If you have ever read Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkin’s influential series Left Behind or seen any of the several movie adaptations based upon it, you have been presented in gripping narrative form with a particular view of the return of Christ called dispensational premillennialism. Generally speaking, premillennialism has been the historic eschatological position of the church from some of the earliest times. However, a new form of premillennialism arose in the 19th century with the advent of John Darby and the Scofield Reference Bible—dispensational premillennialism. It is this newer version of premillennialism that is narrated in the Left Behind series, and this view has quickly become the default eschatological position of the church in America. But is it correct?
In the older version of premillennialism—called historic or classical premillennialism1—the second coming of Jesus is viewed as a single event followed by the millennium (hence pre-millennial). Dispensational premillennialism, on the other hand, adds some flare. In dispensational premillennialism the second coming of Jesus is seen as a two-stage event that is inaugurated by a secret2rapture of the church, followed by a seven year period (where most dispensational premillennialists place the tribulation) culminating in the visible, glorious appearing of the Lord. But historic premillennialism has never held to a secret rapture of the church that happens before and independent of the visible, glorious appearing of Jesus. In historic premillennialism the rapture happens as part of Jesus’ glorious appearing.
So which position should we take? Should we conceive of the rapture as being an event that issecret and separate from the glorious appearing of Jesus? Or does the Bible portray the rapture and the glorious appearing as all one event? I will argue here that the Bible neither portrays the rapture as being secret nor separate from the glorious appearing of Jesus. All of this is part of a single event.
Proponent of dispensational premillennialism appeal to several passages in support of a secret rapture. For example, in Matt 24:40-41 we read: “Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left.”3 And in Luke 17:34-35: “I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.” If we only read these verses, it may look like a secret rapture of the church. But when we put them into context, it becomes clear that Jesus is not talking about believers being taken away to be with the Lord, but unbelievers being taken away to judgment.
Here is the context of Jesus’ statement in Matt 24: “For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left” (Matt 24:38-41, emphasis added). The context is being taken away in judgment. This becomes even more clear in Luke’s account: “‘I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.’ And they said to him,‘Where, Lord?’ He said to them, ‘Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather’” (Luke 17:34-37, emphasis added). When Jesus tells his disciples that one will be taken and one left, the disciples ask him where those who are taken will be taken. Jesus does not tell them that they are being raptured out of the world to meet him in the sky. No, he responds with the metaphor of vultures surrounding dead bodies—a saying that clearly points to judgment.4 So not only is this passage not about a secret rapture, it is not about the rapture at all. It is about the sudden an unsuspecting destruction of unbelievers. The context makes this clear. Dispensational premillennialism ignores Jesus’ answer, lifts the verses out of their context of judgment, and applies them to a secret rapture of the church.
But what about passages that do speak of the rapture? Do they provide any support for the idea that it will be a secret event in advance of the second coming proper? Let’s examine them. The most explicit passage on the rapture in the Bible is 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 where Paul tells us:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, 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, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
The first thing that strikes me about these verses is that this appears very much to be a public event rather than a secret coming. According to this passage there are these presumably very public phenomenon that accompany the rapture: the Lord Jesus descends from heaven, there is a cry and a trumpet sound, and the dead bodies of believers are raised to life out of their graves. This is not the silent, quiet, secret coming of Jesus like that portrayed in the Left Behind series where suddenly all the Christians are gone—and no one knows why. To say that only believers will be able to see the Lord descending, that only believers will be able to hear the trumpet sound, that only believers will know that Christians who have died previously have been raised to life out of their graves, seems to me to stretch the limits of acceptable interpretation of this passage.
Rather it looks very much like this is the same glorious appearing of Jesus that is spoken of elsewhere in Scripture. For example, Matt 24:30-31 appears to describe the same event that Paul speaks of in 1 Thess 4: “Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, 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 out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” We can even put these passages in parallel to one another like this:
1 Thess 4:16-17
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven...
...and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
...with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.
And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call...
And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air...
