Ed. Note: This article is excerpted from a sermon given by Dr. Ankerberg, and has been slightly modified for publication.
What is going to happen when Christians die? Will all Christians die? What about the doctrine of the rapture? I want you to be able to study this yourself and to come to a clear understanding so you can tell your neighbors, and so we’re going to go through it slow.
Let’s turn to a key passage that teaches about the rapture, and that is 1 Corinthians 15:51-52. Paul says here, “Listen, I tell you a mystery.” Underline the word mystery and put the number 1 above that word—“I tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep.” What does it mean to sleep? We’ll see that in a moment. But put number 2, “we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed.” Put number 3 above the words “we will all be changed.” Put number 4 above the phrase “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye.”
Four little points in this verse. What do they mean? “ Listen, I show you a mystery.  We will not all sleep,  but we will all be changed;  in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Four things.
Paul says, “I’m going to show you a mystery.” What is “mystery”? It’s the Greek word mysterion, which means it’s a new truth; it’s a new revelation that he got from God. What is the mystery? What is the new truth? That’s number two: not all Christians are going to die. This is a totally new concept. No Old Testament believer hoped that some future generation of believers would enter into the presence of God physically without experiencing physical death. But Paul is talking about that. He is saying that sometime on planet earth there will be a moment when all of the Christians who are alive on planet earth at that moment will immediately be changed, disappear, and go into the presence of the Lord. You will not have to go via death, if you are part of that crowd.
Now, think about that for a moment. As I get older and things start to hurt here and there and everyplace else, and it gets a little tougher to live and so on, if I had my choice of going into the presence of the Lord via physical death or all of a sudden in the twinkling of an eye, I’m gone, I’m out of here, what would you choose? I’d be out of here, right? Absolutely.
Paul says, “Good news! We will not all sleep”—we’re not going to all die. Now, why did he use the word “sleep”? “Sleep,” for most of us, is laying in that bed, closing our eyes, with a little smile on our face, “Oh, doesn’t this feel good?”
When Jesus Christ died, He was put into the grave and immediately came out of the grave on the third day and was resurrected. Since Jesus did that, death has had the sting taken out of it. You know, when a bumblebee comes at you, it’s got that stinger. The bumblebee was death. It stung Jesus Christ. And Jesus got the stinger and took the stinger out of death.
And ever since Jesus Christ died and rose again, the apostles changed the term for death. If you use the word death, it implies that when you see that body lying there, there is no hope that anything else will happen to it. That’s it! The apostle Paul changes it, so he says, “When you see death, we’re going to call it sleep, because really, the body is in repose, and it has a future. It will be resurrected.”
The same thing that happened to Jesus Christ is going to happen to every believer, just not in the same time period. But you have God’s promise that what happened to His Son Jesus Christ is going to happen to us. We are going to be resurrected, and so we call that time of death sleep. The body is just in repose, waiting for the time when we’re resurrected. That’s why he calls it sleep. Does that make sense?
“We shall not all die, we shall not all sleep, but,” number three, “we shall all be changed.” Now, what does that word “change” mean? It means to change the nature of the thing. The mortal, that which is subject to death, take that off. We’re going to put on immortality—a body that’s going to last forever. It’s going to be similar to our Lord Jesus’ resurrection body. And the older you get, the more you look forward to that, right?
I was in a conference with Dr. Walvoord. He says, in his opinion, he thinks everybody is going to, when they get to heaven, is going to be right about 30 years of age. Would you like to have your body at about 30 years of age? And he’s got the reason: that’s when Jesus started His ministry. And he’s got these other marginal readings that he brings in. But I think it’s neat, you know? Thirty. That sounds good to me, too. I don’t know if the Bible says that, but that sounds good to me. Just throw that out for you; get a little blessing from that.
But the Bible says, “Whatever happens, we’re all going to be changed and we’re going to have our new body.”
How long will the rapture take, by the way? Well, that’s number four: “in a flash [a moment], in the twinkling of an eye.” What is “the twinkling of an eye”? Well, the blinking of an eye is one one thousandth of a second. That’s pretty quick. The Greek word here that is used is atomos, from which we get our word atom. It means you divide the period of time down so small that you can’t divide it anymore. The twinkling of an eye actually means when light comes on your open eye and it’s a twinkle that flashes and your eye doesn’t even have time to blink. That fast.
Dr. Paul Meier who went to school with my wife Darlene, wrote a book, a novel, on the rapture. It’s interesting. He’s a counselor, you know, a psychiatrist, and in the book he’s got these folks sitting in a counseling office. And, interestingly enough, the only person that’s a Christian in the room is the psychiatrist. And these folks are all non-Christians and they’re talking; they’re hassling out their problems and the doctor’s dealing with them.
And in this book all of a sudden, Snap! the counselor is gone. And they’re sitting there and they were just looking at the counselor. Snap! Gone! It’s an exciting little chapter that he’s got there.
But here’s what Paul is saying: in a moment, in a flash, someday millions of Christians all over the earth are just going to be gone. Think about it. “In a twinkling of an eye,” the rapture will take place.