The long-anticipated year 2000 was a significant benchmark in the way we count time. It marked the final year of both the twentieth century and of the second millennium since the birth of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. In actuality, Christ was probably born about four years earlier than the commonly accepted date, which was calculated by the monk Dionysius Exiguus from the records available to him in the sixth century.
As time approaches ever closer to the commonly accepted 2,000th anniversary of Christ’s first advent, it seems that there is a notable upsurge of interest in His Second Advent, as well as in the whole subject of Bible prophecy. Before the past quarter century, this topic was one which was seldom discussed in the pulpits of the western world. Now, it has become one of the hottest topics for religious speakers and writers. In 1970 author Hal Lindsey wrote a best-selling book entitled The Late Great Planet Earth. In the last few years, Tim LaHaye has topped the religious best-seller lists with a series of novels he has written centering on the Great Tribulation and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ to the earth.
Prominent in the prophetic scenarios of Hal Lindsey, Tim LaHaye, and other Protestant evangelicals has been their teaching about the secret rapture of the Church. All of the increased emphasis given to Bible prophecy in recent years has drawn much attention to the subject of the rapture. Perhaps you have even seen the bumper stickers on automobiles announcing that "in case of the rapture, this car will be without a driver!"
Most evangelicals who write or speak on the subject of prophecy assume that the key end-time event for Christians is the secret rapture. What exactly is the rapture? What does the Bible teach concerning it and is it the only hope for end-time Christians? There is a great deal of confusion about this and many aspects of prophecy in the professing Christian world. However, the real truth is both knowable and provable when we look to the plain, clear teachings of the Bible, rather than to the ideas and theories of men.
The Rapture Doctrine and Its Origin
What is the doctrine of the secret rapture? Simply put, it is the teaching that Jesus Christ will return twice! First, there will be a secret, unheralded return in which He will whisk all Christians, both living and dead, off to Heaven to be present there during the time that the Great Tribulation is taking place on earth. This secret coming supposedly could occur at any moment and will come without any advance warning to anyone. Seven years later (or three and a half according to some) Christ will return openly in power and glory to destroy the wicked and to establish His Kingdom.
The term "rapture" is used nowhere in the Bible. It is a term that has been invented by men and applied by them to what they term "the first phase" of the Second Coming. The Bible itself, however, nowhere says that Christ’s coming will occur in phases.
A nineteenth-century British preacher, John Nelson Darby, was the one who developed the rapture teaching and began to promote it in the 1830s. He was the founder of the Plymouth Brethren Church and developed a scheme of scriptural interpretation called dispensationalism. The idea of the dispensationalists is that God has had different rules for different groups at different times. For instance, He had the law for the Jews and now we have grace for the Church.
Darby’s teachings were refined and popularized by C. I. Scofield, an American lawyer and minister who authored the noted Scofield Reference Bible at the beginning of the twentieth century. Primarily through Dr. Scofield, Protestant evangelicals came to generally accept the teachings of both dispensationalism and the secret rapture. These two ideas go hand in hand to blind many sincere people to God’s real message to Christians in the end time.
Proponents of the rapture point to 1 Thessalonians 4 as their primary proof of a "secret coming." They then proceed to divide all scriptures that discuss the return of Jesus Christ into two categories. First are the scriptures that discuss the resurrection of the saints and their gathering to Christ. Secondly are the scriptures that discuss Christ taking vengeance on wicked and rebellious people and nations. Their idea is that these events are separated by a period of years. Let us carefully look at 1 Thessalonians 4 and see whether that is so.
One Phase or Two?
Paul had preached and raised up a church in the Greek city of Thessalonica about 50ad. Because of intense persecution, he was forced to leave the city and move on to other parts of Greece. While in Athens he sent his assistant, Timothy, back to Thessalonica bearing a letter intended to comfort and encourage the fledgling Christian community. In this context, he mentioned those who had already died in the faith. "Since they were dead, how would they benefit from the return of the Messiah?" some in Thessalonica seem to have wondered.
"We wish you not to remain in ignorance, brothers, about those who sleep in death; you should not grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again; and so it will be for those who died as Christians; God will bring them to life with Jesus. For this we tell you as the Lord’s word: we who are left alive until the Lord comes shall not forestall those who have died; because at the word of command, at the sound of the archangel’s voice and God’s trumpet call, the Lord himself will descend from heaven; first the Christian dead will rise, then we who are left alive shall join them, caught up in clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thessalonians 4:13–17, NEB).
