept is essentially ignored by most other Christian faith groups. It does not form a part of any other religion. It is dismissed by essentially all liberal Christian theologians. Many Bible handbooks, commentaries, dictionaries and encyclopedia do not even list "rapture" in their indices.

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1 Thessalonians 4:16-18

The full biblical text reads:

1 Thessalonians 4:13-17: "But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord."

This passage contains the main description of the rapture. This passage was written by St. Paul, circa 51 CE, when he was living in Corinth. It was addressed to the Christians at Thessalonica, capital of Macedonia. This was an early writing by St. Paul. If the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) were arranged in chronological order, 1 Thessalonians would be the first (or perhaps the second book, after Galatians).

In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, Paul apparently is correcting a misunderstanding about the return of Christ. Some theologians speculate that the Thessalonians believed that only those Christians who were alive at the second coming would have the possibility of sharing in the Kingdom of God at Christ's return. They may have held various non-orthodox beliefs that St. Paul wanted to correct:

bullet Some felt that their Christian friends and relatives who had died since Jesus' execution might not take part in the parousia, or they might appear at a later time.
bullet Some felt that those who had recently died may have forfeited their salvation because of their death.
bullet Some may have believed that through their baptism, that their fellow Christians should have become immune to death. They would have been concerned that their friends' and relatives' who had died might not have been truly saved.

Paul refers to the dead euphemistically as "those who fall asleep." He tied their hope for salvation and a future life in heaven to their belief in the resurrection of Christ. Paul was anxious to assure the Thessalonians that once a person is saved, he/she is guaranteed to be present when Jesus came again.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:15, Paul refers to "the Lord's own word" as the source of his teaching. Some interpreters believe that this refers to a personal revelation that he received from God. Others believe that Paul is referring to a tradition circulating in the early Christian movement about Jesus' teachings on this matter. He comforts his readers by assuring them that the Christians who are still alive will "certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep." (NIV)

In 1 Thessalonians 4:16 Paul describes the return of Christ to earth. The specific series of events will be:

bullet Christ will descend from the heavens with a shout. This is based on the 1st century CE belief that the earth is the center of the universe, and that heaven is above the firmament -- a solid interface between the atmosphere and heaven, located just a few hundred feet above the earth's surface. Thus, Jesus would have to descend from on high and come through the atmosphere in order to be seen by humans.
bullet The voice of the archangel is heard. Some speculate that this will be the Archangel Michael.
bullet A trumpet call is heard. This may be similar to the trumpet sounded when the Jewish people were gathered together (e.g. Numbers 10:2).
bullet The bodies of faithful Christians will be reconstituted where they were buried. They will rise out of their graves, and ascend into the air to meet Jesus.
bullet Only after the "dead in Christ" have left their graves will "we who are still alive and left" will also ascend to meet Jesus in the air. Paul appears to have believed that he and many Christians who were alive circa 50 CE would still be alive when Christ returns. He was mistaken.
bullet Those who have ascended to be with Jesus will be with him for all eternity.
bullet Most of humanity will remain behind on earth. Most Evangelicals believe that this will include:
bullet The 67% of the world's population that are non-Christian, and
bullet A majority of persons who consider themselves Christians but who have never been saved.

Only about 35% of American adults consider themselves to have been saved.

Since most conservative Christians believe in the inerrancy (freedom of error) of all passages in the Bible, they consider this passage to be a precise description of Christ's second coming. Although a literal interpretation of this verse would indicate that Paul expected the events to happen during the first century CE. They didn't. Some conservative theologians believe that Paul was writing to Christians in the 21st century, not to the Christians in Thessalonica during the first century CE.

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1 Corinthians 15:51-53

The text reads:

1 Corinthians 15:51-53: "Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality."

In this passage, Paul adds one more concept to the description of the Rapture in 1 Thessalonians. He believes that people with normal bodies cannot attain Heaven. The believers' bodies would be instantly changed to a form of "spiritual body," so that they may enter Heaven. Again, if one interprets the verse literally, Paul emphasizes the imminent timing of the second coming. It did not happen during his lifetime, nor did it happen in the subsequent 19 centuries. Some theologians who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible suggest that Paul was really addressing Christians in the 21st century.

