Written 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” (Acts 1:11). 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. I Thessalonians 4:16 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 I Cor. 15:51-52.
Matthew 24:21-311 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 II Thess. 2:1-10, 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 I Thess. 5:1-10. 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 Luke 17:31-37, 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. II Thess. 1:3-10 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.
Titus 2:13 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.