This description is taken by rapture proponents to be descriptive of a secret coming of Christ, which will take Christians off to Heaven. But notice we are told that preceding this resurrection the trumpet of God is blown. What is that and when will it occur?
The Apostle Paul added more details when he wrote a letter to the Corinthian Church, located in a neighboring Greek city. "Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed" (1 Corinthians 15:51–52). The specific supernatural trumpet that will be blown prior to the resurrection of the saints is dubbed "the last trumpet."
Does the Bible anywhere speak of a series of supernatural trumpet blasts? The answer is a resounding yes! Revelation 8:1–2 describes the opening of the seventh and last of the seals which had closed the book of Revelation until they were removed one at a time by Jesus Christ. When the seventh seal was opened the Apostle John saw in vision seven angels standing before God and each receiving a trumpet. The angels proceeded to blow these trumpets one at a time signaling terrible ecological disasters followed by horrible warfare.
Now, let us notice Revelation 11:15: "Then the seventh angel sounded: And there were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.’" Verse 18 connects this seventh and final trumpet blast with the time when God’s wrath has come and when He would reward the saints. Clearly, when we look at these three sections of scripture it is very apparent that the seventh and last trumpet signals both the resurrection of the saints as well as the time when Christ returns to judge the nations. These are not two different phases of the Second Coming, separated by seven years, as most evangelical writers contend. Rather, the resurrection of the saints to immortality and the pouring out of God’s wrath on the nations begin at the same time and are both signaled by the same event, the blast of the seventh and final trumpet.
Another important set of verses to look at in this context is Matthew 24:29–31. In verse 29 we learn that the tribulation and the heavenly signs occur prior to the return of Jesus Christ.
Verse 30 emphasizes that His return, far from being secret, will be seen by people everywhere and will provoke mourning and grief from the unrepentant. Then verse 31 states: "And he will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other." Let us understand the real significance of this verse.
From 1 Thessalonians 4 we learned that when the last trumpet blows, the saints, both living and dead will rise from the earth to meet Jesus Christ in the clouds. Matthew 24:31 talks of the angels gathering the elect from the four winds of heaven. The Bible uses the same term, heaven, to describe three different locations. From which heaven are the saints to be gathered?
The first heaven is the heaven of the earth’s atmosphere, where the birds fly and where the clouds are. The second use of the word heaven is for what we call outer space. The stars, the sun and the moon are located in this second heaven. The Bible also refers to the realm of God’s throne as heaven, characterizing it in 2 Corinthians 12:2 as "the third heaven."
The wind blows in the first heaven, the heaven where the clouds are, not in outer space or the environs of the throne of God. The angels would have no need to gather Christians from around the throne of God. Rather, Matthew 24:31 describes the resurrection of the saints, which clearly occurs at the time of Christ’s return in glory. When the saints rise, they go straight up. Since we live on a round earth that means that people in Australia who go "up" head in a different direction from those who rise "up" in Europe or in North America. What is described is the very practical way in which God is going to ensure that all of the resurrected saints meet Jesus Christ. He simply sends angels through the sky to gather His elect from all the points of the compass where they are rising to assemble them in the clouds over Jerusalem to greet their returning Savior. How simple!
The Bible uses the Greek word parousia to refer to the return of Jesus Christ numerous times. It is a term, which was often used in a secular context to refer to the coming of a king.
It carries with it no connotation of a secret coming. Four occurrences of the word are in Matthew 24. In verse three Jesus’ disciples asked Him for the "sign" of his parousia (or coming). In verse 27 Jesus compares His parousia to the visible spread of light from east to west when the sun rises. In verses 37 and 39 He compares His coming to the time when God’s judgment came on the pre-flood world in the days of Noah. None of these verses are descriptive of any secret or clandestine coming.
The word parousia is also used in 1 Corinthians 15:23 to refer to the event which will accompany the resurrection of the saints. In 1 Thessalonians 4:15 it is again used to refer to the event which accompanies the resurrection of the saints. 2 Thessalonians 2:8 describes Christ destroying the final false prophet, the man of sin, at His parousia (coming). Clearly, His parousia will not be a secret event, but rather a time when He will begin to execute judgment on the ungodly.
