Will there be a sudden, secret "rapture" of believers to heaven? Summary


  •  
  • Some Christians believe that Jesus will next return suddenly, without any signs or warnings, and will secretly “rapture” (catch up) all believers into heaven whilst there is a time of ‘Great Tribulation’ on earth. They say this could happen at any moment. Nothing needs to happen before it. This return of Jesus is completely imminent. It will only be seen by the church, not by the world. It is not the same as the Second Coming which will happen later and be seen by the whole world.
  •  
  • I was brought up on this view and, throughout my childhood, I was excited by the thought that Jesus could return at any moment. So I understand only too well how much this view means to Christians who hold it. It is not my intention to cause unnecessary upset to them but I have to say that I have concluded that it is an incorrect understanding of the New Testament.
  •  
  • History of the “Secret Rapture” view

  •  
  • This view sees the following order of events:
  • 1.      Secret Rapture
  • 2.      Great Tribulation (Matt 24:21)
  • 3.      Second Coming
  • 4.      Millennium (1000 year reign of Christ on earth Rev 20:1-6)
  •  
  • Here is a potted history of this view:
  • a.       Early church leaders and their godly descendants for 1800 years didn’t hold this view.
  • b.      1830 Margaret Macdonald had an End Times vision and began to teach the Rapture of what we would call Charismatic Christians only.
  • c.       Edward Irving, Scottish Presbyterian preacher, then taught this view.
  • d.      John Nelson Darby, Anglican priest, probably heard the view from the above. He formed the Plymouth Brethren. [Part of my background is in the Brethren]
  • e.       Darby influenced American lawyer Cyrus I Scofield who wrote the notes for the Scofield Bible which teach this view. [I was brought up on the Scofield Bible].
  • f.       Recently Hal Lindsay, Tim LaHaye (‘Left Behind’ novels) have popularised this view.
  •  
  • “Dispensationalism”

  •  
  • J N Darby believed:
  •  
  • a.       That God’s dealings with humanity are divided into seven ages or “dispensations.”
  •  
  • b.      That God’s dealings with Israel are totally separate from his dealings with the church.
  • §  Israel and the Church belong to different “Dispensations” (Ages)
  • §  God has different plans for Israel and the Church
  • §  Whatever God said to Israel should never be applied to the church and vice versa.
  • c.       That for the last 2000 years (the “Church Age”) he has only been working with the church, not with Israel. So the current dispensation is the Church Age.
  •  
  • d.      That God won’t start working with Israel again until the church is taken out of the way – in the Secret Rapture, which will bring the present dispensation to an end. So Darby believed the Rapture is important in God’s purposes.
  •  
  • e.       That in the Millennium (the next “Dispensation”) God will work with Israel.
  •  
  • To avoid confusion let me say these are Darby’s views, not mine. I disagree with him and will say why later.

  • IF YOU WANT TO IMPRESS YOUR FRIENDS WITH TECHNICAL LANGUAGE …..

  •  
  • Darby taught “dispensational premillennialism” i.e. that there are various dispensations (different ages) before (pre-) the millennium. It’s helpful to understand that terminology.
  •  
  • (Whilst dealing with complex language let me add that there is another form of premillennialism called “historic premillennialism” which has a lot more credibility. It is called ‘historic’ because many of the earliest Christian leaders believed it. It does not believe in a separate secret Rapture before the Great Tribulation, nor in dispensations).
  •  
  • Be careful not to read into the Bible what you want to find in it

  •  
  • Whenever we hold a special opinion there is a danger that we shall “read into” Scripture what is not actually there in Scripture. I think that is what those who defend this Secret Rapture view are in danger of doing. But we need to stand back and try to understand what the Bible actually does say, rather than what we want it to say.
  •  
  • Those who hold that the Rapture of believers into heaven can happen at any moment tend to argue from silence. The New Testament nowhere says that there are two returns of Christ – the Rapture and then later the Second Coming. This distinction is actually based upon the fact that references to the Lord’s return don’t always include all the information. Some, like Matthew 24, speak of the signs which must happen before his return. Others don’t. But that does not mean they are speaking of two different returns, one with signs and the other without. The only order of events found in the NT is the appearance of signs leading up to the Antichrist - the Great Tribulation – the Second Coming.
  •  
  • Passages some say are relevant

