It’s a day like any other, and then—bam!—everything changes. Millions of people disappear in an instant and all that’s left are piles of clothes, iPods and wallets. Panic and terror break out. This is the scene that viewers are faced with in the new Left Behind movie, directed by Vic Armstrong, and it’s Nicolas Cage’s job to find out what’s happened. But the viewers already know the answer: it’s the Rapture, of course! The Biblical prophecies have come true.
Or have they?
The Rapture is now commonly understood to refer to a time when believers will be snatched up to heaven by Jesus to escape the time of tribulation about to engulf the earth during the reign of the Antichrist. This chain of events has become so integral to some Christian eschatologies (end-time theories) that it’s often assumed they’re clearly explained in the Bible, especially the book of Revelation. But in fact it’s all slightly more complicated than that.
The idea of a “pre-tribulation” Rapture, where believers disappear and everyone else is left on earth to suffer, is actually a rather new one. This type of Rapture was first made popular by the work of John Nelson Darby in the late 1800s. It then spread with the release of the Scofield Reference Bible (1909), and Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins sent it viral through their best-selling Left Behind book series. However, prior to this, “rapture” had referred to the second coming of Christ in general, rather than the supernatural escape from troubles as portrayed by Left Behind.
So how did this version of the Rapture come about?
The mention of an event where believers are “taken up” into the sky in the Bible primarily comes from Paul’s First letter to the Thessalonians. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul is dealing with the fears of believers whose loved ones have died and who are afraid of what will happen when Christ returns. After telling them that the dead shall rise, Paul offers them this:
Sky yes, but no tribulation, no Antichrist.
Other passages from the Bible are seen as supporting this idea, for example, Matthew 24:40–1 and Luke 17:34–35, which speak of one person being taken and another left behind. However, these passages discuss the second coming of Christ (the Parousia), not an escape from the world. The “blink of an eye” idea is taken from is 1 Corinthians 15:51–52. But none of this is from Revelation. And none of it lays out a clear Rapture, tribulation, Antichrist plan.
The book of Revelation does not specifically mention this pre-tribulation Rapture prior to the Antichrist’s reign, either. Revelation 3:10 is the text most cited as describing it:
However, this occurs in a letter to a specific church, Philadelphia, rather than as part of the visionary material. References to this having any connection to “the Rapture” in scholarly commentaries are few and far between. And Revelation 3:10 doesn’t mention being taken up into the sky or the Antichrist.
Actually, the book of Revelation doesn’t use the term Antichrist at all. That term comes from 1 and 2 John. The beasts of Revelation are taken by many to be the Antichrist, as thought to be predicted in Daniel 7. But none of them is called Antichrist.
Other ascents to heaven by certain figures are mentioned in Revelation (John the Seer, the two witnesses, the child of the woman clothed like the sun), but these do not describe huge groups disappearing prior to the plagues, sufferings and terror which inflict the earth.
For more on Hollywood movies, read “Excruciating Exodus Movie Exudes Errors,” “Rock Giants in Noah” and “The ‘Gods of Egypt’ Movie: A Mess of Anachronisms and Exoticization.”
By this stage it becomes clear that the Rapture is far from an obvious and widespread concept in the Biblical text. Indeed, creating the idea of the Rapture, let alone its timeline, involves harmonizing many disparate parts of the Bible and presents the Bible as a prophetic tool. It involves reading the book of Revelation in relation to other texts, rather than reading what is contained in Revelation.
Left Behind’s Rapture, then, is more a product of how texts are read than the texts themselves. Reading the Bible as having a blueprint for the future held within it was attributed to Joachim of Fiore (1132–1202), who created a complex timeline of different ages leading to the second coming of Christ. But even he didn’t have a Rapture.
Darby, Scofield, LaHaye and Jenkins were inheritors of this tradition and put it into practice to create their own Rapturous chain of events, which is now often presented as the only possible version.
However, the idea that Jesus’ sayings, Paul’s teachings, John’s Letters and John of Patmos’s Revelation, not to mention the texts of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, represent the same branch of eschatology is something few scholars would maintain. These texts were written in different locations and time periods, to different people, with different goals. A “one end-plan fits all” attitude proves more than problematic, as richly diverse ancient texts are streamlined to an ordered modern timeframe of Rapture, tribulation and Antichrist.
What’s more, the “backbone” for all of this—the book of Revelation—frustrates its readers. It offers long pauses, contradictory timeframes and undisclosed declarations, and every time the end is announced, it never actually arrives. It is more apt to describe it as spiralling around an endpoint rather than marching toward one. It is, in essence, a text that defies any framework placed onto it.
Vic Armstrong’s Left Behind movie has been lambasted by critics as over-simplistic, formulaic and lacking all intrigue, with the Rapture in the middle as the only interesting part. The reality of the Rapture in the Biblical text is somewhat different. It’s the common concept of the pre-tribulation Rapture that is an oversimplification, a blurring of the complex texts and ancient worldviews. It is a modern creation assumed to be part of the final book of the Bible. But the book of Revelation doesn’t offer its readers the Rapture. It doesn’t even offer a clear ending. Rather, it offers wonder, awe and quite often bewildering strangeness. And that is why, unlike the new movie Left Behind, it’s so very, very intriguing.1
1. For a further introduction to the book of Revelation, see Ian Boxall, Revelation: Vision and Insight: An Introduction to the Apocalypse (London: SPCK, 2002). For further information on different readings of Revelation through history, see Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001).
Michelle Fletcher is currently completing her doctoral research at King’s College London on the use of the Old Testament in the book of Revelation. She is particularly interested in the relationship between the book of Revelation and film. Her publications and conference papers cover such topics as Terminator’s use of the Apocalypse, Revelation’s females, Frankenstein films and Westerns as apocalyptic spectacle.
How the Serpent Became Satan by Shawna Dolansky
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on October 14, 2014.
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