The Rapture and the Second Coming of Christ

The differences between the rapture and the Second Coming of Christ have confused a lot of Christians.  Scripture describes several differences between the two events.  Because most post-tribulationists lump the two events together, sometimes as one event, sometimes as consecutive events, this may appear to be an attack on the post-tribulational position.  Likewise, it may appear to have a pre-tribulationist slant to it but the truth is, these arguments may be used in favor of both the pre or mid tribulation views of the rapture.  It is not meant as an attack on the post-tribulation position but simply an attempt to separate the two events.

There are four main passages to read when looking at differences between the events of the rapture and the events of our Lord’s Second Coming.  The rapture passages are 1 Thessalonians 4-5 and 1 Corinthians 15.  The passages concerning the Second Coming are Zechariah 14 and Revelation 19.  These passages won’t be cited for each difference looked at but anything outside of these passages will be cited with each point.

See a quick chart comparing the two events:

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Location of Christians

The first difference to observe is the location of Christians for the events.  In the rapture, believers are called to meet Christ in the air.  In an instant the dead in Christ will rise and the believers who are left will then be called away.  In the case of the Second Coming, Christ returns with angels and thousands upon thousands of His holy ones.  He sets foot on the Mount of Olives and Battles the armies gathered against Him in the Valley of Armageddon.  This can be derived from Rev 16:16, 17:14, 19:11-19.

If not for other descriptions of these two events, it would be feasible that Christians are raptured to meet the Lord in the air and then immediately descend to earth with Him.  This is a mistake many make because they do not look at the other differences surrounding the two events.

Who does He return with?

The next difference is who will be with Christ.  When the rapture is described we are lead to believe that Christ returns alone.  It is an argument from silence because nothing is mentioned one way or another.  When the Second Coming occurs, Christ returns with angels and other Christians.  Jude 14-15 describes this in addition to Zechariah.

Purpose – mercy or judgment?

The purpose of the rapture and the Second Coming must be examined as well.  The rapture is viewed as an act of deliverance as believers are taken from a fallen world to dwell with Christ forever.  The Second Coming will be an act of judgment however.  This is the advent of the conquering king that the Jews looked for in His first coming while missing the suffering servant aspect of His mission.  When Christ returns it will be a glorious day for those who belong to Him as He establishes His kingdom on earth but it will be a dreadful day for all those who stand opposed to Him.

The key to understanding the rapture revolves around God’s mercy and His wrath.  Scripture makes it clear that Christians will not suffer God’s wrath.  In addition to 1 Thessalonians is Revelation 3:10, Luke 21:36, and Romans 5:9.  Many have drawn the conclusion that the Rapture is God’s way to prevent Christians from suffering His wrath.

Who is taken?

The focus of the rapture and the Second Coming is placed upon two different sets of people.  The rapture focuses on Christians as ones who are looking for and awaiting the Lord’s return.  In addition to 1 Thessalonians 4, Matthew 25:1-13 tells the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. Those who had extra oil and were waiting and prepared for the return of the bridegroom were taken while those who were foolish and ran out of oil were left.

The Second Coming paints just the opposite picture.  It is the foolish unrepentant ones who did not anticipate the Lord’s return who are taken.  In the parable of the weeds in Matthew 13, Jesus instructs that harvesters to allow the weeds to grow among the wheat until the time of the harvest.  Then the weeds are gathered together and thrown into the fire to be burned.  We see a similar picture of judgment in Matthew 24:37-39.  Here Jesus speaks of the how the days will be like that of Noah and His coming would be unexpected.  Many have mistakenly interpreted this passage to be in reference to the rapture.  However, the subjects of the illustration are important.  In the days of Noah, it was the unrighteous who were not looking for the Lord and went about as they pleased.  These people were swept away in the flood while righteous Noah and his family were all that remained.  The coming of the Lord will be like the flood and will sweep away the wicked.

Who will see it?

