Despite its popular presence in evangelical theology, some Christian scholars can't help but wonder whether the rapture — the proposed theological event that says believers will be taken up to heaven by Jesus before the Earth’s final destruction — is actually rooted in scripture.
While proponents claim that the Bible backs the mass disappearance, others say that its advocates are confusing and misreading scripture to conjure up a phenomenon that simply isn't in the cards.
And as the rapture debate forges on, the popular end-times theory is serving as the basis for Hollywood thrillers like "The Remaining," released earlier this month, and "Left Behind," which hits theaters Oct. 3. With these feature films emerging, it's no surprise that the book of Revelation and biblical prophecy are gaining extra attention of late.
What Is the Rapture?
Audiences generally love apocalyptic story lines, which is what makes the rapture and the calamity prophesied to follow ripe for the Hollywood treatment. But what is it really all about?
The rapture is an event described and taught in many Christian circles in which all of the Christ-followers living at a specific time will simultaneously ascend and leave the Earth.
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The non-believers will be left behind — hence the name of the feature film — to contend with what some theologians say will be a difficult and chaotic tribulation period before the second coming of Jesus Christ, as About.com highlights.
It's unclear what exactly this would look like or when it would happen, but belief in this general paradigm is taught among many Christian circles and denominations. That said, even among those who believe in the rapture, there's intense debate surrounding the finer details.
As About.com's Mary Fairchild notes, there are three main ideas governing how and when the event would unfold: pre-tribulation rapture theory, post-tribulation rapture theory and mid-tribulation rapture theory.
Of the three, the pre-tribulation timeline is the most rampantly taught. It contends the rapture will take place right before the tribulation period. Once Christians ascend to heaven to be with God, the Earth's final seven years will then begin (i.e. the so-called tribulation period).
While non-believers can still become Christians during this time period, they will face extreme circumstances — and even brutal murder — on Earth as the Antichrist rises, Fairchild highlights.
Christians subscribing to a post-tribulation worldview, however, believe they will remain on Earth during the tribulation period until the end of its seven year time frame. According to this worldview, they will either be protected or removed from the chaos.
And as for those who embrace the mid-tribulation theory, they believe Christians will be taken from the Earth in the middle of the seven-year period.
Of course, the broader debate is over whether the rapture is even biblical to begin with.
Intense Debate Over the Rapture
While numerous scripture references point to an event or moment in which Jesus returns and Christians ascend to heaven, there's a great deal of debate over the finer details, author and biblical expert Dr. Ron Rhodes told TheBlaze.
"You've got a lot of Christians who have different opinions on a lot of this … and so I think it's a good thing to come to firm conclusions," he said. "But I don't think we need to have on a boxing gloves."
While he acknowledged that there are pre, post and mid tribulation theories out there, Rhodes personally believes that the Bible backs the pre-tribulation paradigm — and that many of the events going on currently in the world are intertwined with biblical eschatology.
Middle East chaos — which is certainly not unique to contemporary times, but which continues to rage — is a factor that leads Rhodes to conclude that the end times could be approaching.
"First of all, I believe that the days we are living in, we are witnessing certain signs of the times. The time of the end is at least drawing near and among those signs of the times would include the rebirth of Israel, which took place in 1948," he said. "But there's other things we've witnessed — the escalation of apostasy in the church, there's a move toward globalism, a continued move toward a cashless society."
"Scripture says really quickly that Israel will be a thorn in the world in the end names … probably next on the schedule the rapture of the church," he added. "There's not a single prophecy that must be fulfilled before that happens."
Rhodes spoke of a prophesy that is presented in the Old Testament book of Ezekiel — one in which a military alliance develops between what is believed to be Russia, Iran, Syria and Turkey, with these nations attempting to invade Israel.
While he said that some Christians who don't believe in a literal interpretation of the Old Testament scriptures on Israel would likely dismiss them, Rhodes takes a different view. He believes this invasion could take place before the rapture or during the seven-year tribulation period, though he favors the former view.
