Will there be a sudden, secret Rapture?
A highly-influential interpretation of Scripture evolved in the mid 19th century teaching that believers will –without warning – be removed from the earth prior to Jesus return. But is it scriptural?
first published 23/08/13
Please see 'Update' note:
Ed foreword: A recent article on the Christians Together website invited site members and visitors to look at the conflicting theological positions of Dispensationism and Covenant Theology.
In the event the discussion focussed down on the Millennium and what has become termed 'The Rapture'; and the timing of the same.
The following article takes a look at the doctrine. The author Rev. Tony Higton stresses that he avoids being dogmatic on the issue and that his writing is a 'work-in-progress'.
Will there be a sudden, secret "Rapture" of believers to heaven?
by Rev. Tony Higton
Some Christians believe that Jesus will next return suddenly, without any signs or warnings, and will secretly "rapture" (catch up) all believers into heaven whilst there is a time of 'Great Tribulation' on earth.
They say this could happen at any moment. Nothing needs to happen before it. This return of Jesus is completely imminent. It will only be seen by the church, not by the world. It is not the same as the Second Coming which will happen later and be seen by the whole world.
I was brought up on this view and, throughout my childhood, I was excited by the thought that Jesus could return at any moment. So I understand only too well how much this view means to Christians who hold it. It is not my intention to cause unnecessary upset to them but I have to say that I have concluded that it is an incorrect understanding of the New Testament.
History of the "Secret Rapture" view
This view sees the following order of events:
1. Secret Rapture
2. Great Tribulation (Matt 24:21)
3. Second Coming
4. Millennium (1000 year reign of Christ on earth Rev 20:1-6)
Here is a potted history of this view:
(a) Early church leaders and their godly descendants for 1800 years didn't hold this view.
(b) In 1830 Margaret Macdonald had an End Times vision and began to teach the Rapture of what we would call Charismatic Christians only.
(c) Edward Irving, Scottish Presbyterian preacher, then taught this view. d. John Nelson Darby, Anglican priest, probably heard the view from the above. He formed the Plymouth Brethren. [Part of my background is in the Brethren]
(e) Darby influenced American lawyer Cyrus I Scofield who wrote the notes for the Scofield Bible which teach this view. [I was brought up on the Scofield Bible]. f. Recently Hal Lindsay, Tim LaHaye ('Left Behind' novels) have popularised this view.
J N Darby believed:
(a) That God's dealings with humanity are divided into seven ages or "dispensations."
(b) That God's dealings with Israel are totally separate from his dealings with the church. "
(c) That for the last 2000 years (the "Church Age") he has only been working with the church, not with Israel. So the current dispensation is the Church Age.
Israel and the Church belong to different "Dispensations" (Ages) "
God has different plans for Israel and the Church "
Whatever God said to Israel should never be applied to the church and vice versa.
(d) That God won't start working with Israel again until the church is taken out of the way - in the Secret Rapture, which will end the present dispensation to an end. So Darby believed the Rapture is important in God's purposes.
(e) That in the Millennium (the next "Dispensation") God will work with Israel.
To avoid confusion let me say these are Darby's views, not mine. I disagree with him and will say why later. If you want to impress your friends with technical language ...
Darby taught "Dispensational Pre-millennialism" i. e. that there are various 'dispensations' (different ages) before (pre-) the Millennium. It's helpful to understand that terminology.
(Whilst dealing with complex language let me add that there is another form of premillennialism called "historic premillennialism" which has a lot more credibility. It is called 'historic' because many of the earliest Christian leaders believed it. It does not believe in a separate secret Rapture before the Great Tribulation, nor in dispensations).
Be careful not to read into the Bible what you want to find in it
Whenever we hold a special opinion there is a danger that we shall "read into" Scripture what is not actually there in Scripture. I think that is what those who defend this Secret Rapture view are in danger of doing. But we need to stand back and try to understand what the Bible actually does say, rather than what we want it to say.
Those who hold that the Rapture of believers into heaven can happen at any moment tend to argue from silence.
