When I feel the magic of you The feeling's always new Caught up in the rapture of You
— Anita Baker, "Caught Up In The Rapture"
A standard feature of some Christian eschatology (a fancy word meaning "study of the end of the world") dictates that, before (or possibly after) God allows Satan to screw the world over, He will rapture His church, by grabbing everyone who is a Christian, or possibly grab everyone including non-Christians, Muslims, buddhists, atheists, agnostics and other non-believers who might also be able to figure out what's going on and do something about it. So basically, a whole lot of people just suddenly vanish without warning, potentially leading to all sorts of interesting effects. Or, maybe not so many.
In reality, while this idea has worked its way into popular consciousness regarding the End of the World, it's actually a fairly recent idea, dating back to a Protestant group called the Plymouth Brethren in the 19th century. A former Anglican minister by the name of John Nelson Darby took a single verse from 1 Thessalonians describing how the church will be "caught up together" in the air to join with Jesus spiritually. Combining this with Premillenialist theology stating that there will be a period of a great tribulation and hardship on earth before Jesus comes back to defeat evil for good and reign for 1000 years, Darby is largely responsible for creating the major trappings of the Rapture that people most commonly associate with Christianity today. It's also worth noting that many Christians do not believe in the Rapture — the Catholic Church, for example, disavows it entirely.note Their eschatology basically amounts to "The world is going to end. We don't really know how or when but just take our word for it, OK?" Since its inception, it's remained a religious phenomenon that gained and kept its strongest popularity in America.
Curiously, the theology of the Rapture has extended itself out of Christianity entirely. Many New Age gurus who have left Christianity maintain some of the teachings surrounding the rapture, and many of these pseudo-Christian ideas exist in, for instance, Terrance McKenna's Timewave Zero and the various expositions of the end of the age in the Mayan Calendar in December, 2012. (P.S: the last one didn't happen, either.) (Of course, the world could have ended on December 21st, we've just been caught up in our own affairs so much that we didn't notice, the way some cartoon characters can keep running off the cliff and out into the chasm, as long as they don't notice the ground has disappeared.)
The aftermath of the Rapture is often depicted with Empty Piles of Clothing. The time preceding the Rapture may be filled with Signs of the End Times.
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A common bumper sticker referring to this idea, was one that read "In the event of Rapture, this vehicle will be Unmanned", but doesn't say what happens if the driver was a woman...
There's also joke bumper stickers along the lines of "In case of Rapture, can I have your car?" and "In case of Rapture, I call your stuff."
A particularly loathed X-Men storyline featured a conspiracy to cause a fake Rapture.
What's really ridiculous? The plot was to install Nightcrawler (who looks like a Blue Devil) as The Pope (somehow tricking the entire conclave into choosing someone who is waaay too young to even be considered for the role) and then having his pocket hologram generator fail, exposing him as the "Antichrist" as explosive Communion wafers disintegrate anyone who eats them and making everyone think the Rapture has come in a bid to take over the world/Catholic church. The kicker to this whole plot? As stated above, Catholics don't believe in the Rapture.
Perhaps unintentionally done in the Infinity Gauntlet. Thanos, upon becoming God through acquiring the Infinity Gems, causes half of all life in the universe to disappear, causing mass panics as people see their loved ones disappear right in front of them, wars and the typical conflicts associated with the end of days. The people who have disappeared aren't taken into Heaven, but rather become a part of Death herself.
Jack Chick uses the Rapture quite a bit, both in his tracts and his Alberto series of comic books.
The "800-pound gorilla" in this scenario is the Left Behind series of Christian thrillers. The opening of the first book has the main character, Rayford, a pilot, contemplating cheating on his wife with a stewardess, before said stewardess comes into the cockpit to inform Rayford that half of the passengers have disappeared.
The parody novel Right Behind had a fake Rapture and a climax of the protagonist fighting the Anti Christ in a Christian bookstore by chucking Precious Moments figurines.
A lesser known series of Christian Rapture novels were the Prodigal Project series by Ken Abraham, with arguably better character development and more realistic dialogue than Left Behind. At one point, a man is confronted with his insane female neighbor who just witnessed her children's disappearance, and then killed her husband because he refused to have sex with her to replace their missing children and now wants the man to impregnate her.
In the Christ Clone Trilogy by James Beauseigneur, the Rapture is somewhat subverted, in that when what becomes known to the world as "The Disaster" strikes, the raptured Christians don't disappear, but actually die. Their souls still go to God, though. The tribulation judgements, unlike the cartoonish ones in the Left Behind novels, are pure horror.
In Good Omens, a televangelist is gushing about the Rapture to his TV audience, when he's accidentally possessed by Aziraphale, an actual angel, who lets it slip that no, they're going to be far too busy with Judgement Day to bother with protecting the locals. Let God sort it out.
Before Left Behind, there was Hal Lindsey. Although he didn't create the idea of the Rapture, he helped codify it with his 1970 book The Late, Great Planet Earth, which purported that the Rapture would take place in The Eighties, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the foundation of Israel. His predictions arepretty funny now, but back then, a lot of people took him very seriously, and it helped to fuel the popularity of dispensationalism in American Christianity.