Rhodes said he believes the biblical figure known as the Antichrist, who will appear to have all the answers to the world's problems, will sign a covenant with Israel. With so much chaos raging, Rhodes said that people will be looking for someone to trust.
"He will be an individual that people will look up to. People are crying out for an individual who can make sense of this world so I think the path is being prepared for that today," he said. "By the middle of the tribulation period — that's when things get bad. At that point the Antichrist sets up his headquarters at Jerusalem."
After that, Rhodes said that Jesus will return, slay the forces of the Antichrist and set up a 1,000-year kingdom on Earth before the wicked are inevitably judged. Then a new heaven and new Earth will follow.
The theological theories are both heavy and complex, but you can read more about them here.
At this point, it's important to differentiate between the rapture and the second coming. While the two are often confused and mistaken as the same biblical event, GotQuestions.org highlights the key differences:
The rapture is when Jesus Christ returns to remove the church (all believers in Christ) from the earth. The rapture is described in1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and 1 Corinthians 15:50-54. Believers who have died will have their bodies resurrected and, along with believers who are still living, will meet the Lord in the air. This will all occur in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye. The second coming is when Jesus returns to defeat the Antichrist, destroy evil, and establish His millennial kingdom. The second coming is described in Revelation 19:11-16.
All this aside, Rhodes noted that some Christians reject his more literal view and take a more allegorical approach to prophecy. He specifically addressed Ezekiel 36, noting that the book covers the restoration of Israel — something that he said didn't unfold until the 20th century.
"It's interesting to me that the ancient prophet would say Israel [would be] born again as a nation after being dispersed for a long, long time," he told TheBlaze, in reference to claims made in Ezekiel 36. "It's never happened before 1948 — that's when that began happening."
Joel Rosenberg's End-Times Views
Christian author Joel C. Rosenberg shares similar views to Rhodes, telling TheBlaze last year in detail what he thinks will happen during the end times. He focused mainly on the second coming of Christ, noting that Jesus spent a great deal of time speaking about his return.
“The disciples asked Jesus, ‘Would you give us one sign of the end times — when is this all coming to an end’ [Matthew 24]. Jesus could have said, ‘No comment. Next question,’ but he didn’t,” Rosenberg said. “He actually walked through a whole list of signs to watch for that will be indicators that will culminate in the second coming of Christ [Mark 13 & Luke 21].”
He said Jesus noted dozens of times that he would be back again — something that was widely documented and explained by the apostles. The Bible’s elements of prophecy, Rosenberg argues, are intended to give believers some idea surrounding what might happen before Jesus returns.
“He does want us to be aware that he’s coming and [that] we’re getting close so that we’re ready … you don’t know when he’s coming, but he’ll come like a thief in the night,” he continued, while noting that not everyone buys into these contentions. “There’s obviously skeptics and critics.”
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The author further explained these elements, describing the notion that Jesus would come back “quickly” (found in the first chapter of Revelation). At the time, some interpreted this to mean that Christ’s return would be imminent, but that obviously wasn’t the case.
“And, yes, this was interpreted that he would come near to the end of the first century — it gave a sense of immanency,” Rosenberg said. “‘Quickly’ has been interpreted as soon — when he comes, he’s coming fast — he uses the expression of a flash of lightening.”
The author explains that this language was employed to urge people to be ready, as they would not know exactly when the Christian savior was returning. In what he called an “understandable disagreement,” some assumed that, since Christ didn’t return, that the so-called prophecies were actually not meant for the 20th and 21st centuries, but, instead, for people living in earlier centuries.
While Rosenberg explained that it is understandable why some would hold these views, once Israel was re-established as a state, the notion that the Bible wasn’t predicting what would come centuries after its contents were penned was turned on its head.
The rebirth of the state of Israel — predicted in the Book of Ezekiel — solidified this, he said, mirroring comments made by Rhodes.