  •  
  • The main passage referring to the saints being “raptured” (“caught up”) is 1 Thess 4:16-17 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 for ever. These people interpret this as Jesus suddenly catching up all the believers and taking them up into heaven.  However the passage only says we will be with the Lord for ever. It doesn’t say where, except we meet him in the air/clouds.
  •  
  • When Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 Paul he used the Greek word apantesis. Although we can’t be certain, it seems likely that he had in mind the Greek approach to an official visit to a city by some dignitary.
  • When such an important person visited, the leading people and others would go out to meet him then escort him back into the city. It seems likely therefore that 1 Thess 4:16-17 means that believers are caught up to meet the Lord and escort him back to earth (not disappear with him to heaven). Many scholars agree with this view and, as we shall see, the general teaching of the NT seems to support it.
  •  
  • John 14:1-3 “‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
  •  
  • Some think this clearly indicates that Jesus will return to rapture believers to heaven and the house with many rooms seems to refer to heaven. However:
  •  
  • a.       Two days earlier Jesus had taught his disciples on the Mt of Olives (the Olivet Discourse) that there would be many signs before his return: the “birth-pains” of the coming of the Messiah – wars, famine, earthquakes etc., persecution and false prophets, the gospel being preached to the whole world and the Gentile domination of Jerusalem ending, the great distress (tribulation) and cosmic signs followed by his return to gather the elect from the four corners of the earth.
  •  
  • b.      This teaching would be fresh in the disciples’ minds and we are surely right to assume that, in the absence of any statement to the contrary, they would understand John 14:3 as not a different return of Christ without signs or warning but as the same return he was speaking of on the Mt of Olives.
  •  
  • c.       The great promise of John 14:3 is that when Jesus returns believers will always be with him and that ultimately means in heaven. But that doesn’t mean he will take them to heaven immediately
  •  
  • 1 Thess 1:9-10 speaks of Jesus returning to rescue us from the coming wrath.
  •  
  • Some think this means Jesus will remove all believers to heaven so they don’t experience the “wrath” of the Great Tribulation. But this is an assumption, it is not what the passage says. It could equally well mean God will help believers in difficult times and come and rescue them from the wrath of his ultimate judgment.
  •  
  • 1 Thess 5:1-9 “Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety’, destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.
  •  
  • Some people say this destruction is the Great Tribulation and will only suddenly come on unbelievers because the church will have been “raptured” to heaven. However:
  •  
  • a.       This passage about destruction and wrath is continuous with 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 which speaks of the rapture of believers (the chapter division was not in the original).
  •  
  • b.      Paul warns BELIEVERS about the day of the Lord, which brings destruction, and says they must not be taken by surprise when it comes. “But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief” (v. 4). Clearly, believers will not have been raptured away into heaven, they will experience this dark day.
 
c.       ‘Day’, as often in Scripture, means a period of time.

d.      This passage indicates that Paul describes that believers are caught up to meet the Lord and then escort him back to earth (not disappear with him to heaven).

  • 1 Corinthians 1:7 “Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.

  • §  Some say the eager waiting may suggest an imminent rapture.  But this is unconvincing. 

  • Titus 2:13 “We wait for the blessed hope – the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ”

  • §  Some say the words “blessed hope” may suggest an imminent rapture.  But this is unconvincing.

  • 1 John 3:2-3 “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”

  • ·         Some say that an imminent “Rapture” would be a greater incentive for pure living. But the fact that we are one day going to stand before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor 5:10) is quite sufficient to encourage us to purify ourselves. In fact, it is a stronger incentive. Also we should remember that death could be imminent for any of us. That too is a strong motive.

  • In Revelation 3:10 Jesus says to the church of Philadelphia I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.”

