A quote from a Dispensationalist study of the Second Coming runs as follows: ‘the Rapture is the same as the second coming of Christ. False! At the Rapture Jesus comes for his church in the air, while at the second coming he comes with his people to the earth’.1
Are such writers correct? Does the Bible teach that the Lord Jesus, at some point (possibly seven years) before he returns in glory to raise the dead, will call away all Christians to be with him? Will we be ‘here one moment and gone the next’ and will unbelievers be ‘left behind’ to face ‘The Great Tribulation’?
This is what many teach and many believe. Tim La Haye has sold millions of copies of his novels (the ‘Left behind’ series), which are based on this teaching. This article is a very brief response from a Reformed perspective.
As far as we know, this doctrine of a secret rapture began to be taught about 1832. It originated in meetings at Powerscourt House in Ireland held by J. N. Darby (who founded the Brethren movement) and others interested in Bible prophecy. Some trace the teaching back a few years further to Edward Irving or one of his followers in the Catholic Apostolic Church in London.
The Powerscourt House conferences on prophecy were the forum where the whole system known as Dispensationalism was developed. Although often regarded as just a system of eschatology (the last things) it has distinctive views in many areas of theology, including the grounds of salvation.2
At its heart lies the teaching that there are seven successive ‘dispensations’ of God’s work in the world, each having its own different way of salvation. Dispensationalism and the doctrine of a secret rapture have spread far beyond their point of origin, into Pentecostalism and much American evangelicalism – and wherever their influence has spread worldwide.
On what passages of Scripture is secret rapture teaching based? The fact (which doubtless would astonish many) is that you will read the Bible from end to end without finding any passage that teaches a secret rapture, or even hints at it.
There are, however, some texts that specifically rule it out. The clearest of these is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, where Paul was dealing with a pastoral problem. Christians in Thessalonica were being unsettled by fact that some of their number were dying before Christ returned. Did this mean that they were not really believers at all, and that Christians should sorrow hopelessly for them (v.13)?
Not at all, says Paul. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, so that he is victorious over death. When he returns, therefore, he will come with those who have ‘fallen asleep’ in him. This includes those for whom the Thessalonians were grieving (v.14).
Indeed, says Paul, the Lord himself has said (1) that there will be Christians alive on earth when he returns (who clearly will not be secretly raptured); and (2) that this surviving generation will by no means (an emphatic term) precede into the Lord’s presence those who have fallen asleep.
Far from worrying about believers who have died, we can be assured that they will see the Lord first – before the Christians who remain alive at the end of the age (v.15).
For this is what will happen – the Lord will descend, with a word of command, the shout of an archangel and a trumpet call. This is to wake the dead! So the dead in Christ will rise. This is the first thing that will happen.
Literally translated, the Greek says: ‘the dead in Christ will rise first; then we, the living, remaining, together with them shall be caught up [‘raptured’] in clouds to a meeting of the Lord in the air’.
So the Christian dead rise first; then, immediately afterward, those believers who are still alive will be raptured to be with Christ (vv. 16-17). So there certainly will be a rapture, but there will be nothing secret about it!
Nor will it occur before the Lord’s return – rather, it will be an integral part of it. But it will be the second stage of his coming, the first being the resurrection of the dead.
Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15:51-53 is in perfect harmony with this. Here, we learn that not all Christians will sleep – the common New Testament term for Christian death. Some will not sleep but all will be changed (v.51).
How will this happen? Instantaneously – in a moment, the blinking of an eye. When will it happen? At the last trumpet – for ‘a trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed’ (v.52).
Note that these are exactly the same three related events, in the same order, as in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. But here it is made clear that they will occur at the last trumpet. The rapture is the last event to happen before this creation is dissolved.
In Titus 2:13 Paul speaks of Christians ‘expecting the blessed hope and appearance [epiphany – shining forth] of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ’. The AV inserts a needless comma, which makes it sound as though the blessed hope and glorious appearing are two different things. They are one and the same! Our blessed hope is Christ himself (1 Timothy 1:1). We eagerly expect him, and the shining forth of his glory, as he comes to judge the world (Matthew 25:31).
This is the Lord’s open and visible return, not a secret rapture. It is at the coming of the Son of Man, not at a secret rapture, that ‘one will be taken and the other left’ (Matthew 24:39-41) – one caught up to meet the coming Christ and the other left on earth to face the coming judgement.
The mystery of lawlessness
But what of 2 Thessalonians 2? Those who believe in a secret rapture say that it is the Holy Spirit who restrains the ‘mystery of lawlessness’ (v.7). They suggest that he will be ‘taken out of the way’ by the raptured church, which he indwells.
How, though, can Paul be referring to the Holy Spirit? For v.6 speaks of ‘the thing restraining’. How can this be the personal Holy Spirit? The ‘restrainer’ is both a thing and a person – that is, a force embodied in a person. These work to restrain an opposing force that is also embodied in a person – the ‘man of lawlessness’ or the ‘lawless one’ (vv. 3, 7-8).
A long line of eminent commentators regard the restrainer as the person and power of the Roman emperor. Only when the empire was removed could the pope and papal system begin to flourish. The popes took to themselves the emperors’ title of ‘Pontifex Maximus’ (Great High Priest) and thus blasphemously usurped the place of Christ in the temple of God – which is the church (1 Corinthians 3:16 [note the plural]; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:20-21).
Moreover, if the Holy Spirit were completely removed from the earth, this would remove both common and saving grace. Only the Holy Spirit regenerates. If he were removed, no one could be saved during the tribulation (which would contradict Dispensational teaching).
Indeed, earth would literally become hell. On the other hand, if the church is taken away but the Holy Spirit remains in any form of grace, the ‘restrainer’ cannot be the Holy Spirit! The interpretation collapses under the weight of its own contradictions.
But does it matter? After all, whatever God does, won’t it all be the same in the end? No. For Dispensationalism teaches that those saved during the Great Tribulation after the church has been secretly raptured (including all Israel and maybe others) will never be part of the church.
Instead, they will remain on earth while the church is in heaven – and this distinction between Israel and the church will be eternal – ‘The dispensationalist believes that throughout the ages God is pursuing two distinct purposes: one related to the earth with earthly people and earthly objectives involved, while the other is related to heaven with heavenly people and heavenly objectives involved, which is Christianity’.3
Furthermore, the Old Covenant is still in force, running parallel to the new – despite Hebrews 8:13, which teaches that it is already obsolete. Large consequences flow from this opinion – support for the secular state of Israel being only one of many.
The hope of the Christian is the Lord’s personal, glorious, visible, audible return. ‘Even so, come, Lord Jesus!’ (Revelation 22:20).
This article was commissioned by the editor.
1. H. L. Willmington, The King is coming (Wheaton, Illinois, Tyndale House Publishers, 1973).
2. For more detail in a reasonably brief compass see: William E. Cox, An examination of Dispensationalism (Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1963); John H. Gerstner, Wrongly dividing the Word of Truth: A critique of Dispensationalism (Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991).
3. Lewis Perry Chafer, Dispensationalism (quoted in Cox, above, p.39).