What Is The Rapture?

If you’ve driven down certain roads, you’ve might have seen signs that said “The Rapture is on X” where X can be any date: specifically, this Saturday, May 21st 2011. A certain Christian by the name of Harold Camping has put his pen to paper once again to set another date for this event and, once again, Christians have been convinced by the time table.

But I don’t want to talk so much about Camping and his crowd. I want to address a few presuppositions and misconceptions that have been flying about by writing a few posts. This first post will go about defining what the rapture is.

Some folk hear “The Rapture is coming” and they automatically translate “The Rapture” to “End of the World” If one is careful with the recent news, Harold Camping is saying that the Rapture is on May 21st and the End of the World is in October this year. Why would he differentiate if it means the same thing?

Well, The Rapture has a couple of meanings: one is the meaning of the word and the second is the theological meaning of the doctrine, and that last bit gets nuanced. That might sound like a weird and unnecessary distinction but it really is something that we all do in our everyday.

“Here are the car keys” technically mean “Here are the keys which enable operation of a vehicle”. But, when you’re employing these words while handing them over to your eighteen year old son who has just acquired his driver’s license, it has a secondary meaning: it is saying that he has reached the point where he can rightfully and (hopefully) responsibly operate the family vehicle.

Technically “rapture” means being carried away—maybe by an emotion. It has the Latin root of raptus which means to seize or snatch. So the literal term is being applied to a phrase in the English Bible: “caught up” or “snatch away”. This phrase is a translation from the original Greek word harpazo.

You’ll find the word harpazo used in Biblical passages that deal with forcibly taking something from someone else (Matt 12:29; Matt 11:12; John 6:15) or quickly take (John 10:12).

But the word is also used in situations which were exceedingly strange. For example, Philip is in one location and then he is harpazo’d and sent elsewhere (Acts 8:39) or when Paul (or someone he knows but let’s assume Paul) is sitting around he is spiritually taken away somewhere else where he sees things that he is not allowed to speak about (2 Cor 12:2-4).

These other uses start trending to our theological usage of the term. You have individuals who are taken elsewhere, in one case physically and in another case spiritually.  In one case (Paul) is brought back to where he physically is; in the other case, Phillip is not brought back to the Ethiopian but rather continues on to where he was transported.

Elsewhere, Christians are told to save others by snatching them out of the fire (Jude 23) with no intention of putting them back into the fire (which is likely referring to God’s judgment of these people who are sinning). Or, in the book of The Revelation, the Son of the Woman (Christ) is snatched up to the throne of God (Rev 12:5). He is relocated, and in this case he is put in a position of power.

So when you read in 1 Thess 4:17 that Christians are caught up, you get arrive at the secondary theological meaning. Christians, living and dead, are caught up to remain with the Lord. See, it winds up being tied to the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor 15:20-24) in a certain sequence: Christ resurrected first, then others, then the end.

Now, there are some theological nuances to this definition throughout the Christian tradition. You see, some Christians (Full Preterists) believe that this catching up with the resurrection of the dead and the coming of Christ occurred in 70 A.D. Christ came to Jerusalem in judgment and many saints  were seen rising up from the graves both at the crucifixion and at this event. Other Christians believe that this snatching away is as a procession that welcomes a King entering a city—so Christians are snatched up, given new bodies, then come back. And yet other Christians think that this snatching away is because God’s wrath is about to be poured out and his people are not to be subjected to His wrath.

The point here is this: Christians believe in The Rapture in both senses (technical and theological) but differ on the theological nuances.

The reason for this disagreement is easy: speaking about what happens in the future is exceedingly difficult for finite humans who don’t have access to the future. It’s even harder when the time tables in Scripture aren’t as clear cut as the expectations.

Christians are told that Christ will return and to live under that expectation. It has been an expectation of the Church since the very beginning. Christians are told that there will be a resurrection which has also been an expectation from the very beginning. The Rapture is distinctly Christian.

So that’s the rapture: it literally means the snatching away or the catching up but it has a secondary theological definition tied to the resurrection of the dead and with enough nuances that you’ll see variation across Christianity.

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