What Is Rapture?
The rapture is an eschatological concept of certain Christians, particularly within branches of American evangelicalism, consisting of an end time event when all Christian believers who are alive will rise along with the resurrected dead believers into Heaven and join Christ. This is a theory that grew out of the translations of the Bible that John Nelson Darby edited to fit his doctrines, which was promulgated by the cult followers of Darbyism, which is a doctrine that has been deemed heretical by most of mainstream Christians. Some adherents believe this event is predicted and described in Paul’s First Epistle to the Thessalonians in the Bible, where he uses the Greek harpazo (ἁρπάζω), meaning to snatch away or seize. Though it has been used differently in the past, the term is now often used by certain believers to distinguish this particular event from the Second Coming of Jesus Christ to Earth mentioned in Second Thessalonians, Gospel of Matthew, First Corinthians, and Revelation, usually viewing it as preceding the Second Coming and followed by a thousand year millennial kingdom. Adherents of this perspective are sometimes referred to as premillenial dispensationalists, but amongst them there are differing viewpoints about the exact timing of the event.
The term “rapture” is especially useful in discussing or disputing the exact timing or the scope of the event, particularly when asserting the “pre-tribulation” view that the rapture will occur before, not during, the Second Coming, with or without an extended Tribulation period. The term is most frequently used among Christian theologians and fundamentalist Christians in the United States. Other, older uses of “rapture” were simply as a term for any mystical union with God or for eternal life in Heaven with God.
There are differing views among Christians regarding the timing of Christ’s return, such as whether it will occur in one event or two, and the meaning of the aerial gathering described in 1 Thessalonians 4. Many Christians do not subscribe to rapture-oriented theological views. Though the term “rapture” is derived from the text of the Latin Vulgate of 1 Thess. 4:17—”we will be caught up”, (Latin: rapiemur), Catholics, as well as Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, Mormons, the United Methodist Church and most Reformed Christians, do not generally use “rapture” as a specific theological term, nor do any of these bodies subscribe to the premillennialist dispensationalist theological views associated with its use, but do believe in the phenomenon—primarily in the sense of the elect gathering with Christ in Heaven after his Second Coming. These denominations do not believe that a group of people is left behind on earth for an extended Tribulation period after the events of 1 Thessalonians 4:17.
Pre-tribulation rapture theology originated in the eighteenth century, with the Puritan preachers Increase and Cotton Mather, and was popularized extensively in the 1830s by John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren, and further in the United States by the wide circulation of the Scofield Reference Bible in the early 20th century.
“Rapture” is derived from Middle French rapture, via the Medieval Latin raptura (“seizure, kidnapping”), which derives from the Latin raptus (“a carrying off”).
The Koine Greek of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 uses the verb form ἁρπαγησόμεθα (harpagisometha), which means “we shall be caught up” or “taken away”, with the connotation that this is a sudden event. The dictionary form of this Greek verb is harpazō (ἁρπάζω). This use is also seen in such texts as Acts 8:39, 2Corinthians 12:2-4 and Revelation 12:5.
The Latin Vulgate translates the Greek ἁρπαγησόμεθα as rapiemur meaning “we are caught up” or “we are taken away” from the Latin verb rapio meaning “to catch up” or “take away”.
English Bible translations
English versions of the Bible have expressed the concept of rapiemur in various ways:
- The Wycliffe Bible (1395), translated from the Latin Vulgate, uses “rushed”.
- The Tyndale New Testament (1525), the Bishop’s Bible (1568), the Geneva Bible (1587) and the King James Version (1611) use “caught up”. This is carried over to the American Standard Version (1901) and the Revised Standard Version (1946, 1952).
- The on-line NET Bible (1995-2005) translates the Greek of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 using the phrase “suddenly caught up” with the footnote: “Or ‘snatched up.’ The Greek verb ἁρπάζω implies that the action is quick or forceful, so the translation supplied the adverb ‘suddenly’ to make this implicit notion clear.”
The Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, the Anglican Communion, Lutheranism and Protestant Calvinist denominations have no tradition of a preliminary return of Christ. The Orthodox Church, for example, rejects a preliminary return because it depends on a pre-millennial interpretation of prophetic scriptures, rather than an amillennial or postmillennial fashion.