The New Testament nowhere says that there are two returns of Christ - the Rapture and then later the Second Coming. This distinction is actually based upon the fact that references to the Lord's return don't always include all the information. Some, like Matthew 24, speak of the signs which must happen before his return. Others don't. But that does not mean they are speaking of two different returns, one with signs and the other without. The only order of events found in the NT is the appearance of signs leading up to the Antichrist - the Great Tribulation - the Second Coming.
Passages some say are relevant
The main passage referring to the saints being "raptured" ("caught up") is 1 Thess 4:16-17 "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 for ever." These people interpret this as Jesus suddenly catching up all the believers and taking them up into heaven. However the passage only says we will be with the Lord for ever. It doesn't say where, except we meet him in the air/clouds.
When Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians (1 Thess. 4:16-17) he used the Greek word apantesis. Although we can't be certain, it seems likely that he had in mind the Greek approach to an official visit to a city by some dignitary. When such an important person visited the leading people and others would go out to meet him then escort him back into the city. It seems likely therefore that 1 Thess 4:16-17 means that believers are caught up to meet the Lord and escort him back to earth (not disappear with him to heaven). Many scholars agree with this view and, as we shall see, the general teaching of the NT seems to support it.
"'Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father's house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am." (John 14:1-3)
Some think this clearly indicates that Jesus will return to rapture believers to heaven and the house with many rooms seems to refer to heaven. However:
(a) Two days earlier Jesus had taught his disciples on the Mt of Olives (the Olivet Discourse) that there would be many signs before his return: the "birth-pains" of the coming of the Messiah - wars, famine, earthquakes etc., persecution and false prophets, the gospel being preached to the whole world and the Gentile domination of Jerusalem ending, the great distress (tribulation) and cosmic signs followed by his return to gather the elect from the four corners of the earth.
(b) This teaching would be fresh in the disciples' minds and we are surely right to assume that, in the absence of any statement to the contrary, they would understand John 14:3 as not a different return of Christ without signs or warning but as the same return he was speaking of on the Mt of Olives.
(c) The great promise of John 14:3 is that when Jesus returns believers will always be with him and that ultimately means in heaven. But that doesn't mean he will take them to heaven immediately
1 Thess 1:9-10 speaks of Jesus returning to rescue us from the coming wrath.
Some think this means Jesus will remove all believers to heaven so they don't experience the "wrath" of the Great Tribulation. But this is an assumption, it is not what the passage says. It could equally well mean God will help believers in difficult times and come and rescue them from the wrath of his ultimate judgment.
"Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, 'Peace and safety', destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.
But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober.
For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess 5:1-9)
Some people say this destruction is the Great Tribulation and will only suddenly come on unbelievers because the church will have been "raptured" to heaven. However:
(a) This passage about destruction and wrath is continuous with 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 which speaks of the rapture of believers (the chapter division was not in the original).
(b) Paul warns BELIEVERS about the day of the Lord, which brings destruction, and says they must not be taken by surprise when it comes. "But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief" (1 Thess 4:4). Clearly, believers will not have been raptured away into heaven, they will experience this dark day.
(c) 'Day', as often in Scripture, means a period of time.
(d) This passage indicates that Paul describes that believers are caught up to meet the Lord and then escort him back to earth (not disappear with him to heaven).
"Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed." (1 Cor. 1:7)
"We wait for the blessed hope - the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13)
Some say the eager waiting may suggest an imminent rapture. But this is unconvincing.
"Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure." (1 John 3:2-3)
Some say the words "blessed hope" may suggest an imminent rapture. But this is unconvincing.
Jesus says: "Look, I am coming soon!" (Rev. 22:7,12, 20)
Some say that an imminent "Rapture" would be a greater incentive for pure living. But the fact that we are one day going to stand before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor 5:10) is quite sufficient to encourage us to purify ourselves. In fact, it is a stronger incentive. Also we should remember that death could be imminent for any of us. That too is a strong motive.
It is important to remember that those who believe in a sudden secret rapture say that it is not to do with judgement (which, they say, comes later). But we shall see that many NT passages thought to refer to the rapture actually do refer to judgment.
Some think this points to the rapture as being imminent and ready to occur "at any moment." But the context of judgment. Jesus says "Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done." He goes on to refer to people who "wash their robes" so they may enter heaven as opposed to those who are sexually immoral, murderers, idolaters etc., (Rev. 22:14-15). Yet the secret rapture is not meant to be related to judgment."
