Questions About the Return of Jesus and the End Times: Rapture


In the Fall of 2023, Faith Church’s sermon series through the Gospel of Mark examined the Olivet Discourse found in Mark 13. In this discourse (which is also found in Matthew 24-25 and Luke 21), Jesus teaches his disciples about his return. Because this particular text and no single sermon can address all the Bible teaches about Jesus’s return or questions we may have related to it, we decided to supplement this sermon in two ways. One was a video noting some of the views Christians have had about the timing of Jesus’s return and its relationship to a kingdom on earth. It also emphasized what all these views hold in common; you can find that video here. The second was an invitation to submit questions about Jesus’s return and the end times that we would then answer after the holiday season. This post is the first in a series that will be addressing those questions, and this week I will be discussing the rapture – the topic about which we received the most questions. Specifically, people asked about our church beliefs, its timing, and the reasons for this view on the rapture.

What and Why Are People Asking About This?
Before offering some answers, I want to pause to clarify what these questions are about and why I was not surprised that we received so many related to this topic. At its most basic root, the “rapture” refers to a belief that Christians will meet Jesus in the air upon his return, deriving from a Latin word (rapio) that was used in the Latin translation of the Bible in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 for the underlined words: “Then we who are still alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” However, this term has also taken on a particular meaning and connotation that refers to Jesus coming to take his church to heaven ahead of his return. 

The amount of time between this event and the return of Christ along with its relationship to the tribulations that will take place on the earth before Jesus’s return has become a subject of debate among Christians. There are a number of views, but three stand as the most common perspectives: 

1. “Post-tribulation” – this event occurs immediately before or simultaneously with Christ’s return
2.  “Mid-tribulation” – this event occurs at some point (often, but not always, the midpoint) during the time of tribulation
3. “Pre-tribulation” – this event precedes the whole period of tribulation

The “pre-tribulation rapture” view was popularized in the Left Behind book series that consisted of 16 books released between 1995 and 2007 and has seen multiple movie adaptations and through the writings and teachings of individuals like Hal Lindsey and David Jeremiah. The influence of these figures and those writings has caused this subject to be one that I have seen discussed and debated for most of my Christian life, so I was not surprised we received a number of questions about it.

What Do I Believe About This Subject – and Why?
I mentioned in the video that our church’s doctrinal statements do not necessarily take a particular stand on a number of issues related to the return of Jesus (stressing the reality of his return rather than the details around it). Therefore, I need to give the disclaimer as I answer this question that what I share is not the “official” teaching of the church, but rather my personal view (though one that is also held to or supported by most of our pastors and the majority of Reformed pastors). 

My view is that the “rapture” described in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 will occur at the time of Christ’s second coming rather than happening years ahead of his second coming. This is not the view that I was initially taught (which was pre-tribulation rapture) nor the only one that I have held over the years, but it is the one that I have landed on over the course of much thought and study. Such study both showed me some weaknesses in the arguments for other views and also how this view seems to fit best with what the Scripture says about Jesus’s return. I won’t be able to explore all the arguments for why I think this is the best view in this post, but I want to highlight some of the most important reasons and key passages that led me to it.

Nothing in the Book of Revelation that explicitly teaches that Christ would come for his church before his return at the end of the age. The closest one may find is in Revelation 3:10 when Jesus says that he will “keep you from the hour of testing that is going to come on the whole world,” but the word “keep” does not necessarily imply that one is removed from experiencing something, but rather than one is preserved in the midst of something (see how it is used in John 17:15; James 1:27). In addition, that promise is given to a particular church (the church in Philadelphia) and seems to speak to their circumstances rather than something that would happen 2,000 years later (which they won’t experience anyway because they have passed away). Moreover, the Book of Revelation does not tell God’s people that they will be spared from the experiences of suffering and tribulation but the need to endure in the midst of suffering (e.g., Revelation 13:10; 14:12). 

One of the primary arguments I was given for the pre-tribulation view of the rapture is that the church is mentioned in chapters 1-3 of Revelation, but not after chapter 4 when the Apostle John is lifted up into heaven; such an action could symbolize the rapture. However, it seems best not to view John’s heavenly journey as having such symbolism, as this was a common element found in apocalyptic writing; it was part of the way that indicated a person was getting the heavenly view of what was to unfold. The lack of the word “church” after Revelation 3 is an argument from silence, which is only effective when you are expecting to hear noise. I’m not sure if we would expect to or need to see the word “church” after Revelation 3, and there are many references to God’s people that use other terms. The fact that chapters 2 and 3 feature letters written to churches also makes its use in that section and lack of use outside of it unsurprising, as the term is most commonly used to describe particular churches rather than the worldwide people of God in the New Testament. Thus, it seems fitting to use when describing the seven churches, and is not surprising this term is not used (but others are) to describe God’s people in the rest of the book. 

