Paul's View of the Last Days – Why There are None "Left Behind"
Those who believe in a Pre-Tribulation or Mid-Tribulation Rapture have argued that Jesus will appear and gather the saints and then disappear for either 3.5 years or 7 years* while the Anti-Christ takes over the earth.* However, Paul clearly states that when Jesus appears, Jesus will destroy the Lawless One at the same time he is gathering the saints to meet him in the air. There is no intervening period of 3 to 7 years.
The logic is very simple. Paul equates the return of the Lord with the slaying of the Anti-Christ [or Man of Lawlessness], he equates the return of Christ with the Rapture [or Assembly to meet Jesus in the air], and he equates the return of Christ with the Last Trumpet. Paul sees all three events as simultaneous. The Anti-Christ is causing a reign of terror before the coming of the Lord, and the saints are still on the earth being persecuted while this Man of Lawlessness has power. Paul anticipates that he may even be alive at the time of the Lord's appearing during this time of persecution – which would mean that Paul, a faithful, believing saint, might be on the earth during the time of the tribulation. He is not being left behind because of apostasy:
"But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangels call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words." 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, RSV.
There was a rumor spreading among the Thessalonians that they had missed the "rapture." They had heard that the Lord had already returned, and they feared they might have been "left behind." Paul writes 1 & 2 Thessalonians in part to assure believers that they have not been "left behind." Paul wants them to know that all believers will share in Christ's return and none will be left or miss the Lord's coming. Believing that even he might be on earth at the Lord's return, Paul says that the there will be many saints on the earth when Christ returns, and together with the previously dead in Christ, they all will assemble in the air to meet Jesus, who will, at that time, slay the Anti-Christ. Jesus will not leave people on the earth at the mercy of the Anti-Christ. There will not be an rapture [assembly in the air] and then, later, Jesus again coming a third time to destroy the Anti-Christ. Jesus destroys the Lawless One at the very same time he comes for the saints:
"Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the Man of Lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you this?… And then the lawless one will be revealed, and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming." 2 Thessalonians 2:1-8, RSV.
Paul further argues that not all will die, but some will be alive when the last trump sounds and, together with the dead in Christ, they shall all be changed at once! Since Christ brings the faithful dead with him at his appearing (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), the assembly in the air and the last trump are simultaneous events:
"I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Lo! 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 imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory."" 1 Corinthians 15:50-54, RSV.
So, why do people think that the rapture will be before the tribulation or in the middle of the tribulation? Scant weight is given in the parables of the Kingdom:
"But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man. Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left." Matthew 24:36-40, RSV.
However, this passage does not indicate that the person is left behind to face a tribulation, and perhaps a later salvation. The saints are "raptured" as Christ returns, but, like those left behind when God closed the door on Noah's ark, those left behind are left behind to face judgment:
"I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom:" 2 Timothy 4:1, NKJV.
In addition, Paul argues that the final rebellion [apostasy or the falling away] which allows the Anti-Christ to be revealed is a rebellion of judgment ordained for all those who reject Christ. The people rebel, but the Scripture says they are deluded so that can be judged by God at the appearing of Christ:
"And then the lawless one will be revealed, and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming. The coming of the lawless one by the activity of Satan will be with all power and with pretended signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are to perish, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness." 2 Thessalonians 2:8-12, RSV.
When Jesus appears, he does not leave some behind for a later rapture; instead, at his coming, he judges both the Lawless One and all those who have followed him. The point is, the judgment of the Lawless One and his followers [the unbelievers], Jesus' Appearing or Coming Again, and the Assembly of Saints in the sky [Rapture], all are one event.
There is no evidence that the Rapture or Assembly happens either before or in the middle of the last tribulation.
For extensive arguments as to why the belief in a Laodicean Age of Apostasy is not relevant, go here.
*The Great Tribulation, a 7 year period in which the Anti-Christ rules the earth and persecutes the church. This 7 year period is seen as predicted in Daniel 12:11-12 as a time of great persecution which corresponds to Revelation's last days. The idea of Pre-Tribulation Rapture is that the escape of the saints takes place before this period of tribulation takes place. Mid-Tribulation Rapture is the idea that the saints are taken up during the middle of this seven year period. The problem with both views historically, is that there are ample scriptures which predict the saints will suffer persecution but be proved faithful even unto death. Revelation is full of references to the saints who have glorified God through martyrdom during the reign of the Anti-Christ, while there is no mention of a reward for those who merely escape persecution:
"Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years." Revelation 20:4, NRSV. (see also Rev. 12:11 & 6:10-11)
Another problem historically is that apocalyptic books like Daniel and Revelation are not literal chronologies but spiritual and symbolic testimonies which reveal divine truth about God's sovereign rule over human affairs. Their use of numbers is meant to be symbolic, with John using over 400 references to Old Testament scriptures, symbols, numbers, and imagery which would have been clearly understood by his readers as having symbolic meanings. We are in danger of great misinterpretation when we take a spiritual vision and interpret as a literal, historical chronology of earthly events.