When Jesus promised His disciples, “ ‘I will come again’ ” (John 14:3, NKJV),* He created a hope that has burned in the hearts of nearly all Christians for 2,000 years. And seldom since the first century A.D. has this hope burned more brightly in the hearts of more Christians than it does today.
This hope is darkened, however, by one shadow. According to the Bible, a terrible time of trouble—often spoken of as “the Tribulation”— will take place on earth just before Christ’s second coming. For nearly 1,800 years, Christians believed that all of God’s people would pass through this tribulation. However, about 200 years ago, a new theory was proposed—that God will take true Christians out of the world and transport them to heaven prior to the Tribulation. Those left behind will pass through the Tribulation, during which millions of Jews will be converted to Christianity. The second coming of Christ will take place at the end of the Tribulation.
The carrying away of the saints to heaven prior to the Tribulation is called the “rapture.” According to those who hold this view, the rapture will be secret in the sense that, at first, no one will know that it has occurred. Those who are left behind on earth will only realize that it has happened when they become aware that many people have suddenly disappeared for no good reason. A number of religious films have attempted to portray this rapture in recent years. These films typically show startled people wondering what happened to their friends and loved ones. Another common scene is that of cars and airplanes crashing because their drivers and pilots were “raptured.”
In a sense, this view of the end of the world could be called a dual second coming theory because it splits Christ’s return to our planet into two parts—the rapture prior to the Tribulation and the Second Coming at its conclusion. In this article we will examine the biblical evidence regarding the end of the world and Christ’s second coming.
Four reasons for rejecting the idea of a secret rapture
A careful study of the Bible suggests at least four major reasons for rejecting the view of a two-stage second coming of Christ:
1. The vocabulary of the Second Advent offers no support for such a view. None of the three Greek terms used in the New Testament to describe the return of Christ— namely, parousia, “coming”; apokalypsis, “revelation”; and epiphaneia, “appearing”—suggest a secret rapture prior to the Tribulation (often called the “pretribulation rapture”) as the object of the Christian’s Advent hope.
Pretribulationists claim that in 1 Thessalonians 4:15, Paul used the word parousia to describe the secret rapture. But in 1 Thessalonians 3:13, he used the same word to describe “the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints” (NKJV)—a description, according to pretribulationists, of the second phase of Christ’s return. In 2 Thessalonians 2:8, Paul again employs the term parousia to refer to the coming of Christ that will cause the destruction of the antichrist—an event that, according to pretribulationists, is supposed to happen during the second phase of Christ’s coming (see also Matthew 24:27, 38, 39). Similarly, the words apokalypsis and epiphaneia are used to describe both what pretribulationists call the rapture (1 Corinthians 1:7; 1 Timothy 6:14) and what they call the return or second phase of Christ’s coming (2 Thessalonians 1:7, 8; 2:8).
So, the vocabulary of the Blessed Hope provides no basis whatsoever for a two-phase distinction of Christ’s return. Its terms are used interchangeably to describe a single, indivisible, posttribulational Advent of Christ that will bring salvation to believers and retribution to unbelievers.
2. The New Testament contains no trace of a secret, invisible, instantaneous rapture of the church. In fact, 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17, which gives the most famous description of the Second Advent, suggests the very opposite. It speaks of the Lord descending “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,” and together with the living saints, they “will be caught up” (raptured) “to meet the Lord in the air” (verses 16, 17).
The “command,” “the trumpet call,” and the great gathering of living and resurrected saints hardly suggest a secret, invisible, and instantaneous event. On the contrary, as has often been pointed out, this is perhaps the noisiest passage in the Bible. The references to a trumpet call in the parallel passages of Matthew 24:31 and 1 Corinthians 15:52 corroborate the public nature of the Second Advent. No trace of a secret rapture can be found in any of these passages.
3. The Bible’s Tribulation passages offer no support for a pretribulation rapture of the church. In His Olivet discourse, Jesus spoke of the great Tribulation that will immediately precede His coming, promising that “ ‘for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened’ ” (Matthew 24:22). To argue that “the elect” are only Jewish believers and not members of the church is to ignore the fact that Christ was addressing His apostles, who represent not only national Israel but also the church at large. This is confirmed by the fact that both Mark and Luke, who wrote their Gospels for the Gentile church, report the same discourse (Mark 13:20; Luke 21).
