Hollywood tackles the End Times with “Left Behind” film. But is “The Rapture” a Biblical concept, or a fictional plot device?
This weekend, Hollywood tried to tackle one of the most intriguing and controversial topics in Biblical eschatology: “The Rapture.”
A new motion picture — Left Behind — starring Nicolas Cage and based on the best-selling novel series by Dr. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins was released on more than 1,700 screens nationwide. It depicts the sudden and cataclysmic disappearance of Christ-followers in the last days of human history.
I have not seen the film, and likely won’t for several months at least given my schedule here in Israel, so I cannot review or comment on it.
But I do want to discuss the concept upon which the novels and the film are based, and several related questions. Among them:
• What exactly is “The Rapture”?
• Is “The Rapture” a Biblical concept, or merely a fictional plot device?
• What does the term mean?
• What are the implications of “The Rapture”?
While the Bible does not indicate precisely when the Rapture will happen, the Holy Scriptures do teach that all true followers of Jesus Christ will be removed from the earth prior to the beginning of the Tribulation. Because God has not chosen believers to suffer the wrath of the Tribulation, people who have received Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord prior to the Rapture will thus be rescued from the worst of the persecution, wars, natural disasters, and judgments that the Book of Revelation, the book of Daniel, and other Scriptures explain will occur during the seven years leading up to the Day of the Lord. People who are not born-again believers in Christ at the moment of the Rapture will remain on the earth.
If a person honestly and genuinely repents of his or her sins and receives Christ as his or her personal Savior and Lord at any point after the Rapture — including during the Tribulation — the Bible teaches that person will without a doubt be forgiven of all sin, be regenerated by the Holy Spirit of God, and be saved from ultimate judgment. This is God’s grace and mercy, and it will be available even after the Rapture, though the Bible indicates that such new believers will still have to endure the terrors that will occur on the earth during that time. Indeed, many will face martyrdom. Only those who are believers before the Rapture will be saved both spiritually and physically from the wrath to come.
While we cannot preclude the possibility that the U.S. could implode before the Rapture happens, the Bible tells believers to comfort one another with the certain knowledge that as bad as events get on earth, people who trust Christ before the Rapture will be spared from the worst that the prophecies tell us is coming.
In this article, I will look specifically at the implications for America if the Rapture were to happen in the near future.
First, however, we need to define our terms.
What Does the Word Rapture Mean?
The most famous passage describing what theologians refer to as the Rapture is found in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. The apostle Paul writes:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.
While the word rapture does not appear in modern English translations of the Bible, the concept is rooted in Scripture. The word itself comes from the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible. In 1 Thessalonians 4:17 in the Vulgate, the Greek word harpazō is translated rapturo or raeptius, which means “to seize, carry off by force; to seize on, claim for one’s self eagerly; or to snatch out or away.”[i] Most English translations of the Bible—including the King James Version, the New King James Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the New International Version—have, therefore, translated the word harpazō as “caught up.” But English-speaking Bible scholars who studied the Latin Vulgate decided the word rapture was a useful and suitable term to express the scriptural concept of believers being suddenly removed from the world.
If “you happened to pick up a copy of the Latin Vulgate at a garage sale, produced by Jerome in the early 400s, you would indeed find the word Rapture,” Bible scholars Mark Hitchcock and Thomas Ice have noted. “The Vulgate was the main Bible of the medieval Western church until the Reformation. It continues to this day as the primary Latin translation of the Roman Catholic church. . . . It should not be surprising to anyone that an English word in regular use today was developed from the Latin. That word, of course, is rapture.”[ii]
How Does the Bible Describe the Rapture?
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 we find significant and important clues about the Rapture. Among them:
• God does not want believers to be ignorant or “uninformed” about the last days or the Rapture like people who “have no hope” (v. 13).
• Rather, the Lord wants believers to be aware, ready, and expectant for “those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (born-again believers who have physically died) to be resurrected in the last days—indeed, “the dead in Christ will rise first” (vv. 14, 16).
• The Lord also wants believers who are still alive in the last days to be aware, ready, and expectant for the fact that we will be united with the Lord Jesus Christ and with resurrected believers during the Rapture (vv. 15-16).
• During the Rapture, the Lord Jesus Christ will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel of God and the sound of the trumpet of God (v. 16).
• During the Rapture, as the Lord descends from heaven, believers will be caught up or snatched up from earth to meet the Lord in the air (v. 17).
• Unlike the Second Coming, Christ does not come all the way down to earth during the Rapture. He only comes down partway to meet us and take us to heaven, where we will remain with him until we join him at the Second Coming. The key, the Scriptures tell us, is that “we shall always be with the Lord.” Christ will never leave nor forsake us. To the contrary, we will always be at his side and worshiping him for who he is and what he has done for us (v. 17).
