The Rap on the Rapture

Author Greg Koukl Published on 02/28/2013

What is the apocalyptic event described in First Thessalonians 4 and First Corinthians 15? Perhaps not exactly what you think it is.

The Old Testament doesn’t talk about the Rapture. The New Testament just makes casual references to it. Some might suggest details like Daniel 9 and the missing week of Daniel’s prophecy.

I was raised in a strong pre-tribulation rapture environment. To put it simply, I was raised at the feet of Hal Lindsey, spiritually speaking. The first three years I studied at his Bible training center in Westwood Village, called the Jesus Christ Light and Power House. I got a lot of good teaching there, but the eschatological teaching we got was this teaching, so I am very familiar with the point of view. I actually accepted it somewhat uncritically because that was my background, until I began to do some study and I made a couple of observations.

The first observation I made was that this doctrine, the disappearance of the church seven years prior to the return of Christ, is not a doctrine that anyone in the history of the church ever held to until about 150 years ago. That was the first red flag. There might be justifiable explanations for that and some people make those explanations. But my question is, if the Bible teaches this, why didn’t anybody see it for almost 2000 years? All of the church fathers expected to see the Antichrist which would leave at least a mid-trib rapture. My suspicion was, the reason the church didn’t see it for 2000 years is because it wasn’t there. The information about the rapture actually came from a prophecy that was external to the Scriptures, the Plymouth Brethren prophecy. With that prophecy in place, people went back to the Scriptures and then began to see what they saw as hints of this doctrine in different passages.

The second observation is something that people said on a regular basis. They would say, regarding this issue of the rapture, that it’s not really clear when. There are no direct Scriptures that specifically teach when. They maintained that we have to draw simple inferences from the Scriptures and this is why you see these kind of convoluted systems meant to infer the pre-trib rapture or the mid-trib rapture from the text. I saw something entirely different when I actually went to the text itself.

We have to have a procedural question that is answered first. What is the foundation from which we approach any issue of theology? In a broad sense, it’s going to be the Bible. In order to understand inferences best, we are safest when we proceed from an explicit Biblical teaching. If we have an explicit Biblical teaching, then the rule of Analogy of Faith is applied. That is, we interpret the unclear in light of the clear. The question is, do we have some clear statements in the Scripture about the timing of the event that is commonly called the rapture? I think we do. We have two very explicit statements that clearly describe the event that most people call the rapture. 1 Thessalonians 4 and then 1 Corinthians 15. There are other verses that some say refer to the rapture, but these are the only two I know of that explicitly describe this event.

What is interesting about both of these passages, is that both passages say exactly when it’s going to happen. There is no ambiguity. 1 Thessalonians 4 says, “For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with a voice of the archangel, with a trumpet of God and the dead in Christ shall rise first.” Then the next verse talks about being caught up with the Lord in the air. When does this happen? It happens at the coming of the Lord, according to verse 15. Then Paul says the dead in Christ shall rise first. Paul doesn’t call this event the rapture, which is our popular word. He calls it a resurrection. This is the resurrection that happens at the coming of the Lord.

1 Corinthians 15 gives another description of what most people would acknowledge to be the same event, where in a moment, or the twinkling of the eye at the last trumpet, the dead will be raised imperishable and the living shall be changed and the mortal will put on immortality. We see some of the same language used in this passage and we see some more details about this event. Notice that in 1 Thessalonians 4 he was talking about a resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15, the entire chapter is about resurrection. But he tells the timing of it in verse 23. It says, “but each in his own order, Christ at the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at his coming and then comes the end.”

We can’t start with a prophecy from the Plymouth Brethren and then try to read all this new doctrine we got from outside of the Bible into our Bible. I’m just trying to start with the text and see what it says. The text says that the resurrection that we call the rapture happens at the coming at Christ. It says it very clearly in verse 23. First Christ, then those that are his at his coming, and then comes the end. It couldn’t be plainer that the resurrection, this event that is called the rapture, described by these verses, happens at the coming of the Lord. That is foundational and it’s explicitly taught in the text.

Let’s try to pull this together. It is very important for us to start from a foundation of an explicit Biblical teaching on this issue so that we can build from there and take what is really clear and then answer the other objections based on what we know to be true from the clear text. We have two passages that give, by all counts, an explicit description of what has been called the rapture. Both accounts tell when it is going to happen. They say it is going to happen at the coming of the Lord. That is our explicit foundation. Both describe it, both tell when. Now the question becomes, which coming of the Lord does the author here, Paul, have in mind?

Here is my answer. The second coming. Not the third coming, not the one-and-a-half coming. The passages call it the coming of the Lord. Not a coming. They call it the coming of the Lord. I don’t know how it can be made more clear. It is very straight-forward. What some want to do is bring a lot of theology from the outside and twist the plain sense of those words. They say, “Well, he’s coming in the air.” What does that have to do with anything? In both cases, Paul calls it the coming of the Lord. And he says, right after that, then comes the end. That’s the order. The writer of Hebrews says in Hebrews 9 “In as much as Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin to those who eagerly await him.” My point is that there are only two comings. The coming when Jesus accomplished the work of the cross, and the second coming.

We read about the second coming in Matthew 24. That is a visible, powerful and conclusive coming. He says everyone will be able to see Him, right? Paul says these events that are called the rapture happen at the coming of the Lord and the coming of the Lord, according to Jesus, is visible and there is only one second coming. This falls together so neatly, I don’t know why it isn’t more obvious to more people.

That leaves room for only one point of view, as far as I can see, from what the Scripture teaches. What is called the post-tribulation rapture. I don’t even like the term. I think we should teach what the text teaches and what the church has taught for 2000 years, that the resurrection happens when Jesus returns. It’s that simple.