Is the rapture unique or just another way of describing the second coming?
Pastors, teachers, and Christian writers have differing opinions on this. One assistant pastor at a Bible-believing church once told me he did not believe in the rapture. Along with such denials, many today assert that the book of Revelation is mostly allegory or past history, which necessitates that the rapture and second coming be the same event.
When I look at Scripture, I see two unique events separated by a period of time. The New Testament teaches Jesus will appear to take believers back to His Father’s house in heaven.
As I separate these two future events, I assume a premillennial belief. A time of great tribulation is coming upon the world just as Jesus taught in Matthew 24, and Revelation 6-16 describes. After that, Jesus will rule for a thousand years seated upon the throne of David just as the Scriptures proclaim. After that, He will usher in the eternal state of Revelation 21-22.
If premillennialism is true, and it absolutely is, then the following differences between the rapture and second coming passages argue strongly for regarding them as totally separate events.
- The Place of the Resurrection in the Order of Events
In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul tells us the “dead in Christ will rise first.” After raising the dead saints, Jesus catches up living saints to meet him in the clouds. We see this same sequence in 1 Corinthians 15:52: When Jesus comes for us, He raises the dead in Christ first.
During the rapture, the resurrection of the saints occurs before anything else; it happens immediately.
In Revelation 20, however, the resurrection of the dead tribulation saints occurs after Jesus’ triumphal return to earth, His defeat of the vast armies gathered against him, His destruction of the false prophet and antichrist, and the imprisonment of Satan. After all of these time-consuming events, the Lord sets up thrones on the earth and raises the dead tribulation saints from the grave (Rev. 19:11-20:6). The resurrection of saints happens late in the sequence of events in Christ’s return to earth, perhaps not even the same day.
The place of the resurrection in the order of events is totally different in passages dealing with the rapture versus those of the second coming. How can they be the same event?
- The Participants of the Resurrection
Not only does the place of the resurrection differ in the order of events, but so is the identification of its participants. John identifies those Jesus raises from the dead at His second coming as those killed during the tribulation (Rev. 20:4). When Paul writes about the rapture, he says Jesus will raise up all the “dead in Christ” (1 Thess. 4:16; 1 Cor. 15:52) rather than a subset of believers as John specifies in Revelation.
John Walvoord made this point about the difference in participants in the two resurrections of the saints:
It is most impressive that when the resurrection is mentioned in Revelation 20:4, it is specifically limited to the tribulation saints as contrasted to the church. If the tribulation saints were a part of the church, why was not the expression “the dead in Christ” used as in I Thessalonians 4? The fact that this group is singled out for resurrection, as if they were a special body of saints, points to the conclusion that the church had been previously raptured.[i]
When Jesus comes for his church, he raises all the dead in Christ. After his return to earth, he only raises those saints who perished during the tribulation.
- The Place Jesus Gathers the Saints
In 1 Thessalonians 4:17, Paul states that believers who are alive will be “caught up” along with the resurrected saints to “meet the Lord in the air.” Jesus does not come to the earth, but gathers us to Himself in the clouds. He meets us “in the air.”
This differs significantly with passages related to the second coming. Rather than catch believers up to meet him in the air, Jesus returns to the earth with much fanfare, signs in the heavens, and defeats all His enemies in a great battle. He then sends out his angels to gather living believers and unbelievers for judgment (Matt. 25:31-46). Notice that He gathers both believers and unbelievers to a place on the earth, not in the air.
Do you see how this differs significantly from the rapture passages? Rather than meet believers in the clouds as Jesus does during the rapture, with the second coming He sends out His angels to gather His elect to a place on the earth.
- The Transformation of Living Believers
In Paul’s 1 Corinthian 15 description of the rapture, Jesus transforms the bodies of living believers as well as those already in the grave; He gives both imperishable bodies (vv. 53-54). We also see this emphasis in Philippians 3:20-21, where the apostle again states that when the Lord comes for us, He “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.”
In passages that speak of Jesus’ second coming, we do not find such a transformation of living believers. Yes, after his return to earth Jesus sends his angels to gather the elect, but the text does not say He gives them imperishable bodies.
To the saints who survive the tribulation, Jesus invites them to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mat. 25:34). Jesus does not mention any bodily transformation.
- The Presence of People in Natural Bodies During the Millennium
When Jesus returns to earth, He judges all those alive at the time. Matthew 25:31-46 depicts Jesus separating the sheep from the goats – believers from those who are not. The former group enters the kingdom while Jesus sends the others away to “eternal punishment.” Believers enter the kingdom in natural bodies as noted earlier.
