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:
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.
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.
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.