Because Revelation is a book filled with symbols and visions, it can be difficult to understand and interpret. A principle in the interpretation of Scripture is to let more clear passages aid in the understanding of less clear passages, so I think we should look to what Jesus himself and the Apostle Paul say about Jesus’s return. I also do not see this teaching of an earlier return in either of their teachings. 

The most prominent place that Jesus discusses his return is in the Olivet Discourse, and I don’t find a reference to a pre- or -mid-tribulation rapture in this speech. The reference that Jesus makes to some people being “taken” and some being “left behind” in Matthew 24:40-41 occurs in the context of Jesus talking about Noah’s generation that experienced the flood. Because of this, it is best to view those who are “taken” as those who are taken away in judgment, not those taken away for safe-keeping. This speech also features much discussion of persecution and hardship; while some of that may have particular reference to the events preceding the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple that happened in AD 70 (as Jesus’s words about the coming destruction of the temple is what prompts the whole speech), the link Jesus makes between the fall of Jerusalem and his return seems to point to trials and tribulations preceding Jesus’s return. This once again points to the church being present in the dark times before Jesus’s return rather than removed from it. In addition, Jesus speaks about the trumpet sounding and the angels gathering God’s people from the four corners of the earth after those trials, but there is no mention of such an event before those trials. This event also is not described as one in which people disappear, but rather as something highly visible for all to see.

A similar framework appears in Paul’s writings in that there is a public return and obvious return of Jesus that transforms his people who have endured suffering. Paul’s discussion of the “rapture” in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is in the midst of a discussion of his return and the “day of the Lord,” pointing to this event and Jesus’s return happening together. In 2 Thessalonians 2, Paul says that this will not happen until after the “man of lawlessness” is revealed and “the apostasy” has occurred, pointing to this being after and not before a time of particularly harsh tribulation. The change that happens at the “twinkling of an eye” in 1 Corinthians 15 also seems tied up to the resurrection of the dead at the return of Christ and establishment of the final kingdom. In addition, it should be noted that the imagery Paul uses in “the rapture passage” of 1 Thessalonians 4:17 would not likely evoke the idea of people going away into heaven for a time. Instead, they would likely think of the image of a king who would have a party going out to meet him and then usher him into the city. Thus, “being caught up in the air” is less of a departure to heaven for a season and more of meeting him to accompany him as he establishes the new kingdom. This actually points away from a pre-tribulation view and more towards something akin to the post-tribulation view. 

Another element to consider is the common thread of teaching throughout Scripture that we don’t know the day or the hour of Jesus’s return and should stand ready for it. If there is an event like the rapture before the end, then someone could wait for that event to happen before “getting serious” about their faith. I think this goes against the spirit of what Jesus and the apostles say, pointing to the need to be ready as the time of the end will be sudden and unexpected.  

What I Want Everyone to Remember
I’ve sought to offer my view and some (but not all) of the reasons for it – not because I think this is the most important truth or feel that it is important to convince everyone to have the same view. Rather, because people asked for it! Something I think is important to remember is that while Christians have different views on the dynamics and details surrounding the return of Christ (in large part because it has not yet happened!), they agree about the big picture. Jesus promises to return and will do so according to his plan, regardless of the view that we might have. And I would be the first to say that if I am wrong about this and there is an event that takes the church to Jesus before the worst of the persecution, I will be pleasantly and joyfully surprised. At the same time, it is vitally important for us to be ready and prepared to experience hardships for our faith and recognize that the magnitude of these very likely will increase before Christ’s return. We can endure those challenges when we remember the reality and promise of Christ’s return. 

Above all, the reality of Jesus’s return is not based on our understanding of the timeline, and we should trust in his plan rather than our knowledge of it. We should diligently study the Scriptures but always remember that the goal is to know Jesus personally rather than focus on the details of his planned return. We need to faithfully walk with him even in the midst of trouble because he has overcome the world.

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