Noteworthy also is the striking similarity between Christ’s description of the second coming of Christ in Matthew 24:30, 31 and Paul’s in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17. Both passages mention the descent of the Lord, the sounding of the trumpet, the accompanying angels or archangel, and the gathering of God’s people. Yet, pretribulationists say the 1 Thessalonians passage describes the rapture prior to the Tribulation, but the passage in Matthew describes Christ’s second coming after the Tribulation. However, the parallel nature between the two passages clearly indicates they describe a single event—not two. So, the rapture of the church does not precede but, on the contrary, follows the great Tribulation.
4. Lastly, both Paul and the book of Revelation negate the notion of a secret pretribulation rapture. In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul refuted a misconception that was prevalent among the Thessalonian Christians. Apparently, they believed that the day of the Lord had already come. To refute this misconception, Paul cited two major events that must occur before the coming of the Lord—namely, the rebellion and the appearance of “the man of lawlessness” who will persecute God’s people (2 Thessalonians 2:3). If Paul had expected the church to be raptured away from this world before the Tribulation caused by the appearance of the antichrist, he would hardly have taught that believers would see the appearance of the antichrist before the coming of the Lord.
The book of Revelation treats the events associated with the great Tribulation in greater detail than any other book of the New Testament, events such as the appearance of a beast power that persecutes the saints of God and the pouring out of the seven last plagues (Revelation 8–16). Though John describes these Tribulation events in great detail, he never suggests a pretribulation secret coming of Christ to rapture the church away. This is all the more surprising in view of John’s express purpose to instruct the churches regarding final events. In fact, John explicitly mentions a countless multitude of believers who will pass through the great Tribulation: “ ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb’ ” (Revelation 7:14).
Pretribulationists argue that these believers are all of the Jewish race, allegedly because, during the events described in Revelation 4–19, the church is no longer on earth but in heaven. This reasoning is discredited, first of all, by the fact that nowhere does John differentiate between Jewish and Gentile Tribulation saints. To the contrary, John explicitly states that the victorious Tribulation believers come “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9). This phrase occurs repeatedly in Revelation to designate not the Jews exclusively but very member of the human family, regardless of their ethnic or national origin (Revelation 5:9; 10:11; 13:7; 14:6). Obviously, Christ has ransomed not only Jews but people of every race.
In Revelation 22:16, Jesus claims to have sent His angel to John with a “ ‘testimony’ ” that Revelation contains “ ‘for the churches.’ ” It is difficult to see how the messages the angel gave to John could be a testimony for the churches if the church is not directly involved in the events described in chapters 4–19—in other words, in most of the book.
The fact is that Revelation describes the church as suffering persecution by satanic powers during the final Tribulation but not as suffering divine wrath. As the ancient Israelites enjoyed God’s protection during the ten plagues (Exodus 11:7), so God’s people will be protected when His divine wrath falls upon the wicked. Revelation represents this divine protection by an angel sealing the servants of God on their foreheads so they may be protected when God’s wrath falls upon the impenitent (Revelation 7:3; 9:4). Ultimately, God’s people will be rescued by the glorious return of Christ (Revelation 16:15; 19:11–21). Revelation, then, portrays not a pretribulation rapture of the church but a single, posttribulational return of Christ.
In light of the reasons discussed here, we conclude that the popular teaching of a secret coming of Christ to rapture the church before the final Tribulation is devoid of any biblical support. Such a belief makes God guilty of giving preferential treatment to the church by removing it from the earth while leaving believing Jews to suffer the final Tribulation.
Scripture, however, teaches that Christ’s second coming is a single event that occurs after the great Tribulation and will be experienced by believers of all ages and all races. This is the Blessed Hope that unites “every nation, tribe, language and people” (Revelation 14:6).
How soon, according to pretribulationists, is the mass disappearance of millions of true Christians from every nation supposed to occur? Many believe that this event is imminent because its main preconditions— namely, the reestablishment of the State of Israel and the repossession of ancient Jerusalem—have already taken place.
According to Hal Lindsey’s initial calculations in The Late Great Planet Earth, the secret rapture of the church is already overdue. In 1970, he predicted that “within forty years or so of 1948, all these things could take place.” Lindsey derived the forty years from the biblical duration of a generation. He argued on the basis of the parable of the fig tree (Matthew 24:32, 33) that the formation of the State of Israel in 1948 marked the beginning of the last generation (Daniel 9:27) that would see first the rapture, then the seven years of tribulation, and finally, the return of Christ in glory. Since Lindsey and the majority of the pretribulationists believe the rapture will take place seven years before Christ’s visible return in glory, it should have occurred by 1981 or 1982. So, time has already run out on this sensational prediction.