- Those who are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not precede those who are dead. (1 Thess 4:15)
- The dead in Christ will resurrect first. (1 Thess 4:16)
- The living and the resurrected dead will be caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. (1 Thess 4:17)
- The rapture will occur during the Parousia. “those who are alive and remain unto the coming (Parousia in Greek) of the Lord, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess 4:15-17)
- The meeting with the Lord will be permanent. “And so shall we ever be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:17)
One or two events
Most pre-millennialists divide the rapture and second coming into two events. Some dispensationalist pre-millennialists (including many Evangelicals) hold the return of Christ to be two distinct events, or one second coming in two stages. According to them 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17 is seen to be a description of a preliminary event to the return described in Matthew 24:29–31. Although both describe a coming of Jesus, these are seen to be different events. The first event is a coming where the saved are to be ‘caught up,’ whence the term “rapture” is taken. The second event is described as the second coming. The majority of dispensationalists hold that the first event precedes the period of tribulation, even if not immediately (see chart for additional dispensationalist timing views).
Amillennialists deny the interpretation of a literal 1,000-year rule of Christ, and as such amillennialism does not necessarily imply much difference between itself and other forms of millennialism besides that denial. However, there is considerable overlap in the beliefs of Amillennialists (including most Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Lutherans), post-millennialists (including Presbyterians), and historic pre-millennialists (including some Calvinistic Baptists, among others) with those who hold that the return of Christ will be a single, public event. Those who identify the rapture with the second coming are likely to emphasize mutual similarities between passages of scripture where clouds, trumpets, angels or the archangel, resurrection, and gathering are mentioned. Although some (particularly some amillennialists) may take the rapture to be figurative, rather than literal, these three groups are likely to maintain that the passages regarding the return of Christ describe a single event.
Some proponents believe the doctrine of amillennialism originated with Alexandrian scholars such as Clement and Origen and later became Catholic dogma through Augustine.
Dispensationalists see the immediate destination of the raptured Christians as being Heaven. Roman Catholic commentators, such as Walter Drum (1912), identify the destination of the 1 Thessalonians 4:17 gathering as Heaven.
While Anglicans have many views, some Anglican commentators, such as N. T. Wright, identify the destination as a specific place on Earth. This interpretation may sometimes be connected to Christian environmentalist concerns.
Views of eschatological timing
According to 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 and Matthew 24:37-40 the rapture would occur in the Parousia of the Lord where the Greek “Parousia” is used to describe the events:
|1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 ASV||Matthew 24:37-40 NIV|
|15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord (παρουσίαν Parousia), will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.||37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming (παρουσία Parousia) of the Son of Man. 38For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming (παρουσία Parousia) of the Son of Man. 40Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.|
In the amillennial and postmillennial views there are no distinctions in the timing of the rapture. These views regard the rapture, as it is described in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 would be identical to the second coming of Jesus as described in Matthew 24:29-31 after a symbolic millennium.
In the premillennial view, the rapture would be before a literal millennium. Within the premillennialism the pre-tribulation position is the predominant view that distinguishes between the rapture and second coming as two different events. There are also other positions within premillennialism that differ with regard to the timing of the rapture.
Though the Catholic Church does not generally regard biblical prophecy in texts such as Daniel and Revelation as strictly future-based (when viewed from the standpoint of our present time), in 1590 Francisco Ribera, a Catholic Jesuit, taught “futurism”—the idea that most of Revelation is about the imminent future (rather than containing certain prophecies that were already fulfilled in the early years of the church). He also taught that a gathering-of-the-elect event (similar to what is now called the rapture) would happen 45 days before the end of a 3.5-year tribulation.
The concept of the rapture, in connection with premillennialism, was expressed by the 17th-century American Puritans Increase and Cotton Mather. They held to the idea that believers would be caught up in the air, followed by judgments on earth, and then the millennium. Other 17th-century expressions of the rapture are found in the works of: Robert Maton, Nathaniel Homes, John Browne, Thomas Vincent, Henry Danvers, and William Sherwin. The term rapturewas used by Philip Doddridge and John Gill in their New Testament commentaries, with the idea that believers would be caught up prior to judgment on earth and Jesus’ second coming.
Dr. Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (1813-1875), a prominent English theologian and biblical scholar, wrote a pamphlet in 1866 tracing the concept of the rapture through the works of John Darby back to Edward Irving.
An 1828 edition of Matthew Henry’s An Exposition of the Old and New Testament uses the word “rapture” in explicating 1 Thes. 4:17.