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Mark 13:26-17

The Gospel of Mark reads:

Mark 13:26-27: "And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And then shall he send his angels, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven."

This appears to be a brief reference of the parousia and rapture. It differs from St. Paul's description, in that angels appear throughout all the earth to gather Christians up to heaven. People do not rise unaided, as in 1 Thessalonians. There is no mention of the dead having reassembled bodies and rising from their graves.

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When will it happen?

Various Gospel passages record how Jesus believed that the second coming would occur very soon, during the lifetime of his followers (i.e. before the end of the 1st century CE). St. Paul, in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 also anticipates the event in his near future, and during his own lifetime. He encouraged Christians in Thessalonia to keep alert in anticipation of the coming of the Lord. Of course, both the report of Jesus' speech (in Mark 9:1) and Paul's letters (in Thessalonians and in 1 Corinthians 7:26-31) were wrong. Neither the rapture nor Jesus' second coming happened during the 1st century CE. Some Christians of every age since Jesus' execution have been anxiously expecting the event, and looking for signs of its coming.  Anticipation was heightened as the last year of some centuries approached. Some expected it to happen in 1000 CE. This was not a general belief. Because of the low level of education at the time, the public was not generally aware of the date. There was also a heightened expectation just before the year 1500 CE. It was particularly intense as the year 2000 approached. After 2000-JAN-1, the level of anticipation of the millennium (as stated in the Bible), the end of the world as we know it, and of the rapture subsided somewhat.

Various conflicting beliefs have been held about the timing of the second coming, and about how the rapture would fit in with other end-time prophecies:

bullet Millennium: a 1000 year golden era; a time of universal peace described in Revelation 20:1-7.
bullet Tribulation (also called Daniel's 70th week): a 7 year interval which starts when the Antichrist, an international religious-political dictator assumes power. Horrendous events will occur.
bullet Armageddon: a terrible war, provoked by the Antichrist, in which a large percentage of humans will die. God's anger is released on humanity.

Various theories have been promoted by Christians that have linked the millennium, tribulation, Armageddon, second coming and tribulation together according to different schedules and sequences. During the second and third century CE, some Christians believed that the Millennium referred to in Revelation would follow Christ's return. This is called "Premillenialism." It was declared a heresy and suppressed by the church in the 4th Century.

This ancient belief was reintroduced in a modified form circa 1830. Most people believe that it was resurrected by John N. Darby, a minister of the Church of Ireland, a denomination in the Anglican communion; he founded the Plymouth Brethren. However, author Dave MacPherson claims that British pastor Edward Irving was the actual person responsible, and that a conspiracy was organized to give Darby the credit. 13

Premillenialism has received general acceptance by most modern conservative Christians, following the publishing of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909 and in the more modern Ryrie Study Bible. Other respected supporters of the belief are the Dallas Theological Seminary and Moody Bible Institute. As in the early Christian heresy, the Tribulation is seen as preceding the second coming of Christ and his 1000 year rule.

Theologians remain currently divided over the timing of the Rapture. Their beliefs include:

bullet Pre-Tribulation Rapture: (or "pre-trib") The Rapture happens just before the Tribulation, so that believers will not have to experience any of its disruption and pain. Most conservative Christians currently believe this theory. 12
bullet Mid-Tribulation Rapture: (or "mid-trib") The Rapture happens about 42 months into the Tribulation. Initially, the rule of the Antichrist is relatively benign. He arranges a peace treaty between Israel and surrounding countries. But three and a half years into his reign as world dictator, events take a sudden turn for the worse.
bullet Post-tribulation Rapture: (or post-trib") The faithful experience the horrors and killings of the Tribulation. All suffer and many are killed. Believers are then raptured at the end of the 7 years of horror.
bullet Partial Rapture: some of the faithful are raptured just before the Tribulation; the rest are raptured during or at the end of the Tribulation. 1
bullet Partial Rapture (a.k.a. Split Rapture): This is a minority belief among conservative Christians. It is a variation of the Pre-trib rapture in which there are two raptures:
bullet A pre-trib rapture and resurrection occurs before the tribulation, but only for those born-again Christians who have earned special treatment by having been actively watching, waiting and praying for the rapture.
bullet Those born-again Christians who have not been doing these "works" will be have to endure at least part of the tribulation. They will be raptured partway through or at the end of the tribulation period.  2,3

Each of these theories has significant problems and can only be accepted if one ignores certain Biblical passages or twists them totally out of shape. The Bible appears to be ambiguous on this points; many interpretations are possible.

