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I have been reading up on various eschatological views and I have noticed an argument that I have not been able to find a detail about. It seems to be a common assertion by the Catholic and Orthodox that the Rapture, as portrayed by the Left Behind series, is non biblical because it calls for three "comings" of Jesus.

catholic.org puts it eloquently enough,

The problem with all of the positions (except the historic, post-tribulational view, which was accepted by all Christians, including non-premillennialists) is that they split the Second Coming into different events. In the case of the pre-trib view, Christ is thought to have three comings—one when he was born in Bethlehem, one when he returns for the rapture at the tribulation’s beginning, and one at tribulation’s end, when he establishes the millennium. This three-comings view is foreign to Scripture.

Does the bible specifically limit the number of times that Jesus comes to earth? Why would it be a problem for Jesus to come again before the "Second Coming"? Where does this "only two comings" requirement come from?

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    Short answer: Christians historically believed Jesus physically left and will physically return. The rapture view (the alleged 'third' coming) didn't exist before the 19th century, which is the chief criticism. The most explicit text critics appeal to is Hebrews 9.28, which says Jesus 'will appear a second time' as the event of final salvation. Aug 6, 2016 at 0:27
  • @KorvinStarmast That was just a top-of-my-head reply, shorter than I would actually dedicate to a full treatment of the question. I might come back to this, but at the least my comment gives someone a jumping point for a whole answer. Aug 8, 2016 at 5:55
  • If Catholics and Orthodox believe in Old Testament Chrostophany, as it seems they do, according to comments I have read by some of the recognized early church fathers, how would one make the argument that his a"Second Coming" is His literal second appearance on Earth?
    – Jeff
    Aug 11, 2016 at 4:37
  • @KorvinStarmast Yes. I meant, "If Catholics and Orthodox believe in Old Testament Christophany..." Thanks for catching that.
    – Jeff
    Oct 19, 2016 at 19:52
  • It is so hard to refrain from responding to the title question with "because they ran out of oysters, even though they were fishermen" ... sigh, off to confession I go ... Oct 21, 2016 at 2:13

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Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand. Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God. Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things? - 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5

Those who hold to a second, secret arrival of the Lord Jesus (rapture) prior to a third and final arrival (2nd coming) have had to do several things within the above passage.

  1. The coming of the Lord and our gathering unto him is treated as a separate event from the Day of Christ. The assertion is that the first two (coming and gathering) refer to the rapture while the day of Christ refers to the second coming. This view hinges on huper in verse 1 being translated as 'by' rather than 'about'. In other words the beseeching of verse 1 is done 'by means of' the rapture in regards to the day of Christ (making them separate events) rather than beseeching 'about' the coming, gathering, and the day. Both meanings of 'huper' are well attested in Scripture.

  2. In this view that day (2nd coming) cannot come until there is a falling away first and it is insisted that 'falling away' (apostasia; hence our English word apostasy) refers to a positive rather than a negative event even though it's only other usage in the NT (Acts 21:21, where the forsaking of Moses is in view) is negative

Holding these understandings one must conclude that the Corinthians were being shaken and troubled by the thought that the day of Christ was at hand, meaning that they had missed the rapture.

The major difficulty with this understanding of 2 Thess. 2 is that Paul's entire point is to comfort them that 'that day' has not and shall not come until certain conditions are met. If 'that day' is a second coming which is separate and following after a secret rapture then Paul is giving, as markers of comfort to those who fear they have missed it, both the rapture (falling away) and the event which follows (revelation of the man of sin).

It is easy to understand how Paul might comfort a rapture believer who is fearing the 2nd coming by saying "you're still here aren't you?" but it is quite odd to mention something, in conjunction, that the rapture believer will not be around to see.

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The need for three comings presupposes the following:

  • there will be a future period characterized by great suffering referred to as the Great Tribulation
  • the primary purpose of the secret preliminary coming is to take Christians away from the earth to prevent their experiencing this tribulation

Some non-rapturists, preterists specifically, see these presuppositions as problematic. The biblical passages commonly used by rapturists to support these ideas have other interpretations that do not require a third coming and may have more evidence in their favor. For instance, most preterists understand the fulfillment of passages like Matthew 24:36-45, Daniel 9:12,12:1, and Revelation 7:14 as the descriptions of the persecution of the Jewish people under Antiochus Epiphanes and later, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. by the Romans.

In recent years, fewer rapturists are claiming support for the rapture in Matthew 24:36-45. A few who still do are John F. Hart, professor at Moody Bible Institute and author Dave Hunt.

