Those who espouse to a pretribulation view of the rapture typically hold that the rapture will be “secret,” in the sense that no unbeliever will witness the event because it happens so quickly. The Scriptural justification for this view is said to be 1 Corinthians 15:51-52.
Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.
If this passage teaches a secret rapture of the church, it would be unique among the raptures recorded in Scripture. All other raptures were witnessed by those who remained on the Earth. Enoch was raptured to heaven (Gen5:24). While we are not told of any particular person who witnessed the event, it must have been witnessed by someone, otherwise people could not have known that God took him. Elijah’s rapture was witnessed by Elisha (2 Kings 2:1-12). Jesus’ rapture was witnessed by the apostles (Acts 1:9-11). The rapture of the Two Witnesses will be witnessed by their enemies (Rev 11:3-12). Why would all other raptures in the Bible be public, but the rapture of the church be secret? If we could develop any Biblical precedent for the speed of the church’s rapture, it would appear that it will be slow enough for others to witness it.
While an initial reading of 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 could be construed as supporting a lightning fast secret rapture, an examination of the broader context renders this interpretation untenable. The subject of 1 Corinthians 15 is the resurrection of the dead. In verses 12-34 Paul made his case for the bodily resurrection of the dead. In verses 35-57 Paul responds to two questions that the Corinthians were asking (or that Paul anticipated them asking):
- How are the dead raised? (vs. 35)
- With what kind of body do they come? (vs. 35)
Paul does not respond to each question individually in order, but both together. Let’s start with the second question first: What will the resurrection body be like? Paul argues that it will be the same body we had before death, but transformed from mortality to immortality, from perishable to imperishable, from weakness to power, from a natural body to a spiritually-oriented body, and from dishonor to glory (vss. 42-44,53-54). Paul offers a couple of analogies to make his point clear. His first analogy is from the realm of agriculture. Just like the seed you plant in the ground looks different before it dies than it does after it dies and produces grain, likewise our resurrected body will be numerically identical to our pre-resurrected body, but different and more glorious.
As for Paul’s first question, Paul explains that the dead are raised by God (vs. 38). Furthermore, to be raised from the dead one must first experience death (vs. 36), except for those who are still alive when Christ returns – they will experience this transformation while still alive (vss. 50-53). And that brings us to the immediate context of the verses in question.
I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. (1 Cor 15:50-53)
Paul is arguing that the resurrection is necessary because “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (vs. 50). “Flesh and blood” is a Hebrew idiom to refer to ordinary, fallen humanity. Those who are to inherit God’s kingdom must be glorified, and that is what we experience in resurrection. The resurrection, then, is the solution to our fallenness. This invites a logical question: What about those who have not died at Jesus’ coming (see v 23)? If, as Paul argued earlier, resurrection occurs after death, how will those alive at Jesus’ coming be able to inherit the kingdom of God. Paul assures us that even those alive at Christ’s coming will be glorified through resurrection, despite never tasting death (vs 51-52).
It’s clear from the context that the “change” Paul says we will experience in a mere moment is not a change in our body’s location (rapture), but a change in our body’s constitution (resurrection/glorification). Paul isn’t talking about the rapture in verse 51, but the resurrection. While the resurrection and the rapture may occur at the same time, they are not the same thing. The resurrection is a resuscitation and transformation of our bodies from mortal to immortal, while the rapture refers to the directional rising of our resurrected bodies from the Earth into the air. Paul’s reference to “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,” then, is a reference to the speed of our resurrection/glorification (the change from mortality to immortality, from corruption to incorruption), not the speed of the rapture. We will be changed from our natural, mortal, corruptible body to a spiritual, immortal, and incorruptible body in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.
Some adherents of the secret rapture view may be willing to admit that 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 does not teach the doctrine, but will appeal to 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 instead. Here Paul writes:
For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 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. 16 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. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up [harpadzo] together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. (1 Thes 4:14-17, ESV)
On its face, there is nothing in this passage to suggest a secret rapture. Paul does not tell us anything about the speed of the rapture, but only about the order in which the saints will be raptured: Those who are dead will rise to meet Christ first, and then those of us who are still alive at His coming. Those looking to teach a secret rapture from this passage will point to Paul’s use of the Greek word harpadzo, translated “caught up.” They argue that it means to “seize suddenly,” pointing to other contexts in which the word is used such as John 6:15, where the crowd was going to “take him [Jesus] by force,” and Jude 23 where Jude spoke of saving some by “pulling them out of the fire.” Admittedly, harpadzo carries the meaning of “take,” and often by force. Noticeably absent, however, is any reference to speed. One must assume that seizing something by force entails seizing it speedily. This connection is tenuous, at best. Not all seizings happen quickly. Even seizings that do occur quickly do not occur so quick that they are not viewable! Being quick and being secret are not the same thing.
Even if one conceded that harpadzo included some sense of quickness, Paul’s description of the order in which the saints will be raptured does not comport with a lightning-quick rapture. If the rapture occurs in the twinkling of an eye, why would it be necessary for Paul to note that the dead in Christ would rise first? No human being would be able to distinguish the difference of time-order between the dead and living saints. Would it really matter if I am raised a millisecond before you? The statement that the dead will rise before those who yet remain alive would only make sense if there was enough time to truly distinguish who would go first and who would go next. A secret, or lightning-speed rapture makes these statements virtually meaningless, for only God would be able to observe the difference.
In conclusion, neither 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 nor 1 Thessalonians 4:17 teach a secret rapture of the church. This doctrine is based on a misinterpretation of the text, rooted in a failure to heed the context.
Keep it in context….