In Romans Paul says: "The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here." (Rom. 13:11-12)
This clearly speaks of the approaching return of Christ but it has nothing to say in support of a sudden secret rapture.
The letter to the Hebrews speaks of "Encouraging one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching." (Heb 10:23-25)
Again, this is stressing that the return of Christ is approaching. But the context is about judgment. See Heb 10:26-31. Yet, as we have seen, the secret rapture is not meant to be related to judgment. That happens, say the proponents of this view, at the subsequent second coming.
James wrote: "The end of all things is near." (James 4:7-10)
James further stresses "the Lord's coming is near." ( In James 5:8-9)
However it has nothing to say in support of a sudden secret rapture.
He is even "standing at the door" but he does so as the Judge and the secret rapture is not meant to be related to judgment.
Jesus tells the parable of the ten virgins (Matt. 25:1-13) in which the bridegroom suddenly appears at midnight."
Jesus speaks of "The day the Son of Man is revealed" (Luke 17:30-35) and adds: "I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding corn together; one will be taken and the other left."
This cannot be understood as referring to a sudden secret rapture, though, because the foolish virgins (nominal believers) are excluded finally. So judgment takes place but those who teach there is a sudden secret rapture say it is not associated with judgment. (Furthermore, if it referred to the rapture, the foolish virgins would have the opportunity to come to faith in the Great Tribulation and so not to be excluded finally as the parable says they were). The same can be said for the similar parable in Luke 12:35-48 where the Lord's sudden coming is associated with judgment.
The writer to the Hebrews says:"In just a little while, he who is coming will come and will not delay." (Heb 10:36-37).
This is speaking about an unexpected coming of the Lord and a rapture of individuals. But, again, the context shows it is associated with judgment. See verses 26-30. So this cannot be the sudden, secret rapture.
Peter says (2 Peter ch. 3) that God's ideas of imminence are not the same as ours.
Yet again the context speaks of judgment (See Heb 10:24-31).
The scoffers ask: "Where is this 'coming' he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation." (2 Pet. 3-4). The answer is: "With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Pet. 8-9). However "The day of the Lord will come like a thief" (2 Pet. 3:10).
Rev. Tony Higton has been an Anglican clergyman for over 40 years having been brought up in the Christian Brethren and teaching. Now living in Norfolk he has previously served in Christ Church, Jerusalem where he was General Director of Church's Ministry amongst Jewish People (CMJ). For 14 years Tony took a stand for Biblical doctrine and morality in the Church of England General Synod and was frequently on TV, radio and in the press.
Working along with his wife Patricia (who is also a theological graduate) he has recently launched a website offering hundreds of articles, training courses and several books to download for free. Of this new venture he says: "Resources on this site come from experience in developing teaching and training resources which have been shared at conferences in 15 countries and used by thousands of churches.”
As a 'work-in-progress Tony further comments: "“We shall be adding new material as time goes on, including, hopefully, audio material of our teaching courses etc."
See Christian Teaching Blog
1. The Pre-tribulation Rapture teaching was and has since been disseminated via the notes in the 'Scofield' Bible. As the article states, it has also been the subject of best-selling novels like 'The Late Great Planet Earth' and the 'Left Behind' series.
2. Questions/Responses and Answers
Tony Higton has kindly agreed to respond to questions or comments about what he has written. In the first instance these should be sent to the Editor who will append both the questions and responses to this article. E-mail:
With thanks for your help in producing an orderly 'Question Time' and in minimising the demands on Tony's time.
In order to keep track of the discussion(s) a Ref. No. will be assigned to each post/question; and this no. will be used with relation to subsequent responses.
If using Scripture references (preferred, rather than quoting human writers) then it would be helpful to use the format ('Book then Chapter:Verse(s)' e.g. Genesis 1:1 or Gen 1:1-3 ). This will save me time in relation to providing the 'verse pop-up' facility to function.
Remember please that the purpose is to 'pose questions' (rather than make statements).
This article was open for a periiod for anyone to respond (i.e. to pose questions to Tony directly onto the site). However it is now only logged-on site members who can post.