Dave Hunt states, in "How Close Are We? Compelling Evidence for the Soon Return of Christ", pages 210-11, that:

When Christ says, "As it was in the days of Noah and Lot," it is absolutely certain that He is not describing conditions that will prevail at the time of the Second Coming. Therefore, these must be the conditions which will prevail just prior to the Rapture at a different time—and, obviously, before the devastation of the tribulation period.

John F. Hart has written the following 4 articles where he defends the idea that the rapture is referenced in Matthew:
A Defense of the Pretribulational Rapture in Matthew 24:36–44
Should Pretribulationists Reconsider the Rapture in Matthew 24:36-44? - Part 1
Should Pretribulationists Reconsider the Rapture in Matthew 24:36-44? - Part 2
Should Pretribulationists Reconsider the Rapture in Matthew 24:36-44? - Part 3

Partial preterist Steve Gregg attempts to refute the above interpretation of Matthew 24:36-45 in his article Who's Been Left Behind

He essentially argues as follows:

One rapturist interpretation of these verses supposes that the people taken are being saved from the tribulation and those who are left will suffer through it. However, who are "they" who are "taken" in verse 39? "Noah" and his family or the other "people"? Grammatically, "they" must be the other "people" because "only the days of Noah" is specified, not his family. And are "they" taken for judgement or redemption? The "people" who were taken in Noah's day were taken as a form of judgement. See Genesis 7:21,23.

However, many rapturists in fact reject the idea that Matthew 24:36-45 describes the rapture. Although, they still believe it refers to a future Great Tribulation and the final phase of the future Second coming.

Even this view is troublesome for some non-rapturists, preterists specifically. They see Luke 21:20-24 as a passage directly parallel to Matthew 24:36-45. Most rapturists, like most scholars, concede that Luke 21:20-24 actually refers to the events of 70 A.D. One such rapturist is Thomas Ice.

Here's how one preterist, Parker, argues that Ice's acceptance of Luke 21:20-24 as having been fulfilled in 70 A.D. poses a significant difficulty with regard to his contention that Matthew 24:15-21 is a reference to the last phase of the final coming of Christ following the Great Tribulation. Parker believes that a verse-by-verse comparison of Matthew 24 to Luke 21 demonstrates that although a few statements are radically different between the two and seem to describe events that have not yet occurred, the differences can be accounted for in terms of symbolic language as used in the Old Testament. Consequently, he reason's that if Luke 21:20-24 is fulfilled, the coming of Christ and tribulation of Matthew 24:15-21 must be as well. And if the Great Tribulation is past, a two-phase final coming of Christ would seem unnecessary.

For reference, in the table of "Rapture & Second Coming Passages" found on page 3 of Differences Between the Rapture and the Second Coming , Ice excludes Luke 21:20-24 from both the Rapture and Second Coming columns. Matthew 24:15-21 however is included in the Second Coming column.

Also, in "Differences" above, Ice states:

Many important biblical doctrines are not given to us directly from a single verse, we often need to harmonize passages into systematic conclusions. Some truths are directly stated in the Bible, such as the deity of Christ (John 1:1, Titus 2:13). But doctrines like the Trinity and the incarnate nature of Christ are the product of biblical harmonization. Taking into account all biblical texts, orthodox theologians, over time, recognized that God is a Trinity and that Christ is the God-Man. Similarly, a systematic consideration of all biblical passages reveals that Scripture teaches two future comings."

Non-rapturists tend to see the exegetical techniques through which rapturists harmonize passages into conclusions as being very unsystematic.

These techniques are argued to be vague and/or inconsistent for determining when:

  • dissimilarity in descriptions between particular passages demonstrates distinct referents
  • similarity in descriptions between particular passages demonstrates identical referents

Partial-preterist Hank Hanegraaff criticizes pretribulationist Tim LaHaye's definition of literalism on page 16 of his book "Apocalypse Code" as follows:

"Not only is there nothing distinctive about this definition, but it is so vague as to be utterly useless."

Non-rapturists typically also express risks that the above mentioned exegetical techniques can result in dangerous interpretations of passages that they believe to be foundational to essential Christian beliefs and/or conduct consistent with those beliefs.

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The New Testament is clear that the first 'coming' was the Son of God being born into this word via the virgin Mary, and he was mainly known during his earthly ministry as "the Son of Man". He clearly taught that the Son of Man would die at the hands of sinners, be raised on the third day and go off to "a far country" (heaven) before unexpectedly 'coming' back. Ah, but his return would be as King of the Kingdom, to sit in judgment, for all the dead would hear his voice and be raised to be judged:

"When the Son of Man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory. And before him shall be gathered all nations..." Matthew 25:31-32 A.V.