Although not using the term “rapture”, the idea was more fully developed by Edward Irving (1792–1834). In 1825, Irving directed his attention to the study of prophecy and eventually accepted the one-man Antichrist idea of James Henthorn Todd, Samuel Roffey Maitland, Robert Bellarmine, and Francisco Ribera, yet he went a step further. Irving began to teach the idea of a two-phase return of Christ, the first phase being a secret rapture prior to the rise of the Antichrist. Edward Miller described Irving’s teaching like this: “There are three gatherings: – First, of the first-fruits of the harvest, the wise virgins who follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth; next, the abundant harvest gathered afterwards by God; and lastly, the assembling of the wicked for punishment.”
The pre-tribulation position advocates that the rapture will occur before the beginning of a seven-year tribulation period, while the second coming will occur at the end of it. Pre-tribulationists often describe the rapture as Jesus coming for the church and the second coming as Jesus coming with the church. Pre-tribulation educators and preachers include Jimmy Swaggart, J. Dwight Pentecost, Tim LaHaye, J. Vernon McGee, Perry Stone, Chuck Smith, Hal Lindsey, Jack Van Impe, Chuck Missler, Grant Jeffrey, Thomas Ice, David Jeremiah, John F. MacArthur, and John Hagee. While many pre-tribulationists are also dispensationalists, not all pre-tribulationists are dispensationalists.
John Nelson Darby first proposed and popularized the pre-tribulation rapture in 1827. This view was accepted among many other Plymouth Brethrenmovements in England. Darby and other prominent Brethren were part of the Brethren movement which impacted American Christianity, especially with movements and teachings associated with Christian eschatology and fundamentalism, primarily through their writings. Influences included the Bible Conference Movement, starting in 1878 with the Niagara Bible Conference. These conferences, which were initially inclusive of historicist and futurist premillennialism, led to an increasing acceptance of futurist premillennial views and the pre-tribulation rapture especially among Presbyterian, Baptist, and Congregational members.Popular books also contributed to acceptance of the pre-tribulation rapture, including William E. Blackstone’s book Jesus is Coming, published in 1878, which sold more than 1.3 million copies, and the Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1909 and 1919 and revised in 1967.
Some pre-tribulation proponents, such as Grant Jeffrey, maintain that the earliest known extra-Biblical reference to the pre-tribulation rapture is from a 7th-century tract known as the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Ephraem the Syrian. Different authors have proposed several different versions of the Ephraem text as authentic and there are differing opinions as to whether it supports belief in a pre-tribulation rapture. One version of the text reads, “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.”
There exists at least one 18th-century and two 19th-century pre-tribulation references: in an essay published in 1788 in Philadelphia by the Baptist Morgan Edwards which articulated the concept of a pre-tribulation rapture, in the writings of Catholic priest Manuel Lacunza in 1812, and by John Nelson Darby in 1827. Manuel Lacunza (1731–1801), a Jesuit priest (under the pseudonym Juan Josafat Ben Ezra), wrote an apocalyptic work entitled La venida del Mesías en gloria y majestad (The Coming of the Messiah in Glory and Majesty). The book appeared first in 1811, 10 years after his death. In 1827, it was translated into English by the Scottish minister Edward Irving.
The rise in belief in the pre-tribulation rapture is often wrongly attributed to a 15-year-old Scottish-Irish girl named Margaret McDonald who was of the first to receive a spiritual baptism under a Pentecostal awakening in Scotland. In 1830, she supposedly had a vision of the end times which describes a post-tribulation view of the rapture that was first published in 1840. It was published again in 1861, but two important passages demonstrating a post-tribulation view were removed to encourage confusion concerning the timing of the rapture. The two removed segments were, “This is the fiery trial which is to try us. – It will be for the purging and purifying of the real members of the body of Jesus” and “The trial of the Church is from Antichrist. It is by being filled with the Spirit that we shall be kept”.
During the 1970s, belief in the rapture became popular in wider circles, in part because of the books of Hal Lindsey, including The Late Great Planet Earth, which has reportedly sold between 15 million and 35 million copies, and the movie A Thief in the Night, which based its title on the scriptural reference 1 Thessalonians 5:2. Lindsey proclaimed that the rapture was imminent, based on world conditions at the time.
