The Not-So-Secret Rapture

W. Fred Rice

Evangelical book catalogs promote books such as Planet Earth: The Final Chapter, The Great Escape, and Left Behind. Bumper stickers warn us that the vehicle's occupants may disappear at any moment. There is clearly a preoccupation with the idea of a secret Rapture.

Perhaps this has become more pronounced recently due to the approach of a new millennium and the fears regarding potential Y2K problems. Perhaps, psychologically, people are especially receptive to the idea of an imminent, secret Rapture at the present time.

Additionally, many Christians are not aware that there is any other understanding of the events that will surround the second coming of Christ. Even in Reformed circles, there are numerous people reading these books. Many of these people are unaware that the viewpoint propounded in them conflicts with Scripture and Reformed theology.

What exactly is the "secret Rapture" teaching? It is the teaching that the Christian church will be secretly removed from the world (to meet Jesus in the sky, where they will stay for years), so that the unbelievers who are left behind will not know where all the Christians have gone. These unbelievers will be left on the earth to endure seven years of tribulation, which will be initiated by the Antichrist, who will be revealed only after the Rapture has taken place. The prophecies of the seven seals, the seven trumpets, and the seven bowls (in the book of Revelation) will supposedly be fulfilled during the Tribulation.

Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins are the authors of Left Behind and four other books in a series that delineates this theory in popular fiction. So popular is this series that 4.5 million copies of the books and audiotapes have been sold. It has its own Web site, and there is a separate Left Behind Series for Kids. A movie is being made, based on the first two books, Left Behind and Tribulation Force.

In Left Behind, the first book in the series, Rayford Steele, a pilot for Pan-Continental Airlines, is making a flight from Chicago to London when he is informed by Hattie, his head flight attendant, that many of their passengers have disappeared in mid-flight. Their clothes are the only remaining evidence of their former presence on the plane. As Rayford contacts other airliners, he finds that they have experienced the same phenomenon.

Upon returning to Chicago, he finds total chaos, as aircraft and vehicles, suddenly without operators, have collided and crashed all over the city. After reaching his home with considerable difficulty, he finds that his own wife and son have disappeared. Actually, this is what he expected to find, since his wife was a Christian who had spoken regularly to him about the imminent, secret Rapture of the church, and he finds this the only reasonable explanation for what has happened.

The majority of people, however, look for some other explanation, such as capture by aliens or an unexplained scientific phenomenon. Rayford calls the church where his wife was a member, and the visitation pastor, Bruce Barnes, answers the phone! Rayford meets with Bruce in an effort to get some answers, and Bruce confesses that he was never a true Christian, and is not surprised that he was left behind.

But Bruce has become a believer since the Rapture, and is anxious to share his faith with others. Rayford and many others are converted. Two witnesses, Moishe and Eli, appear out of nowhere and begin witnessing in the city of Jerusalem. We are informed that through their witness 144,000 Jews will be converted.

Meanwhile, Nicolae Carpathia, a brilliant and eloquent Romanian, rises quickly to power and becomes head of the United Nations. At the end of the book, it is evident that he is either the Antichrist or the False Prophet, and that his professed humanitarianism is totalitarianism in disguise.

We are left hanging on the edge of a literary cliff, and will have to read the succeeding books in the series to learn the final outcome. But those of us acquainted with dispensational theology have a fairly good idea of what will happen.

So what is wrong with the perspective of these novels and other books which promote this theory in a fictional or nonfictional fashion? After all, such books accurately represent the popular theory of the Rapture as taught in the majority of evangelical, Bible-believing churches in the United States today. But do they truly represent the teachings of Scripture?

The Orthodox Presbyterian Church has always answered that question in the negative. In fact, this was one of the key issues in the division that produced the Bible Presbyterian Church early in the history of our denomination.

What, then, does the Bible teach? At the time of Christ's ascension, the disciples were told that "this same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11). His ascension was visible and physical; his second coming will likewise be visible and physical.