There simply is no verse that speaks of a third event. On the contrary:

"...once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment, so Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation." Hebrews 9:26-17

What clarifies the end-time-of-the-world events is what Jesus explained here:

"And another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field [children of the kingdom, in the world vs.38]. But while men slept, his enemy [the devil, vs.39] came and sowed tares [weeds - the children of the wicked one, vs.38] among the wheat, and went his way. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? From whence then hath it tares? He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay, lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest [the end of the world, vs.39]: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers [the angels, vs.39] Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn... As therefore the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so shall it be in the end of this world. [vs.40] Matthew 13:24-30 & 36-40 A.V. [bold emphases mine]

Immediately before Jesus comes the second time, the harvest takes place, which is one harvest with two reapings. And this is exactly what the Revelation account of the same event details in chapter 14, vss. 14-20: one on a cloud, like the Son of Man, then the command to begin reaping, "for the harvest of the earth is ripe."

Summary: This is what shows what's wrong with the "three comings" theology. Literal interpretations of years in the Revelation give rise to an invisible rapture with an invisible second coming, then a literal seven-year gap before a suppose third coming. But Jesus' parable and what's said in Revelation 13:14-20 show that the wicked are first identified by the angels, made ready for burning, then the children of the kingdom are gathered into Christ's 'barn', then the wicked suffer burning. This all happens at the one time. There's no time gap. And it is the supposed time gap that has given rise to a third coming!

No, Revelation shows Christ's people have to go through the awful tribulation - they are not spared it (Revelation 7:14-17). But at the instant of Christ's second coming, he ushers in the Day of Resurrection and Judgment. The dead in Christ are raised first; those in Christ still alive on earth are then caught up to be with them in the clouds; that is the first 'reaping' at the start of the harvest, then the 'weeds' (also spoken of as 'the vine of the earth' in Revelation) are trampled. One harvest with two reapings, and no time-gap between them.

That is what shows what's wrong with the 'three comings' idea. Taking time periods as literal years has given rise to the confusion. Another reason is interpreting most of the chapters in Revelation to only deal with literal Israel on earth, with God's people only being dealt with in the short opening when they are said to be taken to heaven, and dealt with again in the short closing chapters. Their going to heaven is said to be invisible, so an invisible second coming of Christ for them, but a visible third one for judgment of the wicked. This adds to the problem of three comings. But the Bible clearly says there are only two.

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Three Questions This posting was divided into three questions, which shall be dealt with in order. The solution to this dilemma makes study of eschatology much simpler and more exciting/practical, for it releases congregations from preoccupation with fear and anxiety, and gets them occupied with evangelistic and charitable deeds.

  1. Does the Bible limit the number of times Jesus comes to earth? Yes! Hebrews 9:28

Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away sins of many people; and he will appear a second time not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him.

Notice that at His Ascension, the angels said Jesus would come again. (Acts 1:11) He did not say, "again and again and again..."

Other references to the End use the singular, as well: 2 Peter 3:4, this coming, 3:10,the Day of the Lord, 3:12, that Day; 1 Peter 1:5, the coming.

Of course we are only dealing with the Second Coming at the end of the world. Jesus does "come" to men in salvation, times of comfort, in-filling of the Holy Spirit, etc.

  1. Why would it be a problem for Jesus to come again before the "Second Coming"? There would be "no problem" for Christ to come as many times as He wished. He is God. But He has limited it Himself by His revealed word.

When the Son of man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His throne in heavenly glory. And all the nations will be gathered before Him... (Matthew 25:31-32)

The N.T., over and over, pictures Jesus's Coming with the subsequent end of human history...and Judgment. Not more apocalyptic human events.

  1. Where does this "only two comings" requirement come from? It comes from the Rules of Hermeneutics, and their use in interpreting scripture. Exegesis "requires" an interpretation of only one Coming in the future. E.g. The only place where a 7 year period is mentioned is Daniel 9, and none of the "end of the world" multiple Comings is mentioned there. (Most scholars interpret Daniel 9 as a reference to Jesus's first coming in which He was crucified, i.e. "cut off") Another example: those advocating multiple comings refer to Titus 2:13, and 2 Thess. 2:1: the blessed hope and glorious appearing. But the Greek grammar makes no such distinction, but "requires" one future Coming. It is called, the Day of the Lord, not "days". (2 Thess. 2:2)
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Why are three "Comings" a problem?

Strictly speaking, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Churches do believe in a form of “rapture:” a bodily assumption into heaven of all the faithful, both living and dead, at Jesus' second and final coming and judgement. This will be preceded by the appearance of the Antichrist and an associated period of intense persecution of Christians known as the tribulation.

There is a new and often very anti-Catholic idea of rapture that is now taking many evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant denominations by storm. It is absolutely foreign to the first seventeen centuries of Christianity (Catholic or Protestant), and made especially popular by recent books and movies like the infamous Left Behind series.