  • ·         Some claim this is referring to a Rapture before the Tribulation. Robert Mounce comments: “the thrust of the verse is against this interpretation. It is precisely because the church was faithful to Christ in time of trial that he in turn will be faithful to them in the time of their great trial. The promise is consistent with the high-priestly prayer of Jesus, ‘I do not pray that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil one’ (John 17:15). It is their preservation in trial that is taught.”

  • ·         [1]
  •  
  • In Revelation 22:7, 12, 20 Jesus says “Look, I am coming soon!”
  • ·         Some think this points to the rapture as being imminent and ready to occur "at any moment.” But the context of judgment. Jesus says “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done.” He goes on to refer to people who “wash their robes” so they may enter heaven as opposed to those who are sexually immoral, murderers, idolaters etc., (verses 14-15). Yet the secret rapture is not meant to be related to judgment.
  •  
  • ·         IT IS IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER THAT THOSE WHO BELIEVE IN A SUDDEN SECRET RAPTURE SAY THAT IT IS NOT TO DO WITH JUDGEMENT (WHICH, THEY SAY, COMES LATER. BUT WE SHALL SEE THAT MANY NT PASSAGES THOUGHT TO REFER TO THE RAPTURE ACTUALLY DO REFER TO JUDGMENT.
  •  
  • In Romans 13:11-12 Paul says: “The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.
  • ·         This clearly speaks of the approaching return of Christ but it has nothing to say in support of a sudden secret rapture.
  •  
  • Heb 10:23-25 speaks of “Encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
  • ·         Again, this is stressing that the return of Christ is approaching. But the context is about judgment. See verses 26-31. Yet, as we have seen, the secret rapture is not meant to be related to judgment. That happens, say the proponents of this view, at the subsequent second coming.
  •  
  • James 4:7-10 says: “The end of all things is near.”
  • ·         However it has nothing to say in support of a sudden secret rapture.
  •  
  • In James 5:8-9 James stresses “the Lord’s coming is near.”
  • ·         He is even “standing at the door” but he does so as the Judge and the secret rapture is not meant to be related to judgment.
  •  
  • In Matthew 25:1-13 Jesus tells the parable of the ten virgins in which the bridegroom suddenly appears at midnight.
  • ·         This cannot be understood as referring to a sudden secret rapture, though, because the foolish virgins (nominal believers) are excluded finally. So judgment takes place but those who teach there is a sudden secret rapture say it is not associated with judgment. (Furthermore, if it referred to the rapture, the foolish virgins would have the opportunity to come to faith in the Great Tribulation and so not to be excluded finally as the parable says they were). The same can be said for the similar parable in Luke 12:35-48 where the Lord’s sudden coming is associated with judgment.
  •  
  • In Luke 17:30-35 Jesus speaks of “The day the Son of Man is revealed” and adds: “I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left.  Two women will be grinding corn together; one will be taken and the other left.’”
  • ·         This is speaking about an unexpected coming of the Lord and a rapture of individuals. But, again, the context shows it is associated with judgment. See verses 26-30. So this cannot be the sudden, secret rapture.
  •  
  • Heb 10:36-37 says: “In just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay.”
  • ·         Yet again the context speaks of judgment. See verses 24-31.
  •  
  • 2 Peter 3 says that God’s ideas of imminence are not the same as ours.  The scoffers ask: “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” (vv 3-4). The answer is: “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (vv. 8-9). However “The day of the Lord will come like a thief” (v 10).
  •  
  • The order of events of the End Times

  •  
  • The only Order of events in the NT is: The signs culminating in the appearance of the Antichrist - the Great Tribulation – the Second Coming. We can see this is the following passages:
  •  
  • Matthew 24 (Mark 13, Luke 21) The Olivet Discourse
  •  
  • We have already looked at these in some depth. The order in Matthew 24 is:
  •         i.            War, famine, earthquakes, etc (vv 6-7)
  •       ii.            Persecution vv 9-10
  •     iii.            Apostasy (people giving up the Faith) v 12
  •     iv.            World evangelism v. 14
  •       v.            False messiahs/prophets vv 23-24
  •     vi.            Great Tribulation v 22
  •   vii.            Return of Christ (seen by the whole world) vv 27, 30
  • viii.            Gathering of the elect v 31
  •  
  • Book of Revelation
  •  The order is:
  •   i.            Great tribulation - chs. 4-18
  • ii.            Return of Christ – ch 19
  • iii.            Millennium – ch 20
  • iv.            Eternal state – ch 21-22
  •  
  • 2 Thess 2:1-12
  • The order here is:
  •   i.            Rebellion and Antichrist vv 3-7, 9-12 (cf. 1 John 2:18-23)
  • ii.            Return of Christ  (to judge Antichrist and his followers) vv 9, 10-12
  • iii.            Gathering of believers v 1
  •  
  • 2 Thess 2:1, 3 is quite clear that “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him .... will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction [the Antichrist].”
  •  
  • Misunderstandings

  • 1.    That believers being “saved from the wrath of God” means they won’t go through the Tribulation

  •  
  • Those who believe in a sudden, secret rapture think that the NT passages which speak of believers being delivered from wrath mean deliverance from the Great Tribulation (i.e. that believers are raptured to heaven before the Tribulation begins). But these passages have a much broader meaning than this.
  •  
  • When we come to faith in Christ we are saved from the wrath of God.
  •  
  • John writes: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son .... Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them” (John 3:18, 36).
  •  
  • The wrath of God is a much bigger subject than the Great Tribulation.
  •  
  • Paul speaks of a day “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marvelled at among all those who have believed.” (2 Thess 1:7-10). Note that believers will be saved.
  •  
  • The NT promises that believers will experience ‘tribulation.’
  •  
  • Jesus pronounces a blessing on believers who are persecuted “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt 5:10-12). In the Olivet Discourse about the End Times Jesus makes it clear believers will be persecuted (Matt 24:9-10). “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim 3:12-13).
  •  
  • There is a danger that believing we will be raptured before the Great Tribulation can be for escapist motives for some people. The Lord never promised to keep us safe from tribulation. He promised to keep us safe in tribulation.
  •  
  • 2.    That the Church will be raptured to heaven because God never deals with the Church and Israel at the same time