From our passage in 1 Corinthians we find that the rapture will be instant and “secret.”  No one will be able to witness it, only the effects afterward.  On the other hand, the Lord’s return to the earth will be very visible.  Matthew 24:27 & 30 and Revelation 1:7 declare that all will see him as He returns.  The people of the earth will mourn as they witness the Lord’s return.

We also learn that Jesus will return in the same way in which he left.  Acts 1:11 tells us that Jesus “will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven.”  The prior verses tell of a slow return that was visible as the disciples watched until He was hidden by the clouds. 

The timing

It is clear from scripture that no one knows when the Lord’s return will be in regards to both His return in the air and His coming to earth.  However, we find from scripture that the rapture is imminent while Christ’s Second Coming follows certain events.

Our rapture passages make it clear that the Lord’s return is imminent.  We find from Matthew 24:43-44 and Revelation 3:3 that the Lord’s return will also be like a thief in the night.  Those who are not watching will be surprised.

The Lord’s Second Coming must be preceded by certain events however.  In 2 Thessalonians 2:3-8 we learn that the man of lawlessness must first be revealed.  He will then be destroyed by the splendor of Christ’s coming.

The events of Matthew 24:4-30 need to take place before Christ’s Second Coming as well.  This passage is often used as “proof” that we are living in the end times and that Christ will soon return.  Indeed we have seen a rise in many of these things in our very lifetimes.  However, there will be a much greater increase during the days of the tribulation.  We know that this passage is not simply referring to the days before the rapture because in verse 15 it speaks of the abomination that causes desolation.  We learn from Daniel chapters 9:27 that this abomination occurs in the middle of the final “seven” – the middle of the tribulation.  Likewise, the return of the Lord at verse 30 refers to the Second Coming as we saw above.

The Lord’s return will occur 1260 days after the abomination that causes desolation. (Daniel 9:24-27& 12:11-12.)  Likewise, it will occur after the final 42 months (1260 days or “time, times and half a time” depending on the wording) according to Rev 12:6,14 & 13:5.

Finally, perhaps the weakest argument in favor of events that must precede the Lord’s return to earth – but still in need of mentioning – is the fact that numerous events are recorded in Revelation chapters 6-19 before the Lord’s Second Coming is recorded.  Often prophecy is not recorded chronologically as from our human perspective, but this is still worth mentioning as these are events that must take place and most understand that they will occur before Christ’s return.

The Millennial Kingdom

The Millennial Kingdom follows the Second Coming according to a literal interpretation of scripture.  This causes problems for putting the rapture and the Second Coming together or immediately one after the other.  At the rapture, Christians are immediately changed, made imperishable.  This is found in the discussion of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 as well as 1 John 3:2 which tells us we will be like Christ.  We know that Christ’s resurrected body is not like His earthly body but rather it was changed.

On the other hand, those who are in the Millennium have very mortal bodies as they have not yet been changed.  Isaiah 65:20 records that death will still occur, even if it is at a much slower rate than we presently see.

If the rapture occurs at the same time of Christ’s Second Coming, all Christians will be changed.  This begs the question of who enters the Millennial Kingdom if not the saints who survived the tribulation.  These people would likewise have been raised imperishable and death would not affect them.  Nor would they have children who would be subject to death as Mat 22:30 instructs that there will be no marriage.

It should be noted however, that this is only applicable if one takes a pre-millennial view of the return of Christ.  Other views see the millennium to be figurative rather than literal.  To some, we are living in the millennium currently as the church has inherited the blessings promised to Israel.  According to others of the amillennial view, there is no literal Millennium at all.

The conclusion

This is just one piece of the puzzle in the mystery of what will occur during the end times.  This is not an attempt to persuade one to a certain point of view but rather to show the differences between the rapture and Christ’s Second Coming.  One should educate themselves on the views of the rapture as well as what will occur during the Millennial Kingdom and when it will occur.  (See more on the Millennial Kingdom.)

If scripture were clearer on these issues, there would be less room for argument.  However, this does not excuse us for holding to a certain view and knowing why we believe what we believe.