Beliefs about rapture and the tribulation can motivate believers in different ways. If a believer accepts the pre-trib or the mid-trib concept, then they will concentrate on spiritual growth. If they believe in post-trib, then their prime concern will be to prepare for survival.

A favorite occupation among Christians down through the ages has been to predict the timing of the end of the world. Much of Western Europe expected the end of the world in the year 1000 CE. There was great dissatisfaction among believers when it did not happen. In 1833, William Miller (1782-1849), founder of the Millerite Movement, wrote a book "Evidences from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ about the Year 1843." He gathered a great following, until the disillusionment came. Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916), founder of the Jehovah's Witnesses predicted that Armageddon would start in 1914. The Witnesses later predicted 1918, 1920, 1925, and 1941. Some individual Witnesses believed that it would happen in 1975; however their denomination did not endorse that date. Many Fundamentalist and other Evangelical leaders are currently predicting that the events will unfold early in the 21st century.

"Rapture Ready" is the second most popular Web sites on the Internet, as listed by Web side Story. 4 They receive almost 1,000 visitors a day. 5,6 They feature a "Nearing Midnight" section which lists news items that point as signs to the imminence of the second coming. It is updated many times a week. Their "Rapture Index" is a number which attempts to predict the closeness of the date. It has varied from 50 in 1993-DEC to an all-time high of 168 in 1997-OCT. On 2005-JAN-25, the index was 153.

The Millennium Watch Institute attempted to track all social and religious developments associated with the year 2000. 7 Their web site had a countdown clock that showed the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the end of the Millennium, which occurred at midnight on the evening of 2000-DEC-31. Many people felt that Jesus' return towards earth and the Rapture would occur at midnight of that day or at midnight of 1999-DEC-31. It didn't happen. One of the great undocumented stories is how millions of born-again Americans and other conservative Christians adapted to the failure of their expectations of TEOTWAWKI (The End Of The World As We Know It) and the rapture.

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What will happen?

Conservative Theologians and Believers: Most Evangelical Christians believe that the Rapture, as described in the three biblical verses listed above, will happen precisely as described, sometime in the near future. All previously saved Christians, totaling perhaps 5 to 10% of the world's population, will suddenly have their bodies converted into a different form that they will wear for all eternity in Heaven. They will rise vertically into the air. Many believe that they will pass right through ceilings, roofs of cars, etc. to meet Jesus Christ in the sky. Although the vast majority of humans will be left behind, there will be much devastation as planes, trains and automobiles as their pilots, engineers and drivers suddenly disappear and the vehicles crash. The bodies of Christian believers who have died during the previous two millennia will be reconstituted into their original bodies which will then also be converted to spirit bodies. They will rise out of their graves and ascend to meet Jesus.

There is a common theme found in many conservative Christian novels about the end times. The Tribulation is seen as causing mass confusion among those left behind. The unsaved who remain are aware of the disappearance of tens or hundreds of millions of people, but do not seem to know the cause. Mass panic will result. It is doubtful that this would ever happen, because tens of millions of non-born again believers are aware of conservative Christian teachings on the rapture and tribulation.

Liberal Theologians: Many regard the Tribulation belief to be a fascinating myth or vision, but without any grounding in reality. The elements of the story:

bullet Jesus descending in the sky.
bullet Believers rising to meet him.
bullet Parts of dead bodies, some individual organic molecules, somehow reconstituting themselves into their previous form.
bullet Bodies being changed instantly from their physical form to a spiritual form.

are simply a beautiful fantasy without any grounding in reality.

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