Many Bible scholars see a 7-year period of severe trouble for the world, just before Christ's Second Coming. During this time they hold that the true Christian church is absent from the world scene, having been called up 'to meet the Lord in the air' (see the reasoning opposite). So what happens to those people 'left behind'? Putting many prophecies together suggests the following scenario:
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World events and prophecy indicate that Christ's return is imminent. This article explains the dramatic events surrounding His return. We ask, 'What happens to believers when they are taken from the earth (the 'rapture') and 'What happens to those left behind?' To answer this it is logical to take prophetic interpretations that agree closely with reality i.e. with historical events and with what we observe today.
Jesus said 'No one knows the day or the hour' (Mat 24.36), but He gave timeline indicators. To the worldwide church He said:
"And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world ... and then the end (of the age) will come." (Mat 24.14)
Jesus said times will be hard for believers just before He comes. They will be brought before courts, some will be imprisoned and some will be martyred, as in many countries today (Lk 21.12-19). Persecution will have spread to all nations - there will be no escape and many will fall away from the faith (Mat 24.9,10). His message to the end-time church is 'hang on in there'! (Mat 24.13)
And to those living in Israel at the end of the age Jesus said:
"... when you see the 'abomination of desolation' (Dan 9.27) spoken by Daniel the prophet standing in the holy place ... then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains." (Mat 24.15,16)
In order to study His Second Coming in detail we need to examine Daniel's prophecy that Jesus refers to:
"Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make an atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place" (Dan 9.24).
The 'people' here are Daniel's people, Israel. The 'seventy weeks' refers to a period of 490 years (with 1 week = 7 lunar years, each of about 360 days). To be compatible with historical and modern-day events, many take the futurist view and see an unspecified time period between the end of week 69 and the start of week 70, with week 70 imminent. For a detailed justification for this prophetic interpretation, see Daniel's 70th Week.
The significant point is that at the end of Week 70, all visions and prophecy have ceased, 'everlasting righteousness' has been established on earth, and 'the holy place' (Christ's temple in Jerusalem) has been 'anointed'. Christ will have arrived! The Second Coming of Christ is therefore strongly associated with Daniel's 70th week, a period of 7 (360 day) years or 2520 days.
The term 'church' in the NT, from Matthew to Revelation, is from the Greek 'ekklesia', meaning 'a called out group'. It is this special group of born-again believers in Christ that concerns us here. It comprises both believing Gentiles and believing Jews, as well as all those who have died (are asleep) in Christ. Most Christians accept that born-again believers will be removed from the earth around the time of Christ's Second Coming (the so-called 'rapture'). Paul puts it like this:
"Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord." (1 Thes 4.17)
Believers will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thes 4.17)
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The Greek for 'meet' here is apantesis, meaning 'a friendly encounter'. Jesus appears to say the same thing:
"Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill, one will be taken, and one will be left". (Mat 24.40,41).
Here, the Greek word for 'taken' is paralambano, which means 'to take into close association with oneself', in a positive sense. The Greek word for 'left' is aphiemi and means 'to leave, forsake, omit or lay aside'. So just as Noah was taken out of the world before the judgement of the Flood (see Mat 24.37), so believers will be taken from the earth before God judges the world. Wesley interprets Mat 24.40 as 'One is taken into God's immediate protection: and one is left to share the common calamities' (see 'Will You be Left Behind?', opposite). Also note that:
"Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me ..." (Rev 22.12)
These texts suggest that Jesus returns for His church (the 'rapture') before He actually returns to earth at the end of Week 70 to start His Millennial reign.
There are Pretribulation, Midtribulation and Postribulation viewpoints regarding the timing of the rapture, depending upon whether the rapture is placed at the start, midway, or end of Daniel's 70th Week, respectively. Note that the whole of Week 70 (7 years) is a time of enhanced tribulation since the Antichrist has at last been revealed. Those who come to accept Christ after the rapture will suffer persecution from the Antichrist (Rev 13.7,10 Rev 14.12,13). He will also cause Israel to suffer 'great tribulation' (Mat 24.21) in the last 3.5 years - the time of Jacob's Trouble (Jer 30.7). Although controversial, there is a strong case for placing the rapture at the start of Week 70 (Pretribulation view), before this time of tribulation:
For these reasons we prefer the Pretribulation (or possibly Midtribulation) view of the rapture as opposed to the Postribulation view. In other words, the true church (as distinct from the apostate church) is removed from the earth at the start or middle of the 70th Week. See also Where is the Church?
