For more than 1,800 years, Christians understood “the rapture” to be the blissful moment of Jesus’ second coming. But within the last century and a half, a new interpretation emerged. Today, Barry Cooper helps us consider what the Bible says about the rapture of Christ’s church.
What is the rapture?
One view of the rapture has been popularized in the Left Behind series of books and movies. The rapture is depicted as the moment when Jesus silently “raptures” His people to be with Him, leaving the rest of the world to cope with their sudden absence. Obviously, the effect on those left behind is dramatic and makes for a great movie. Cars start veering wildly on the freeway because they suddenly lack drivers, airplanes plummet from the sky because they suddenly lack pilots, and select branches of Chick-fil-A are left slightly understaffed.
The rapture is one of those terms that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible, but it has become a shorthand way of describing a concept that definitely does appear in the Bible.
The word rapture means exaltation or happiness. It describes being transported—at least emotionally—to a place of total delight.
And for more than eighteen centuries, the rapture was understood to be the moment of Jesus Christ’s second coming—the time when Jesus returns, calls His people to be with Him forever, and judges the living and the dead.
However, in the last century and a half, a new understanding of the rapture emerged. This new interpretation was popularized by a man named John Nelson Darby, whose teachings have become known as dispensationalism. You can see Darby’s influence in the Left Behind series.
In contrast to the previous eighteen centuries of teaching, Darby taught that Jesus would effectively return in two stages. First, He would come secretly to “rapture” the church. Millions of believers would suddenly disappear.
And then, at some point in the future after that, Jesus Christ would return again in visible glory to judge the living and the dead.
The big question is, What does Scripture say about this? Is there support for a secret rapture of the church, followed later by the second coming of Christ? Or are the two events one and the same?
The key passage is 1 Thessalonians 4:13–17, where the Apostle Paul is clarifying what will happen to Christians who have died—specifically, what will happen to them at the time of the second coming. And what will happen to those who are still alive at the time of the second coming? Paul says this:
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. [“Those who are asleep”—a beautiful way of describing those in Christ who have died. Paul continues:] 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.
If this is describing a moment of secret rapture, it doesn’t sound very secret: there’s a “cry of command” from the Lord Himself, there’s the “voice of an archangel,” and there’s “the sound of the trumpet of God.”
And here’s something else to consider. This moment Paul describes, when “the Lord himself will descend” and gather His people to Himself—is that really something that happens some years before the final judgment?
Read on in 1 Thessalonians. Paul talks about “the day of the Lord,” the day of judgment, and he tells Christians that they shouldn’t be surprised when that day comes. Which strongly suggests that Christians will still be on the earth at that moment, rather than having been previously removed from it.
So, the most likely interpretation of the rapture is the one the church held for eighteen and a half centuries. It is something that will happen when the Lord returns in His glory to judge the living and the dead, the blissful moment when we are taken up to be with Him forever.
Whichever view we take, however, as Christians our hope is the same. We look forward eagerly to Christ’s triumphant return, when He will make all things new.