We've all heard stories about the Rapture — when all the righteous people will be bodily lifted into Heaven, leaving everybody else to endure years of tribulation. It's a popular idea, that appears in loads of books as well as movies. But where did this bizarre idea come from?
It turns out the notion of the Rapture is pretty new — dating back less than 200 years. So who developed this doctrine, and how did it become so popular, almost overnight?
Where did all the people go?
The best known treatment of the Rapture is probably Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye's Left Behind book and movie series. The Left Behind tie-in movies feature a wide-eyed Kirk Cameron leading people through a world that looks like a PG-rated issue of Garth Ennis' Crossed. Planes crash into the ground, and cars that are suddenly missing their drivers careen into each other, as a chosen group of people are "raptured" and disappear from the Earth, leaving the rest of the world to fend for themselves.
The fever dream of a young girl
Depending on which theologian you speak to, only one or two passages from Judeo-Christian religious texts make reference to an event akin to what is portrayed as the Rapture, leaving the idea with very little Biblical support. Instead, most of the lore surrounding the Rapture originates with two people in the early 19th Century: a teenage girl living in Scotland, and a London-born preacher.
Margaret McDonald, a fifteen-year-old girl living in Scotland, experienced a "vision" of the end of the world in 1820. In McDonald's vision, the chosen few are saved from a "purifying" fire. This is not exactly the disappearance in the middle of the day that popular culture views as the Rapture, but an early prototype. Not everyone leapt to follow her view — and in fact, several contemporary religious leaders deemed her visions demonic.
Meanwhile, London-born evangelist John Darby and members of his flock, the Irish-born Plymouth Brethren, popularized and molded the idea of Judeo-Christians being removed from the Earth, prior to an unknown period of strife. But McDonald had no influence on Darby's views, since Darby apparently espoused this idea as early as 1827. But McDonald's visions, and their later publication, no doubt further popularized the idea of the Rapture in Europe.
Popping up in publication
Darby traveled to North America on several occasions during the mid-19th Century, teaching his theory of the Rapture. On one of these trips, Darby met with James Brookes, a prominent preacher and writer in Missouri — and, most importantly, the mentor of Cyrus Ingerson Scofield.
Scofield, influenced by Darby's teachings via his mentor, published the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909. The Scofield Reference Bible went on to become one of the best selling religious texts of the early 20th Century, one that continues to sell extremely well in the United Kingdom. Scofield's text displays his personal notes and explanations right next to the King James translation of the Judeo-Christian Bible. The proximity of Scofield's notes to the religious text no doubt lent credence to his words, especially in a world lacking widespread communication systems. As individuals emigrated to the United States in the early 20th Century, this helped spread the belief that Darby had already put in place, during his visits to North America.
Amongst those who do believe in the Rapture, meanwhile, the exact details of the event remain quite a mystery. But some leaders do go into specifics — even setting exact dates when the Rapture will happen.
Three different highly publicized dates came and went in the 1990s, but the most recent failed predictions happened just last year. Harold Camping made his second and third attempts to fix a date on the rapture after his humbling announcement of the "confirmed" date of September 6, 1994.
Camping announced May 21, 2011 as the date for the disappearance of the worthy — but after the date passed, he quickly came back and announced the date of October 21, 2011 as the "true" date. Camping predicted a series of earthquakes beginning in New Zealand, to accompany these dates. The 89-year-old Camping and his followers spent $100 million publicizing these two dates in a media campaign.
After nether date turned out to be accurate, many of Camping's followers felt cheated, especially people who'd put their lives on hold for years. This article, checking in on Camping's followers a year later, is compelling but depressing reading. One engineer spent most of his retirement savings on publicizing Camping's predictions, only to see them fail to materialize. Another former believer in Camping told the reporter, "I think I was part of a cult."