One of our readers sent me a question, ‘What happens to Christians who die before the Second Coming and to those who are alive at the time of the Second Coming?’
The clearest answer to this question is found in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians: ‘But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, (by this Paul means those who have died) lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 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. Therefore comfort one another with these words.’ 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18.
This passage describes the rapture of the church when those who are alive at the time of the coming of the Lord will be caught up to meet Him ‘in the air’ as He comes. They will join those who have already died in Christ, in the period between His first and second comings. The phrase ‘in the air’ implies being taken out of this realm into the heavenly realm to meet with the Lord. Passing out of time and space as we know it here on earth into the eternal realm means that we are no longer bound by time as we know here on earth. It may be that the person, who has already died, and the one who is taken at the time of the rapture may experience this event of meeting the Lord as the next thing they are conscious of after death and after the rapture.
Jesus also tells us about this event: ‘And as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be also in the days of the Son of Man: They ate, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise as it was also in the days of Lot: They ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built; but on the day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven and destroyed them all. Even so will it be in the day when the Son of Man is revealed. … I tell you, in that night there will be two men in one bed: the one will be taken and the other will be left. Two women will be grinding together: the one will be taken and the other left. Two men will be in the field: the one will be taken and the other left.’ Luke 17.26-36.
The one who will be taken is the one who has accepted salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ and is born again of the Holy Spirit. It will not matter whether you are awake or asleep, inside or outside, if you are a born again believer in the Lord Jesus, you will be taken to be with Him. He will know which one to take by the fact, that the believer has the Holy Spirit dwelling within him or her, while the unbeliever does not. This is why Jesus said to Nicodemus, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ John 3.5-8.
A person is born of the Spirit when they agree with God that they need to be saved from their sins, repent of sin and accept Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. If anyone reading this has not yet done this, please do it now. Without this new birth you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven and will be eternally separated from God in hell. At the end of this article you will find a prayer to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.
A number of things will happen to the believer following this event.
Our mortal bodies will be changed
Our mortal bodies will be changed into a new body which will never get old, or sick or die. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: ‘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 incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ 1 Corinthians 15.51-54.
Whatever physical ailments we suffer from, however much our body may deteriorate with aging, however inevitable death is, all of that will be left behind as we experience the miraculous change, which only God can bring about in the resurrection. In this new body we will still be the person we are now, but clothed in a perfect, immortal body that will never experience sickness or death again.
The judgment seat of Christ
We will appear before the judgment seat of Christ: ‘For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.’ 2 Corinthians 5.9. The judgment seat of Christ is different from the Great White Throne Judgment described in Revelation 20, which is for unsaved people resurrected for ‘the second death’ after the end of the world. It is described here as a judgment of believers’ works.
1 Corinthians 3.11-15 tells us more about this: ‘For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.’ The wood, hay and stubble represent our works done in the flesh, which will be burned up, the gold, silver and precious stones represent the works done in faith which will go through the fire and be purified rather than destroyed. This will be the reward of the faithful Christian. However we note that even those whose works are burned up and suffer loss, ‘will be saved yet so as through fire.’ This is because our salvation, which gives us a place in the kingdom of God, is by faith in Christ alone, not by our works.
The marriage supper of the Lamb
Following this the saints will be invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb: ‘Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns! Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and His wife has made herself ready.’ And to her it was granted to be arrayed in fine linen, clean and bright, for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints. Then he said to me, ‘Write: ‘Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!’’ And he said to me, ‘These are the true sayings of God.’ Revelation 19.6-9
This will be the glorious reunion of all the redeemed throughout this age, those who have died in Christ and those who are caught up in the rapture of the church. It will be the union of the Lord and His redeemed people. Note that the saints will be clothed in fine linen, clean and bright for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints. I prefer the AV translation here which says that the fine linen is the ‘righteousness of the saints’, the righteousness which has been imputed to us or given to us as a result of our faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. The word ‘saints’ as used in the New Testament does not mean special people who have been declared to be saints by the church, but all who have come to a saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Second Coming to the earth
The description of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in Revelation 19 is followed by the verses in Revelation 19.11-16 which describe the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus to the earth: ‘Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses. And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.’
This passage describes the physical return of the Lord Jesus Christ to the earth to destroy the armies of the beast and the false prophet as they gather for Armageddon and set up His Millennial kingdom. He does not come alone but accompanied by the ‘armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean.’ Earlier in the chapter the redeemed saints at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb have been described as being ‘clothed in fine linen, white and clean’. This implies that the Lord is coming back to the earth ‘with the saints’ (i.e. those redeemed in this present age), as well as the angels in heaven.
Other passages in scripture speak of this. Zechariah 14 is a passage in the Old Testament, which parallels Revelation 19-20 and describes the coming of the Lord to the earth, when He will stand on the Mount of Olives and bring to an end the great battle over Jerusalem. In Zechariah 14.5 we read, ‘Thus the Lord my God will come, and all the saints with You (or with Him).’ In Jude 14-15 we read: ‘Now Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about these men also, saying, ‘Behold, the Lord comes with ten thousands of His saints, to execute judgment on all’. The Lord comes in judgment at the end of this age ‘with ten thousands (i.e. a very large unspecified number) of his saints.’
