I have received a question from someone regarding the rapture, and I thought that it would be helpful to answer it here. The question is:
Once the rapture occurs, does everybody who has heard and rejected the gospel no longer have an opportunity to be saved?
I have heard teaching from 2 Thessalonians to the effect that everybody who has rejected the gospel before the rapture will not be able to be saved during the tribulation, because God will ensure that they are deceived by the antichrist. The actual situation is a bit more complex than that, so here’s a go at expounding on the passage a little bit, in context.
This is always very helpful, and it has actually just lead me to understand something here that I did not perceive before. It has slightly changed my mind in regard to the meaning of the verses in question, which other passages of scripture had already begun to call into doubt for me somewhat. So:
The book of 2 Thessalonians is written primarily about the rapture, the tribulation, and the millennium, although the Bible uses various other terms to refer to these things.
In chapter 1 Paul and his companions begin by encouraging the Thessalonians in their persecutions:
2 Thessalonians 1:4 So that we ourselves glory in you in the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that ye endure:
Then he uses this to turn the subject to how God will judge their enemies, giving them comfort in knowing that they will one day receive glory and rest, while the wicked who slay and persecute them will be destroyed.
This will ultimately be fulfilled at Christ’s return, and that is what Paul is working around to, because he wants to correct a misconception that they have regarding the millennium.
In verse 7 the millennium is described, as it is in many other passages in scripture, as a “rest”:
2 Thessalonians 1:7 And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels,
The Lord Jesus being revealed is a reference to the ‘second coming’, when Christ returns to set up his kingdom on this earth after the tribulation. (This is apparent because he talks about him “In flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God” in verse 8, which is how that event is described in Revelation 19:11-21.)
What Paul is trying to make them understand here, is that when that happens, the wicked will be destroyed, and they (the saints) will enter into rest; they won’t suffer persecution and trouble any longer once the reign of Christ ensues.
He needs to make that point, because the Thessalonians have heard a different story, as he says at the start of chapter 2:
2 Thessalonians 2:1 Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him,
2 That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.
First, define the terms:
The “day of Christ” (or “day of the LORD”, elsewhere) is the millennium (1 day is as a thousand years, cf. 2 Peter 3:8-10).
So the Thessalonians have received a false epistle purportedly from the apostles, telling them that the millennium was at hand, that Christ was about to take up his throne.
But Paul beseeches them by “the coming of Christ,” and “our gathering together unto him” that this is not the case.
What do these terms mean?
The ‘coming of Christ’ could refer to one of two events: the rapture, when Christ comes to catch away the church, or, the return of Christ after the tribulation.
It is clear that the former is what Paul is referring to, for two reasons. First, he parallels it with “our gathering together unto him,” which is exactly what will occur at the rapture. Second, it makes no sense to beseech the Thessalonians that Christ’s kingdom is not imminent based on his return to set up that kingdom. The day of Christ being imminent is the same as his return being imminent. Thus, the ‘coming of Christ’ must refer to the rapture. This makes sense, because Paul is beseeching them to understand that the millennium is not imminent. It isn’t about to begin, because Christ has not even come to gather them together unto him in the rapture yet—which must occur before the millennium comes. It is these things that are imminent, not the millennium.
As Paul said in the first chapter, when Christ does return to judge the wicked, he will be glorified in his saints (them)—because they will have been raptured to return with him in glory, and triumph over the wicked.
Next in chapter 2, Paul begins talking about another event that must take place before the day of Christ (millennium): the antichrist must be revealed.
2 Thessalonians 2:3 Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition;
So before that day comes, there must also be a falling away. This means that many people will leave the faith, and the antichrist will be a part of that. This is exactly how John defines antichrists in 1 John 2:18-19 (see also John 6:66).
Antichrist will be part of a “Christian” movement that leaves the true faith. This falling away will occur in the latter days, coincident with the rapture. Then, once the true church is gone, only the faux “church” will be left, and the Wicked One (antichrist) will be fully revealed.
2 Thessalonians 2:9 Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders,
10 And with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish; because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.
11 And for this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie:
12 That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
Paul’s argument is that the antichrist must be revealed, not only because it is prophesied, but also because it is necessary for the wicked to descend into full deception and delusion, so that Christ can rightly judge and damn them when he returns to set up his kingdom, as described in chapter one.
These are the verses that say that not only will Satan and the antichrist work to deceive them, but that God will also aid in this, so that he can pour out his judgement. That is, “that they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.”
The broadest interpretation of this would refer to all those who have not believed the gospel before this delusion is sent. However, the context makes it clear that this is not the case. When it speaks of those who “believed not the truth”, it is talking about those who were a part of that “falling away” along with the antichrist. That is, his closest followers. (This is what I just realized, I had not connected the dots before.) They aren’t those who “believed not the truth” because they refused to enter the faith; on the contrary, they are actually those who thought that they were in the Christian faith, but then left to ultimately follow another “christ.” “Because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.”