• The Rapture should be a comfort to believers because it will be a supreme act of God’s grace (unmerited favor) and his love and mercy as he rescues them out of the traumas of the age from the even-more-horrific traumas to come during the Tribulation (v. 18).
We learn more important details about the Rapture in the apostle Paul’s next chapter to the church in Thessalonica. Consider these verses from 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11:
Now as to the times and the epochs, brethren, you have no need of anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him. Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.
Notably, in this passage we learn that:
• The Lord isn’t going to tell us the specific time when the Rapture will occur (v. 1). The day of the Lord’s coming for us (different in this context from the final Day of the Lord, his judgment after seven years of wars and traumas) will be “just like a thief in the night”—that is, it will come at a time when unbelievers will be surprised because they are not paying attention (v. 2).
• When unbelievers are saying, “Peace and safety!” then the Rapture will occur, and destruction will follow—and all this will come upon the world “suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape” (v. 3).
• In describing these “labor pains,” the apostle Paul echoes the words of the Lord Jesus when he explained in Matthew 24 and Luke 21 that the world will be experiencing “birth pangs” in the last days (v. 3).
• Thus, while we don’t know exactly when or how the Rapture will occur, it seems to come not specifically during a time of intense “contraction” (major wars, terrorist attacks, etc.), but during a time of “release,” a time when things seem to the non-Christian world to be relatively more peaceful and safe than they had previously been (v. 3).
• This means the Rapture cannot take place during the Tribulation, because no one in their right mind could possibly describe any moment during that seven-year period of apocalyptic wars and natural disasters and persecution and divine judgment as a time of “peace and safety” (v. 3).
• Believers are not supposed to be caught off guard by the Rapture but are to remain “alert and sober” (vv. 4-8).
• The truth of the Rapture is meant to encourage believers. The apostle Paul, after all, tells us that because we know the Rapture will occur and the true church will be rescued and removed from the world before the Tribulation begins and the Antichrist emerges and conquers the world, we are to “encourage one another and build up one another” (v. 11).
Do Other Scriptures Shed Light on the Rapture?
Do other New Testament passages shed more light on the Rapture? Yes, they do. The apostle John gives us additional details in his Gospel account, and the apostle Paul provides more information in his first letter to the church in Corinth as well as in the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians. We also see evidence of the Rapture in the book of Revelation.
In John 14:1-6, the Lord Jesus, in a conversation with his disciples, said:
“Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.”
Thomas said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?”
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”
Here, Christ promised to leave earth to prepare heaven for our arrival. Then he promised to come back from heaven to get us and take us to heaven. Therefore, we are not to worry or let our hearts be troubled, because he will eventually come and rescue his church from the troubles of this world.
In 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, the apostle Paul writes, “Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”
When Paul says “we will not all sleep,” he means not all believers will physically die. We will “all be changed”—that is, all believers will be spiritually transformed. Some will die physically but will be resurrected from the dead and given new, immortal bodies. Others will not die physically but will be “changed” during the Rapture and given new, immortal bodies.
In 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, the apostle Paul explains that believers will be rescued from the coming wrath of the Tribulation, explaining that we serve “a living and true God” and that we currently “wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.”
The book of Revelation gives us interesting clues about the Rapture as well. In Revelation 3:10, the Lord Jesus reinforces his promise to remove those who are faithful to him from the wrath of the Tribulation when he says, “Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.”
Notably, the word church or churches is mentioned eighteen times in the first three chapters of Revelation. The apostle John is being told by the Lord to give his messages to a range of different types of church congregations, some who are walking very faithfully with the Lord, but most of whom (five out of seven) are being told to repent or face judgment. Then a striking turning point occurs.
Suddenly, as chapter 4 begins, the apostle John is no longer focused on the churches. Rather, he is caught up to heaven and sees events unfolding from the perspective of heaven. “After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven, and the first voice which I had heard, like the sound of a trumpet speaking with me, said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things.’ Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne was standing in heaven, and One sitting on the throne” (4:1-2).
The word wrath is mentioned eleven times in the book of Revelation to describe the events during the Tribulation. One of the main reasons for the Rapture, the apostle Paul tells us, is to remove the church from the wrath to come during the Tribulation. “For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9).
Remarkably, beginning in Revelation chapter 4, neither the word church nor churches is used during any of the descriptions of Tribulation events in the next eighteen chapters. Only in the final chapter of the book of Revelation, when all the events of the End Times have been described, does the Lord turn his attention back to the existing churches on earth and say, “I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things for the churches” (Revelation 22:16). The fact that churches are referred to so frequently at the beginning of the book and then not again until the last chapter is because the church—the institution as we have known her for the past twenty centuries—is not a factor during the events of the Tribulation. People are still coming to faith in Christ, but they are not operating as the church during that time. Rather, the church has been removed, snatched away, caught up, or raptured prior to the Tribulation.
