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Eschatology: The Rapture

June 1999 | by Palmer Robertson

In considering matters of the future it must be plainly understood that human beings can know only what God chooses to reveal to them. You might think you know which team will win a football match. But you will be proven wrong many times. You might say who will win the next political election. But you can be embarrassed. Only God knows the future. You are totally dependent on what he tells you about the events that have not happened yet.

Down to earth

In Scripture, the ‘rapture’ is an event in which believers in Christ will be taken up physically from the surface of the earth to meet the Lord Jesus at his second coming.

With regard to this matter, it is most important to stick to the Bible and to the things it actually says. Having wrong ideas about what will happen in the future can lead you to wrong decisions about the present.

There is a case of one group called the Millerites. These people felt they knew the exact night that the rapture would occur. So they climbed into trees and waited expectantly so they could be the first people to meet Jesus as he returned. But they were wrong. Some clever person sneaked out with a trumpet and gave it a blast. Some of the Millerites thought it was the trumpet announcing the secret return of Jesus and the rapture of believers. So they jumped out of the trees where they were perched, expecting to fly up in the air to meet Jesus as he came down from heaven. They were sadly mistaken, and came crashing down to the earth. Some of them broke arms and legs.

Three questions

We don’t want to make the mistake of the Millerites. The safest thing to do is to note exactly what the Bible actually teaches about the rapture, and to restrain ourselves from supposing that we can go beyond the teaching of Scripture with our imaginations.

With respect to the teaching of the Bible regarding the rapture, three questions may be asked.

1. Will the church be raptured?

2. Will the church go through the great tribulation?

3. Is there one ‘second coming’ or are there two?

Each of these three questions deserves careful consideration.

1. Will the church be raptured?

The question is best answered with a firm ‘yes … but’ response. Yes, the Scriptures clearly teach that the church will be raptured. But certain misunderstandings about the rapture need to be clarified.

Three sections from the New Testament indicate clearly that the church will be raptured, which means simply that believers in Christ will be taken up from the surface of this earth to meet the Lord Jesus Christ as he returns to this world from heaven.

First of all, Jesus said, ‘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. Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come’ (Matthew 24:40-42).

By this statement Jesus clearly indicates that those who believe in him will be taken away from this earth at the time of his coming again. Unbelievers will be left behind, but those who belong to Christ will go to meet him.

Secondly, Paul says a similar thing in two different passages. ‘According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever’ (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17).

Paul makes it plain that the rapture will be connected immediately with the resurrection from the dead. From the time they are taken up to meet the returning Jesus, the resurrected righteous will live with the Lord for ever. Though the raptured people rise to meet the Lord in the air, their physically resurrected bodies indicate that they will not live for ever in the air with the Lord. Instead, their life with the Lord will continue in the new earth that the Lord will create.

Thirdly, Paul writes: ‘Listen, I tell you a mystery: 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 Corinthians 15:51).

In this third passage, the coming of Christ is associated again with the resurrection of the dead. When the trumpet announcing his second coming sounds, living believers, as well as the dead, will undergo a total transformation.

So the church will be raptured. Believers both dead and alive will be taken up to be with the Lord, even as their bodies are being transformed.

No secret

But … this ‘rapture’ is never presented in Scripture as a ‘secret rapture’ in which no one knows what has happened. To the contrary, every eye shall see him. After the church has been taken off this earth, the world will be consumed in fire, and the last judgement will occur.

Nothing in these passages from the Bible suggests that the world will continue under the control of non-Christians for a period of time after the rapture, as some suggest. Neither Jesus nor Paul indicates that, after the rapture, newly converted Christians will undergo a great tribulation. To reach these conclusions on the basis of these passages of Scripture is to add thoughts to the Word of God that are not present. But this idea of a ‘great tribulation’ leads to the next question about the rapture.

2. Will the church go through the great tribulation?

Some have suggested that God will spare the church from the great tribulation. This viewpoint proposes that the church will be raptured (and thus taken away) so that they will not experience the great persecution that will happen on the earth. In the opinion of these interpreters, this great tribulation will occur for seven years between the rapture and the second coming. But two considerations point to a different conclusion.

First of all, it is pure supposition that proposes this period of seven years between the rapture and the second coming. Nothing in the passages considered points to a seven-year gap between the sounding of the trumpet, which announces the coming of Christ, and the defeat of Christ’s enemies. The trumpet-blast proclaiming Christ’s return announces both victory for his people and defeat for his enemies.

Great persecution

Secondly, several passages in Scripture clearly indicate that Christians will experience (the) great tribulation. In teaching about his return, Jesus says, ‘Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me’ (Matthew 24:9). A greater persecution than being killed and hated by all nations could hardly be imagined. As Jesus further explains: ‘If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened’ (Matthew 24:22).

Once more, the situation Jesus describes is the greatest persecution that could be imagined. Even the elect of God could be misled if the days were not shortened (see v. 24). So, clearly the church, the elect of God, are going to experience this great tribulation.

So in answer to this second question, it can be affirmed that the church will go through the great tribulation. Believers will not be lifted out of trial by the rapture. Instead, the rapture will mark the end of their sufferings.

It would be very misleading to suggest to Christians that they need not worry about the possibility of great tribulation. Otherwise, when fiery trials come, they may begin to doubt the truth of the Word of God. Now let us consider the third question.

3. Is there only one ‘second coming’, or will there be two?

Some suppose that the rapture is separated from the ‘second coming’ of Christ by a period of seven years of tribulation. But if this is the case, then there must actually be two ‘second comings’ of Christ rather than one. First, Christ returns for his saints in the secret ‘rapture’. Then later he comes in glory to establish his kingdom on earth.

But this viewpoint contradicts the unified picture of the second coming of Christ as it is found in the Bible. Instead of two ‘second comings’, there is only one. Christ comes with the sound of the trumpet, the dead are raised and go to meet him in the air. They leave this earth, because it is about to be destroyed by fire. Then comes the creation of the new heavens and the new earth, in which righteousness dwell.

In this biblical view of Christ’s return, there is no idea of two comings. Christians must not be surprised if they face serious persecution. They must simply wait patiently until the glorious hope comes to fulfilment. When he returns, every eye shall see him. But only the believers in Christ will experience the joy of the rapture.

The great hope

In this regard, it is very interesting to note the special word used to describe this ‘meeting’ in the air as it is described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. It is a term used to depict ‘a public welcome given by a city to a visiting dignitary. People would ordinarily leave the city to meet the distinguished visitor and then go back with him into the city’ (Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, Eerdmans, 1979 p.168). This same word is used to describe the people as they come out to ‘meet’ the bridegroom as he approaches the place of the marriage feast in Matthew 25:6. The guests go out, meet him, and return with him to the banquet hall.

So, in the same way, believers will go out to meet the triumphant Christ. But immediately they shall return with him to the new earth that he will create. There they will reign with him for ever. This expectation is the great hope of every believer in Christ. The trumpet will sound, the rapture will come, and believers will live for ever with Christ in the new heavens and earth.