A Secret Rapture?
A common doctrine exists among Christians, which also formed the basis for a popular series of novels. The doctrine holds that Christ's return will be in two stages: one in which he comes unseen by the world to gather together the church, and a second when he comes to the earth in glory. In the first stage, those Christians who have died will be raised, and then the Christians who are alive at the time will be caught up to the clouds to join them. Those who are not gathered at this time are "left behind" to face the Great Tribulation. After the Tribulation, Jesus and the previously gathered believers come to earth in the second stage of Christ's return, at which time the Day of Judgment and Christ's Millennial Kingdom begin.
Because the rapture is thought to happen before the Tribulation, and before any other prophecies are fulfilled, it is generally held that it could happen at any time. Thus it is called a "Pre-Tribulation" Rapture ("Pre-Trib" for short), as opposed to a "Post-Trib" or "Mid-Trib" Rapture. The problem with this doctrine is that the Bible does not teach a rapture before the Tribulation, or one in which Jesus returns "secretly" before he is revealed to the world in all his glory.
The word "rapture" does not occur in the English Bible, but it comes from the Latin word rapare, which occurs in the Latin translation of I Thessalonians 4:17. The Greek equivalent is harpazo and both words mean to "catch up" or "snatch away" or "pluck." It is translated "caught up" in most English versions. It occurs as a verb, and there is no corresponding noun used in the Bible to refer to the event in which believers are caught up. A better term might be the "gathering together" which is used in II Thessalonians 2:1, but "rapture" is not incorrect.
Please do not misunderstand. I am not questioning the fact that there will be a rapture or gathering together. What I question is the belief that it will happen before the Tribulation, at a time when the rest of the world does not see the Lord return. Consider the passage in I Thessalonians.
First off, notice that the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, and the trump of God will sound. How could this go unnoticed by the rest of the world? Revelation 1:7 says that "every eye shall see him." Furthermore, this "trump of God" agrees with the other scriptures that mention a trumpet at the return of Christ.
The "last trump" of I Corinthians 15 must be the "seventh trumpet" in Revelation 11. What other series of trumpets is there? And Jesus clearly states that it is after the Tribulation. I Thessalonians 4 can only be interpreted as a "secret" rapture before the Tribulation if you read that into it. There is no basis for concluding that. And if you keep reading in I Thessalonians (remember there were no chapters in the original) the context refers to the "day of the Lord" (I Thessalonians 5:2).
This Day of the Lord is said to come “as a thief in the night.” Many people take this to mean that it is quiet and unseen, like a burglar. But in the context we see that it is referring to the suddenness of it and the fact that it is unexpected by those in the world who are not watching. At that time, "...sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape." (I Thessalonians 5:3) This is not an unnoticed, "secret" thing. People frequently quote "like a thief in the night" out of context without realizing what it really means.
Paul spoke of the resurrection from the dead as his hope (Acts 24:14-15; 26:6-8; Philippians 3:10-11), which is the same hope that was expressed in the Old Testament. Jesus agreed with Daniel that the resurrection was at the end of the Tribulation period, as we saw in the previous article. Nowhere does Paul say that anything had changed. The only information added by the passage in I Thessalonians 4 was that not everyone would be dead at that time (which agrees with I Corinthians 15:51). The dead Christians will be raised and the living Christians will be caught up to meet them in the air.
Notice also, it does not say that we will stay in the air. It says "so (in that way) shall we ever be with the Lord." We will be with the Lord from that point on, but where will he be? The Bible teaches that he is coming to earth to judge it and to rule over God's Kingdom. The center of the Kingdom will specifically be the throne of the Lord in Jerusalem (Jeremiah 3:17). We will be with him, ruling God's Kingdom on earth. The gathering together, or rapture, is when we will meet him.
The word used for "meet" in I Thessalonians 4:17 is the Greek word apantesis. It only occurs here and three other places. In Matthew 25:1 and 6 it describes the virgins going out to meet the bridegroom, to escort him back into the house. In Acts 28:14-16 it is used to describe brethren from Rome coming out to Appii Forum, to meet Paul and his company, and escort them back to Rome. These are the only occurrences of the word, besides I Thessalonians 4. The Christians are gathered in the air to meet Jesus and accompany him to earth. Why would Jesus come all that way and stop in the clouds, and then turn around and go back to heaven? He is coming to earth and we meet him in the air, to welcome him and then join him as he descends to earth.
In the discourses about his return, Jesus instructs his followers to flee to the mountains when they see the Abomination of Desolation. Why would he say that if they were going to be plucked off the earth and brought to heaven at that time? He also warns them not to be deceived by false prophets during the Tribulation, and mentions that expectant and nursing mothers would have difficulty. Again, why would he point those things out if they were going to be removed from earth?
Part of the reason many Christians hold to this belief and reject the notion that we will go through the Tribulation, is that the New Testament says we have been "spared from the wrath to come" (I Thessalonians 1:10; Romans 5:9). But those verses say we are saved from God's wrath; it does not say we are spared from tribulation. The Great Tribulation is the hard times that come about when the devil has his way for a short time, and brings the Antichrist to power. It is not the same as the wrath of God which follows. Nowhere is it said that we are spared from it; in fact we are specifically told that we must endure tribulation (John 16:33; Acts 14:22; I Thessalonians 3:4).
Paul refers to the coming of our Lord and our gathering together unto him, in II Thessalonians 2:1-2. He then equates those with "the day of Christ." In I Thessalonians he had equated the "rapture" or gathering of the saints in the clouds with the Day of the Lord, which throughout the Old Testament always referred to the coming judgment and the end of this present age. Nothing in the Bible indicates a change of plans or introduces the notion of a "secret" rapture some time beforehand. Those who profess this doctrine sometimes even admit that it is not explicitly stated, but comes about as a logical conclusion from dispensational thinking. The following is from the CES booklet, 23 Reasons to Believe in a Rapture before the Great Tribulation.
If a doctrine is not specifically stated in the Scriptures, and in fact contradicts certain truths that are specifically stated, can it be considered a Biblical doctrine? The fact is, there are clear verses that establish the timing of the Rapture. We saw above that it occurs at the last trumpet, which Jesus said would take place after the Tribulation.
This notion of a pre-tribulation rapture, in fact, was not heard of before the early 1800's and the development of Dispensationalism by John Nelson Darby, and popularized by the Plymouth Brethren in England. Some members of the Brethren denounced the idea as unbiblical, however. There are a number of books written by theologians which refute the idea of a pre-tribulation rapture. Among them are George Ladd's The Blessed Hope, Alexander Reese's The Approaching Advent of Christ, and Robert Gundry's The Church and the Tribulation. There are also several articles by Anthony Buzzard on the subject, found on his site.