Examples in the Bible of People Who Were Raptured
One of the things that has intrigued me in the study of the Bible and prophecy—specifically the concept of the Rapture—is that the Lord has given us two examples of people who were raptured in the Old Testament. In a sense, they are examples or “prophetic pictures” of what is coming for all believers at a certain moment in the not-too-distant future.
In the book of Genesis, we learn about a righteous servant of the Lord named Enoch. The Bible tells us that “Enoch walked with God; and he was not, for God took him” (Genesis 5:24). In other words, Enoch obeyed the word of the Lord while living his physical life on earth, and then the Lord decided that rather than requiring Enoch to die physically before going to heaven, he would simply snatch Enoch away while he was still physically alive. The book of Hebrews confirms this interpretation. “By faith Enoch was taken up so that he would not see death; and he was not found because God took him up; for he obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God” (Hebrews 11:5). Think about that for a moment. The Lord was so pleased with Enoch that he made him the first example of a person raptured from the earth. Enoch, however, was not the last.
In the book of 2 Kings, we read about the Hebrew prophet Elijah. The Lord was so pleased with Elijah that he sent a chariot of fire to whisk the prophet away to heaven while he was still alive and walking alongside his young protégé, Elisha. “As they were going along and talking, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them, and Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven. Elisha saw it and cried out, ‘My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ And he saw Elijah no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. He also took up the mantle of Elijah that fell from him and returned and stood by the bank of the Jordan” (2 Kings 2:11-13). The text goes on to tell us that fifty Israelites then proceeded to search for the living Elijah—or at least his dead body—for three full days, but they were unable to find him. Why? Because Elijah had not simply been moved to another location by the Lord. Elijah had not physically died. He had become the second person in the Bible to be raptured.
The Lord Jesus himself gives us the picture of another type of rapture. While the circumstances are not precisely the same as what the apostle Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians, they do shed some light on what the Rapture will be like. Christ, of course, was crucified, killed, and buried. Then he was raised from the dead on the third day, according to the Scriptures. After that, he spent time with the believers on earth. During that time, he had a real body, but it was a body that had been dramatically changed. For example, the Lord Jesus spoke, walked, ate, cooked, and traveled with those he loved. He had real flesh and blood, as he demonstrated to Doubting Thomas in John chapter 20. But he also appeared, disappeared, and walked through walls.
In Acts 1, Christ beautifully and amazingly demonstrated this type of rapture:
And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”
Can you imagine that? One moment Jesus was talking to his disciples on the Mount of Olives. The next moment he was floating up to heaven through the clouds. Someday soon, believers will experience something very similar.
Not every Christian has studied these Scriptures about the Rapture, or understands them, or believes them. Nevertheless, the Bible teaches that every single person who has received the free gift of forgiveness and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ—and who is physically alive when the Lord decides the moment has come—will be caught up from the earth to meet Jesus in the air. What a glorious thing that will be. I hope it happens in my lifetime. I am really looking forward to it, as are my wife and children. We are eager to see the Lord Jesus face-to-face. We are excited about his return and amazed by these promises he has made us.
If the Lord had called the church to go through the Tribulation, then we would endure it willingly and for his glory. We would do so knowing that the Holy Spirit would give each of us the strength, the courage, the boldness, and the words to witness for Jesus Christ in the darkest hours of human history. After all, the Lord Jesus tells us what he told the apostle Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). At the end of Matthew 28, Christ said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” Then He commanded us, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” And he promised, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (vv. 18-20). So we may be assured of his grace, mercy, love, and presence through all circumstances.
But the Lord didn’t call believers to endure the Tribulation. Instead, he promised to remove the church before the wrath comes. For this we are grateful, and we want more believers to know and understand and be encouraged by these powerful promises.
Are You Ready?
The question is not whether the Rapture will occur. The question is whether you will be spiritually ready to meet Jesus Christ face-to-face when it happens and be caught up in the air with him and all believers, or whether you will not be ready and have to remain on earth to face the wrath of the Tribulation.
If you’re not 100 percent certain at this point in your life that your sins are forgiven, that your soul is saved, and that you will go to heaven whether you face natural death or the Rapture, then may I encourage you to read the following verses and receive Jesus Christ right now as your personal Savior and Lord?
