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'.
 

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RaptureWill 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.
 
"Dispensationalism"
 
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. " 
  • 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.
(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.
 
(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)             
  • Some say the eager waiting may suggest an imminent rapture. But this is unconvincing.
"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 words "blessed hope" 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 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.
 Jesus says: "Look, I am coming soon!" (Rev. 22:7,12, 20)
  •  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."           
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.
 
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)
  • However it has nothing to say in support of a sudden secret rapture.
James further stresses "the Lord's coming is near." ( In James 5:8-9)
  • 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."
  • 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.
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 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.
 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).             
  • Yet again the context speaks of judgment (See Heb 10:24-31).
Peter says (2 Peter ch. 3) that God's ideas of imminence are not the same as ours.
  • 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).

Tony HigtonRev. 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

 
Ed footnotes:
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: e-mail address
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Admin Note:
  • 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).
With thanks for your help in producing an orderly 'Question Time' and in minimising the demands on Tony's time.

Update (06/05/14):
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.

Tony Higton, 27/02/2014

Feedback:
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Colin Ford 27/02/2014 13:36
Tony,
To quote your words; "the fall of Babylon (the world's corrupt and unjust economic and religious system) at the hands of the Antichrist (Rev 17-18)".
I believe that the system you describe is enunciated in Revelation 17. But chapter 18 describes Babylon's literal physical destruction.
Do you believe that Babylon the city will be LITERALLY rebuilt?
Tommie (Guest) 27/02/2014 18:00
Great to hear voice of reason i have never been convicted by the rapture theology for mostly the same reasons as you give and some others, but my question to you is pastorally how are we going to deal with people who wake up to this fact and don't know where to go with it would you say this will affect people walk
Tom (Guest) 27/02/2014 19:49
I used to be so scared by all the end times, rapture, tribulation teaching until I found another point of view. I not in this article is starts by saying the rapture teaching is only recent, actually all the negative future view is quite recent. Until then early 20th century most teaching was on an optimistic future which is more in line with what the Bible teaches. If the Kingdom of God is advancing why would it suddenly stop? Check out http://raptureless.com/ for another point of view (and that is only on teacher of many who are looking at things more positive).
Editor 28/02/2014 14:01
Please note: the purpose is to pose questions to Tony. Any posts which are merely 'views' are very likely to be deleted.
Editor 02/03/2014 17:01
Question to Tony from Colin Ford (27/02/14 13:36) -

>>>
To quote your words; "the fall of Babylon (the world's corrupt and unjust economic and religious system) at the hands of the Antichrist (Rev 17-18)".
I believe that the system you describe is enunciated in Revelation 17. But chapter 18 describes Babylon's literal physical destruction.
Do you believe that Babylon the city will be LITERALLY rebuilt?
<<<<<

Tony's response:

>>>>
I don’t think Babylon in Revelation 18 can have a different meaning from Babylon in Revelation 17. Bear in mind the chapter divisions were not in the original. I believe both chapters refer to “the world’s corrupt and unjust economic and religious system.” It is not impossible that Babylon may be rebuilt (I gather Saddam Hussein was keen on the idea) but I don’t believe it would have any eschatological significance.
<<<<<
Editor 02/03/2014 17:26
Tommie said (27/02/14 18:00):
"Great to hear voice of reason i have never been convicted by the rapture theology for mostly the same reasons as you give and some others, but my question to you is pastorally how are we going to deal with people who wake up to this fact and don't know where to go with it would you say this will affect people walk."

Tom said (27/02/14 19:49):
"I used to be so scared by all the end times, rapture, tribulation teaching until I found another point of view. I not(e) in this article is starts by saying the rapture teaching is only recent, actually all the negative future view is quite recent. Until then early 20th century most teaching was on an optimistic future which is more in line with what the Bible teaches. If the Kingdom of God is advancing why would it suddenly stop? Check out http://raptureless.com/ for another point of view (and that is only on teacher of many who are looking at things more positive)."

Tony responds to the above:
>>>>
I don’t think it is possible to say that the future will only be positive. Jesus himself (in Matthew 24 etc) foretells negative early signs of the End: wars, famines, earthquakes, pestilences, false messiahs, persecution, apostasy, false prophecy, an increase of wickedness, the Antichrist, the great distress (tribulation).

However, ultimately, of course, the Lord will manifest his victory and the saints will join him in the new heavens and new earth. In the End we anticipate a glorious future because “No eye has seen, no ear had heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9).

As for pastoral support for those who come to realise the church will not be secretly raptured out of all the suffering, the purpose of the Book of Revelation is to encourage believers of every age to persevere in suffering.

Primarily we must pray for them and with them and encourage them to be in a supportive fellowship. We must also remind them of the relevant teaching of the Bible, for example:

1.God prepares us for heaven through suffering:

God has given “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade – kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded through God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith ... may be proved genuine and may result in praise glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:4-7).

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance": (James 1:2-3).

2. God protects us through prayer in all circumstances:

“The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Php 4:5-7).
<<<<

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Ed footnote: There are branches within the Christian church which teach a church-triumphant all-conquering view. The only one who can 'triumph' in this fashion is the Lord of the church, Jesus Christ, the (only true) Prince of Peace.

As Tony (and Scripture) say 'perilous times will come' (2 Tim 3:1).

It is surely far far better to prepare (spiritually) for the worst while praying for the best; than to relax in the view that troubles will either never come or that we will manage to escape them.

Daniel was rescued 'in the den' and not 'from the den'. That is the testimony of much of the persecuted church. And of course many other believers are martyred for their faith.

---

Admin note: Tony is having technical problems at the moment so I have posted his note on his behalf. As they say: "Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible".
Dennis Tanner (Guest) 03/03/2014 11:54
Tony, many historian agree that the letter to Thessalonica was the first of Paul's letters to the churches. How do you reconcile your views with Paul's teaching in I and II Thessalonica on the imminent return of Christ? After having only spent 3-4 weeks with the Thessaloinians, the believers were left with such a convincing teaching on the return of Christ. The teaching on the imminent return of Christ and the catching away of the church had to be a major emphasis of Paul's teaching to the Thessalonian believers, he was only there a short time yet this teaching had the most powerful impact. Many of the believers stopped their work and other activities to wait for the return of Jesus. Paul actually had to correct that attitude and further instructed them on staying prepared but continue with daily activities. It was the apostle who used the term 'a catching away" that would come unexpectedly in his teaching to the Thessalonians. And yet you seem to imply there will be no 'catching away' especially one that happens unexpectedly?


Dennis Tanner (Guest) 03/03/2014 11:55
Since your earlier beliefs have changed, you now seem to imply a 'replacement' type theology where the physical promises of a Millennium Jewish Kingdom on this Earth with Jesus as King will not be fulfilled? Are you saying that the Church replaced Israel/Jews in both the promises and the wrath/tribulation? Is not the wrath or tribulation addressed specifically to the Jews/Israel? Will there not be a 'Jewish/Israel remnant that survives the wrath or tribulation to establish the Millennium Kingdom on Earth with Jesus and the church ruling from Jerusalem? Or are am I wrong to assume you are implying that in the Millennium the church/bride with Jesus as King will rule from Jerusalem over the church/bride that has come through the tribulation/wrath?
John Miller 04/03/2014 09:18
Dennis these are good questions and seem to me to expose a serious flaw in Tony Higton's theory. I await his response with some interest.
John Miller 04/03/2014 09:31
If I may I would like to offer these truths for consideration. The Lord Jesus is Israel's rejected king. He is Israel and the world's coming king although this fact, prophesied in scripture is not presently understood. He will reign for a thousand years before handing over the kingdom to His God and Father. This will be a thousand year earthly kingdom until that moment foretold in Revelation.

Nowhere in scripture is The Lord Jesus described as the king of His church. He is the church's Head. He is the glorious Bridegroom who will one day come for His Bride and celebrate the heavenly marriage of The Lamb, before returning to reign with His church on the earth where He was once rejected and slain. He will reign on the throne of David His earthly ancestor. That will be in an earthly Jerusalem, which will eventually be replaced by the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of God.

Replacement theology in its various forms and grades of false interpretations of the word cannot reconcile these scriptural truths with its error.
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Christians Together in the Highlands and Islands > Survival Kit > Will there be a sudden, secret Rapture?