This week at my Life Group, we looked at the clearest teaching in the Bible regarding the rapture, and I’ve become even more convicted about one particular position. This post is intended to guide you through the same study we considered this week and to give an inside track on what I’m currently thinking about the matter.
What is the Rapture?
Before I talk about anything else, I should probably define what I mean by the rapture and why I want to talk about it now.
The Rapture refers to the event described in the Bible of Christ returning to earth and his followers being “caught up” to meet him in the air.
The major biblical controversy is twofold:
- Do the biblical statements on the rapture event indicate a literal and physical departure from the surface of the earth?
- When does the rapture event happen in relation to the rest of prophesied end-time events?
In the past hundred years or so, the most vocal portion of end-times theorists have proposed what is known as the doctrine of Pre-Tribulational Rapture. This position holds that the biblical depictions of the rapture condense two disparate events: the “catching up” of believers is one event, and the establishment of Christ’s kingdom is a second. The Pre-Trib perspective holds that in between these two events will be a time of “Tribulation” which will involve great spiritual persecution.
There are many other positions as well, but rather than examine all the possibilities, we will simply consider a few relevant biblical texts that cover the rapture event and see what the Bible says for itself. However, I’ll say one more word of introduction. Because the “rapture” has been identified differently from different scholars, I will limit the selection of verses here to those which directly address the moment when Jesus “catches up” his believers from the earth.
The Clear Teaching
- Jesus promises to come back to get us and take us to be with him.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-17
- [When Jesus returns] God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.
- Jesus comes down from heaven with a loud command, the voice of the archangel, and the trumpet call of God.
- The dead in Christ are raised to life.
- They and the living believers will be caught up into the air to meet Jesus in the air.
- Believers will be with the Lord from that moment on, forever.
1 Corinthians 15:20-28
- Resurrection comes through Jesus to all men.
- Jesus is the “firstfruits” of the resurrection; when he comes back, his followers will then be resurrected as well.
- Then, the end will come, but not until Jesus has destroyed all competing authority, including the final destruction of death.
1 Corinthians 15:50-55
- Some believers will be alive when Jesus returns.
- Our physical bodies cannot enter heaven without being transformed.
- Believers will be transformed and given imperishable bodies.
- This transformation all happens “at the last trumpet.”
- Jesus is answering questions about “the sign of his coming” and of the “end of the age.”
- He predicts false Christs, wars, famines, and earthquakes. They are the beginning of birth pains.
- He predicts his followers will be “handed over” to be persecuted.
- Those who stand firm to the end will be saved.
- He predicts great distress, “unequaled from the beginning of the world until now–and never to be equaled again.”
- He predicts those days will be shortened for the sake of the elect.
- He predicts that the elect will also be protected from deception.
- He predicts that his coming will be loud and obvious everywhere.
- He predicts the darkening of the sun and moon.
- He predicts his visible return in glory, a trumpet call, and the gathering of his elect.
- He predicts that the gathering will be preceded by signs, but that the timing is unknown even to him.
- His coming will be a surprise, and some will “be taken” while others will be left.
- Additionally, Jesus uses temporal language to indicate a sequence of events: general distress, persecution, great distress, and cosmic events, ending with his arrival, the trumpet call and the gathering of his elect.
- Jesus comes from heaven with army in tow.
- The beast and kings of the earth assemble and prepare for battle, but their loss is immediate.
- The beast, his prophet, and Satan himself are imprisoned in the Abyss.
- The “first resurrection” takes place raising up faithful followers of Christ to reign with him for 1000 years.
- The rest of the dead will be resurrected (for judgment) after the 1000 years are ended.
Less Clear Passages
Some have postulated that this verse is a metaphorical indication of a “secret” rapture of the church preceding the Tribulation. John hears a voice “like a trumpet” and then hears “Come up here.” He is caught up into a vision of the heavenly throne room, and from that moment until the chapter 22, the church is “conspicuously” absent from the events on the earth. The conclusion is that when John is caught up to heaven, it is symbolic of the church being caught up in the rapture. Support for this view comes mainly from the end of Matthew 24 when Jesus talked about the surprising nature of his return. However, there is no way to reconcile that with the fact that in Matthew 24, the surprising return comes after a great deal of distress and in Revelation 4:1, the distress has not happened yet. Further complicating this position is John’s own statement that when the “Come up” call is heard, he immediately is “in the spirit.” John has an ecstatic visionary experience that in no way indicates he was physically transported anywhere.