• In John 3:3, the Lord Jesus told a religious leader who came to him seeking spiritual guidance, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” One’s physical birth into a religious family, Jesus was saying, is not enough. Nor is being a very religious person. Nor even a religious leader. Something else has to happen on the inside. Thus, as you read the New Testament, it becomes clear that born again is a biblical term referring to a person who 1) is fully convinced that faith in Jesus Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection from the dead is the only way to be forgiven of his sins and adopted into God’s family; and 2) has consciously, willfully, and purposefully asked God through prayer to wash his sins away and save him through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
• In John 1:12, we learn that “as many as received Him [Jesus Christ], to them He gave the right to become children of God.”
• Jesus said in John 3:16 that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
• In Romans 10:9-10, the apostle Paul explains how to be born again: “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.”
• Then, in 2 Corinthians 5:17-18, Paul tells us the result of being born again: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.”
• In Revelation 3:20, Christ encourages you to make this decision immediately and not to refuse him or shut him out of your life any longer. “Behold, I [Jesus] stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.”
Would you like to make that decision? You can receive Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord right now. Here is a suggested prayer that has been helpful to many people all over the world—including my father and me—in becoming followers of Christ and in sharing the gospel with others. The key is not so much the precise words as the attitude of your heart.
Lord Jesus, thank you for loving me. Thank you for having a wonderful plan and purpose for my life. I need you today—I need you to forgive me for all of my sins. Thank you for dying on the cross to pay the penalty for my sins. Thank you for rising again from the dead and proving that you are the Way, the Truth, and the Life and the only way to get to heaven. I open the door of my heart and my life right now. I receive you as my Savior and Lord. Thank you for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Please change my life. Please fill me with your Holy Spirit. Please take control of my life and make me the kind of person you want me to be so I can serve you and please you forever. Thank you so much. I love you, and I want to follow you. Amen.
If you just prayed with sincere faith in Christ’s death and resurrection, then congratulations! You’ve just been adopted into God’s family. Welcome! Let me give you a quick snapshot of seven wonderful things that have just happened.
1. You have a new spiritual life. The apostle Paul put it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”
2. You have made everyone in heaven happy. According to the words of Jesus in Luke 15:10, there is great rejoicing in heaven because you have become a follower of the living God. “I tell you,” Jesus said, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
3. You are going to heaven when you die or when the Rapture happens. According to the words of Jesus in John 3:16, you now have eternal life. You will not go to hell and perish eternally when you die physically. Rather, you will go to heaven and live forever with God and with all those who have been adopted into his family through faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, the New Testament was written precisely to show people how to find eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ. As we read in 1 John 5:13, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” God wants you to know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you are now forever safe in his family. Take confidence in his promises.
4. You have the Holy Spirit living within you. According to the words of the apostle Paul in Ephesians 1:13-14, your salvation has been sealed and secured forever by God’s Holy Spirit, who now lives within you. “In Him [Jesus Christ], you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.”
5. You have access to a supernatural source of peace. According to Philippians 4:7, you now have access to a supernatural peace with God and internal peace of mind, regardless of whatever external circumstances come your way. “The peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
6. You have access to a supernatural source of hope. According to the words of Hebrews 6:18-19, all followers of Jesus Christ are encouraged to “take hold of the hope set before us” and to view “this hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast.”
7. You have access to God’s supernatural wisdom. According to James 1:5, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.”
Now, I strongly encourage you to find some people who also love Jesus and are his faithful followers and tell them what you have just done. Allow them to rejoice with you, and ask them to help you find a good, solid, Bible-believing and Bible-teaching church congregation where you can begin attending. Start asking the Lord for an older, wiser follower of Christ to begin discipling you—that is, to begin teaching you the Scriptures, answering your questions, praying with you, and encouraging you to actually put into practice in your life all that the Lord teaches us in the Bible.
I would also encourage you to choose three people who are not born again and tell them what you’ve just discovered about God’s love and forgiveness and why you chose to receive Christ into your life and become his follower. Answer their questions as best you can. Perhaps give them a copy of this book to help them understand why you’ve made this decision. Better yet, find out if they have a Bible, and if they don’t, offer to go to a bookstore and help them pick one out to begin studying and reading on their own. Now is not the time to keep the miracle that has just happened in your life to yourself—go tell people! And don’t stop at three. Tell as many as will listen. Tell them lovingly and gently. Don’t force it down their throats, of course. But don’t be shy, either. They need to know these truths and make a choice one way or the other, just like you did.
[Note: This article is adapted from a chapter in my non-fiction book, Implosion: Can America Recover From Its Economic & Spiritual Challenges In Time?]
[i] See definition of harpazō in Strong’s Concordance, available online at http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G726&t=KJV.
[ii] Mark Hitchcock and Thomas Ice, The Truth Behind Left Behind, (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2004), pp. 22-23.