“In the end times, the Bible describes that the Jews will be coming back to the land in Ezekiel 36 and 37,” he told TheBlaze. “For many, many, many centuries — basically for 19 centuries — even most of our church fathers … did not understand that God literally meant the physical, geopolitical birth of the state of Israel.”
The Rejection of Rapture Theology
Despite these claims, Christian philosopher William Lane Craig rejects much of what Rhodes and Rosenberg have to say about the rapture and the events as depicted in "Left Behind." In fact, Craig has gone as far as to call the rapture unbiblical in recent interviews and proclamations.
"The rapture was made up by someone in the 1800s, and the story caught on among some groups who still believe it today," he told Charisma News. "The simple truth is that it is not biblical, nor was it ever the historic position of the Christian church."
Craig said that many people have simply grown up in Christian homes where the rapture has been taught as fact, leading many Bible-believers never to question the merits of the theological construct.
In fact, he argues that the idea came from a man named John Darby back in 1827 and that Darby's take on the scriptures was simple inaccurate. Additionally, he said the theory was embedded in the Scofield Reference Bible, a popular study Bible — a fact that assisted in its prevalence in Christian circles.
While some believers look to Paul's words in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 when validating a rapture view, Craig said that they end up confusing the rapture with the second coming of Christ.
Nothing in the text, the philosopher maintains, backs the notion that Paul is speaking about anything other than this latter event, according to Charisma's interview with Craig.
“Bible Answer Man” Hank Hanegraaff, a noted Bible expert, shares in Craig's dismissal of the rapture. In a phone interview with TheBlaze last year, he rejected the notion that Revelation and other alleged predictions apply to today’s world, though he, like Craig, embraces the notion of a second coming.
As for the rapture as embraced by Rhodes, among others, he said it isn't found in the Bible, proclaiming in an episode of his radio show last year: "There’s not a rapture in the sense of a pre-tribulation rapture."
Hanegraaff said that he believes wholeheartedly that Jesus is returning, but dismissed the notion that Christ would come back for a rapture, then reverse course only to return again later during the second coming.
“Well, the Bible says … that Jesus is going to appear a second time,” he said. “Those who have lived on the planet … Jesus said, do not be amazed by this … there will be the ultimate judgement that takes place, which those who have a relationship with God in this time-space continuum are given that relationship in eternity and those who did not want a relationship will have that validated in eternity as well."
When it comes to prophecy, Hanegraaff simply doesn’t believe that the Bible's writers were looking so fervently into the future. In fact, he contends that they were speaking about events that would unfold in the immediate and that have already come to pass.
For instance, in Revelation, Hanegraaff argued that John wasn’t speaking about the 21st century.
“When Jesus says that the apocalypse will soon take place and that the time is near … his words are meant to convey the events in the future,” he said. “If he wanted to say that 2,000 years later he could easily do that, but instead, he said the time is soon and the time is near so it has to do what is happening to the Seven Churches that God is circulating the letters to” (here’s more on the Seven Churches).
These literal churches, Hanegraaff contends, are being told by John what they will face — “an apocalypse of unparalleled proportions.” Through Revelation, he argues that John is telling the churches to be faithful and that their vindication would be eternal.
“I think the point we have to probably recognize is that all of the Bible was written for us, but none of it was written to us,” he contended. “This book of Revelation was written to seven churches.”
Pew Research Center
As for Rhodes, he said it's best for Christians, despite their disagreement over the rapture, to "focus on the agreement that we have" — mainly, the belief that Jesus Christ is eventually coming back during the so-called second coming.
"Our agreements far outweigh our disagreements," he said.
The debate over the rapture and second coming is certainly a fascinating one, with biblical scholars many times embracing divergent views.
As for the public, a Pew Research Center poll found in 2010 that 48 percent of American Christians believe Jesus will probably or definitely return within the next 40 years, showing that there's a profound interest — at the least — in the general teaching that the Christian savior will one day return.
A majority of evangelical leaders (61 percent) have, more specifically, said that they believe in the rapture, according to past research.
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