While this new concept of rapture comes in many varieties, it generally involves dividing Biblical history into a series of “dispensations” or periods, then adding a secret second coming of Jesus (before his Final Coming), where he will snatch believers bodily up to heaven, leaving all others behind to endure an intense, seven year tribulation initiated by the Antichrist. This will be followed by yet a third return and judgement, at which point Jesus will establish his Kingdom on earth for a period of 1,000 years. At the end of this earthly reign, there will be a final judgement and then the end of time as we know it.

Let’s take a closer look at the Biblical claims of this troubled teaching.

Rapturists claim God’s Kingdom on earth has not yet begun in any form, basing this on their interpretation of the thousand year reign of Christ described in Rv 20:4. They believe Jesus will begin a literal thousand year kingdom reign at a third coming, after the “rapture.”

But even a cursory reading of Scripture clearly reveals that Jesus already established his kingdom when he was on earth some 2,000 years ago. Perhaps the clearest evidence of this comes from Lk 17:20-21, where the Pharisees specifically asked Jesus when the kingdom of God was coming. He answered them: “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed… for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” In other words, it is here!

Similarly, in Mt 6:30-33, Jesus tells his followers not to worry about the worldly needs of daily life, but instead to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

And in Mt 16:27, Jesus reveals that: “truly… there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming in his kingdom” (Mt 16:27). Here, Jesus is not talking about establishing his kingdom only in heaven, as some rapturists try to claim. Jesus’ “coming in his kingdom” will happen on earth in some form, and while some of these people he is talking to are still alive!

We aren’t waiting for a secret return of Jesus at the rapture, followed by yet a third return to inaugurate the beginning of the kingdom. The kingdom is already here!

Do Catholics believe in the rapture?

Also Catholics and Orthodox as well as some other denominations do not believe in the rapture theory, there has been appearances of Jesus to chosen souls to convey certain information that Christ deemed necessary to reveal. These are in no way a rapture theory at all.

Here follows a Catholic definition of rapture which is totally foreign to a Protestant viewpoint:

Rapture

A form of ecstasy, one that is sudden and violent. This violent motion cannot, as a rule be resisted, whereas in the case of simple ecstasy, resistance is possible, at least at the outset.

Wikipedia gives a good Protestant overview of their viewpoint on what rapture means to them.

The Rapture is an eschatological position held by some Christians, particularly those of American evangelicalism, consisting of an end-time event when all dead Christian believers will be resurrected and, joined with Christians who are still alive, together will rise "in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air.";The origin of the term extends from the First Epistle to the Thessalonians in the Bible, which uses the Greek word harpazo (Ancient Greek: ἁρπάζω), meaning "to snatch away" or "to seize". This view of eschatology is referred to as dispensational premillennialism, a form of futurism that considers various prophecies in the Bible as remaining unfulfilled and occurring in the future.

The idea of a rapture as it is currently defined is not found in historic Christianity, and is a relatively recent doctrine originating from the 1830s. The term is used frequently among fundamentalist theologians in the United States. Rapture has also been used for a mystical union with God or for eternal life in Heaven.

Differing viewpoints exist about the exact timing of the rapture and whether Christ's return would occur in one event or two. Pretribulationism distinguishes the rapture from the second coming of Jesus Christ mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew, 2 Thessalonians, and Revelation. This view holds that the rapture would precede the seven-year Tribulation, which would culminate in Christ's second coming and be followed by a thousand-year Messianic Kingdom. This theory grew out of the translations of the Bible that John Nelson Darby analyzed in 1833. Pretribulationism is the most widely held view among Christians believing in the rapture today, although this view is disputed within evangelicalism. Some assert a post-tribulational rapture.

Most Christian denominations do not subscribe to rapture theology and have a different interpretation of the aerial gathering described in 1 Thessalonians 4. They do not use rapture as a specific theological term, nor do they generally subscribe to the premillennial dispensational views associated with its use.[8] Instead they typically interpret rapture in the sense of the elect gathering with Christ in Heaven right after his second coming and reject the idea that a large segment of humanity will be left behind on earth for an extended tribulation period after the events of 1 Thessalonians 4:17. - Rapture

We do not know Christ actual Second Coming, but we are certainly in the time frame of 6,000 ”Years After Creation”, or Annos Mundi or biblical years of the accounts of the creation of the world, for those who believe such things.

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    There is quite a bit in your answer that many Protestants would agree with, because this comparatively new 'rapture' theology has deeply disturbed most Protestants. But "the secret rapture" group is voiciferous and promotes books and films on their beliefs. This is not representative of traditional Protestantism.
    – Anne
    Aug 16, 2023 at 16:35

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