It also places special emphasis on people who left the faith specifically because they had pleasure in unrighteousness. This is why it says that the antichrist will come “with all deceivableness of unrighteousness in them that perish.” These people will be deceived into following the antichrist precisely because he is wicked, because that appeals to them. This is why it calls him the “man of sin” in connection with the “falling away”: it is because of a love of unrighteousness that these people will leave the faith. (2 Peter 3:3, Jude 1:18) So they are deceived into following the antichrist because of his wickedness, and God on top of that sends them strong delusion, so that they will not reject antichrist because of his lies, after they’ve accepted him because of his unrighteousness. “For this cause God shall send them strong delusion, that they should believe a lie … that they all might be damned who believed not the truth.” Even though they were part of the “church”, they did not believe the truth; but they do know the truth, so God has to send them this delusion to ensure that they don’t recognize the antichrist’s lies and cease to follow him. This will allow him to destroy them collectively at the battle of Armageddon (see also below).
Your question also pertains to when this delusion will be poured out. Are those that are in this category immediately irredeemable at the moment of the rapture?
First, it is not until the middle of the tribulation that the antichrist actually declares himself God. So, they only have to be deluded and ready to believe the lie at that point, and not necessarily before. But it could begin essentially from the time of the rapture. It could even begin before the rapture, if the falling away occurs before then. Further study would probably make it possible to pin this timing down more precisely. But I’d say that basically it is an ongoing thing during that first half of the tribulation. As people accept the antichrist because of his unrighteousness, God will begin sending the delusion on them so that they’ll believe the lie when he declares himself to be God at the middle of the tribulation. God locks them in through the middle so that he can destroy them at the end, because of their wickedness. Note that those that follow the antichrist are those that will gather in Armageddon to fight against Christ, and who will be “destroyed with the brightness of his coming” and on whom he will take vengeance “with flaming fire.” So this is primarily about those that follow the antichrist (and were a part of the “falling away”) being damned when Christ returns, from the battle of Armageddon. Which is exactly what Paul described in chapter 1.
Anybody who rejects the antichrist will not be there, and will not experience that.
Thus the Bible speaks of people from the Gentile nations being brought into the kingdom of Christ at the start of the millennium, in addition to the people of Israel. This could be explained by saying that these are only those who did not have an opportunity to ‘believe not the truth’, because they never heard the gospel. Thus they did not make a conscious choice. However, I no longer believe that these verses mean that nobody who has previously heard the gospel will survive to receive Christ’s kingdom. There are other passages that describe helping the Jews during the tribulation as being the metric for entering the millennial kingdom (parable of the sheep and the goats, Matthew 25:31-46). So those that do not support the antichrist and believe the lie, but instead help the Jews, will be saved. Of course, there will be immense pressure on everyone to follow the antichrist, take the mark of the beast, etc. Many of those that do not will end up being killed at some point. But at the end of the tribulation they will be resurrected to partake in Christ’s kingdom (Revelation 20:4-6).
As for those that are saved in our present time, prior to the tribulation:
2 Thessalonians 2:13 But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth:
14 Whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
They will obtain the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, to return with him in that glory at his coming. They have been chosen to salvation, to be saved from having to experience the tribulation. And they are sanctified by the Spirit and belief of the truth.
This sanctification is an indicator that they will be raptured, because he that “letteth” or “withholdeth” (holds the spirit of antichrist in check), which is the Spirit, will be “taken out of the way” before the antichrist is revealed. Thus, if the Spirit is to be taken out of the way, and they are sanctified with the Spirit, then they will also have to be taken out of the way, before the antichrist comes. Thus, as he said, they will be gathered together unto Christ. They believe the truth, and thus must be taken out of the way so that the wicked can be deceived and believe the lie.
Paul is encouraging them that they are not among those who will fall away, because he is confident that they have indeed believed the truth, and been sanctified by the Spirit; as evidenced by them standing fast through the persecutions that they endure, as he said in chapter 1. Rather than falling away after the antichrist, they will be gathered together unto Christ, to be partakers of his glory.
There are many, many other passages that deal with these things (most of the Bible relates to the end-times in one manner or another), but this will hopefully bring a little bit of understanding to your question regarding salvation after the rapture. Not everybody that misses the rapture will be damned, but those that follow the antichrist and reject Christ’s kingdom certainly will.
This may have raised more questions than it answered, but you are welcome to ask, and you will probably find many of them will be dealt with in my teaching on Psalms and Hebrews, because these both deal heavily with the end times. As does James, which I am studying now.
In summary: this passage teaches that there will be a “falling away” from the faith that relates to the antichrist, and that those who participate in this, leaving the truth, and follow the antichrist because of unrighteousness, will be sent a strong delusion by God so that they will believe the antichrist’s lies and gather together in Armageddon, where Christ can destroy them with fire upon his return.
The short answer to your question is “no”, not everybody who has rejected the gospel will become impossible to save at the moment of the rapture. They will still have the opportunity to reject the antichrist and accept that Jesus truly is the Christ, the Redeemer of Israel, who will return to set up his kingdom, save his people, and judge his enemies.