This is one of those questions that terrifies a great many people around the world, since they have been told that at some point in the future Jesus will secretly arrive in the clouds, yank all of the believers into the air, and then zip back to heaven, “leaving behind” all the wicked unbelievers. Portrayed in the books and films of the “Left Behind” series, this “Rapture Event,” the sudden removal of hundreds of millions of people from the earth, has the sorts of shocking effects one would expect: planes dive into the earth, cars pile up on highways, and a general chaos ensues as people confront the disappearances. So, what happens if you miss the rapture?
The Church has never taught that Jesus intends to come back twice, but only once. We call his future coming the “second” coming because his “first” coming was the Incarnation.
Well, this is one of those questions not unlike the infamous police interrogation question, “When did you stop beating your wife?” It contains a false assumption—that you ever started beating your wife—in order to trick you up in your answer. What false assumption is contained in the rapture-missing question? The notion that there is a rapture at all, for the Church has never taught that Jesus intends to come back twice, but only once. We call his future coming the “second” coming because his “first” coming was the Incarnation. As such, his “second” coming is the return of the King at the end of the age at which point he will establish his kingdom. Adding a Rapture event in between these two comings actually creates a third coming, which is not only weird, but out of keeping with what the Church has always taught on the issue of the end of times.
Let’s begin our exploration of this Rapture notion with Jesus’ ascension from the Mount of Olives. A host of his disciples were just then asking him if he intended to bring about the Kingdom of God at that time, when he just flew upward into the clouds above them and on into heaven. A couple of angels then appeared and caught them all staring up into the sky and told them to get about doing what Jesus had told them to do, because at the end of all times, Jesus would return just as they had seen him leave. Ever since, the Church has awaited his return in the same place and in the same way, coming from the sky and landing on the Mount of Olives as King. It wouldn’t surprise me, in fact, if there were live streaming cameras now pointed at that site 24/7 to ensure that the event is captured on film. (I just checked online, and, sure enough, there are!)
God alone sets the times when he will bring this world to an end and, as Jesus himself explained, no one (save God) knows when that will occur.
The Church accordingly launched into the world at Pentecost and began to baptize and teach just as Jesus had taught them. But it was widely expected that Jesus would return during their lifetimes, in part due to a misunderstanding of something Jesus had told St. John (John 21:15-23). But as the last original Apostle, St. John realized that God intended the gospel to spread across the whole of the earth and that that would take a while. Furthermore, God alone sets the times when he will bring this world to an end and, as Jesus himself explained, no one (save God) knows when that will occur.
St. Peter himself joins the Ascension angels and his fellow apostle in his Second Epistle (2 Peter 3:1-13) where he urges the Church not to despair that Christ has not yet returned. For some had begun to think that since Christ had not yet returned, that he never would. St. Peter rebuts this thinking by correcting our human measurement of time to the divine standard where even a thousand years are to God as but a day. He also explains the reason for divine delay in terms of the mission of the Church: God has always been slow to bring judgment, because he longs for men to repent. However, all that being said, St. Peter reaffirms that the end is coming, a grand finale in which all will be judged, the earth and the heavens (i.e., the whole universe) will be consumed with fire, and new heavens and a new earth created for those who love God. And so, the Church continues expanding the love of God while waiting for Jesus to return as King Triumphant as he promised he would.
Nevertheless, this other view has emerged in some Protestant ranks captured in one form in the “Left Behind” books and films, a view that posits a different event that we are all supposed to be waiting for, namely that Jesus will only partially return in the air, not actually make a landing but instead suck up all the believers (the Rapture event), and then leave for seven years while the earth reels under divine judgment. At the conclusion of these seven years, it is further asserted, Jesus will then return in the triumph that the angels depict in Acts 1 and judge the world. Thus, these Evangelicals posit two distinct returns, a partial secret one and a full public one. Where did they come up with this idea of two returns, one a “Rapture” and one a full kingdom coming?