Dispensationalists seek to explain this passage by saying that the Second Coming is divided into two parts, the coming of Christ for his saints (the secret Rapture) and the coming of Christ with his saints (the revelation), and that it is only at his revelation that he will appear visibly. But this in reality postulates a second and a third coming.

Titus 2:13 is often used to support this view, but it is not speaking of two comings of Christ, but of one event, "the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ." This is one event because one article ("the") covers the two nouns ("hope" and "appearing") joined by "and" (and so it is in the original Greek).

There is simply no hint of a secret Rapture in Scripture. The coming of Christ is consistently described as a visible and noisy event, which is also accompanied by the resurrection of the dead. First Thessalonians 4:16 contains one of the most vivid descriptions of the Second Coming. We are told that "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." The same connection of the sound of the trumpet with the resurrection is also made in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52.

Matthew 24:21-31[1] teaches that the coming of Christ will be "as the lightning" (vs. 27), that "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" (vss. 30-31).

In addition to describing this event as noisy and visible to all the inhabitants of the earth, this passage also warns us against belief in a secret coming of Christ: "Then if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or 'There!' do not believe it" (vs. 23). And "if they say to you, 'Look, He is in the desert!' do not go out; or 'Look, He is in the inner rooms!' do not believe it" (vs. 26). There will be no question about what has happened after Christ has returned. People left behind will not be dreaming up explanations—they will be mourning because their judgment has come.

Also going against the theory of a secret Rapture is 2 Thessalonians 2:1-10, which teaches that two events will occur prior to the coming of Christ: (1) "the falling away" (or "the rebellion" [niv], or, literally, "the apostasy") and (2) the revelation of "the man of sin" (vs. 3), who is generally identified with "the Antichrist" (1 John 2:18). Now whether we understand the Antichrist as nothing more than the spirit of Antichrist (1 John 4:3; cf. 2:22 and 2 John 7), or as a particular individual, one thing is clear: this revelation of the Antichrist will occur prior to Christ's coming, not afterwards.

Scripture teaches that the coming of Christ will be sudden and unexpected, especially to unbelievers. This is the teaching of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-10. But to say that it will be sudden and unexpected is not to say that it will be secret.

The passage that is most frequently used to substantiate the idea of a secret Rapture, with unbelievers being left behind, is Luke 17:31-37, which speaks of "two men in one bed: the one will be taken and the other will be left" (vs. 34). This passage does indeed teach that unbelievers will be left behind. But there is nothing here to substantiate the dispensational scenario of believers being taken away secretly.

Comparing Scripture with Scripture, we must conclude that those left behind are left behind to suffer judgment. Second Thessalonians 1:3-10 speaks of the Lord Jesus "in flaming fire taking vengeance" (vs. 8) when he is revealed from heaven. Unbelievers will not be left behind to go through a seven-year Tribulation and have a second chance to accept the Lord during that time. This idea of a second chance is emphasized again and again in Left Behind, but it is foreign to Scripture.

Can anything positive be said about the Left Behind books? First, they are well written and engaging. Second, the plan of salvation is, on the whole, accurately represented: conversion is clearly much more than a bare profession of faith, for it is accompanied by repentance and followed by a changed life. Third, these books certainly impress upon people the reality of the return of Christ. Nonetheless, these books present a scenario of future events that is simply not supported by Scripture.


[1] Many preterists (who interpret most New Testament prophecies as having been fulfilled in the first century) dilute the meaning of this passage almost as much as dispensationalists do, referring it to a coming of Christ in A.D. 70 that nobody saw. John Murray, in "The Interadventual Period and the Advent: Matthew 24 and 25," reprinted in his Collected Writings, volume 2, pages 387-400, supports the interpretation that this passage refers to the Second Coming of Christ, yet future. But at least preterists would agree that Scripture does not teach a secret Rapture.

Mr. Rice (Th.M., Westminster Theological Seminary) is a member of Church of the Covenant in Hackettstown, N.J. He quotes the NKJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, July 1999.

New Horizons: July 1999

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