The differences in the descriptions of the rapture of believers and the return of Christ are significant enough that the only sensible explanation is that the second coming of our Lord has two phases—the rapture and the return.
There are three main rapture passages in the New Testament: John 14:1-3, 1 Corinthians 15:51-55, and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Among the principal second coming passages are Zechariah 14:1-21, Matthew 24:29-31, Mark 13:24-27, Luke 21:25-27, and Revelation 19:11-21. The differences between these two groups of passages are striking—so much so that they clearly point to two separate contexts.
Certainly, there are some similarities between the rapture and the return. Both events mention a coming, and both mention clouds, symbolizing a heavenly role in both. Yet the differences demonstrate that these are two distinct stages of the second coming. John Walvoord notes, “While it is evident that there are some similarities in the two events, these do not prove that they are the same. There are similarities also between the first and the second coming of Christ, but these have been separated by almost two thousand years.” Similarities exist between the rapture and the return, but the irreconcilable dissimilarities carry more weight.
Here are some of the more significant differences between the rapture and the return as they are described in Scripture.
There is a difference in the signs given for each stage.
Before the rapture—There are no signs that must take place. The rapture can happen at any moment. It’s a signless event. None of the rapture passages contain any mention of preceding signs. Believers are enjoined to be constantly looking for the rapture and “to wait” for it (1 Thessalonians 1:10).
Before the return—Specific signs must come to pass before Christ will return to earth (Matthew 24:4-28). The same event cannot logically be both signless and yet portended by numerous signs. That is clearly contradictory. The simplest harmonization of these two different events supports a pretribulational rapture (which is signless and could happen at any moment), while the many events taking place during the tribulation are best understood as signs leading up to the second coming.
There is a difference in the place Christ will meet believers.
At the rapture—Christians will meet the Lord in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). Jesus never sets foot on the earth in any of the rapture texts.
At the return—Christ will come to earth with His saints, descending upon the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:2-4; Revelation 19:14).
There is a difference in who removes people from the earth.
At the rapture—Christ Himself comes and takes believers out of the world. He comes for His saints (John 14:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
At the return—Christ sends His angels to gather His elect on earth (Matthew 24:31).
There is a difference in who gets taken from the earth and who is left.
At the rapture—Believers are taken from the earth, while unbelievers are left behind (1 Thessalonians 4:17).
At the return—Living believers on earth are left to enter the messianic kingdom while unbelievers are taken away to judgment (Matthew 13:41-42, 49-50).
There is a difference of when Jesus comes in relationship to the tribulation.
At the rapture—Jesus comes to rescue Christians before the time of tribulation and wrath (1 Thessalonians 1:10; Revelation 3:10).
At the return—Jesus comes after the tribulation to conquer His enemies, punish the wicked, and rule the world (Matthew 24:29-30).
There is a difference as to when judgment takes place.
At the rapture—No mention is made of God’s judgment or any distress taking place. Only promises of blessing and salvation are referenced.
At the return—Tribulation, distress, apocalypse, and judgment are everywhere (Zechariah 14:2-4; Matthew 25:31-46; Revelation 19:11-21).
There is a difference in the timing of the resurrection of the dead.
At the rapture—The resurrection of the dead occurs during Christ’s descent from heaven (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
At the return—A resurrection of believers who died during the tribulation takes place after Christ has descended to earth. Note the order of events in Revelation 19:11–20:5: (1) the descent of Christ; (2) Christ slays His enemies; (3) the antichrist (the beast) and the false prophet are cast alive into the lake of fire; (4) Satan is bound and thrown into the pit; (5) after all these events, there is a resurrection of the saints.
There is a difference in the people involved.
At the rapture—Only believers see Christ and are involved (John 14:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
At the return—All people will see Jesus coming and are involved (Revelation 1:7; 19:11-21).
There is a difference in the mention of the rapture of living believers.
Rapture passages—All focus on the snatching away of living believers on earth to meet Jesus in the air.
Return passages—No second coming passage contains a clear, indisputable reference to the rapture. In none of the second advent passages—even the most detailed ones in Matthew 24 and Revelation 19—is there a clear mention of a catching up of living believers to meet Jesus in the air. This omission is inexplicable if the rapture and return are supposed to happen simultaneously.
There is a difference in the changes on earth associated with these events.
At the rapture—All the relevant passages are silent about any topographical changes taking place on the earth.
At the return—Massive changes in and on the earth result from Christ’s coming (Zechariah 14:1-11).
This helpful chart puts the differences side by side so you can see and study for yourself whether a two-stage second coming is supported by Scripture:
|The Rapture||The Return|
|Christ comes in the air|
(1 Thess. 4:16-17)
|Christ descends to the earth, to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem (Zech. 14:4)|
|Christ comes for His saints|
(1 Thess. 4:16-17)
|Christ comes with His saints|
(1 Thess. 3:13; Jude 14)
|Living believers are caught up to heaven||No mention of a rapture of living saints|
|Believers depart the earth|
(1 Thess. 4:16-17)
|Unbelievers are taken away|
|Christ claims His bride||Christ comes with His bride|
|Christ gathers His own|
(1 Thess. 4:16-17)
|Angels gather the elect|
|Christ comes to reward|
(1 Thess. 4:17)
|Christ comes to judge (Matt. 25:31-46)|
|Not in the Old Testament|
(1 Cor. 15:51)
|Predicted often in the Old Testament|
|There are no signs; it is imminent||Portended by many signs|
|It is a time of blessing and comfort (1 Thess. 4:18)||It is a time of destruction and judgment (2 Thess. 2:8-12)|
|Involves believers only (Jn. 14:1-3; 1 Cor. 15:51-55; 1 Thess. 4:13-18)||Involves all people on earth (Matt. 24:1–25:46)|
|Will occur in a moment, in the time it takes to blink—only believers will see Him|
(1 Cor. 15:51-52)
|Will be visible to the entire world (Matt. 24:27; Rev. 1:7)|
While both the rapture and the return describe a coming of the Lord and the same terms are used to refer to both, the dramatic differences in the various passages we’ve examined indicate they are describing two unique events that occur at separate times. The dissimilarities are too substantial to merge them into a single event.
Excerpted (with minor adaptions) from Ed Hindson and Mark Hitchcock, Can We Still Believe in the Rapture? (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2017), 105-109.
 John F. Walvoord, The Rapture Question, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1979), 94.
 Paul D. Feinberg, The Rapture: Pre-, Mid-, or Post-Tribulational? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 80-85. Paul N. Benware, Understanding End Times Prophecy (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1995), 206. Walvoord also lists important contrasts between the translation (rapture) and the second coming—Walvoord, The Rapture Question, 93-94.
 Benware, Understanding End Times Prophecy, 207.