In 1995, the doctrine of the pre-tribulation rapture was further popularized by Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series of books, which sold tens of millions of copies and was made into several movies and four real-time strategy video games.
The mid-tribulation position espouses that the rapture will occur at some point in the middle of what is popularly called the tribulation period, or during Daniel’s 70th Week. The tribulation is typically divided into two periods of 3.5 years each. Mid-tribulationists hold that the saints will go through the first period (Beginning of Travail), but will be raptured into Heaven before the severe outpouring of God’s wrath in the second half of what is popularly called the great tribulation. Mid-tribulationists appeal to Daniel 7:25 which says the saints will be given over to tribulation for “time, times, and half a time,” – interpreted to mean 3.5 years. At the halfway point of the tribulation, the Antichrist will commit the “abomination of desolation” by desecrating the Jerusalem temple. Mid-tribulationist teachers include Harold Ockenga, James O. Buswell (a reformed, Calvinistic Presbyterian), and Norman Harrison.This position is a minority view among premillennialists.
The prewrath rapture view also places the rapture at some point during the tribulation period before the second coming. This view holds that the tribulation of the church begins toward the latter part of a seven-year period, being Daniel’s 70th week, when the Antichrist is revealed in the temple. This latter half of a seven-year period [i.e. 3 1/2 years] is defined as the great tribulation, although the exact duration is not known. References from Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 are used as evidence that this tribulation will be cut short by the coming of Christ to deliver the righteous by means of the rapture, which will occur after specific events in Revelation, in particular after the sixth seal is opened and the sun is darkened and the moon is turned to blood. However, by this point many Christians will have been slaughtered as martyrs by the Antichrist. After the rapture will come God’s seventh-sealwrath of trumpets and bowls (a.k.a. “the Day of the Lord”). The Day of the Lord’s wrath against the ungodly will follow for the remainder of seven years.
Partial pre-tribulation premillennialism
The partial, conditional or selective rapture theory holds that all obedient Christians will be raptured before the great tribulation depending on ones personal fellowship (or closeness) between she or he and God, which is not to be confused with the relationship between the same and God (which is believer, regardless of fellowship.) Therefore, it is believed by some that the rapture of a believer is determined by the timing of his conversion before the great tribulation. Other proponents of this theory hold that only those who are faithful in their relationship with God (having true fellowship with Him) will be raptured, and the rest resurrected during the great tribulation, between the 5th and 6th seals of Revelation, having lost their lives during. Still others hold the rest will either be raptured during the tribulation or at its end. As stated by Ira David (a proponent of this view): “The saints will be raptured in groups during the tribulation as they are prepared to go.” Some notable proponents of this theory are G. H. Lang, Robert Chapman, G. H. Pember, Robert Govett, D. M. Panton, Watchman Nee, Ira E. David, J. A. Seiss, Hudson Taylor, Anthony Norris Groves, John Wilkinson, G. Campbell Morgan, Otto Stockmayer and Rev. J. W. (Chip) White, Jr.
In the post-tribulation premillennial position, the rapture would be identical to the second coming of Jesus or as a meeting in the air with Jesus that immediately precedes his return to the Earth before a literal millennium. The post-tribulation position places the rapture at the end of the tribulation period. Post-tribulation writers define the tribulation period in a generic sense as the entire present age, or in a specific sense of a period of time preceding the second coming of Christ. The emphasis in this view is that the church will undergo the tribulation. Matthew 24:29–31 – “Immediately after the Tribulation of those days…they shall gather together his elect…” – is cited as a foundational scripture for this view. Post-tribulationists perceive the rapture as occurring simultaneously with the second coming of Christ. Upon Jesus’ return, believers will meet him in the air and will then accompany him in his return to the Earth. In the Epistles of Paul, most notably in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 (“the dead in Christ shall rise first”) and 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, a trumpet is described as blowing at the end of the tribulation to herald the return of Christ; Revelation 11:15 further supports this view. Moreover, after chapters 6–19, and after 20:1-3 when Satan is bound, Revelation 20:4-6 says, “and they lived, and reigned with Christ a thousand years. But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection.”
Authors and teachers who support the post-tribulational view include Pat Robertson, Walter R. Martin, John Piper, George E. Ladd, Robert H. Gundry, and Douglas Moo.