As Christians we have every reason for hope for the future and we should look forward to the day that the Lord returns for us.

Is This the End?

We’ve made it into the year 2000 without mishap.  There was no Y2K bug and everything is running pretty well.  It turns out that all the doomsday prophets were wrong about the world ending in the year 1999, or 2000 for that matter.  We’ve made it beyond the famed Mayan apocalypse.  And of course we’ve survived Harold Camping’s doomsday (both of them in fact!)  I say shame on the Christians who fell for these supposed doomsdays and woe to the ones making them.  They shouldn’t have been making the predictions anyway.  The Bible clearly states that the day and the hour of Christ’s return are unknown.  In Mark 13:32 states that “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the son, but only the father.”  How foolish it is for anyone to say they know when Christ will return and the end of the age will occur when even Christ didn’t know the time.

But are there signs that Christ’s return is imminent?  The Bible clearly lays out a diagram of events that shows the events that will occur around the time of Christ’s return.  So fasten your seatbelts, we may all be in for a bumpy ride coming up pretty quickly.

Despite the fact that no one knows when Christ will return, he gave us signs of when he will return.  Such signs are very apparent in today’s world and have caused many Christian leaders to expect Christ to return soon.  How soon, none of us know.  We know that the signs are all about us though.  In Thessalonians 5 Paul writes “Now brothers, 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 labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.”  If there has ever been a cry for peace and safety, it is certainly now. 

In Matthew 24 Jesus gives a very straightforward description of what the signs surrounding his return would be.  Verses 4-8 predict that many would come claiming to be he and would deceive many people.  We will hear of wars and rumors of wars.  Today, at any given time there are around 40 wars going on in the world.  Nation will rise against nation actually was written that ethnos would rise against ethnos.  Today we so often hear of Ethnic wars and “ethnic cleansing” and so much more of it isn’t covered by the news networks.  Jesus said that there will be famines and earthquakes in various places.  Millions of people are starving over the world today while over 14000 earthquakes rock us each year.  Just thirty years ago, there were less than 1200 earthquakes a year.  “All these are the beginnings of birth pains.” Jesus states, “the beginning of the end.”

Verses 9-13 say that Christians will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death.  In America it may be hard to picture this kind of persecution happening but it is incredible in many countries.  Over 400 Christians are killed for their faith EVERY DAY around the world.  In China it means death if you are found to be a Christian.  In many Middle Eastern countries Christians are tortured and put to death for their faith.  It is possible that America was the last “Christian” nation, but that time has passed.  While the United States continues to send out missionaries, missionaries are also coming in from other countries.  The United States has the third most missionaries in it!  That’s not going out, that’s coming in.  The death knell has sounded for the United States as a Christian nation.  Surely there are still Christians and many of them, but it can hardly be considered a Christian nation any longer.  This gives cause to believe the statement that we as Christians are hated by all the nations, just as Jesus said would happen. 

Many people have abandoned their faith in the face of this persecution.  Others have been led astray by those claiming to be prophets.  i.e. Mormons and their gold tablets found in a field or the many cults that have appeared.  Jesus also stated that there would be an increase in wickedness and the love of most people would grow cold.  Certainly this has taken place as all you need to do to notice this is compare today with the 1980’s.  But Jesus also gives us hope at this time.  “…he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”

Verse 14 speaks of the way the gospel will be preached throughout the entire world.  This was something with which the people of Jesus’ time must have had trouble.  Today it is easy to understand this with nearly instant communication and planes that will take us into the deepest parts of Africa and allow us to travel anywhere.  Verse 14 ends with Christ saying, “…and then the end will come.”  Once all these things have taken place, the end will come.  Seeing all these things about us, our only question left is how soon it will happen.  After these things the rapture will happen, calling all those who believe in Christ into the sky to be with Him. As it says in 1 Thessalonians 4:17  “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 forever.”

