Now You See Them, Now You Don't
If in the last few years you haven't discarded
a major opinion or acquired a new one,
check your pulse, you may be dead.
— Frank Gelett Burgess (1866-1951)
Although the exact word, “rapture,” isn’t in the Bible, millions of prophecy-minded Christians have nevertheless been taught that soon God’s Church will disappear from Planet Earth without a trace. Headlines are predicted to read: “Multitudes Missing, Chaos Sweeps Globe!” “All Children Have Disappeared!” “Massive Traffic Snarls Due to Evaporated Drivers!” “Planes Crash, Trains Wreck, as Pilots and Engineers Vanish!”Perhaps you’ve seen bumper stickers reading: “In case of Rapture, this vehicle will be unmanned.”
In the last few years, the number-one promoter of the rapture idea has been the New York Times bestselling Left Behind series, coauthored by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. A high-speed, 12-book sequence of novels about the end times, Left Behind teaches that the return of Jesus Christ takes place in two distinct phases. First, Jesus comes invisibly to remove His Church before a seven-year tribulation during which the rest of humanity must face the antichrist. This is the rapture. At the end of those seven years, Jesus will again return visibly to deliver those who became Christians during the tribulation—after being given a “second chance” to be saved—and to pulverize the invading enemies of Israel at Armageddon. This is the second coming. Thus it’s rapture first, then seven years with the antichrist, then the visible second coming of Jesus Christ.
These popular concepts—rapture, seven years of horror, future antichrist—have also been taught in many apocalyptic Christian films, such as A Thief in the Night, Image of the Beast, Tribulation Force, The Omega Code, Left Behind: The Movie, and Megiddo. Because the rapture teaching has been promoted so heavily in our society, even among those outside the Church, a rumor has circulated that some higher-ups at American Airlines want at least one non-Christian pilot aboard each flight—just in case!
The real question is: Although “rapture” isn’t a biblical word, is the doctrine there? If not, could it be an end time delusion? Let’s find out. First of all, the Bible certainly does teach the exciting truth that Jesus Christ will return for His people. Our Lord Himself said, “I will come again and receive you to Myself” (John 14:3). All Christians should believe Christ’s promise and long to meet Him on that great day.
But will He come invisibly? Will the Church disappear? Does the Bible really teach vanishing Christians? Without a doubt, the most quoted passage used to support the rapture concept is 1 Thessalonians 4:17. Lots of Christians know this verse by heart, and it is cited in Left Behind: The Movie. There Paul wrote that true believers will someday be “caught up… in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians ). But does “caught up” mean disappear? Is Paul describing a silent return of Jesus Christ before an apocalyptic seven-year tribulation? We don’t need to guess. The answer is in the context, and you don’t need to have a four-year degree to grasp the truth.
Have you ever driven down a highway without realizing how fast you were going, and then, when you finally looked down at your speedometer, you thought to yourself, I’m going too fast and must slow down!? This is what we need to do with 1 Thessalonians 4. We must slow down and take a full look.
Here is what Paul actually wrote:
For the Lord Himself
will descend from heaven with a shout,
with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God.
And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive
and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds
to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with
the Lord (1 Thessalonians -17).
Rapture teachers interpret this event as silent and secret, yet doesn’t it seem rather loud and visible? There is a shout, a voice, a trumpet. Have you ever heard of a silent trumpet? The truth is, 1 Thessalonians is one of the noisiest verses in the Bible! Look carefully: Jesus Christ comes down from Heaven shouting and blowing a trumpet. The dead rise. Then true believers are “caught up.” Honestly, do you see anything here about vanishing Christians prior to the tribulation? Rapture promoters interpret “caught up” to mean disappear because this view fits their tightly-meshed prophetic system, yet it must be admitted that the text doesn’t say this.
Two thousand years ago, at the end of His earthly life, Jesus Christ was also “taken up,” (Acts 1:9). This doesn’t mean He disappeared, leaving His clothes on earth. Instead, in full view of His wondering disciples, “while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9, emphasis added). This event was highly visible. Luke said Jesus Christ was “taken up,” and then clouds are mentioned, just like Paul wrote about believers being “caught up…in the clouds.”
Notice carefully the full context of Acts 1:9:
Now when He had spoken these things,
while they watched, He
was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And
while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up,
behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said,
This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will
so come in like manner as you have seen Him go into
heaven” (Acts 1:9-11, emphasis added).
Here we have holy angels—in the form of men in white robes—explaining the simple truth about Jesus Christ’s return. They told the disciples that just as Jesus was literally and visibly “taken up” into the clouds, even so would He “come in like manner as [they had seen] Him go into heaven.” Although these angels never attended a seminary, there’s no doubt they had their theology straight. They taught no secret coming or vanishing Christians. Everything will be highly visible, just like the ascension of Jesus Christ.
Let’s return to 1 Thessalonians and take a look at the thief-in-the-night idea:
For the Lord Himself
will descend from heaven with a shout, with
the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the
dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain
shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the
Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.
Therefore comfort one another with these words. But concerning
the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I
should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the
day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they
say, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon
them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not
escape (1 Thessalonians –5:3, emphasis added).
Here Paul compares the coming of Jesus Christ to the arrival of a thief. Rapture promoters interpret this to mean Jesus will come like a silent thief to snatch believers off this earth before seven years of chaos—then driverless cars will crash, pilotless planes will collide, and babies will be found missing from their cribs. The Christian film, A Thief in the Night, which is similar to Left Behind:The Movie, portrays this dramatically. Yet is this really what Paul is saying?
Again, let’s slow down and take a closer look at our biblical speedometers. First of all, the day when Jesus comes as a thief is clearly the very same day in which He descends with a shout and a trumpet blast. Secondly, it comes as “a thief in the night” only upon the unprepared. When it hits, “sudden destruction comes upon them [the lost], as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape.”
Do you see what Paul is really saying? Jesus’ coming as a “thief in the night” does not mean He will come quietly and invisibly to steal believers out of this world, as is taught in rapture movies and New York Times bestselling books. Rather, it means He will come unexpectedly, bringing “sudden destruction” upon the unsaved. Thus it is not a secret coming, but only a sudden one. Will the unprepared get a “second chance” to be saved during a subsequent seven-year tribulation? Paul answered this question when he wrote, “They shall not escape” (verse 3).
Here’s a simple summary of what 1 Thessalonians 4:16-5:3 really says:
• Jesus Christ will literally descend from
Heaven with a shout
and a trumpet blast.
• The dead in Christ will rise first and true believers will be
“caught up,” just like Jesus Christ Himself was visibly
“taken up” into the sky almost 2,000 years ago.
• This cataclysmic “day of the Lord” will burst upon the
unprepared like the unexpected arrival of a thief.
• “Sudden destruction” will overwhelm the lost, “and they
shall not escape.”
When taken literally, these words describe the visible second coming of Jesus Christ, not a secret rapture.
Immediately after his solemn prediction of Christ’s return as a thief, Paul wrote to true believers: “But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:4-5).
Remember the Blackout of 2003? It left 50 million North Americans in darkness because a massive system failure short-circuited our electrical power grid. At least when it comes to 1 Thessalonians 4:16-5:3, we have just witnessed another system failure. The popular doctrine of a silent, secret return of Jesus Christ and vanishing Christians is just not there.
Again, Paul wrote, “You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:5).
God wants us to avoid truth outages.
He wants the lights on.