If the rapture and second coming are the same event, all the believers would already possess glorified bodies before this judgment. Jesus would not need to separate the goats from the sheep because everyone that remained would be goats. Everyone with a glorified body would automatically be a part of God’s kingdom while all others would face condemnation.
If the rapture and second coming are the same event, no one would enter the thousand-year reign of Jesus in natural bodies; everyone would possess immortal ones. This, however, is far, far different from what both the Old and New Testament tell us about the millennium—Jesus’ kingdom.
John MacArthur says this about the distinction:
If God raptures and glorifies all believers just prior to the inauguration of the millennial kingdom (as a posttribulational Rapture demands), no one would be left to populate and propagate the earthly kingdom of Christ promised to Israel. It is not within the Lord’s plan and purpose to use glorified individuals to propagate the earth during the Millennium. Therefore, the Rapture needs to occur earlier so that after God has raptured all believers, He can save more souls—including Israel’s remnant—during the seven-year Tribulation. Those people can then enter the millennial kingdom in earthly form.[ii]
Zechariah 14:9-19 refers to people during the millennium that have the capacity to sin. At this time when Jesus rules over the nations of the earth, people rebel against Him by refusing to come to worship Him in Jerusalem. At the end of the millennium, there will be a massive uprising against the Lord as described in Revelation 20:7-9.
These scenarios cannot exist if the rapture and second coming are the same event, or even if one happens shortly after the other, because all who are left would have glorified bodies and thus be incapable of sinning.
Isaiah 65:19-20 speaks of a time after Jesus’ glorious return when there will be infants, signifying marriage and reproduction. The passage also says death and sin will exist, things not possible if the rapture and second coming occur at the same time. Living believers at the end of the tribulation must enter the millennium in natural bodies, which tells us there must be a significant amount of time between the two events.
- The Destination of Believers
The accounts of Jesus’ second coming in the Gospels and in the book of Revelation do not include any return to heaven either for the Lord or for us. This differs from the passages related to the rapture. In John 14:2-3, Jesus promises to take us back to the “place,” the physical dwelling he is preparing for us in his “Father’s house.”
Jesus’ assurance in John 14 consists of taking us back to heaven. Why mention His Father’s house in heaven in this context if he does not intend to take us there when he comes for us? What’s the purpose of mentioning the place He’s preparing for us if not to take us there?
The meeting in the air of 1 Thessalonians 4:17, foreign to passages dealing with the second coming, also implies a return to heaven.
Paul says this in Colossians 3:4, “When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Once the rapture occurs, we will be in glory rather than the earth; our destination is heaven!
The feet of those on the earth at the time of the second coming never leave the ground; there is no meeting in the air. The angels gather the “elect” to a place on the earth (Matt. 24:31; 25:32). The same with the resurrected tribulation saints; they meet Jesus on the earth and remain there.
But with the rapture, we meet Jesus in the air and He takes us home.
- The Rapture as a Mystery
In 1 Corinthians 15:51, the apostle Paul begins his description of the rapture with these words, “Behold! I tell you a mystery.” Last year, my wife and I saw the movie Murder on the Orient Express, a depiction of the novel written by Agatha Christie. This story is a mystery; we do not know who murdered the man on the train until the end of the movie. This is what we typically think of when we hear that something is a “mystery.”
The use of the word “mystery” in the New Testament differs much from this definition. The word as the apostles used it designates something new, a truth God did not reveal in the Old Testament. When Paul introduces the Lord’s return for his church in the book of 1 Thessalonians, he says, “For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord . . .” (4:15). He was telling the Thessalonians something new.
On the other hand, we find references to the second coming all through the Old Testament. We even see from the book of Jude that God revealed the Lord’s second coming to Enoch who lived before the flood of Noah (see Jude, verses 14-15). The second coming was definitely not something new in the church era; God revealed the second coming to his people long before the birth of Jesus.
Why all the fuss in separating the rapture from the Second Coming? It matters because it relates to our expectation of what comes next for us.
If the two represent the same event, then our immediate prospect is not Jesus’ appearing but seven frightful years of devastating tribulation on the earth. On the other hand, if they are distinct events separated by seven years, we live in anticipation of suddenly being in Jesus’ presence.
The New Testament never tells us to prepare for the tribulation. It does, however, teach us to wait expectantly for the Lord’s return as something that could happen at any moment. Our expectation and hope is Jesus’ appearing to take us to His Father’s house in heaven (John 14:2-3).
This also argues strongly for the rapture occurring before the time of the tribulation. If the two cannot be the same event, as shown above, and must be separated by a significant amount of time, it seems logical to place it before the tribulation.
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[i] John F. Walvoord, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 38.
[ii] John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary – 1 & 2 Thessalonians (Chicago: Moody Press, 2002), p. 136.