In the postmillennialist view the millennium is seen as an indefinitely long time thus precluding literal interpretation of a thousand-year period. According to Loraine Boettner “the world will be Christianized, and the return of Christ will occur at the close of a long period of righteousness and peace, commonly called the millennium.” Postmillennialists commonly view the rapture of the Church as one and the same event as the second coming of Christ. According to them the great tribulation was already fulfilled in the Jewish-Roman War of 66–73 AD that involved the destruction of Jerusalem. Authors who have expressed support for this view include the Puritan author of Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney.
Amillennialists view the millennial rule of Christ as the current, but indefinite period that began with the foundation of the church and that will end with the Second Coming—a period where Christ already reigns with his saints through the Eucharist and his church. They view the life of the church as Christ’s kingdom already established (inaugurated on the day of the Pentecost described in the first chapter of Acts), but not to be made complete until his second coming. This framework precludes a literal interpretation of the thousand-year period mentioned in chapter twenty of Revelation, viewing the number “thousand” as numerologically symbolic and pertaining to the current age of the church. Amillennialists generally do not use “rapture” as a theological term, but they do view a similar event coinciding with the second coming—primarily as a mystical gathering with Christ. To amillennialists the final days already began on the day of the Pentecost, but that the great tribulation will occur during the final phase or conclusion of the millennium, with Christ then returning as the alpha and omega at the end of time. Unlike premillennialists who predict the millennium as a literal thousand-year reign by Christ after his return, amillennialists emphasize the continuity and permanency of his reign throughout all periods of the New Covenant, past, present and future. They do not regard mentions of Jerusalem in the chapter twenty-one of Revelation as pertaining to the present geographical city, but to a future new Jerusalem or “new heaven and new earth”, for which the church through the twelve apostles (representing of the twelve tribes of Israel) currently lays the foundation in the messianic kingdom already present. Unlike certain premillennial dispensationalists, they do not view the rebuilding of the temple of Jerusalem as either necessary or legitimate, because the practice of animal sacrifices has now been fulfilled in the life of the church through Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on the cross. Authors who have expressed support for the amillenialist view include St. Augustine. The amillennialist viewpoint is the position held by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican churches, as well as mainline Protestant bodies, such as Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and many Reformed congregations.
Further information: List of dates predicted for apocalyptic events
Since the origin of the concept, many believers in the rapture have made predictions regarding the date of the event. The primary Biblical reference cited against this position is Matthew 24:36-37, where Jesus is quoted as saying about his Parousia; “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming (Parousia) of the Son of man be.” (RSV). Also in 2 Peter 3:10, it says “The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up” (see also 1 Thessalonians 5:2). Another potential problem for those attempting to set a date for the rapture arises from Matthew 24:34, where Jesus is quoted as saying “Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled” (KJV).
Any individual or religious group that has dogmatically predicted the day of the rapture, a practise referred to as “date setting”, has been thoroughly embarrassed and discredited, as the predicted date of fulfillment has invariably come and gone without event. Some of these individuals and groups have offered “correct” target dates, while others have offered excuses and have tried to “correct” their target dates, while simply releasing a reinterpretation of the meaning of the scripture to fit their current predicament, and then explain 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 predictions of the date of the second Coming of Jesus include the following:
- 1844: William Miller predicted that Christ would return between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844, then revised his prediction, claiming to have miscalculated the Bible, to October 22, 1844. The realization that the predictions were incorrect resulted in the Great Disappointment. Miller’s theology gave rise to the Advent movement. The Baha’is believe that Christ did return as Miller predicted in 1844, with the advent of the Báb, and numerous Miller-like prophetic predictions from many religions are given in William Sears’ book, Thief in The Night.
- 1914, 1918, and 1925: Various dates predicted for the Second Coming of Jesus by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Some predictions of the date of the rapture include the following:
- 1978: Chuck Smith predicted that Jesus would probably return by 1981.
- 1988: Edgar C. Whisenant published a book called “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988”.
- 1994: Radio evangelist Harold Camping predicted September 6, 1994.
- 2011: Harold Camping’s revised prediction put May 21, 2011 as the date of the rapture. After this date passed without apparent incident, Camping made a radio broadcast stating that a non-visible “spiritual judgement” had indeed taken place, and that the physical rapture would occur on October 21, 2011. On that date, according to Camping, the “whole world will be destroyed.”
- 2017 September 23: Christian numerologist David Meade motivated this date with astrological theories.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia