First of all, what is meant by the ‘rapture’? It is the belief that Jesus will take true Christians to heaven before a tribulation and a final judgment at the end of the world.
To believe in the rapture is basically to believe in a ‘get out of persecution/tribulation free’ card, which really, I think, goes against the core of the Gospel.
The term comes from 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. (“we shall be caught up” in the Latin Vulgate Bible is ‘rapiemur’ which is where the word ‘rapture’ comes from.)
It is part of a very particular, recent protestant version of what will happen at the end of time, called dispensationalism which basically says God judges different groups of people differently – Christians one way, Jews another, pagans in yet another. This view was invented in the 18th century, but became popular in the 19th and 20th centuries among fundamentalists who used the Scofield Reference Bible.
What is relevant to the rapture is that these protestants claim that
- Jesus will come secretly and
- snatch or rapture into heaven all Christians – both the living and the dead – who are already ‘saved’ (presumably by faith alone). But what is crucial, is that this rapture is supposed to happen before
- the Great Tribulation of calamities, wars, natural disasters and, most importantly, the final persecution of lax or late-believing “Christians” who are left behind. And then after the Tribulation,
- Jesus finally comes in glory, visible by all, and judges all the enemies of God when they go into final, eternal punishment.
The Book of Revelation gets brought in at this point because it seems to describe, in horrifying detail, the tribulation – with wars, plagues, the Four Horsemen, the anti-Christ, Beasts, a Dragon, the Whore of Babylon, lots of blood and death and monsters. These tribulations happen after Jesus appears in Chapter 5 as the Lamb who was slain and opens a scroll with seven seals and 144,000 believers plus a numberless multitude has been gathered in Chapter 7.
The problem with this rapture view of the end times, is that it contradicts the sequence that Jesus foretold in Matthew 24-25, Mark 13 and Luke 21. And worse, it seems to me, the rapture view has one secret Second Coming of Jesus when he gathers Christians, and another public Third, glorious coming when he defeats his enemies and judges mankind.
In the Gospels, Jesus tells us He will have just one, Second Coming and it will be public (with trumpets) and then He will judge all people. The sequence of events will be
1. Calamities: Wars, insurrections, natural disasters
2. Persecution of Jesus’ followers (Luke puts this first)
3. Great Tribulation – this seems to be a prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem which happened in 70 AD.
4. Then Jesus returns in glory (in his only Second Coming)
As he says in Matthew 24:29-31:
Immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming upon the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
And he will send out his angels with a trumpet blast, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.
And at this one glorious, public Second Coming (with trumpets) comes the
5. Last Judgement
In Matthew 25:31-32 Jesus says “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
Other passages make it clear that Jesus gathers his friends at his one glorious, public (with trumpets) Second Coming at the one Last Judgment when he finally punishes his enemies.
As for the Book of Revelation, there are numerous appearances of Jesus and corresponding judgments (in Chapters 12, 14, 17-20), so there is no obvious way to get this highly symbolic, apocalyptic text to fit the events Jesus foretells in the Gospels.
What does it mean to be Left Behind?
Matthew 24:36-40 describes two people being together and one being taken and the other left behind.
Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left.Matthew 24:40-41
But in the context, Jesus is saying the end of the world is like the time of Noah and the flood – a time of judgement. In Noah’s time, to be taken is to be carried away by flood waters, and to be left is to enter the ark. So at the end of time, those who are taken are being punished, separated from the sheep and cast out of God’s presence, and those who are left behind are saved and go to an eternal reward.
And in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, Saint Paul says “then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with [those who have died before this time] in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” Being ‘left behind’ here means not having died. It is precisely those who are ‘left behind’ who are raptured, to be with those who died who are already with Christ, and come with Him at His one Second Coming.
But all this being gathered by the Lord in the air happens at his one, public Second Coming, and it happens at the time of the Last Judgment.
So, against the dispensationalist modern protestant view, Christians do not escape persecution and tribulation, but as Jesus says, “the one who perseveres to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).
More importantly he says, “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Matthew 24:36).
So be prepared: be reconciled to God in Jesus, and through good works done in His grace, remain in His friendship to welcome Him when He judges, and be among the sheep when he says “to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. . . ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:34, 40).
So, no, there will be no rapture of Christians at a secret Second Coming of Jesus before a period of trial and tribulation and his public Third Coming and Last Judgement.