  •  
  • I have already mentioned that part of the reason people believe in a secret rapture of believers to heaven which is quite distinct from the Second Coming, is to do with their making a total separation between Israel and the Church. These people say that before Jesus came it was the Dispensation (Age) of the Law. In this age, which began with Moses, God was only dealing with Israel. Then the church started after Jesus resurrection and this started a new dispensation – the Church Age. So for the last 2000 years God has not been working with Israel. He has been working only with the church. Then, say these people, when the sudden rapture takes the church away to heaven, God will resume his work only with Israel, not with the church.
  •  
  • This “Dispensationalism” is a mistaken idea which is contradicted by the Bible. But it is an important part of the foundation of those who believe in a sudden secret rapture.
  •  
  • In fact, the NT teaches that Israel and the Church are “one tree”
  •  
  • Paul’s teaching in Romans 9-11 is very important. He says:
  •  
  • 1.      Gentile believers have been grafted into God’s one spiritual tree (which has a Jewish root and trunk: believing Israel in the OT as well as numerous Jewish branches: Jewish believers)
  •  
  • Paul writes: “If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: you do not support the root, but the root supports you” (Rom 11:17-18). Paul also writes: “If the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings” (Rom 15:27).
  •  
  • God has only one spiritual tree (community). He doesn’t have a Jewish tree and a Gentile tree, which is what the dispensationalists are really saying. He hasn’t rejected the Jewish tree and replaced it with a Gentile tree.
  •  
  • Paul writes: “I ask then: did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew” (Rom 11:1-2). He adds: “At the present time there is a remnant [of believing Israel] chosen by grace” (Rom 11:5).
  •  
  • 2.      Gentile believers must have a humble attitude to believing Israel
  •  
  • Gentile believers are a “wild olive shoot” which has been grafted into the olive tree of believing Israel, which is the natural olive tree. They are nourished by the (Jewish) “olive root.”  Paul says; “You were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree” (Rom 11:24).
  •  
  • 3.      Some branches (unbelieving Jews) have been removed from the tree
  •  
  • Paul is quite clear “Not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. ...... it is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring” (Rom 9:6-8, cf. Rom 2:17-29).  It is only believing Jews who are part of true spiritual Israel. Obviously this includes the Old Testament saints. It also includes Jewish people who have come to faith in Jesus in the last 2000 years. They are part of the true (spiritual) Israel, the one olive tree, the true church.
  •  
  • 4.      If these unbelieving Jewish branches come to faith they can be re-grafted into the olive tree.
  •  
  • This re-grafting is more readily achieved because these Jewish “branches” are natural branches, as opposed to Gentile “branches” which are “wild.”
  •  
  • Paul writes: “if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!” (Rom 11:23-24).
  •  
  • 5.      If believing Gentile branches do not persist in faith they will be removed.
  •  
  • The only criterion for being in the “olive tree” (the community of salvation) is faith in Christ. Some dispensationalists say that, in the Millennium, Jewish people will be saved through Judaism and its animal sacrifices. This is a very serious error. Jesus, and faith in him, is the ONLY way of salvation, for everyone – Jew or Gentile.
  •  
  • You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.’ Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either. Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off” (Rom 11:19-23).
  •  
  • Elsewhere in the NT Paul gives similar teaching. In Galatians he calls the church “the Israel of God.” “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule – to the Israel of God” (Gal 6:15-16).
  •  
  • Writing to the Ephesians 2:11-22 he says that Gentiles have now been included in citizenship in Israel and in the covenants of promise (2:12, 19). God has brought Jews and Gentiles together in one group, one new humanity, one body (2:14-16), one building, one temple, one dwelling for God to inhabit (2:21-22).
  •  
  • Paul writes that Gentile believers (as well as Jewish believers) are the true circumcision (Php 3:3; Col 2:11; Rom 2:28-29).  They are Abraham’s offspring (Rom 4:16; Gal 3:29).
  •  
  • The writer to the Hebrews refers to the fact that the Lord promised to make a new covenant with the people of Israel, which is clearly the covenant that now includes the Gentiles. He covenants to write his law on their hearts, to enable them to know him and to forgive them (Heb 8:8-12).
  •  
  • It is quite obvious from the NT that the dispensational separation between Israel and the Church is profoundly mistaken. This undermines one of their main arguments for the idea of a sudden, secret rapture.
  •  
  • I shall have more to say about Israel on another occasion.
  •  
  • What does the NT mean by the imminence of the return of Christ?

  •  
  • It seems clear that the return of Christ will be heralded by various signs and happenings, so it can’t literally be at any moment as those who teach a sudden, secret rapture would have us believe. But we must not lose the impact of the NT emphasis on expecting Christ’s return.
  •  
  • The NT seems to speak of a time of apostasy, the revelation of the Antichrist and Tribulation as the precursor to the return of Christ. However it seems that this could happen in a fairly short period of time.
  •  
  • Obviously, it is possible to be waiting for and expecting events which we know cannot come literally at any moment. Equally it is possible to be expecting something to happen but for there still to be an element of shock when it does.
  •  
  • Jesus urged the disciples to “‘keep watch, because ..... because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Matt 24:42-44). Clearly what Jesus wants is for his followers to be:
  • ·         Regularly thinking about his return (it should always be on our agenda, not filed away)
  • ·         Recognising signs pointing to his return
  • ·         ‘Hastening’ his return (through prayer and obedience, including evangelism)
  •  
  • As someone put it: “Expectancy – yes; imminency – no.”
  •  

  • Conclusion

  •  
  • It seems clear that the New Testament does not teach that there will be a sudden, secret “rapture” of believers up to heaven before the Great Tribulation (and distinct from the Second Coming). We need to be alert to the signs of Jesus’ return and to “hasten” his coming (by prayer and obedience). However, just as there is tribulation and persecution throughout church history, so the church will go through the Great Tribulation, but will be kept safe until the Second Coming. It will also be kept from the wrath of God.

 



[1] Robert Mounce, op. cit., p. 119.



© Tony Higton: see conditions for copying on the Home Page