Question: Does the NT affirm a rapture of the church?
The New Testament does not affirm a rapture of the church. The rapture is a teaching that God will remove believers, i.e. the church, before the tribulation and the Second Coming of Jesus (McGrath, 461). This view is primarily associated with pretribulation premillennial dispensationalists (McGrath, 461).
Those who teach a “rapture” base this on an understanding that 1 Thessalonians 4:15-7 teaches that believers will be “caught up in the clouds” with Christ (McGrath, 455). Dispensationalists teach that the rapture is different than the Second Coming and they are separated by the Great Tribulation (Horton, 951). Some have described the rapture as a “secret rapture” or a “secret coming” since it could occur at any moment (Erickson, 1197). The rapture is when Christ “comes for” the church and the Second Coming is when Christ “comes with” the church after the Great Tribulation (Erickson, 1197). This teaching could be said to really present a second and third coming or a second coming that occurs in two phases (Erickson, 1225).
This theory of the rapture is not consistent with the teachings of the New Testament. First, Paul is attempting to encourage and correct the Thessalonians who were confused about Christ return (1 Thess. 4.13, 18). They were confused about what would happen to those who believers who had already died when Christ returns (Schriener, 818). Second, the “coming of the Lord” will not be a secret event. There will be a “cry of command” from the archangel and the “sound of the trumpet of God” (1 Thess. 4.16). Jesus teaches that his return will be as “lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west” (Matt. 24.27). Jesus will come “on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory and send out his angels with a loud trumpet call” to gather his elect (Matt. 24.30-31). Third, Jesus said that “all the tribes of the earth” will see his return not just those who believe (Matt. 4.30). Fourth, Jesus teaches in Matthew 24 that some of the elect will be present during the tribulation which contradicts the teaching that the rapture keeps the church out of the tribulation (Erickson, 1225).
The “secret rapture” of the church was first formulated by John Nelson Darby in the nineteenth century (Horton, 954). Therefore this view has only been around for the last two hundred years. The reason that pretribulation premillennial dispensationalism and its teaching of the rapture has achieved a significant foothold in the United State is primarily due to Cyrus I. Scofield’s notes in the Scofield Reference Bible (McGrath, 455).
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1998.
Horton, Michael Scott. The Christian Faith: a Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011.
McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: an Introduction. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
Schreiner, Thomas R. New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008.