When Jesus returns, those who have already died will be brought with him as a great, royal entourage. Those believers who are alive on the earth will rise to meet the returning Lord after the bodily resurrection of those who have already died. Notice how the Lord returns: with a “a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God” (v. 16). This shout and this trumpet are not secret.
I’m not certain how many “Left Behind” films there have been so far, but since the 1970s there have been several evangelical thrillers—beginning with A Thief In the Night—based on the eschatology of John Nelson Darby (1800–82) et al. They anticipate a “secret rapture” of believers as part of a complex of events associated with the “end times.”
As a young and newly converted evangelical, I was quickly introduced to the evangelical pop sub-culture that included Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). In 1969 the famous CCM artist Larry Norman released “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.” (Whatever one makes of his theology, Keaggy is an amazing guitarist.)
The premise of the song is that Jesus will come and believers will be taken secretly to be with him, and, in this scheme, the rapture will be followed by a period of tribulation. The imagery behind “left behind” is taken from Matthew 24:36-44:
“But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
If we read the passage slowly and carefully, however, we will see that, in context, to be taken is not a good thing—it is not to go be with the Lord in the air. No, to be taken is a bad thing.
People should want to be left behind.
Observe the comparison. Our Lord begins with Noah. Who, in that episode was “taken” and who left behind? Noah and his family were left behind and everyone else is “taken, swept away” in the floodwaters of judgment. That establishes the pattern and the analogy that informs the rest of the passage. “So it will be when the Son of Man comes.” Two men are working. One will be taken and the other left. Two women are making bread. One will be taken and the other left. Following the analogy with Noah, one does not want to be taken because that is to be destroyed. One wants to be left behind. The popular view of Jesus’ discourse in Matthew 24 reverses the analogy that our Lord made.
Will Christ’s return be secret?
Let’s consider another passage that fuels the plausibility of a “secret rapture,” i.e., the notion that, as part of a complex of end-times events, our Lord will take believers out of this world bodily ahead of a period of tribulation.
In 1 Thessalonians 4 the apostle Paul speaks directly to the nature of Christ’s return. He explains to the Thessalonians that it will not be secret, that they would not miss his return. Beginning in verse 13 he turns to the resurrection of the body:
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. (1 Thess. 4:13-14)
Our bodily resurrection is directly linked to Jesus. Because he was raised bodily, so shall we also be raised bodily. Notice the last clause: “even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him.” This bringing occurs at his return. Paul explains more beginning in verse 15:
For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are 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. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thess. 4:15-18)
When Jesus returns, those who have already died will be brought with him as a great, royal entourage. Those believers who are alive on the earth will rise to meet the returning Lord after the bodily resurrection of those who have already died. Notice how the Lord returns: with a “a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God” (v. 16). This shout and this trumpet are not secret. The imagery here is that of a conquering king arriving at a city.
The only “rapture” according to Scripture will be quite public and quite noisy.
The residents of the city, just as today, go out to meet the arriving dignitary. When the President of the United States flies to a state or a city, the mayor and the governor go to meet him. There is fanfare, e.g., “Hail to the Chief.” It is not a secret. It is public, visible, and even noisy. He comes into the city with a motorcade, with motor officers driving at high speeds to block off intersections and to provide security. This is the sort of image that Paul paints for the Thessalonian Christians who worried Jesus might have returned and they might have missed it. For example, Hymenaeus and Philetus (1 Tim. 1:18-19; 2 Tim. 2:15–18) had been telling people that the resurrection had already happened and that they had missed it.
Those who talk about a secret rapture are not making quite the same mistake, but they create the same sort of anxiety among believers when they warn them about “missing” the so-called “secret rapture.” The only “rapture” (being taken up) about which Scripture knows is quite public and quite noisy.