In chapter two of 2 Thessalonians Paul explains that true Christians would be able to know the time when Christ’s parousia was approaching. He explains that there were events, which had to precede the coming of Christ (v. 3). He simply was not going to be coming "any minute." Earlier Paul had pointed out to the Thessalonians that the world as a whole would not be expecting the Messiah’s return. However, he went on to state that true Christians had no excuse for being caught unaware. Since they lived in spiritual light and not darkness, they should be alert to the signs of the times and not taken by surprise (1 Thessalonians 5:1–4).
What About God’s Protection?
Does the fact that Christ’s return occurs after the Tribulation (Matthew 24:29–31) mean that all Christians will have to go through that time of suffering that is to come? Christ certainly enjoined His disciples to pray that they might be accounted worthy to escape that time of trouble (Luke 21:36). If there is not a secret rapture prior to the tribulation, then what did Christ mean by that statement?
Let us understand the difference between the Tribulation and the Day of the Lord. Revelation 6:17 makes plain that the day of God’s wrath follows the heavenly signs mentioned in verses 12 through 16. The heavenly signs are the sixth seal and the Day of the Lord is the seventh. The events that happened earlier do not represent God’s wrath; they represent Satan’s!
The fifth seal, described symbolically in Revelation 6:9–11, describes a future martyrdom of saints. Jesus Christ referred to this in Matthew 24, verses 9 and 21. He talked about a time when His disciples would be persecuted and even killed. But notice the events of the tribulation are not only directed against the Church. In Jeremiah 30:7 we read of a time called "Jacob’s trouble" described as the worst ever. Daniel 12:1 also describes a "time of trouble such as never was since there was a nation." This is an almost identical expression to that used by Jesus in Matthew 24:21. There surely cannot be several times, each being the worst ever. These verses are all describing the same event!
This time is Satan’s wrath against the modern-day descendants of Israel as well as against spiritual Israel, the Church. This is made plain in Revelation 12 where we read of the Church being described by the metaphor of a woman. It was the Old Testament Church that brought forth the Messiah (v. 5). After He was caught up to Heaven to be with the Father, the Church (now in its New Testament phase) fled from persecution into the wilderness.
In verse 13 we find that after Satan is cast back down to the earth, a yet future event, he launches all-out persecution upon the Church. At this time, we are told, the Church will be taken to a place in the wilderness to be supernaturally nourished and protected during the final three-and-a-half year period preceding Christ’s return. Note, however, that all Christians are not taken to this place of safety. Rather, we learn in verse 17 that Satan then goes to make war with the "remnant." These are clearly true Christians because they are described as those who "keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ." Why are some not protected from Satan’s wrath?
The answer is found in a careful study of Revelation 3. Here, in messages to the last two of the seven churches, those at Philadelphia and Laodicia, we find a contrast between two different groups of God’s people at the end time. The church at Philadelphia is used to characterize those who are zealously going through the open door to preach the gospel that Christ has set before them. The church at Laodicia is characterized as being lukewarm, lacking in zeal. They are complacent and self-centered. It is upon this group, characteristic of the final phase of the Church of God, that God will allow Satan to pour his wrath. This is a last resort on God’s part, as these people have not been stirred to repent of their lack of zeal by any prior event.
When God prepares to pour out His wrath, the events of the Day of the Lord, He first sets apart those who have come to repentance during the preceding time of Tribulation (Revelation 7:1–3). This is a yet future event designed to protect those who have surrendered to God in the midst of persecution and terrible pressure to conform to Satan’s system. There is a clear distinction between the Tribulation (Satan’s wrath) and the Day of the Lord, which is the time of God’s judgment on those who give their allegiance to the coming Beast system.
A secret rapture? The Bible teaches no such thing! It does teach, however, that Jesus Christ is going to come back in power and glory to rule this world and to bring salvation to His saints. We can and should be aware of the signs of the times, not oblivious to the events that are going to plunge the world into the most hellish time in its history.
Also, we are enjoined to be zealously seeking God in prayer and putting our hearts into the work of preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom to the whole world. Those who are zealously so doing will be
protected by God, while those who are not will be confronted with having to learn a hard lesson.
Seek the Lord, while He may be found and draw near to Him while He is near (Isaiah 55:6).