The whole idea emerges from St. Paul’s first letter to Thessaloniki (4:13-18). Go have a look at it for yourself. There you will see that when Christ returns, those of us who are alive and remain will indeed meet the Lord in the air. However, that is as far as the evidence goes for what the Evangelicals are advocating, because the rest of the text tells us what is really going on. First, notice that this event is very loud, with the sound of trumpets, the Archangelic calls, and Jesus’ own “cry of command.” There is nothing private or secretive about this event. Second, it is imperial, for Jesus returns with full imperium, i.e., the authority of command, as the King. And third, notice that the text does not say that Jesus does not land and instead heads back to heaven with his elect, as the Evangelicals assert. St. Paul only adds that we will be with the Lord from that point forward. So, what is going on here? Are there two comings, a partial one and a full one? What is really happening in 1 Thessalonians 4?
We’ve always been looking forward to the return of the King as King, as coming from the right hand of God with public political authority, or imperium, “command” as 1 Thessalonians calls it.
There is only one coming. Nowhere in the New Testament or Church teaching for the first 1800 years of the Church did anyone propose this idea that there were two “second” comings. We’ve always been looking forward to the return of the King as King, as coming from the right hand of God with public political authority, or imperium, “command” as 1 Thessalonians calls it. The dual coming doctrine emerged as Protestants interpreted the book of Revelation as all being future prophecy and judgment on the world. They couldn’t see how God could judge his own saints, so they figured he had to pull them out in advance. 1 Thessalonians 4 then seemed to provide them the perfect explanation with the secret coming to whisk them away in a world wide “rapture.” And that makes possible the notion and apparent terror of being “left behind.”
However, nobody knows what is going on in Revelation! It’s weird. Church scholars tend to think and have thought from the beginning that it refers to the whole church age as a time of tumult and difficulty. The Roman Christians thought it referred to them and interpreted the antichrist as Nero when he was persecuting them, or as Diocletian when he was doing so. During the Renaissance as well as many other eras, people also thought they were in the “last days.” We cannot assume that St. John’s vision is a linear time frame that can be imposed on a specific earth calendar. Thus, the seven years of tribulation that the Evangelicals talk about cannot be assumed to be seven specific earth years. Prophecy rarely works that way, even in the Old Testament. No one can authoritatively determine divine timelines from the imagery and symbolism of the Book of Revelation, especially since we were warned both by St. Peter and Jesus himself that no one but God alone knows the times! And that cuts heavily against there being any “Rapture” event, because if one knew that seven years to the day following the Rapture, Jesus would return again, then everyone would know when he was coming back for the last time! But no one knows. So, there is no Rapture.
When Christ returns, he will raise the dead in Christ, but not just them, for all those of us who are still alive will be transformed by beatitude and also join Christ in the air in glory as he returns as triumphant monarch with the armies of heaven behind him.
And that brings us back to 1 Thessalonians 4: if the event there is not the Evangelical Rapture, then what is it? It’s the one and only one return of the King as King Triumphant. In Roman times when Caesar returned triumphantly to Rome, the people would stream out of the city to meet him along the way from the harbor (the harbor, Ostia, sits about fifteen miles from the city proper). They didn’t wait. It was an act of devotion in recognition of a victorious conquest. St. Paul was a Roman citizen himself and knew full well the customs of the most famous and powerful people in the world. He was no doubt thinking of these customs when he penned the events of 1 Thessalonians 4 that perfectly fit this conception, that when Christ returns, he will raise the dead in Christ, but not just them, for all those of us who are still alive will be transformed by beatitude and also join Christ in the air in glory as he returns as triumphant monarch with the armies of heaven behind him. Once in the air, Jesus and all of his saints will descend together, Groom with his Bride, onto the Mount of Olives, just as the angels foretold.
So, there is no Rapture event that will include some people being “left behind,” for when Jesus returns, he will bring final judgment, consume the world with divine fire, recreate the universe afresh, and then establish his kingdom with his saints forever. There’s enough there to worry about if you aren’t a particularly nice person than adding some nonsense about being “left behind.” Facing the God of love when you reject his love yourself is the material issue. The real question for every person, then, is this: what happens if I reject the love of God? And the answer isn’t good.