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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John Miller 20/03/2014 09:28
I must say that my understanding of coming events coincides very closely with John Ferguson. It is not inconceivable that the one who is The Antichrist is alive today, but the verse referred, 2 Thes.2:7 is very instructive.
Dennis Tanner 23/03/2014 11:06
In response to Tony and others who may have a fear or have lived in fear of a 'catching away of the church/saints'. Do you believe the Disciples, the Apostles, Paul, or the early church lived in fear? Yet, Paul in one of his earliest letters if not his first letter to churches he helped establish commented and even encouraged them in their lifestyle of living in expectancy, I Thessalonians 2:6-10. He commented that they even "imitated him", implying that Paul himself taught and believed that Jesus would come back at any time and during his life time. Why do you use the term "sudden secret rapture"? I believe most of us who teach a 'catching away of the saints' in a 'twinkling of the eye' would not use the term 'secret'! We believe in 'sudden' because Paul teaches in the 'twinkling of the eye" in I Corinthians 15 (he is not referring to Christ's second coming here) that coincides with his teaching in I Thessalonians 4. I do teach that it will be unexpected for unbelievers and therefore a surprise and many will not know what happened, but for the believer I don't think it will be a surprise or secret, that is not supported biblically. Paul wrote in II Thessalonians that there were events to happen before Jesus would return, but those events could be interpreted to have occurred during Paul's time, during Constantine's time, during Luther's time, during John Knox's time (who might have thought the Pope was the 'man of evil) and surely today, there is nothing left unfulfilled. Even current events show how a 'hook' is being placed in Russia that is going to drag her into an eventual alliance with Iran and war agains Israel. Time is fast drawing to close. There should be more emphasis on "harvesting and laborers for the harvest as the fields are ready and the sun of time is setting". God bless
John Miller 23/03/2014 17:26
Dennis I agree with your differentiation between fear and expectancy. It is very important. Personally I live in the eager expectation of that wonderful moment described in 1 Thess. 4. Those who do not grasp its tremendous implications are missing out very badly. For the unbeliever Paul's clear description of the catching away of the church or rapture, is ridiculous. If they chose to give it serious consideration dreadful fear could be the only reaction.

It is a secret hidden from the world due to unbelief.
Editor 23/03/2014 18:13
Note to all: I will shortly be posting a detailed response from Donald Cameron (of PWMI) to what Tony has written along with Tony's response to that.

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Note to John Miller's post (20/03 09:28).
2 Thess 2:7 is an important verse. In the NASB it says:

"... only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way". (2 Thess 2:7 NASB)

This manner in which it has been translated from the original has (by Dispensationalists) as - "The Holy Spirit will restrain the Antichrist spirit until the Christian church is raptured out of the world".

If we look more closely (and in the Greek) we see some interesting things:

1. The "he" (both of them) cannot be defined as the one person or another.
2. The "out of the way" uses two words i.e. 'ek' (out of) denotes 'point of origin' and 'mesos' which means 'midst/among'

So contrary to 'out of the way' meaning 'removed from the scene', it denotes someone 'appearing from amongst' i.e. someone 'coming onto the stage', and not someone being taken away.

It is the same dymamic as at (for instance) the Oscar awards. The winners identity is hidden until the announcement is made and the winner stands up in the gathering and comes forth to receive his/her award.

So what the verse actually means is that 'the Lord will restrain the Anti-christ until the latter (in the Lord's time and at His behest) will be made obvious and public.

The process will be an unveiling and unleasing of the Antichrist; NOT a removal of the Holy Spirit-filled believers from the earth.

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Note to Dennis Tanner's post (23/03 11:06)

It is a common belief in Dispensational circles (and must be so in order to support the whole Dispensational schema) that OT prophecy has been fulfilled (as of an earlier 'dispensation') and that the Anti-christ has already made his appearance. And indeed history does tell us that there have been those of an 'Anti-christ' spirit. But THE Antichrist has not yet appeared.

So with regard to the Second coming [and there is only a 'second' coming; not a second (invisible) and third (visible) coming] scripture tells us:
"Don't let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. (2 Thess. 2:3).

Also there are other very important prophesies that have NOT been fulfilled. We can think of Is. ch. 19. Others have a dual fulfillment in two time frames i.e. an early and a late(r) (ultimate) fulfillment.

