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A friend of mine once preached on the return of Christ in a church that embraced a view of the end times informed by dispensationalism. After the service, one of the congregants, apparently concerned by what he had just heard, asked him, “You do believe in the rapture, right?” My friend lightheartedly responded, “Oh, I believe that the return of Christ is going to be a rapturous event!”
Contrary to many widely accepted misconceptions about the rapture and the return of Christ, including those found in dispensationalism, Scripture knows of only two comings of Christ—the first at His incarnation and the second at the consummation. The New Testament revelation of the events that accompany the return of Christ includes the teaching of 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, a passage that many Western evangelicals misguidedly see as proof of an evacuation of believers to heaven to escape some or all of the tribulation that precedes the visible return of Christ. But this passage actually teaches that believers who are alive when Christ returns in glory will be “caught up” (i.e., raptured) at the time of this return, immediately after Christ raises His people from the dead at His second coming. In other words, the church is not evacuated before the final coming of Christ and is not promised an escape from tribulation.
While complicated proposals about the rapture and the return of Christ have been advanced through dispensational teaching since the late nineteenth century, a sweet simplicity belongs to the biblical revelation regarding these events. Scripture does not speak of three returns of Christ (or two and a half, as certain proposals insist); rather, redemptive history is structured by Christ’s first and second comings. The author of Hebrews teaches, “Just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Heb. 9:27–28). This passage summarizes what the rest of the New Testament reveals concerning the two appearances of Christ and the hope of believers.
By way of contrast, dispensational premillennialism is defined by the belief that there will be a secret rapture of believers before or during a period of tribulation that precedes the visible coming of Christ to institute His literal thousand-year reign on earth. This misconception rests on numerous a priori assumptions about what is revealed in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–17. In this passage, the Apostle Paul writes:
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. 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.
The Apostle wrote this letter to encourage sorrowful believers regarding the death of believers they had known and loved. False teachers had troubled these Christians with the notion that the resurrection had already occurred. In response, Paul set out a general summary of what will happen when Christ returns. He directly links the idea of believers’ being “caught up . . . to meet the Lord in the air” to the public proclamation of Christ’s return. This militates against the idea of a secret rapture. Christ’s return will be accompanied by public proclamation. Jesus will first bring about the resurrection of His people who have died; then He will cause those who are alive to be caught up together with Him in the air. Scripture nowhere advances the idea of a secret rapture before a period of tribulation, but it does reveal that the second coming of Christ will be a most rapturous event for all believers.