As followers of Jesus Christ, the word “rapture” has a very special, specific meaning. While the word “rapture” is never specifically found in the Bible, the concept is deeply embedded in God’s Word. “Rapture” is from the Latin word “rapturo,” which means “to catch away.”
We’ll Meet Him in the Air!
In biblical terms, the rapture is an event near the end times, when Jesus will secretly come in the air to gather His followers up into heaven. Those Christians who are already in their graves will be resurrected and join with Christians who are alive and be taken straight into heaven. “rapture” is from the Latin word “rapturo,” which means “to catch away.” It is used here to describe this moment, when we will be “caught up together…to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
Those people who do not know Christ as their Savior will be left behind. Jesus explained the nature of the rapture in Matthew 24:39-41:
That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.
Later, Paul expanded on Jesus’ teaching in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death…For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore, encourage one another with these words.
I imagine that Jesus will shout the same words that he shouted when he called Lazarus up out of the grave in Bethany: “Lazarus, come forth”! (John 11:38-44).
Have you ever thought about the fact that if Jesus had not specifically shouted the name “Lazarus,” the entire graveyard may well have emptied? What a sight the rapture will be!
His shout will penetrate every grave, pierce the deepest seas, and be heard by every one of His followers on earth.
Christian bodies will resurrect from all over the world. Many will be in manmade graves. Others have gone down at sea; some were burned to death; some were cremated; some died in deserts and their bones were left to scorch in the heat; some were torn to bits in explosions.
It doesn’t matter to Jesus. He knows everything; He knows where they are.
After all, God created Adam out of the dust of the earth. I suppose that He can create bodies out of dust as often as He likes.
What about Those Who Are Left Behind?
Woe to those non-Christians who are left behind. They will enter a world of horrible hell on earth dominated by plagues, trials, tribulations, famine, and death.
I need to give you a little contextual overview of the end times for you to understand just how and where the rapture fits. You need to know that rapture and the second coming of Christ are NOT the same. The rapture happens first, before the tribulation begins (or possibly at the halfway mark).
The second coming of Christ comes at the end of the seven-year tribulation, before God creates a new heaven and a new earth.
I just threw a lot of terms at you—the end times are pretty complicated and filled with mystery. But I can share with you some of the highlights:
When the tribulation begins, a wicked man known in the Bible as the Antichrist will come to power and control ten countries which once occupied the area of the old Roman Empire. This area is essentially present-day Western Europe. He raises an enormous army with which he intends to invade Israel and conquer the earth.
The seven-year clock starts when the Antichrist signs a peace treaty with the nation of Israel. After three-and-a-half years, he breaks the treaty and desecrates the Jewish Temple by putting a small image of himself inside. Scripture calls this moment the “Abomination of Desolation.” The small statute speaks ungodly blasphemies. At that point, the Antichrist breaks the treaty, and the countries with him make war against Israel.
When the Peace Treaty Is Broken, All Hell Breaks Loose
Tormenting pains and destruction devastate the earth as described in the book of Revelation chapters 6 to 19. Seven seals reveal man’s destruction upon himself. Seven trumpets sound out Satan’s dastardly deeds against mankind. Seven bowls depict God’s wrath and subsequent great destruction upon earth.
Many activities occur during the seven years. Like the German Holocaust in which six million Jews were slaughtered, the Antichrist will practice genocide on those Christians who remain. These were non-Christians who missed the rapture. When they realize what’s happened, they turn their lives over to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. In Revelation 5, John gives us a good look at the martyrs from the Great tribulation who are begging God to avenge their sacrifice by the Antichrist.
Next, famine, pestilence, disease, earthquakes, war, incredible heat, darkness and worldwide oceanic pollution devastate the seas. The pictures of the sky rolling back upon itself likely describes a nuclear holocaust. Demonic forces are released from the pit to bring all sorts of suffering and misery to mankind.
Then the Antichrist receives a mortal wound and comes back to life, which deceives the entire world into identifying him as God. He sets up an economic system by which the followers of Jesus cannot buy or sell anything unless they bow down to worship Him.
A clue to the Antichrist’s identity is found by adding up the Greek numbers corresponding to his name, which will add up to the sum of 666.
Why Does God Let These Things Occur?
God will use these tragedies in the hope that they will encourage men and women to come to him for help and salvation. He utilizes all sorts of evangelistic tools to bring people to salvation. In fact, the end will not come until every person on earth has had the chance to hear the gospel!
When that finally happens, near the end of the seven years, Antichrist and his forces face an army of 200 million soldiers from the East for the battle of Armageddon.
At that moment the second coming of Christ occurs. The leaders of the two armies quickly recognizes that the real battle is not against each other; the real battle is against Jesus. Christ destroys both armies and conquers the earth. Man is no longer in charge. Jesus is the eternal Victor!
Shortly thereafter, Christ begins a reign of a thousand years of peace and harmony on earth. Scripture doesn’t reveal much more about that time, but it is clear that those alive at the end of the tribulation will be subject to Jesus.
At the end of His thousand-year reign, a series of judgments occur in which Satan and his forces—and all of those who are not Christians, are cast into the lake of fire. Afterward, Jesus creates a new heaven and a new earth…then we will spend eternity in heaven with Him!
Jerry, I know this sounds very complex, and it is. But you’ll discover in your studies of the end times great insights into the character, life, and power of Jesus Christ!
The Big Question: When Will the Rapture Happen?
The timing of the rapture in relation to the tribulation is one of the most controversial issues in the church today…and it has always been so.
While no one knows the exact time of Jesus’ return for His followers, the Bible does give us some insights as to when it might occur. There are three basic options.
The first interpretation is called “pre-tribulation.” This position declares that the rapture of the church will occur before the seven years of tribulation begin. I suppose that most Christians hold this view, which guarantees that Christians will avoid all of the suffering and trauma that will occur during the seven-year tribulation.
Historians tell us that the early Christians topped every hill looking for Jesus. They were constantly looking for His return. They expected Him to be right around the corner.
It’s important to note that no prophetic events remain that must be fulfilled before the rapture can occur. None! His return is imminent. Jesus could come for you and me at any moment.
According to this viewpoint, we are not looking for the second coming of Christ or for the signing of a peace treaty between the Antichrist and Israel. We are looking for the rapture.
It will happen in the twinkling of an eye.
The second possibility is called “mid-tribulation,” where scholars posit that the rapture will occur three and a half years after the peace treaty which guarantees Israel’s safety. The book of Revelation teaches that the first three and half years will be peaceful. Again, Christians will not have to suffer through the punishments of the great tribulation.
So, in that order of events, the rapture happens, the peace treaty is broken, and all hell breaks loose as the seals, trumpets, and bowls of God’s wrath are unreleased.
I believe that both the pre-tribulation and mid-tribulation viewpoints are possible according to Scripture.
Finally, the third position is called “post-tribulation,” which postulates that the rapture will occur at the actual second coming of Christ. This viewpoint equates the two events. I do not believe that the “post-tribulation” scenario is viable, because there are important differences between the rapture and second coming:
1. At the rapture, believers meet the Lord in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:17). At the second coming, believers return with the Lord to the earth (Revelation 19:14).
2. The second coming occurs after the great and terrible tribulation concludes (Revelation 6-19). The rapture occurs before the tribulation begins (1 Thessalonians 5:9; Revelation 3:10).
3. The rapture is the removal of believers from the earth as an act of deliverance (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17, 1 Thessalonians 5:9). The second coming includes the removal of unbelievers as an act of judgment (Matthew 24:40-41).
4. The rapture will be secret and instant (1 Corinthians 15:50-54). The second coming will be visible to all (Revelation 1:7; Matthew 24:29-30).
5. The second coming of Christ will not occur until after certain other End-Times events take place (2 Thessalonians 2:4; Matthew 24:15-30; Revelation 6–18). The rapture is imminent; it could take place at any moment (Titus 2:13; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Corinthians 15:50-54).
Pastor Roger Barrier’s “Ask Roger” column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.