The Gog/Magog war(s) (Ezek chs. 38/39) cannot happen until the Jewish people have been living for a long time in a situation of security and peace. (Ezek 38:8,11,14)
The nation/people as as far away from 'living in unwalled villages' as it is possible to get.

Where we can all agree is to 'work while it is day, because night comes when no man can work' (John 9:4) and (in the power of God) to 'snatch others from the fire' (Jude 1:23).
John Ferguson (Guest) 24/03/2014 10:12
Editor,I find your interpretation of 2 Thes.2v7 somewhat puzzling.He,is clearly the restrainer and is going to be removed,dispensationalists believe the Spirit in dwelling believers make up the true church,so when the church is raptured the Spirit is removed with them.
2Thes2v8. Teaches after the restrainer is removed the Lawless One (Antichrist) will be revealed whom The Lord is going to destroy with the breath of his mouth at his second coming
As for you other point,that dispensationalists believe all OT prophesy has been fulfilled and and the Anti-Christ has already made his appearance is not correct,I as a dispensationalist don't hold that view and I don't one that does.
Your other point in regard to Ezekiel 38&39 Gog/Magog wars still have to take place but it will be in the tribulation period of time.i agree these conditions are far removed from the present time,but during the tribulation when Israel receive Anti-Christ as Messiah (He who comes in his own name him you will receive John5v43) once that takes place these conditions will prevail,probably about three and half years into the seven year tribulation period.


Dennis Tanner 25/03/2014 09:16
John, If we believe that God is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent. How is it possible for the Holy Spirit to be removed? We cannot take away the attributes of the divine trinity and say the Holy Spirit will not be present. The only definition for this passage must be "the spirit filled church". We are the restraining force against evil on this earth. When the church is weak and carnal the evil multiplies!
Dennis Tanner 25/03/2014 09:37
Tony, are you saying that at the return of Christ, the church will be caught up in the air only to be brought immediately back down to earth to rule with Christ on this earth? I understand villagers going out to meet a visiting VIP, but what is the purpose of going up in the air?? Why wouldn't Paul have written that we would just meet him outside of Jerusalem and escort him inside the city? When we do escort Him back who do you believe the Church and Christ rule over?

Concerning Israel. Do you not agree that there are 'physical' promises and covenants as well as 'spiritual' promises and covenants God made with Israel both as a people and a nation? The gentile believers have been grafted into the Spiritual promises but how have we be grafted into the physical promises to be a physical nation of Israel over a certain amount of land with defined boundaries? i am inclined to see this view of no rapture of the church, no tribulation, and no 1000 year reign of Christ as a type of replacement theology and a continuation of the old/early Catholic/Lutheran and Constantine anti semetic teaching/writings.
John Ferguson (Guest) 25/03/2014 09:57
Dennis,I do believe that God is omniscient,omnipresent,and omnipotent. I also believe that that was also true in Old Testament times,and it does say of some Old Testament believers in whom was the Spirit,but at Pentecost the Spirit came to dwell in believers who form the body of Christ in a way not previously known,that out poring of His Spirit is what I believe will be taken away.
John Ferguson (Guest) 25/03/2014 11:11
Dennis,I hadn't noticed your last post before my last reply. You raise some very relevant points which I would totally agree. I await Tony's reply with interest.
(Guest) 25/03/2014 13:51
Tony, are you saying that at the return of Christ, the church will be caught up in the air only to be brought immediately back down to earth to rule with Christ on this earth? I understand villagers going out to meet a visiting VIP, but what is the purpose of going up in the air?? Why wouldn't Paul have written that we would just meet him outside of Jerusalem and escort him inside the city? When we do escort Him back who do you believe the Church and Christ rule over?

Concerning Israel. Do you not agree that there are 'physical' promises and covenants as well as 'spiritual' promises and covenants God made with Israel both as a people and a nation? The gentile believers have been grafted into the Spiritual promises but how have we be grafted into the physical promises to be a physical nation of Israel over a certain amount of land with defined boundaries? i am inclined to see this view of no rapture of the church, no tribulation, and no 1000 year reign of Christ as a type of replacement theology and a continuation of the old/early Catholic/Lutheran and Constantine anti semetic teaching/writings.
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Christians Together in the Highlands and Islands > Survival Kit > Will there be a sudden, secret Rapture?