...and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
Matt 24 is describing the glorious appearing of Jesus. But here we also have the trumpet call and the gathering of the elect. And these things happen publicly at the glorious appearing, not secretly in advance of the glorious appearing. The presence of the trumpet call also makes it absolutely clear that we are dealing with one eschatological event rather than two. Consider how in 1 Cor 15 Paul tells us that believers will be resurrected or transformed “at the last trumpet” (1 Cor 15:52, emphasis added). Dispensational premillenialism says that this resurrection/transformation will happen at the secret rapture of the church which occurs in advance of Christ’s glorious appearing. But Paul says it will happen at the last trumpet. How could this be the last trumpet if there is going to be another trumpet at Christ’s glorious appearing according to Matthew 24:31? In my mind this necessitates the trumpet of 1 Corinthians 15:52 being the same trumpet as the one in Matt 24:31. (Paul has, after all, told us very specifically which trumpet it is). But since 1 Cor 15:52 describes events that happen at the rapture and Matt 24:30-31 clearly describes the glorious coming of Jesus, the conclusion seems virtually inescapable: The rapture happens as a part of the glorious appearing rather than secretly before it.
What does this rapture look like then? How would the Thessalonians have understood it when Paul told them that they were going “to meet the Lord in the air”? This image would have been very familiar to them from their own cultural context. In the ancient world of the Thessalonians, when a Roman emperor or dignitary visited a colony or a city, like, say, Thessolonica, a welcome delegation would be sent out to meet the honored guest just outside the city and escort him in. The original Thessalonians would have read Paul’s comments in light of this custom because Paul uses the same term for meeting Jesus in the air that they would typically use to describe meeting such a visiting dignitary.5 Paul sees the coming of Jesus as the ultimate imperial visitation and believers, both those living and those who have died, as the welcoming committee (so to speak) when he returns. This is the point Paul is making in 1 Thess 4.
To capture something of Paul’s idea here let’s imagine that you and I go to church together and that we were expecting the President of the United States to visit our church. Let’s say you tell me, “When the president arrives, we will go and meet him in the parking lot.” I would understand your statement to mean that we would act as his welcoming committee—that we would meet him in the parking lot and then escort him back into the building. In fact, if you didn’t mean this you would have to add a clarifying comment to make sure that I would not take the expression that way, perhaps something like: “When the president arrives, we will go and meet him in the parking lot. Then we will show him around town before he comes to the fellowship hall of the church.”
So according to historic premillenialism (and I believe the Bible) the second coming looks like this. Jesus will descend in glory. Dead believers will be raised, and living believers will be transformed. We will all welcome the Lord in the air...and then escort him back to earth where he will establish his millennial reign.
A final brief note on the history of the dispensational premillennial view. Although the idea that the second coming of Jesus would take place in two stages (secret rapture and glorious appearing) has become essentially the mainstream view in evangelicalism, it is actually a relatively recent view in church history. No one held to this view before the 19th century. No one saw this in Scripture for over 1800 years. This is not a knock-down argument against this particular version of the return of Christ; but it does suggest we need to be extraordinarily cautious when affirming this view. Far more cautious than most American churches have been who have enshrined it in their statements of faith so that one must affirm this position in order to be a member of their church. Given the biblical problems outlined above, my vote is that we go back to the historic position of the church and leave Left Behind eschatology behind.
1 On historic premillennialism see A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology, eds. Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).
2 Pastor Dean Linsky of CrossWay Church pointed out to me that secrecy is not a necessary component of the idea here. This is quite true. A Left Behind type rapture could take place publicly with the whole world witnessing believers meeting Jesus in the air. The essential part of the concept is that the second coming happens in two stages (a rapture followed by an interval followed by the glorious appearing). However, many dispensational premillennialists do in fact think of the rapture as taking place secretly; so I will continue to refer to a “secret rapture” throughout this post in reference to this event.
4 This also fits the overall context in Luke 17 where Jesus has also just mentioned the sudden destructions of the flood and Sodom and Gomorrah.
5 N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 217-218 (though I disagree with some of Wright’s treatment here, I believe him to be correct on this point). See also William Hendriksen, “Commentary on I Thessalonians,” in William Hendricksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Thessalonians, the Pastorals, and Hebrews, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 119.