What exactly is the “Rapture” of believers, and what happens to those who are “left behind?”
Given that some Evangelicals believe the Rapture will happen one day during Israel’s High Holidays, now’s a good time to consider what the Bible really says
JERUSALEM—The Bible describes a remarkable event that will take place during the “last days” of history before the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
It is most often referred to as the “Rapture” and it involves the sudden “catching away” or “snatching away” of true, born again followers of the Lord Jesus.
On Monday, I wrote a column about why some Christians and Messianic Jews believe the Rapture will happen one day on our around the Jewish High Holidays in the Fall.
Today, in Part 4 of this “Wake Up Call” series, let’s look more closely at the Biblical basis for the Rapture, especially since many Christians don’t understand it or even believe that it will really happen.
Because as darkness falls on our world, and as apostasy threads throughout much of the Church around the world – including here in Israel and the Arab/Muslim world – true followers of Jesus need to wake up, to be alert, to be living lives of holiness and Great Commission impact before the Lord comes back to get us.
And those who don’t yet have a personal relationship with the Messiah need to get one before it’s too late.
IS THE RAPTURE FICTIONAL OR REAL?
In the 1990s, two Evangelical authors – Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins – wrote the Left Behind series of novels, selling more than 65 million copies in the process.
The novels depicted what the authors imagined it would feel and look like if those in the world who follow Jesus suddenly disappeared “in the twinkling of an eye.”
They also imagined what might happen to everyone else, to people who are not followers of Jesus, to people who will be “left behind” as the End Times judgments described in the ancient Hebrew prophets, as well as in the New Testament Book of Revelation, begin to unfold.
While the Left Behind novel series was a work of fiction – as well as a publishing phenomenon, selling more books than any other Christian book in history beside the Bible – the theology of the Rapture is real and rooted in the Biblical Scriptures.
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, which means “to seize, carry off by force; to seize on, claim for one’s self eagerly; or to snatch out or away.”
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.”
HOW DOES THE BIBLE DESCRIBE THE RAPTURE?
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 we find significant and important clues about the Rapture.
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 to 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 worshipping 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.
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?
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 Jesus, “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.”
DO WE LEARN ANYTHING ABOUT THE RAPTURE IN THE BOOK OF REVELATION?
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 18 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 11 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 18 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 20 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.
Joel C. Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and the President and CEO of Near East Media. A New York Times best-selling author, Middle East analyst, and Evangelical leader, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons.