By W. Fred Rice
Evangelical book catalogs promote books such as Planet Earth: The Final Chapter, The Great Escape, and the Left Behind series. Bumper stickers warn us that the vehicle’s occupants may disappear at any moment. It is clear that there is a preoccupation with the idea of a secret rapture. Perhaps this has become more pronounced recently due to the expectation of a new millennium and the fears regarding potential Y2K problems. Perhaps psychologically people are especially receptive to the idea of an imminent, secret rapture at the present time. Additionally, many Christians are not aware that any other position relative to the second coming of Jesus Christ exists. Even in Reformed circles there are numerous people reading these books. Many of these people are unaware that this viewpoint conflicts with Scripture and Reformed Theology.
What exactly is the secret rapture teaching? It is the teaching that the Christian Church will be secretly removed from the world, and that the unbelievers who are left behind will not be certain where vast multitudes have gone. These unbelievers will be left on the earth to endure seven years of tribulation, which will be initiated by the Antichrist, who will be revealed only after the rapture has taken place. The prophecies of the seven seals, the seven trumpets, and the seven bowls of the book of Revelation will be fulfilled during this tribulation.
Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins are the authors of Left Behind and four other books in a series that delineates this theory in popular fiction. So popular is this series that 4.5 million copies of the books and audio tapes have been sold. It has its own extensive web site, postcards, and a separate Left Behind Series for Kids, and a movie is being made based on the first two books, Left Behind and Tribulation Force. In Tim LaHaye’s book Left Behind, the first in this series, Rayford Steele, pilot for Pan-Continental Airlines is making a flight from Chicago to London when he is informed by Hattie, his head flight attendant, that many of their passengers have disappeared mid-flight. Their clothes are the only evidence remaining of their former presence. As Rayford contacts other airliners he finds that they have experienced the same phenomenon. Upon his forced return to Chicago he finds total chaos, as aircraft and vehicles, suddenly without operators, have collided and crashed all over the city. After reaching his home with considerable difficulty, he finds that his own wife and son have disappeared. Actually, this is what he had expected, since his wife was a Christian who had spoken regularly about the imminent secret rapture of the Church, and he finds this the only reasonable explanation for what has happened. The majority of people, however, seek to find some other reason, such as capture by aliens or an unexplained scientific phenomenon. Rayford calls the church where his wife was a member, and the visitation pastor Bruce Barnes answers the phone! Rayford meets with Bruce in an effort to get some answers, and Bruce confesses that he was never a true Christian, and was not surprised to be left behind. But Bruce has become a Christian since the rapture, and is anxious to share his faith with others. Rayford and many others are converted. Two witnesses, Moishe and Eli, appear out of nowhere and begin witnessing in the city of Jerusalem. We are informed that through their witness 144,000 Jews will be converted. Meanwhile, Nicolae Carpathia, a brilliant and eloquent Romanian, rises quickly to power, becoming the head of the United Nations. At the end of the book it is evident that he is either the Antichrist or the False Prophet, and that his professed humanitarianism is totalitarianism in disguise. We are left hanging on the edge of a literary cliff, and will have to read the succeeding books of the series to learn the final outcome. But those of us acquainted with dispensational theology have a fairly good idea of what will happen.
So what is wrong with the perspective of these novels and other books which promote this theory in a fictional or non-fictional fashion? After all, such books accurately represent the popular theory of the rapture as taught in the majority of evangelical, Bible believing churches in the United States today. But do they truly represent the teachings of Scripture? The majority of Reformed people have always answered this question in the negative.
What, then, does the Bible teach? At the time of Christ’s ascension, the disciples were told that “this same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw him go into heaven” (). His ascension was visible and physical; his second coming will be visible and physical as well. Dispensationalists seek to explain this by saying that the second coming is divided into two parts, the coming of Christ for his saints (the secret rapture), and the coming of Christ with his saints (the revelation), and that it is only at his revelation that he will appear visibly. But this in reality postulates a second and a third coming.
Additionally, there is simply no hint of a secret rapture in Scripture. The coming of Christ is consistently described as a visible and noisy event, which is also accompanied by the resurrection of the dead. contains one of the most vivid descriptions of the second coming. We are told that “the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.” The same connection of the sound of the trumpet with the resurrection is also made in .
 teaches that the coming of Christ will be “as the lightning” (v. 27), that “all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet . . ..” (vv. 30-31). In addition to describing this event as noisy and clearly visible by all the inhabitants of the earth, this passage also warns us against belief in a secret coming of Christ: “Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There!’ do not believe it” (v. 23); and, ” . . . if they say to you, ‘Look, He is in the desert!’ do not go out; or ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms!’ do not believe it” (v. 26). There will be absolutely no question about what has happened after Christ has come. People left behind will not be dreaming up explanations – they will be mourning because their judgment has come.
Also going against this theory is , which teaches that two events will occur prior to the coming of Christ: (1) “the falling away” (or “rebellion,” NIV, or, literally, “apostasy”); (2) the revelation of “the man of lawlessness.” Now whether we understand the Antichrist as nothing more than the spirit of Antichrist, or as a particular individual, one thing is clear: this revelation of the Antichrist will be prior to Christ’s coming, not afterwards.
Scripture teaches that the coming of Christ will be sudden and unexpected, especially to unbelievers. This is the teaching of Paul in . But to say that it will be sudden and unexpected is not to say that it will be secret.
The passage that is most frequently used to substantiate a secret rapture and unbelievers being left behind is , which speaks of “two in one bed: the one will be taken and the other will be left.” It is perfectly true that this passage teaches that unbelievers will be left behind. But there is nothing here to indicate the imaginative dispensational scenario of the one being taken away secretly. Comparing Scripture with Scripture we must conclude that those left behind are left behind to suffer judgment. speaks of the Lord Jesus “in flaming fire taking vengeance” when he is revealed from heaven. Unbelievers will not be left behind to go through a seven year tribulation and have a second chance to accept the Lord during that time. This idea of a second chance is emphasized again and again in Left Behind, and yet this is an idea which is foreign to Scripture.
Concerning the Left Behind books, can anything positive be said? First, they are well written and engaging. Second, the plan of salvation is, on the whole, accurately represented: it is clear that conversion is much more than a bare profession of faith, but is accompanied by repentance and followed by a changed life. Third, these books certainly impress upon people the reality of the return of Christ, even if the details regarding it are misrepresented.
 is often used to support this. The argument is that “the blessed hope” is the rapture and the “glorious appearing” is the revelation. But the Greek grammatical construction for “the blessed hope and glorious appearing” (one article precedes two nouns which are joined by the conjunction kai) makes it as likely that the terms are being used to describe one event as two.
It seems to me that many preterists dilute the meaning of this passage almost as much as dispensationalists do, by referring it to an unseen coming of Christ in 70 A.D. John Murray, Collected Writings, Volume II, pp. 387ff., by contrast, supports the prevailing interpretation that this refers to the second coming of Christ. But at least preterists would agree that Scripture does not teach a secret rapture.
for publishing this article.
11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (ESV)
16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. (ESV)
51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. (ESV)
21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. 22 And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. 23 Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you beforehand. 26 So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.
29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
32 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
36 “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. 37 For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, 39 and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. 42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes. 47 Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. 48 But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49 and begins to beat his fellow servants and eats and drinks with drunkards, 50 the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know 51 and will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (ESV)
2:1 Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we ask you, brothers, 2 not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. 3 Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, 4 who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. 5 Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things? 6 And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. 7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work. Only he who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. 8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will kill with the breath of his mouth and bring to nothing by the appearance of his coming. 9 The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, 10 and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. (ESV)
5:1 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5 For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. 6 So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, are drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. (ESV)
31 On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away, and likewise let the one who is in the field not turn back. 32 Remember Lot’s wife. 33 Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it. 34 I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. 35 There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.” 37 And they said to him, “Where, Lord?” He said to them, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” (ESV)
3 We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.
5 This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— 6 since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8 in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (ESV)
13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, (ESV)