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Q. Is the "rapture" scriptural? I've heard it's a false interpretation, but many ministers teach it as truth.

My first thought is that the "rapture" is a terrific notion. It puts me in a whole lot better mood than does the prospect of a Final Judgment. In fact, it's an appealing image to come down through Christianity.

As it is usually taught, the promise is that near the end of the world, the truly faithful souls, living and dead, will ascend heaven-ward, where Christ will gather them up in mid-air. For this fortunate few, eternal life has just begun. No more hoops to jump through. If that's not cause for a modest alcohol-free celebration, I don't know what is. For the rest, we're told the picture is dim to bleak.

Those who hold to this belief most ardently represent a Protestant tradition call millennialism, or pre-millennialism (we'll get to the post-millennialists some other time), which focuses attention on the "end times," when existence as we know it will come to a close and the reign of God will begin. The pre-millennialists foresee this rapid migration of the good folk as the prelude to a thousand years that will give earthlings a chance to get their act together before Jesus comes for a final time to pass judgment. No more chances after that.

Most discussion of the rapture can be found in evangelical and Pentecostal churches. The immense popularity of the Tim LaHaye-Jerry Jenkins "Left Behind" series of novels is a striking indication of how great that interest in separating sheep from goats has become among those traditions.

Over the years, there's been a good deal of squabbling over just what will happen, when it will happen, and how exactly it will happen. The rapture--which derives from the Latin verb "rapto," meaning "to carry off"--is just one element in a big scenario that millennialist movements have hotly debated since the 19th century, when they gained prominence in America. These millennialists belonged to groups viewed at that time as sects and fringe churches, as mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics paid these themes little attention.

Does the rapture have a basis in scripture? Believers say yes. They point to two references in the letters of St. Paul: I Thessalonians 4:13-18 and I Corinthians 15:50-53. In the former, Paul pictures Jesus descending with a "loud command," whereupon "the dead in Christ will rise first." Then the living faithful follow, "And so we will be with the Lord forever." The second, which Handel immortalized along with the previous passage in the "Messiah," predicts that "in a flash" the "trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed" (Handel certainly provided rapture there).

Finding the rapture in these Bible references, as it is commonly spelled out by the believers, obviously has some legitimacy but only if the sketches provided are taken both literally and imaginatively. There is a gap between scripture and the fuller rapture scenarios that have been widely preached. The fragments have been extrapolated upon, so to speak. Some theologians think the believers are mistakenly expanding on a general resurrection of the dead, whose timetable is unknown, rather than on a discreet event known as the rapture.

Even though I wouldn't expect to be among the blessed who alight to the trumpet sound, I still find the rapture imagery hopeful and comforting. And, besides, go or not go, the music should be terrific.

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