Remember our friend John Nelson Darby that we mentioned at the top of the page? Lindsey graduated from the theological university that was started by one of Darby's staunchest supporters. Reportedly, his former colleagues were a little mad that he made millions off of essentially publishing lecture notes.
A short story from the Eighties titled "If The Driver Vanishes..." (from a Rapture-related bumper sticker, "If the driver vanishes, grab the wheel") had billions of people vanishing as something - "a great star" - appears in the sky. This taken to be the Rapture (a pretty convincing case, you might say), but the "star" appears to be an alien ship, broadcasting images from TV and films of increasing population pressure and war culminating in space battles. After the disappearances end, the montage changes to a happier future. The protagonist decides it wasn't divine. It was alien pest control.
Community - on a Halloween episode where scary stories are being exchanged, Shirley tells one where the rest of her study group is having a debauched party when the radio announces "We interrupt your death metal to bring you some heavy news: all the good Christians got raptured up to Heaven so if you're hearing this, the good news is you're the coolest people in the world. [all: "Yes!"] The bad news is, the world is over. This is NPR." As they wail in agony, Shirley appears as a pure being of light not to save them, just to say she forgives them for ostensibly picking on her, then leaves them to their doom.
Anita Baker's song "Caught Up in the Rapture" is not actually an example of this trope, it's just using it as a metaphor for love.
This is actually inverted in the belief system of the Jehovah's Witnesses. They believe that God will remove the unworthy from Earth (no Heaven or Hell, justoblivion), lift the 144,000 most righteous to Heaven (it should be noted that all 144,000 aren't necessarily all alive now), and leave the rest to rebuild the world as it was meant to be and live there eternally.
A radio preacher named Harold Camping once predicted that the Rapture would occur on May 21, 2011 at 6:00 PM, and whipped up a lot of publicity for it through a barrage of print and billboard advertisements. Some radio stations "celebrated" by playing songs like Britney Spears' "Till the World Ends" and R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)", while a number of atheist/secularist groups held "Rapture parties" on the date. Eventually 6 PM passed through every time zone with no true signs of an apocalypse. He later changed it to October of the same year, where it still didn't happen.
The description in the page header is an oversimplification; of those that do believe in the Rapture generally, there's a considerable difference of opinion on when it will happen (not so much specific dates as whether it will occur before, during, or after the time when God turns to Satan and says "That's your cue, have fun"). Optimists like the "before" option because it means they don't have to go through the predicted Crapsack World era, those who are slightly more cynical look at certain passages in Revelation and interpret them as meaning "Okay, this is a reference to the Rapture occurring", and the real pessimists assume the Rapture is for those people who manage to remain Christian until Christ's return (or die trying to do so). Amusingly, the passage in Thessalonians, assuming that's what it means at all, seems to best support the pessimistic view.
This is the central idea of the "Earth Inherited" scenario for the d20Modern roleplaying game, with a unique wrinkle: the truly good and the truly evil - regardless of their beliefs - are spirited away to Heaven and Hell respectively, leaving the uncommitted to make sense of what's left while angels and demons battle for their souls. And the angels and demons themselves are shut out of the afterlife, leading many of them to question their purpose.
This being one interpretation of the meek inheriting the Earth.
This is also the premise behind the RPG Rapture: the Second Coming. (Despite the title, it's not a White Wolf game.)
The name of the city of Rapture in Bioshock is an obvious reference to this concept, and its setup bears some marked similarities to it. The main difference is that, rather than devout Christians being whisked away in a flash, it's the "productive class" leaving society voluntarily, Atlas Shrugged style — business owners who feel that their workers shouldn't control them, artists who feel that they are being censored by a society too stupid to see their "brilliance", scientists who feel that "petty" morality and ethics hinder proper research, etc.
The name has another meaning: "rapture of the deep" is another term for nitrogen narcosis, a sense of euphoria you get while diving due to the pressure increasing the nitrogen in your blood. Rapture can kill you.
An episode of The Simpsons opens with the titular family seeing a movie called Left Below (an obvious spoof of Left Behind), causing Homer to become exceedingly anxious about the end times. He starts researching exactly when and how the end of the world will come about, and how to avoid being "left below". He predicts it would be mere days from then, and is ridiculed when he turns out to be wrong...and consequently still disbelieved when he realises the actual date was only slightly later. This time he is right, but he manages to talk God into a Cosmic Retcon and call the whole thing off.
The "Simpsons Bible Stories" episode featured the Flanders family raptured while everyone else in Springfield is left to go to Hell. Lisa was about to be Raptured too, but gets pulled down by Homer. Of course, apparently the worst thing about Hell is pineapple pieces in the cottage cheese.
There's also the scene in "Sideshow Bob Roberts" where the construction crew arrives to tear down the house while Homer's sleeping. Homer wakes suddenly and yells, "Ahhh! It's the Rapture! Quick! Get Bart out of the house before God comes!" Clearly this was during one of Homer's more devout phases.
In the American Dad! episode "Rapture's Delight", when the Rapture happens Stan and Francine get left behind, probably because they just had sex in the church's closet.