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WHAT ABOUT the ‘rapture’? My mate is going to be taken up before the ‘event’ as he will be one of the chosen ones. The rest of us are going to have a hard time down here …

The ‘rapture’ is the idea which is held by some churches that at the end of the world Jesus’ followers will be taken away to meet him. Some preachers present colourful pictures of the faithful ascending to heaven in bliss while down below the earth spirals into chaos and horror.

The idea is built upon a passage in one of Paul’s letters:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17).

The word ‘rapture’ comes from the Latin translation of that phrase ‘caught up’. It literally means ‘snatched away’.

Paul is talking about the return of Christ to the earth, when he ‘descends from heaven’. Without going into any detail, let’s consider some of the things we’re told will happen:

It will be a time of trouble on the earth (for example Daniel 12:1). Christ will return in power and glory (for example Matthew 16:27). There will be a judgement of people who have had the opportunity of responding to the Gospel (for example 2 Timothy 4:1). There will be a massive conflict (Ezekiel 38). Afterwards Christ and his followers will live and reign on the earth (for example Revelation 2:26–27).

Paul is talking about the judgement. What does he mean when he says that people will be “caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air”? Possibly that is what will literally happen; perhaps more likely he’s using symbolic language: ‘clouds’ are used elsewhere as a symbol for crowds of believers (Hebrews 12:1). One thing for certain is that “we shall always be with the Lord” not in heaven but on the earth, for that’s where the Kingdom will be.

What about the idea that believers will be taken away prior to the return of Christ? A number of prophecies indicate that when Christ is revealed to the world, the ‘saints’ (his followers) will be with him (for example Zechariah 14:5). They will already have been ‘snatched away’ to their judgement. So it does seem that there will be a point in time, as the crisis escalates and the world prepares for the final conflict, when a number of people suddenly aren’t here any more.