One of the hotly debated topics in the area of Biblical eschatology regards when will the rapture (the instantaneous changing of Christians living on the earth from flesh to spirit in order to be with Jesus) occur.
Will this monumental event or "rapture" take place before the period known as the Great Tribulation (when the Beast and False Prophet actively rule the earth), in the middle of it, or after it? These positions are known as the pre, mid, and post-tribulation views.
Some religious people have also added the belief that the "rapture" of living saints, whenever it occurs, will be done quietly and in secret such that the entire world, and even those who are thus changed, will be unaware of what has taken place. This is known as the secret rapture theory.
The classic text that teaches Christians will, in the near future, experience a "rapture" is in 1Thessalonians 4.
Because the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout of command, with the voice of an archangel . . .
Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds (believed by some to be a rapture) for the meeting with the Lord in the air . . . (1Thessalonians 4:16 - 17, HBFV throughout).
In order to begin to answer our question regarding the rapture we need to note the sequence of events in the above verses.
Verse 16 states that Jesus descends from heaven (where he has been sitting at God's right hand, see Acts 2:33, 7:55, etc.) down to the earth. As he is descends he shouts, which is followed by the booming voice of an Archangel, which is then followed by a trumpet blast.
The trumpet that is blasted is by the seventh of seven angels told to use them to announce that God is about to do something during the tribulation period (Revelation 8:2). The seventh trumpet sounds to declare that Christ is being sent to earth to defeat Satan's world government and to resurrect the faithful (Revelation 11:15 - 18).
Notice that God is making a loud, three-fold announcement to those on the earth (who else would it be for?) that something incredible is about to happen.
As Jesus makes his way to earth those who are "dead in Christ," meaning those in history who were called and remained faithful to him to the end (e.g. Job, Abraham, King David, the prophets, the twelve disciples, the Apostle Paul, etc.), are resurrected (in what many would label a rapture).
In what could be considered Part 2 of the first resurrection, a group of Christians "who are alive and remain" are then caught up to meet Christ (the rapture) after the dead are raised (verse 15). Notice that these "translated" Christians meet Jesus AND a large crowd of dead believers brought back to life "in the clouds . . . in the air," meaning the atmosphere of the earth (verse 17).
Where do all these spirit beings now go? If the rapture were to occur either before or in the middle of the Tribulation period they would have to wait someplace many months until they could return with Christ (Revelation 17:14) at His Second Coming.
Is this what happens? Does Jesus turn around and take this large group of resurrected saints to some heavenly waiting room to sit for at most 3 1/2 years until he can come to earth as King of Kings? The Bible tells us that Jesus' ultimate destination will, instead, be somewhere on earth (study Zechariah 4:1 - 4).
Is it in secret?
The Apostle Paul reaffirms, in his writing to the church at Corinth, that the changing of living Christians to spirit beings in the first resurrection (the rapture) will be an event that the world will know is occurring (1Corinthians 15:51 - 52).
Jesus himself, in his Olivet prophecy, taught that His return would be a publicly known event by comparing it to a huge lightning strike (Matthew 24:26 - 27). In fact, Scripture makes the point that his return will be an event known to all those on the earth who have been deceived to HATE his coming back!
Behold, He is coming with the clouds, AND EVERY EYE SHALL SEE HIM, and those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth shall wail (they are not celebrating his return!) because of Him (Revelation 1:7).
Who will be alive to be changed?
Are there Christians still alive at the end of the Great Tribulation who could be instantly turned into spirit?
It is true that just after the Beast and False Prophet take control of the world they institute a mass killing of all true Christians (Matthew 24:9, Revelation 6:11, 12:11, 17, 13:7, 14:12 - 13). Before they do this, however, God takes some (but by no means all!) believers to a "place of safety" where he will protect them until his Son returns (Revelation 12:6, 14, 13:5). It is these people who are changed "in the twinkling of an eye" into spirit.
Based on the above verses the following conclusions can be drawn concerning the rapture.
#1 - This event does not occur by itself but is part of a series of events that begin with Christ descending to earth and end with his feet landing on the Mount of Olives.
#2 - Christians are not taken to heaven in a "rapture" in order to avoid the Tribulation. God allows many of them to die a martyr's death at the hands of the Beast while others he deems worthy are protected.
#3 - The start of Christ's return and the events that transpire after it is initiated will be advertised and known to the entire world. The concept of a "secret" rapture is not true!
#4 - When living believers are finally changed instantly to spirit they do NOT go to heaven but rather meet Jesus in the air and follow him back down to the planet along with those resurrected from the dead.
The Bible clearly delineates that Jesus does not return to earth until the end of the Great Tribulation period (Revelation 19:11 - 21). His return, the resurrection of dead saints, and the rapture, are events that are not only linked together but occur very close to one another in time.
Scripture does not support two "comings" of the Lord - one where he grabs saints to "rapture" or save them from the devil's wrath and the other to bring the Kingdom to earth. Those who believe in a "secret" snatching up of saints read this belief into the text (known as eisegesis) rather than letting the Bible interpret itself.