The rapture involves all faithful believers, both past and present. Certainly the true church is part of this dramatic event; believers past and present are resurrected to 'always be with the Lord' (1 Thes 4.17). This includes the millions who were martyred for their faith over the ages. But other saints also take part in the first resurrection. Daniel refers to those in Israel who suffer in the great tribulation (Jacob's Trouble, Jer 30.7), and to those OT saints who have died:
"And there will be a time of distress ... at that time your people, everyone who is found written in the book, will be rescued. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake ...(Dan 12.1,2)"
In fact, all martyrs of Daniel's 70th Week (those who come to Christ and suffer under the Antichrist) have part in the first resurrection:
"... and those who had not worshipped the beast ... and had not receieved the mark ... they came to life ... this is the first resurrection." (Rev 20.4,5)
So it seems there will be many faithful saints past and present in the first resurrection; it is not just the church. The saints are those gathered from every tribe and tongue and people and nation throughout the ages (Rev 5.9,10). And all these will return with Christ to reign with Him:
This is the time of 'the redemption of the body' (Rom 8.23), the time when 'the perishable body is raised an imperishable body', the time when 'the natural body is raised a spiritual body' (1 Cor 15.42-44). This is the first resurrection:
"... in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet ... the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed ... this mortal must put on immortality (1 Cor 15.52,53)
"Blessed and holy is the one who has part in the first resurrection ... they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years" (Rev 20.6)
Taking the Pretribulation view, the resurrected saints are with Christ in heaven during Daniel's 70th Week (a 7-year period). This is the time of rewards for the saints (see also Rev 22.12):
"For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed (rewarded) for his deeds in the body ..." (2 Cor 5.10)
Judgment implies a time of testing the works of the saints (1 Cor 3.10-15) - was all work done under the direction of the Lord? The test is one of quality not quantity and appears to determine the authority of a believer in the Messianic Kingdom (Lk 19.11-27). Having been rewarded and perfected, the saints are now clothed in 'fine linen, bright and clean' (symbolising their righteous acts) as a bride ready for her husband (Rev 19.7,8).
There is much debate about who is included in the 'bride'. For over fifteen hundred years the NT Church has been identified as the bride, although, as implied above, this view may well be too narrow. As discussed, the first resurrection involves not only the raptured (true) church, but also OT saints (Daniel's people) and saints martyred by the Antichrist after the rapture. So the bride must include all these 'perfected saints', anyone with their name in the Lamb's Book of Life (Rev 21.27), anyone who is worthy to be part of the New Jerusalem (Rev 21).
There is also debate about the 'marriage supper of the Lamb' (Rev 19.7-9) - when is it? Some see it occurring only when God creates a new heaven, a new earth and the New Jerusalem:
"And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband." (Rev 21.2)
The implication here is that the bride is not yet married to the Lamb. But in the NT, the word bride is from the Greek numphe which could also be translated 'a young married woman'. For example:
"Come, I will show you the bride, the Lamb's wife' (Rev 21.9)
So others see the marriage and wedding feast taking place in heaven during Daniel's 70th Week, before Christ returns to earth. This follows if Rev 19 is assumed to be in time-sequence. After the marriage (Rev 19.7-9) the bride, clothed in 'fine linen, white and clean' follows Christ as His army in heaven (Rev 19.11-16). Again this is understandable since the saints are to return with Christ and reign with Him on earth, and surely only perfected saints married to Christ could do this.
Revelation 19.11-21 gives a dramatic vision of Christ's return to earth at the end of Daniel's 70th Week. Christ comes as King to judge and rule the nations, and with Him come the armies of heaven:
"... and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war ... and the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him ..." (Rev 19.11,14)
Jesus comes back "with all His saints" (1 Thes 3.13).
"Behold, the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones." (Jude 14)
"Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye shall see Him ..." (Rev 1.7)
"They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds with power and great glory" (Mat 24.30)
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Note the plural 'armies'. Jesus said He will return 'with all the holy angels' (Mat 25.31), but there are other armies comprised of perfected saints dressed in fine linen, white and clean. The world dictator (the war-like beast of Rev 13.1-10), the Antichrist (the false prophet of Rev 13.11-18), along with the armies of the earth are all defeated. This marks the start of the Millennial reign of Christ on earth:
"In that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives ... in the front of Jerusalem ... and the Lord will be King over all the earth ... (Zech 14.4,9)
Since these saints now have immortal bodies, like the body of Jesus, we might ask 'Exactly how do they reign over human (mortal) beings?' The Millennial scenario appears paradoxical to say the least! On the one hand we have the remnant nations and national Israel - all 'in the flesh' - whilst on the other hand it now appears that earth's ranks are to be swelled by millions of immortal beings! A clue might be in Jesus's comment on marriage:
"... but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and the resurrection from the dead ... are like angels ..." (Lk 20.35,36)
It seems the saints operate like ministering angels in the Millennium. During the Millennium they reign over the people of the earth as priests of God and of Christ (Rev 5.10), but their true home will eventually be the New Jerusalem in the new earth. In conclusion, we can say that the Millennium is essentially Jewish, reigned over by Christ and His resurrected saints. For more detail see The Millennial Reign of Christ.
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Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible