Imagine you are having a regular day at home or at the office, and then without warning, you are in the presence of Christ with a new body and in an entirely different realm of existence. Incredibly, Jesus is beside you, friends who have died are there, and you find yourself mingling with an innumerable host of people, all suspended in midair. You are reunited with your mother, father and friends long since forgotten on earth. But the focus is on your leader and Savior, King Jesus, who has returned as He promised: “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3).
Opinions differ as to whether the rapture (described in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 as “caught up”) takes place before, after or during the tribulation. But these questions should not stop us from contemplating the fact that the King will come, and that those believers who are alive at the time of this event will have new bodies and will be “forever with the Lord.” Alas, for others it will be a time of judgment.
Regardless of one’s view of end-time events, the Bible repeatedly teaches the visible, literal return of Jesus back to earth. It teaches the personal judgment of all individuals; it teaches an eternal Heaven and an eternal hell. We don’t have to agree about the sequence of these events in order for prophecy to change our entire perspective on life.
How sure can we be that Christ will return to earth? As sure as we are that He came to this earth as a baby in Bethlehem, and that He suffered, died and was raised from His grave. Keep in mind that there was a time when the death and resurrection of Jesus was prophecy. Today, of course, it is history. Likewise, the return of Christ is prophecy today, but it will be history at some future date. The fact that He is coming is just as certain as the fact that He already came!
For those who are prepared for the King’s return, His coming is glorious. When a believer dies today their soul/spirit is taken immediately to Heaven; in fact, several times Paul spoke of his own preference to die and be “with the Lord” (see 2 Corinthians 8; Philippians 1:21). Yes, believers can recognize each other and communicate in Heaven, but their permanent bodies await the return of Christ.
When the King returns He will bring with Him the souls of the saints who have died. Paul says He will bring with Him “the dead in Christ”—that is, the believers who have died and gone to Heaven—and almost simultaneously there will be a resurrection: “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” (1 Thessalonians 4:16). At last the bodies of the dead are resurrected to meet the Lord in the air; body and soul are reunited.
So, for the first time, heavenly souls will be “clothed” with their resurrected bodies. And I should point out that there will be a recognizable continuity between the body we once had on earth and the recreated one we now enjoy at the rapture. Bodies will appear from everywhere. And we are elated with the news, “So shall we ever be with the Lord.”
For that day we eagerly wait.
Jesus taught that some people will be raised to the resurrection of life and others to a resurrection of judgment (John 5:28–29). In Revelation 19, we have the return of Jesus depicted from a different vantage point. He is seen as riding on a white horse: “The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war” (Revelation 19:11). He comes majestically: “He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God” (Revelation 19:13). The wickedness of the world will have run its course and those who have done evil will finally be judged in the presence of Christ and the holy angels. The judgment that ensues is terrifying.
The beast (or antichrist) and his false prophet are captured and thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 19:20), and all those who followed his false religion will be forced to join him in the fiery pit. And in the end, all those whose names are not found in the Book of Life are “thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15).
The Bible does not predict the coming of Christ to satisfy our curiosity but rather to change our lives! As Christians we are motivated to holy living. John tells us, “We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2–3). In the same context, John says we should live in such a way as to not shrink for shame at His coming (1 John 2:28).
The return of Christ heralds the triumph of Christ. In the end, believers and unbelievers alike will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9–11).
Whether we are alive on earth at the time of Christ’s appearing or already physically dead is not our choice. But in this age, we can choose whether we will face Christ as Savior or as Judge. Let all who have never confessed Christ as Savior and Lord do so to prepare for the eternity that awaits us all.
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 4:7). ©2017 Erwin W. Lutzer
Erwin W. Lutzer is pastor emeritus at Moody Church in Chicago. His preaching is heard daily on the international Running to Win preaching broadcast.
Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version.