Recognizing that one could momentarily be taken to heaven in the rapture also presents a profoundly sobering challenge to examine the reality of one’s faith (2 Corinthians:13:5). But doesn’t the possibility of imminent death have the same effect? There are several reasons why it does not. The expectancy of being caught up at any moment into the presence of our Lord in the rapture has some definite advantages over a similar expectancy through the possibility of sudden death.
First of all, if we are in a right relationship with Christ, we can genuinely look forward to the rapture. Yet no one (not even Christ in the Garden) looks forward to death. The joyful prospect of the rapture will attract our thoughts, while the distasteful prospect of death is something we may try to forget, thus making it less effective in our daily lives.
Moreover, while the rapture is similar to death in that both serve to end our earthly life, the rapture does something else as well: It signals the climax of history and opens the curtain upon earth’s final drama. It thus ends, in a way that death does not, all human stake in continuing earthly developments, such as the lives of one’s children left behind, the growth or dispersion of one’s accumulated fortune, the protection of one’s personal reputation, the success of whatever earthly causes one has espoused, and all other seemingly legitimate interests which bind us to this present world. The rapture strips us of earthly hope and purifies our hearts in a way that death does not.
Furthermore, the incentive provided by death is also weakened by the fact that we generally have at least some control over its relative imminence. Certainly we are radically contingent beings, and our lives may be snuffed out at any time. But this is not the way people usually die. The cancer victim might have refrained from smoking, or added more fiber to his diet, or sought treatment earlier. The guilty auto accident victim could have driven within the speed limit or taken a taxi when he had too much to drink.
Though death can come suddenly and without warning (we are not complete masters of our own fate), it is nevertheless true that we make decisions daily that increase or decrease the chances of our dying tomorrow, next month, or in ten years. This not-altogether-illusory sense of control over the time of our demise reduces the incentive for godliness by making us feel that we can afford to postpone a closer relationship with God until next week, next month, or next year. We expect to have at least some warning when death is coming close and imagine that there will be time to let go of the earthly and live fully for the heavenly.
In contrast, we have absolutely no control over the timing of the rapture. It will just happen “out of the blue”—and for many of us, as Christ warned, when we least expect Him (Matthew:24:44). Belief in the imminent return of Christ, then, does not allow us to postpone anything or substitute anything for that blessed hope, and thus it has a most powerful purifying effect upon those who truly have their hearts fixed on the glorious hope of an imminent rapture.