What would the end times really be like? A new HBO series airing Sunday night, The Leftovers, attempts to answer that question, sort of. In the show, based on a Tom Perrotta novel, 2% of the global population vanishes suddenly, and without explanation. The disappearance is mostly attributed to some kind of religious event, and the show deals with how life might be afterward for those left behind — with all the grief, guilt and confusion that something like that would entail.
Despite the setup, neither the show nor the book are overtly religious. The word rapture is never used — at least not in the book — and the ranks of the disappeared seem to have been chosen at random. With many sinners among the vanished, the "true believers" still on earth are left to wonder how they missed the cut.
The word rapture isn't used in the Holy Bible, but the idea of Judgment Day appears in all the canonical gospels. It's probably most frequently associated with the apocalyptic imagery of the Book of Revelation to John, but it's most clearly laid out in the Book of Matthew, in which it is prophesied that the Son of Man will send out his angels with a trumpet call to "gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other," before separating the righteous sheep from the accursed goats (Matthew 24:31, and 25:31–46).
Paul's first epistle to the Thessalonians contains passages along the same lines:
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. (1 Thess. 4:16–17)
Then in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, he describes how suddenly the "mystery" will occur:
We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed — in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. (1 Cor. 15:51–52)
Matthew's eerie description of the event sounds much like the event portrayed in the HBO show: "Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left." (Matt. 24:40–41)
So when did the Day of Judgment become associated with a physical rapture? It's important to note that Christianity's many denominations disagree on exactly how Christ will return to earth, or how literally to interpret the Bible's account of how the day of reckoning will go down. (See Robert Jewett's Jesus Against the Rapture for an example of how many theologians are skeptical of doomsday prognosticators.)
The idea that the godly would be "raptured," or literally sucked into the air to meet Christ, was reportedly popularized by a dispensationalist British minister, John Nelson Darby, in the 1830s after a Scottish teenager had visions of Christ's return.
Evangelical U.S. Christians learned about it from an early 20th century Bible, and the idea gained popularity among Christian fundamentalists here until it became a cultural touchstone.
One branch of Christian theology, dispensational premillennialism, holds that Christ will physically return to earth to sort the wicked from the godly before a tribulation, when anyone left behind will suffer various torments and plagues.
Prominent in this school of thought is Texan evangelical Hal Lindsey, whose literalist screed The Late, Great Planet Earth became a best seller in 1970, later spawning follow-ups Satan Is Alive and Well on Planet Earth and The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon (the latter of which sounds like a sketch featuring Dana Carvey's "Church Lady" on Saturday Night Live). During the 2008 election, Lindsey wrote that Barack Obama was paving the way for the Antichrist.
(The literal-minded belief in how Judgment Day will go down got a darkly funny spin during one of the opening sequences of another HBO offering, Six Feet Under, in which a woman witnesses a bunch of inflatable sex dolls escaping into the sky from the back of a delivery truck, mistakes them for angels floating up to heaven, and gets so excited about the Second Coming that she runs fatally into the middle of oncoming traffic.)
Today, about 1 in 4 believe Christ will return to earth, though it's far from clear how many of those believe that the rapture will occur. But the idea has clearly captured many people's imaginations, be they self-styled soothsayers of the apocalypse or simply novelists hoping for a best seller. And judging by the rapturous reviews of HBO's new series, the idea still has plenty of mileage left in it.