What happens after all this, is really little concern to Christians because they will already be with Christ.  However it is written as a warning for those who don’t believe.  After this the tribulation will begin, when God releases his wrath upon the earth.  A man known as the Antichrist will appear then and deceive those who are left.  He will set up a temple on the temple mount in Jerusalem, where the Muslim Dome of the Rock sits now, and there he will begin sacrifices once again.  But 3 1/2 years into the tribulation the Antichrist will stop the sacrifices and order the people to worship him only.  At that time the Jews who are still alive will finally realize that they missed the first coming of Christ.  Then they become Christians and will be persecuted by all those around them. 

Plague after plague will fall upon the earth, only causing many unbelievers to curse God instead of worshipping him.  At the end of the seven years of tribulation, a battle between Christ and Satan, known as the battle of Armageddon will occur.  Satan will be defeated and locked up in the abyss.  And Christ will return to reign on earth as king for a thousand years.  This time will be known as the millennial kingdom.  At the end of the thousand years Satan will be set loose and the people will rebel once again.  This is the last time though and brings about a final judgment.

Unbelievers will be sent to the great white throne of judgment where they will be judged accordingly but still all sent to the lake of fire.  Christians will be judged too, but at the judgment seat of Christ and according to what we have done for him.  There we will be given rewards accordingly.  Then we will live with Christ in heaven forever.

Of course no one knows for sure when all things will take place.  Matthew 24:42-44 makes this clear.  But we must keep watch expecting his return.  Most importantly, we must be ready for his coming.  We must have accepted Christ as our savior from our sins and we need to tell all our friends about him too. 

Interpreting Biblical Prophecy

The interpretation of Biblical prophecy is something that is very important for any student of the Bible and is unfortunately very neglected by pastors and lay people alike.  Between 1/4 to 1/3 of the Bible is prophecy and this alone makes proper interpretation important for anyone who wants to understand the Bible.

The interpretation of Biblical prophecy has gained importance all the more in our era however as more and more people are claiming that we are near the end times. 

If this is true, we need to know what we can expect – and whether or not we will even be on earth to witness most of it.  And even if the end time events are still very distant, it is prophecy that gives us a glimpse of heaven and what we can expect.

The most important question concerning prophecy is whether we should interpret it literally or figuratively.  This has been a divisive issue for centuries going well back into the early church of the third and fourth centuries.

Augustine was one who advocated a so called “dual hermeneutic.”  In other words, interpret normal scripture to be literal, interpret anything prophetic to be symbolic.  Certainly, his ideas are popular even to this day.

But the question must be asked, was prophecy intended to be interpreted literally or figuratively.  I believe that the question can be answered by looking at prophecies that we know have been answered.

Abraham was promised descendants as numerous as the sand on the seashore even though he was old and did not have an heir.  This was fulfilled literally despite the improbability of it.

In Isaiah 7:14 the prophet predicts that the virgin will be with child, we see this fulfilled literally in the birth of Jesus, despite the impossibility of it. 

When Daniel tells King Belshazzar the meaning of the words “mene mene tekel parsin” and informs him that his kingdom will be taken from him that very night, it happens literally that very night.

And of course there are numerous other prophecies, many concerning the coming of Christ that have been fulfilled literally.  So the question must be asked, would God fulfill some prophecies literally and other prophecies figuratively?  And if God would do such a thing, how does one discern which will be fulfilled literally and which will be figuratively?

The second important thing to consider when studying prophecy is the concept of time.  Time means very little with prophecy and this lead many to miss the coming of Christ.  They saw prophecies of a coming Messiah that would overthrow the oppressors and rule from David’s throne.  What they missed was the prophecies that speak of a suffering Messiah and they could not untangle the two.

Looking at prophecy is like looking at a set of mountains.  From a distance, the back mountain looks like it is right behind the first mountain.  It is only when a person is on top of the first mountain that the realize the second mountain is quite a distance off.

It is the same with prophecy.  It may look like all one part, but often there is a time gap.  Only when the first part has been fulfilled are we able to look and realize that the next part is still future.

