I’m sure you’ve heard of the Rapture, if only from those bumper stickers that say, “In case of rapture, this vehicle will be unmanned.” Because it’s totally not prideful to assume you’ll be one of the ones raptured, and I’m sure Jesus would be cool with your empty car causing a pile-up on the highway. It’s a fairly mainstream idea these days, as evidenced by the popularity of the Left Behind series, but I’m pretty sure it’s really still a minority belief among Christians. It’s just a very vocal minority with a lot of advertising revenue. It’s actually a quite new idea in the history of the religion, with its roots only known to date back to the seventeenth century. It’s all tied up with the notion of dispensationalism and the premillennial viewpoint. Basically, the Rapture is a very literal interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17: “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.” The general impression seems to be that these are full bodies that are going to be lifted into the sky, perhaps forming an entire sphere of righteous Christians hovering above the Earth. The idea of the resurrection of the dead comes in turn from Daniel 12:2: “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” The resurrection was not accepted by all Jews in Jesus’ time, but it was quite a popular idea, and it seems that the earliest Christians accepted Jesus’ own resurrection as a precursor to what was to come for other dead people.
So when the dead in Christ rise into the air, will they regain their flesh, or will there be a bunch of skeletons up there? And what about people who were cremated? I understand that the Left Behind series has the raptured people leaving their clothes behind, I guess because Jesus is having a nude love-in up in the sky. What a crazy hippie that guy is!
The general idea of the Rapture was expressed by Increase and Cotton Mather in the seventeenth century, but it was John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren who really popularized it. It then made its way into the Scofield Reference Bible in the early twentieth century, which introduced the word “rapture” used in this sense to American evangelical culture at large. It was part of the theology of dispensationalism, based on the idea that history can be divided up into several eras or dispensations, each of which features a different relationship between God and mankind. Opinions differ on how many of these there are, but seven is a common number, for obvious reasons. This page lists them as the ages of innocence, conscience, government, patriarchal law, Mosaic law, grace, and the Millennial Kingdom. Premillenialists, as per the name, believe that the seventh era is in the future, and we have been in the age of grace since the time of Jesus. Harold Camping taught that the age of grace ended in 1993 and no one else has been saved since then (which makes me wonder why God even bothers keeping people around), but his beliefs are pretty unusual even for more radical evangelicals. Postmillennialists, on the other hand, believe we’re already IN the millennial reign of Christ on Earth, and Jesus will come back to end it all after the thousand years are up. Both views are based on Revelation 20, which refers to a thousand-year period in which Jesus and the martyrs of Christianity rule the world, and the Devil is chained in a bottomless pit. Premillennialists apparently take the idea rather more literally. While Revelation presents this as a future event, it also shows Christians as being a persecuted minority prior to this. While this was the case when the book was written, Constantine made it into an official religion in the Roman Empire, so some Christians then figured the millennium must have already arrived. The thousand-year figure, which probably comes from Zoroastrianism, is why the year 1000 was popularly predicted to be the end of the world. Over time, as Christianity split into many different denominations, ideas about eschatology became more and more complicated. The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches have become more or less officially amillennialist, not regarding the thousand-year reign of Christ as a literal event at all, in past, present, or future. Early Protestants often took that view as well, but in recent centuries the idea of regarding all of Revelation as taking place in the future, despite the obvious references to the Roman Empire, has come back into vogue among certain Protestant sects. This view ties together various prophecies in different books of the Bible, creating a series of events that its believers consider a completely literal interpretation of the Bible, despite the fact that it’s basically a hodge-podge. And they think it’s coming any day now.
So where does the Rapture fit into all this? It’s basically a way to provide an easy out for the right kind of Christians. The prophecies in Revelation refer to a time when life is pretty crappy for everyone still living, commonly called the Great Tribulation, and often thought to last seven years. Using the passage from 1 Thessalonians combined with a few references from Revelation, believers in the Rapture think they’ll be lifted up into the sky BEFORE the Tribulation occurs, so they don’t have to worry about it. The persecution of Christians will then only happen to people who convert DURING the Tribulation. I guess the Rapture also helps explain how Christianity could possibly become a minority religion again, although it generally seems that pre-tribulational premillennialists only expect certain kinds of Christians to be raptured. Maybe the Rapture has already happened and no one noticed the people who disappeared. There are also mid-tribulational and post-tribulational premillennialists, who think believers will still be around for part or all of the Tribulation, but this post has already gotten pretty complicated. And I’m still not totally sure how preterism and futurism overlap with the various millennialist beliefs.