Two stages of the coming of the Lord
So we have scriptures, which speak of the Lord coming for the saints and the Lord coming with the saints. This means that there are two stages of the Lord’s return, firstly for the saints (the rapture, a meeting ‘in the air’) and then coming with the saints (the coming of the Lord to the earth). The question which divides those who seek to understand these scriptures is whether these two stages are separated by a period of seven years on earth (the pre-tribulation rapture view), three and a half years on earth (the mid tribulation view) or happen simultaneously (the post tribulation view). If we take the pre tribulation view, we need to be ready for the Lord to come at any time now. If we take the post tribulation view we need to be ready for the events of the tribulation, which include world wars, persecution of believers and the rule of the Antichrist. I take the pre tribulation view, although I acknowledge that those who take the alternative views have valid reasons for their position. Either way we need to be ready to meet with the Lord.
The Millennial Reign of Christ
When Jesus comes with the saints, He begins His thousand year reign on the earth. During this time the Old Testament prophecies about the Reigning King Messiah will be fulfilled, with the earth being filled with the glory of the Lord, nations no longer studying war, all weapons destroyed and even nature being renewed as the earth is cleansed from its present pollution and even the animal kingdom is at peace with itself as the lion lies down with the lamb (Isaiah 2.1-4, Isaiah 11-12). During this time the Lord will be present with His people ruling the earth from the restored Temple in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 40-48).
According to 1 Thessalonians 4.17 the saints who are caught up to meet the Lord in the air will ‘always be with the Lord.’ Therefore it is logical to believe that these same saints will return with the Lord to be with Him in their resurrection bodies during His reign on the earth. It is possible that part of the reward of the faithful saints will be responsibility in the Messianic kingdom. In the parable of the talents, the master says to the faithful servant: ‘Well done, good servant; because you were faithful in a very little, have authority over ten cities.’ Luke 19.17. Jesus said to the disciples: ‘Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’ Matthew 19.28.
At the beginning of the Millennium, Revelation 20.4-6 tells us that those who have been martyred during the Great Tribulation will also be resurrected to take part in this reign of the Messiah on the earth: ‘And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.’
The ‘first resurrection’ is the resurrection of all the redeemed, who will not experience the ‘second death’ which is eternal judgment at the Great White Throne as we read in Revelation 20.14. The experience of these saints, who have died during the great tribulation, raises another issue, concerning the rapture of the church. In Revelation 20.4 we are told about those who were martyred for their faith during the tribulation period (see Revelation 6.9-11, 7.13-17). They are resurrected during the millennium. Why do this group specifically need to be resurrected at this time? They are not the only martyrs in church history. The answer is that those who were believers before the rapture and those who died beforehand have already been caught up to meet the Lord as He comes in the air. They will return to earth with Him in glorified bodies at the Second Coming. The people referred to in Revelation 20.4 were not believers at the time of the rapture; therefore they were not taken at this point in time. They were converted after the rapture, during the seven year Great Tribulation on earth, and then martyred. As those who are redeemed therefore, they have a place in the Millennial Kingdom and need to be resurrected.
They will be joined by the believers from the Old Testament dispensation, as we read of in Daniel 12: ‘And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt. … But you, go your way till the end; for you shall rest, and will arise to your inheritance at the end of the days.’ Daniel 12.2, 11. The land of Israel will be fully restored as the home of the people of Israel and the Temple in Jerusalem rebuilt as the throne of the Messiah who rules as King over the earth bringing peace and justice to the world.
During the 1000 year reign of the Messiah on earth (known as the Millennium), the saints taken in the rapture and those resurrected after His Second Coming to earth, will be present with Messiah Jesus. The earth will be restored as it is ‘filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11.9). Survivors of the Great Tribulation who are the ‘sheep’ (the righteous) at the time of the ‘sheep and goats’ judgment on earth after the Second Coming will enter into the Messianic kingdom (Ezekiel 20.33-38, Matthew 25.31-46). These will have children in the normal way, (Isaiah 11.6-8, 65.20) and repopulate the earth after the devastation of the tribulation period. For more on life in the Millennium see our Autumn 2012 edition (available on request).
During this time Satan will be bound and unable to ‘deceive the nations till the thousand years were finished, but after this he must be released for a little while’ (Revelation 20.1-3). When Satan is released he will gather together unbelievers born during the Millennium for a final doomed revolt against the Lord: ‘Now when the thousand years have expired, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle, whose number is as the sand of the sea. They went up on the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from God out of heaven and devoured them. The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.’ (Revelation 20.7-10).
The Eternal State
This will bring about the end of the world and the coming of the new heavens and new earth where the Lord will dwell for all eternity with those who are His people: ‘Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away. Also there was no more sea. Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.’ Revelation 21.1-4.
All of this adds up to a very exciting future for those who come into the kingdom of God by accepting Jesus Christ as Saviour now: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’ Mark 1.15.
If you do not yet know salvation through faith in Him, now is the time to make this decision before it is too late to do so. This is a prayer you can pray to accept salvation through faith in the Lord Jesus.
Dear Heavenly Father, I admit that I am a sinner and need your forgiveness. I believe that Jesus the Messiah died in my place, shedding His blood to pay for my sins, and that He rose again from the dead to give me eternal life. I am willing right now to turn from my sin and accept Jesus the Messiah as my personal Saviour and Lord. I commit my life to you and ask you to send the Holy Spirit into my life, to fill me and to take control and to help me become the kind of person you want me to be. Thank you Father for loving me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.