The two witnesses hear a loud voice and are caught up physically into heaven. They could be a symbolic representation of the rapture of the church. However, no one takes the two witnesses to be symbolic of the church in general, so it seems unlikely to treat their ascension as symbolic of the rapture.
When the woman gives birth to a male child, we are told that the child is “snatched up to God” for his protection. Perhaps this is a symbolic rapture of the church away from the distress of the Tribulation. Supporting this is the fact that three and a half years of distress are predicted after this child is snatched away. The association of the church with the male child in this case is quite attractive, except for two problems. First, it would be quite unlikely for God to use the metaphor of a “male child” to refer to the church. Though “son” is used in the Old Testament to refer to the nation of Israel, the New Testament reserves the concept of a single male offspring for Jesus himself. In fact, just a few chapters after this, the church will be referred to as a bride. Secondly, Revelation 12:17 indicates that the there are “those who obey God’s commands and hold to the testimony of Jesus” still living on the earth as a target for Satanic persecution. Therefore, the snatching away of the male child cannot refer to the rapture of the church.
Pulling together a few things:
- The account in Matthew 24 seems to line up pretty clearly with the account in Revelation 6-7 of seals 1-4 and 6 that earthly, cosmic, and spiritual distress come while believers are on earth and before the victorious return of Christ.
- The account of 1 Thessalonians 4 seems to line up clearly with both Matthew 24 and Revelation 19-20 that the return of Christ will be boisterous, undeniable, victorious, and final. (Note also that 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 is possibly a reference to the same ancient practice that manifested itself at Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. When the victorious king comes to the city, the faithful rush out of the city to meet him on the way, and then remain with him to escort him back into the city. That understanding of 1 Thessalonians would put it in perfect harmony with both Matthew 24 and Revelation 19-20.)
- Revelation 20:5 claims that the first resurrection occurs after Jesus defeats the kings of the earth and immediately before he establishes his millennial reign. However, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, the core rapture passage, is clearly a resurrection event. Therefore, the only way for Revelation 20:5 to be the “first resurrection” is if the two passages are speaking of the same event.
- The text of 1 Corinthians 15 seems to coincide well with Revelation 19-20 that Jesus will return, claim his followers, and then take some time (1000 years?) to finally eradicate all evil before handing the kingdom finally over to his Father.
Therefore, drawing from the different passages that most directly describe the gathering of believers from the earth, one picture has become abundantly clear to me.
- First, there will be distress on the earth greater than any before or after including political unrest, natural disasters, demonic activity, and the outpouring of God’s wrath.
- Secondly, Christ begins to return, and the powers of the earth, motivated by Satan himself, will assemble in opposition to him, but his victory will be swift, accomplished by his angelic army in advance of his arrival.
- When he arrives, his victory will be announced with trumpets, those dead in Christ will rise, those alive in Christ will be caught up to meet him in the air and escort him back to Earth as the rightful King where he will reign for 1000 years before one final battle.
Of course, there is room in this understanding for a secret rapture of the living saints to happen at any point in time God wishes. God raptured Enoch, Elijah, and Jesus himself, and he can do it again if he so chooses. Matthew 24:40 could be speaking of this kind of event. However, such an event would cause certain living Christians to precede those who have fallen asleep in Christ apparently contradicting Paul’s statement in 1 Thessalonians 4:15. As such, a secret rapture without a resurrection seems unlikely. Additionally, any resurrection happening before the imprisonment of Satan in Revelation 20:1-3 would also seem to contradict its identification as “the first resurrection.”
Based on all this, I am confident in saying that the Bible clearly teaches a rapture of the church which coincides with the victorious return of Christ and the establishment of his millennial kingdom, though a secret rapture of living saints at any point in time is still within God’s prerogative should he choose.