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Conservative Protestant belief in the rapture

Introduction to the rapture:

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What is the rapture?

The Rapture is a future event expected 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 alive.

The word "Rapture" comes from the Latin word "Rapare" which means to take away or to snatch out. This would be a remarkable event. As it is described in Evangelical literature, 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 float upwards from their seats, pass through the roof and keep rising through the air towards Jesus.

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, bloody 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, which resulted in the deaths of every adult, child, infant and newborn on earth, with the exception of Noah and seven members of his immediate family.

The rapture concept is a relatively new belief. It 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 mainline and liberal Bible handbooks, commentaries, dictionaries and encyclopedia do not even list "rapture" in their indices.

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The main biblical passage supporting the rapture: 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18

In the King James Version of the Bible, the 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 by the Thessalonian Christians. Some theologians speculate that the Thessalonians had believed that only those Christians who were alive at the second coming would have the possibility of sharing in the Kingdom of God at the time Christ's return. They apparently held various non-orthodox beliefs that St. Paul wanted to correct:

bulletSome 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.
bulletSome felt that those who had recently died may have forfeited their salvation because of their death.
bulletSome may have believed that through their baptism, that they and 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, and went directly to the torture chambers of Hell.

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:

bulletChrist 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.
bulletThe voice of the archangel is heard. Some speculate that this will be the Archangel Michael.
bulletA trumpet call is heard. This may be similar to the trumpet sounded when the Jewish people were gathered together (e.g. Numbers 10:2).
bulletThe 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.
bulletOnly 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 other Christians who were alive circa 50 CE would still be alive when Christ returns. He was mistaken.
bulletThose who have ascended to be with Jesus will be with him for all eternity.
bulletMost of humanity will remain behind on earth. Most of today's Evangelicals believe that this will include:
bulletThe 67% of the world's population that are non-Christian, and
bulletA majority of persons who consider themselves Christians made up of those who have never been saved. This would include about 40% of American adults.
bulletBelievers in the rapture generally believe that a seven year interval of massive devastation will occur at about the time of the rapture. It is called the tribulation and will result in the genocide of about two billion persons.

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. A literal interpretation of this verse would indicate that Paul expected the events to happen during the first century CE. No appearance of Jesus and no rapture happened at that time or since. 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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Copyright © 1998 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2008-JAN-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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