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The word rapture is often used to refer to a secret return of Jesus, the idea being that millions of Christians will be unobtrusively taken to heaven seven years prior to Christ’s second coming, leaving the unconverted behind. This concept of Christ’s return to earth remains a significant part of the American religious psyche.

In this article I will respond to the rapture theory of Christ’s second coming. I will begin by clarifying the meaning of the word rapture.

The dictionary gives several definitions, one of which is “the state of being carried away with joy, love, etc.; to fill with ecstasy.” However, that isn’t the meaning of the word in the theological sense. Theologically, the word means “to be lifted from the earth either at or prior to Christ’s second coming.” Many evangelical Protestants understand the word rapture to mean “being lifted from the earth prior to Christ’s second coming.” Those who believe that God’s people will be lifted from the earth at Christ’s second coming would agree that this, too, is a rapture, though they don’t usually refer to it with that term.

One of the more notable proponents in recent years of the pre-Advent theory of the rapture was the late Christian radio broadcaster Harold Camping, whose predictions about the date of the pre-Advent rapture failed three times: September 6, 1994; May 21, 2011; and October 21, 2011. With each date, he claimed that believers would be secretly taken to heaven while those remaining behind would be engulfed in fire and plagues. These bold predictions gained him not only a following but also millions of dollars in donations, as thousands of people, believing they would soon be taken to heaven, gave him money and property.

However, when neither the rapture nor the destruction of the world occurred on October 21, 2011, he said, “We humbly acknowledge we were wrong about the timing.” He said he didn’t know when all these things would take place, and he admitted that he shouldn’t have made the predictions.

Hal Lindsey’s 1970 multimillion best-selling book The Late, Great Planet Earth also promoted the rapture. And though Lindsey didn’t predict dates the way Camping did, he made all sorts of predictions about world events, particularly regarding Israel and the Middle East, none of which have yet come about, including—obviously—the rapture itself.

In more recent times, the ubiquitous Left Behind novels, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, became a best-selling 16-part series that was subsequently used as the basis for a series of four films plus a more recent Left Behind movie starring Nicolas Cage. The books and the movies, with the rapture a key theological element, inspired a video game called Left Behind: Eternal Forces, which itself led to several sequels. There are Left Behind graphic novels, CDs, a Left Behind series for teens, and audio dramatizations.

I propose that the rapture is a fantasy of people’s imaginations—and that’s precisely the problem. The imagination is where the rapture idea originated, and that’s where it exists to this day. It can’t be found in the Bible.

The promise of the Second Coming

But doesn’t the Bible teach that Jesus will return to earth and take the saved to heaven, while the lost remain? Isn’t the second coming of Jesus one of the crucial teachings of the New Testament? Aren’t Christians on solid biblical ground when they proclaim that Jesus is coming back and that when He does He will “rapture” His people to heaven?

The Bible does teach all of these things. The second coming of Jesus is, indeed, the great hope of Christians everywhere. Jesus Himself, more than once, promised to return. “In My Father’s house,” He said, “are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:2, 3, NKJV).* Without the second coming of Jesus and all it entails, which includes taking His people to heaven, the Christian faith would be, in the words of the apostle Paul, “futile” (1 Corinthians 15:17).

What, then, is the problem?

The problem is what those who proclaim the rapture in these books and movies say about it. Yes, Jesus is coming back; and, yes, when He comes He will “rapture” His people to heaven. It just won’t happen the way it’s popularly portrayed.

The false idea is that Jesus is going to return unseen seven years prior to His second coming and secretly and quietly rapture the faithful to heaven. The common teaching is that people—spouses, children, parents, friends, neighbors; that is, any Christian who’s ready—will just vanish, having been taken to heaven. You could be driving in a car or sitting in a classroom or walking in the grocery store or traveling in an airplane (as in the Nicolas Cage movie) when those around you will suddenly disappear, leaving only their clothes. Everyone else is, well, left behind.

This will be followed by a seven-year period of tribulation under the reign of the antichrist (Nicolae Carpathia in the Left Behind series, a fictional former president of Romania and former secretary general of the United Nations). Only after all this happens will Jesus actually come back, and the world as we know it will end.

Taken and left

Why do so many people believe this teaching about Christians being secretly snatched away to heaven? It comes from a misreading of a few texts while ignoring others.

The foundational texts that are used to promote this rapture view are found in Matthew 24. In discussing world events just prior to His second coming, Jesus said, “In the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (verses 38–42).

The rapture proponents argue that, in the field and the mill, the ones who “will be taken” are the one secretly raptured to heaven while the ones “left behind” will be those who remain on earth.

There’s a major problem, though, with using these texts to teach a secret rapture. Jesus used Noah’s flood as a parallel illustration of His return. So what happened to those who didn’t get in the ark at the time of the flood? “The flood came and took them all away.” Notice that it was those who didn’t get in the boat who were “taken away”—that is, they were drowned; they were lost. How, then, can we read the next verses, which talk about those who are “taken,” as being the ones raptured to heaven? The Flood parallel shows that the ones taken are those who are lost, while the ones who are left will be those Jesus takes to heaven with Him when He returns.

The Lord from heaven

Perhaps that’s what the apostle Paul had in mind when he described the real rapture at Christ’s second coming: “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 forever” (1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17). This text clarifies three things about Christ’s second coming.

First, Paul said that those who are alive and who are left will be caught up “to meet the Lord in the air.”

Second, these verses teach that there will be a rapture, but contrary to the Left Behind version, nothing about it will be secret. Christ will come down from heaven with a shout, “with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God.

Third, notice what else happens during this rapture: “the dead in Christ will rise first.” This is the resurrection of the dead, which the Bible has talked about for thousands of years. It’s what Jesus had in mind when He said, “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:40, NKJV). Whatever the resurrection of the dead will look like, between that and the ruckus made at Christ’s return, the idea of the rapture being a quiet or secret event has to be wrong.

Several other texts show what the second coming of Jesus will really be like. Writing in Revelation 1:7, the apostle John said, “Behold, [Jesus] is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him” (NKJV).

And in predicting His second coming Jesus Himself said that “as the lightning comes from the east and flashes to the west, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. . . . Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matthew 24:27, 30, 31, NKJV).

Thief in the night

Proponents of the rapture argue for the secrecy based on a biblical metaphor of a thief coming to a house at night.

Peter did write that “the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up” (2 Peter 3:10, NKJV). So, yes, Christ will come as a thief in the night, but what will happen when He does? The heavens will pass away with “a great noise,” and the elements will melt, and earth will be burned up.

That’s hardly a secret event!

The metaphor of the thief in the night means simply what the Bible has said in other places (1 Thessalonians 5:4–6; Matthew 24:26), which is that we don’t know when Jesus will come back, just as we don’t know when a thief in the night will come to our homes. The secrecy has to do with the timing of the event, not the event itself.

One event, not two

The bottom line is this: proponents of the secret rapture take one event— the second coming of Jesus when the dead will be resurrected, when everyone will be raptured, and when the earth will be destroyed—and they turn it into two events, the first being the one so graphically depicted in films, books, and video games, such as the Left Behind series.

However, the Bible knows of only one event—the second coming of Jesus, when all of God’s people (not just some of them) will be taken up from the earth together. That’s the hope that Christians have held for 2,000 years. And it’s the hope that can give us the courage to endure the ups and downs of life in this present world.

* Scriptures marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Is the Rapture for Real?

by Clifford Goldstein
From the May 2015 Signs