Christians are talking about the best-selling series of novels, Left Behind™* by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. So far, eight books in the series have been released, with a ninth, Desecration, slated to hit Christian bookstores in the United States on October 30.
The question of whether or not there will be a secret rapture is not minor. Ministers of the gospel, whatever their denomination, may eventually have to take a position on this controversial issue. Why?
Starting with the simplest of reasons, because we pastors are often and increasingly being asked by our congregations about this topic. As shepherds of the flocks God has given to us, we need to have answers that lead in a right and helpful direction. Secondly, as part of our ministerial calling, we have been commissioned to preach the return of our Lord. Paul wrote to Timothy, "I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; preach the word" (2 Tim. 4:1, 2). Here ministers are told to "preach the word," and to do so in the light of "his appearing."
What is the truth about the rapture? Will millions of Christians one day vanish, as taught in Left Behind? Will Jesus remove His followers before a final period of tribulation? Will those who miss this rapture have a second chance to be saved? These are important questions, and we need biblical answers. From a practical perspective, the issue is this: Should we tell our church members that God will remove them from this world prior to earth's final days, or should we prepare them to pass through, endure, and overcome the deceptive, closing assaults of Satan before the visible return of Jesus Christ?
The biblical teaching
It is impossible in this short article to examine every passage in the Bible relevant to this topic, but we can look briefly at the most important ones.
The main scripture used to support the idea of a rapture before the visible second coming of Jesus Christ is found in 1 Thessalonians 4. It is quoted in Left Behind: The Movie. According to sincere yet, I believe, misguided Bible teachers around the world, those words depict the sudden disappearing of believers prior to the final tribulation.
Is this actually what the Bible says? Paul wrote. "For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words. But of the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that I write unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape" (1 Thess. 4:16-5:3).
Do these verses teach a silent coming of Jesus Christ prior to a tribulation during which those who are "left behind" will be given a second chance to be saved? They do not. Instead, Jesus is described as literally coming down from heaven with a shout, a voice, and a trumpet! This is not a silent and secret return. A global resurrection takes place, and then believers are "caught up."
These two words, "caught up," are interpreted to mean vanish, yet the text does not say this. Just as Jesus was literally "taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight" (Acts 1:9), even so does a simple reading of these verses teach a literal and visible translation of Christians at the end of the world. And what about those who are not "caught up"? What will hap pen to them? Paul's answer is clear, "they shall not escape" (1 Thess. 5:3).
The idea of Jesus coming as a thief is often interpreted to mean a silent and secret arrival. Yet the context doesn't support this. Notice carefully, "the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape" (verses 2, 3). This is not a silent coming, but an unexpected one which results in the sudden destruction of those not pre pared.
Thus the biblical evidence in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5 points to a loud, climactic, highly visible, second coming of Jesus Christ, a literal catching up of true believers, and the sudden destruction of those not pre pared for this event. No second chances are offered.
Another passage used to support the secret rapture idea is found in Matthew 24. Jesus said, "Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left" (Matt. 24:40). Supposedly, those left behind will then be ushered into earth's final period of tribulation.
Once again, does the context sup port this? A few verses earlier Jesus said His coming would be far from secret. "Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not. For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be" (verses 26, 27). In contrast to mistaken ideas of a secret return, Jesus compares His coming to the brilliant flashing of lightning bolts hurtling across the sky.
Concerning His coming, Jesus declared, "But as the days of Noe were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left" (Matt. 24:37-40).
Just as the Flood came suddenly upon the lost, and "took them all away," even so will the coming of Jesus Christ be. "Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken and the other left." This happens at the end of the world. Did the unsaved in Noah's day receive a second chance? No, they did "not escape." The paral lel is clear. Neither will those who are not ready for the return of Jesus Christ when He comes visibly like lightning flashing across the sky.
Some Christian movies describe a secret rapture taking place in "a moment, in the twinkling of an eye," before the tribulation. Yet once again, the context reveals another story. Paul wrote, "In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump [as in 1 Thess. 4:16 and Matt. 24:31]: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed" (1 Cor. 15:52). These words do not describe a secret event, but rather a loud, distinctly announced return of Jesus Christ, and the instantaneous changing of our mortal bodies. This happens "at the last trump," that is, at the end of the world.
What shall we say to our congregations?
So what shall we tell our church members when we preach about "His appearing"? Should we lead them to expect to escape the final days through a secret rapture prior to the tribulation? Or should we seek to pre pare them to endure to the end of the world? Jesus said, "He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved" (Matt. 24:13). Paul also urged his converts, "Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand" (Eph. 6:13).
Jesus said, "Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it" (Matt. 7:24-27).
I have concluded that we should not expect, nor teach a secret rapture before a tribulation or time of trouble.1 We should "preach the word," preparing our people to endure the coming storm.
The best place to prepare is at the foot of the Cross.
* Trademark owned by Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois.
1 My book, Truth Left Behind, goes into greater detail about this important subject (www.truthleftbehind.com).