This is no better illustrated than perhaps in Luke 4:18-21.  Jesus speaks:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus quotes Isaiah 61:1-2 in this passage, but he stops speaking abruptly in the middle of the second verse.  Verse 2 in its entirety says, “… to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn…”

So why did Jesus stop in the middle of the sentence?  The day of vengeance was still future.  However, if Jesus is speaking the truth, the first part of this prophecy was fulfilled in their hearing.

So how do we distinguish prophecy and prevent the same errors as the Jews of Jesus’ time?  We may pay close attention to what scripture says and understand what has already been fulfilled and what has not been fulfilled.  If a prophecy has not been fulfilled literally, it is safe to conclude that it is yet future, even if part of the prophecy has already been fulfilled.

A third step is to determine what are conditional promises and what are unconditional promises.  God gives some promises that hinge upon a people acting a certain way while other promising are unconditional and will happen regardless of what happens.

For a conditional prophecy, consider the book of Jonah.  It was Jonah’s job to go to Nineveh and prophesy that God would destroy the city.  But Jonah did not desire to do the Lord’s will because Nineveh was a very wicked city and he did not want to pronounce God’s judgment upon it.  If this was an unconditional promise, Jonah would have delighted in seeing the destruction of a wicked city full of the enemies of God.

But when Jonah finally goes and prophecies the people repent and he complains to God in Jonah 4 , “‘O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home?  That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish.  I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

Jonah had prophesied to Nineveh that it had forty days left, but the unspoken condition was that this was true if they did not repent.

For an unconditional prophecy, consider Psalm 89 where God guarantees an eternal throne for the kingdom of Israel.  Verses 30-37 tell us of unconditional promises:

“If his sons forsake my law and do not follow my statutes, if they violate my decrees and fail to keep my commands, I will punish their sin with the rod, their iniquity with flogging; but I will not take my love from him, nor will I ever betray my faithfulness.  I will not violate my covenant or alter what my lips have uttered.  Once for all, I have sworn by my holiness– and I will not lie to David– that his line will continue forever and his throne endure before me like the sun; it will be established forever like the moon, the faithful witness in the sky.”

The fourth principle in interpreting prophecy should be a given but it is often overlooked.  Scripture does not contradict itself.  If another passage of scripture would appear to contradict your interpretation of a prophecy one of two things must be done.  Either explain why that passage does not contradict your interpretation of the prophecy or re-evaluate your interpretation of this passage. 

The positions many people take on prophecy involve ignoring certain passages of scripture because they can offer no explanation for them.  For a blatant example of this, consider the position taken by some amillennialists.  (An amillennialist is a person who does not believe in a literal 1,000 year reign of Christ at the second coming.)

Some amillennialists say that we are currently living in the millennial kingdom, beginning at the first coming of Christ, or at the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Revelation 20 describes that during this time, Satan will be bound.  This means that if we are living in the millennial kingdom, Satan is currently bound. 

Yet, if Satan is bound during this time, one has to explain the casting out of demons that occurs in the New Testament.  If Satan was bound at the first coming of Christ, one has to explain how Satan entered Judas in John 13:27.  And if Satan was bound at the beginning of the church age, one has to find a way to explain 1 Peter 1:8 which says, “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”

If one has found a way to satisfactorily explain these passages, that is fine.  As such, I have not heard an explanation and many choose to ignore these passages.  If one re-evaluates their view on this, they must then re-evaluate how Satan can not be bound and still consider the present age to be part of millennial kingdom.

The important thing is that one considers all of the details and makes sure that they do not contradict other scriptures.

In summary, the four keys to interpreting prophecy are:

Determine if prophetic passages should be taken literally

Understand that time doesn’t matter in regards to prophecy – parts may be fulfilled and parts may yet be future

Determine if the prophecy is conditional or unconditional

Understand that scripture cannot and does not contradict itself.  If your interpretation contradicts scripture, you must either explain the contradictory passage or re-evaluate your view.