Everyone loves to daydream about getting away from the humdrum daily grind.
That’s probably why the concept of the Rapture has captivated many (though not all) Christians for centuries. For an apocalyptic Christian, the Rapture is that moment when all “saved” Christians are taken from the Earth by Jesus Christ and led to Heaven. The concept actually comes from a line in the Apostle Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians (4:15-7), in which he states, “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall 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.”
Here Paul is employing imagery that might seem familiar to us today from a Cirque du Soleil performance, but is otherwise not something we’re accustomed to experiencing on a day-to-day basis, to describe what will happen when Christ returns — trumpets, cries, people flying around in the clouds.
It is worth remembering that Paul was concerned here with a newly-born church, and a group of new converts who needed instruction and encouragement. As the consummate organizer, Paul knew he needed to provide some kind of an incentive to this new flock to keep them interested and engaged — a strategy employed by Amway and Weight Watchers, among others, at the beginning of a new convert’s experience. Thus, he provided them with a supernatural description of the end-times, with Jesus hovering on high, to keep the Thessalonians focused on living pure lives. It was Paul’s way of saying, “If you’re good, I’ll take you to Vegas, and when we get there I’ll comp you the Cirque du Soleil tickets.”
For centuries, most Christians of the apocalyptic flavor believed that the Rapture would occur after a period of Great Tribulation (as mentioned in Matthew 24:21) that would last for seven years (as inferred from the mention of “one week” in Daniel 9:27), at the beginning of which the Antichrist would be revealed. In other words, they took Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians to mean that everyone should just hang in there during a seven-year period of war … rumors of war … pestilence and famine … rumors of pestilence and famine … and so forth, and that afterwards, Jesus would come down and take us all on vacation. A permanent one. No more humdrum daily grind.
During the 19th century, however, some folks apparently believed that God would want us to have a greater reward than to stick around through seven years of chaos and only then get our front seats at Cirque du Soleil. A lapsed barrister named John Nelson Darby started to preach the idea that “saved” Christians would secretly be given the opportunity to see Cirque du Soleil before the seven-year Great Tribulation — i.e., Jesus would take his “saved” Christians to Heaven before things even start to get really bad down on Earth. After all, Darby seemed to be arguing, we’re keeping our covenant — why should we have to suffer through all that messy war and pestilence and famine? And so it came to pass that among apocalyptic Christians there arose a group of Pre-tribulationists, whose ideas began to hold particular influence in the U.S. — perhaps not coincidentally, since we’re not generally accustomed to having to wait for our rewards here.
A third group, the Mid-tribulationists (we’ll call them the “Whigs”), piped up around 1955 believing that the Rapture will occur some time after the beginning of the seven-year Great Tribulation and the moment during which the Antichrist is revealed, but before things get too scary. Leave it to some folks to try to skate down the center of a controversial issue.
The debate between the Pre-Tribulationists and the Post-Tribulationists has caused a bit of a rift among level-headed apocalyptics, and it can get pretty heated. Take this exchange between Dr. Thomas Ice, executive director of the Pre-Tribulation Research Center, and Richard Perry, author of Of the Last Days: Listen, I Tell You a Mystery, which occurred at the Bible Prophecy Conference in Athens, Georgia in December 2001:
Richard Perry: … the Word says, that He must remain in heaven until it is time to restore everything.
Dr. Thomas Ice: Right!
Richard Perry: Then how does He come out of heaven into the air, if He must remain in heaven until after the tribulation?
Dr. Thomas Ice: The New Testament comes and gives us the new revelation about the Rapture. Where Christ doesn’t come to the earth but He meets us in the cloud in the heavens and we return back with Him to the Father’s house. There are only two comings, when He came 2,000 years ago and the Second Coming when He returns with His raptured Church called His Bride to Terra Firma and He reigns for a thousand years. The rapture is said to be a mystery in 1 Corinthians 15 meaning a new revelation. Something that was always part of God’s plan just never revealed, why because the Church Age is a mystery, Ephesians chapter two and three….
Richard Perry: So, you are interpreting the heavens in Acts 3:21 as not heaven where the Father and the Son are residing at the moment, but as both heavens as in terms of the heaven that means the air, meaning that Jesus hasn’t really left heaven if He is still in the air?
Dr. Thomas Ice: Uh, I don’t know that you have to resolve something that precise. All I know is that the contexts of Acts chapter two and three is in relationship to the Jewish nation. When are these things going to happen for Israel? That the times of refreshing are going to come…. It is not dealing with the Church.
Richard Perry: So, if I understand, Christ will come for the Church which is the “blessed hope” at the rapture before the seven year tribulation period and then at the end of the seven-year period He will come to earth with the Church to judge the nations and the unbelieving world.
Dr. Thomas Ice: Yes!
Richard Perry: Then I have a hard time understanding what Paul is talking about in 2 Thessalonians first chapter where he says, those of you that are troubled I will provide relief, and it says, when He comes He will judge the unbelieving world with His angels in blazing fire which is clearly a picture of His coming at the end of the tribulation period.
See the full exchange here. The debate is, of course, quite similar in form and substance to the controversy that still rages today over why the Borg were able to show up so quickly in Alpha Quadrant in Season 2 of Star Trek: Enterprise. Fundamentally, both debates involve questions of physics, engineering and mechanics, and are probably best left to a MIT lab section. And perhaps a good travel agent.
Ultimately, whether you are a Post-Tribulationist who believes that good things come to those who wait, a Pre-Tribulationist who believes that if you’re good enough you don’t ever have to wait, or a Whig who just doesn’t want to rock the boat too much — don’t let these arguments distract you too much. In the meantime, while you’re waiting for Cirque du Soleil, there are bills to pay, errands to run, and many, many meals to cook, serve and eat. We musn’t let the humdrum daily grind unspool … or some loved one of yours will be mighty upset with you, and then, you can bet that there certainly will be hell to pay.