Jesus is returning to earth, but what happens afterward? Will He stay or go back to heaven? What did Jesus say in the Olivet Discourse about His second coming?
In the previous article in this series on the Olivet Discourse (“Combating Confusion About Jesus’ Second Coming”), we looked at Jesus’ return and how it will be dramatic and unmistakable. Every eye will see Him as He descends to earth in power and glory to the piercing sound of a trumpet.
But what will happen in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ second coming? There are many ideas about what Jesus will do after He returns. Some believe He will return for a short time and then return to heaven—either leaving the earth inhabited by mortals or destroying it completely. The idea of total destruction is related to the concept of “the end of the world.”
But, as we will see, Jesus’ return is not the end of the world, in the sense of planet earth. It will be the end of one age and the beginning of a new one.
Jesus didn’t cover everything that will happen immediately after His return in the Olivet Prophecy. Many of the details are found in other parts of the Bible. But He did discuss two major things that will occur after He comes back. We’ll examine those two events in this article.
“Then all the tribes of the earth will mourn”
The first detail Jesus gave about what will happen after His return is found in Matthew 24:30: “Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (emphasis added).
Despite the fact that Jesus will return as the ultimate Liberator, He will not be greeted that way. Instead, He will be viewed by most as a threat.Despite the fact that Jesus will return as the ultimate Liberator, He will not be greeted that way. Instead, He will be viewed by most as a threat.
Consider that before Christ’s second coming, the world will experience frightening and destructive time of cosmic disturbances (in the Bible, this is called the sixth seal, sometimes known as the heavenly signs). The book of Revelation describes “the stars of heaven” falling to earth (Revelation 6:13)—likely a reference to intense meteor showers. This will cause people to fearfully take cover under rocks and in caves (verse 15).
After experiencing this, people will be terrified of anything coming from the sky—especially a being who will be introduced by an ear-piercing noise and who will look unlike anything anyone has ever seen before. Most will not recognize Him as Jesus Christ, perhaps because He will not look like the image our world associates with Jesus. He won’t be the soft, long-haired pale “Jesus” of art and movies.
He will appear as an immensely powerful and radiant spirit being. (You can read a description of His appearance in Revelation 1:13-16 and 19:12-15.) Some may even think He’s an alien invading the earth from outer space.
But the people on earth won’t just mourn or cower in fear at His coming. The book of Revelation describes a human effort to launch a military counterattack against Him. The formerly warring armies of the earth will join forces “together to make war against Him [Christ] who sat on the horse” (Revelation 19:19).
But this counterattack will fail miserably, as Jesus will quickly destroy this army and its leaders (verses 20-21). They will be no match for their Creator. Jesus is coming to liberate and bring peace, but He’ll have to “fight against those nations” first (Zechariah 14:3; see also Revelation 19:11).
“And He will send His angels” to “gather together His elect”
The second detail Jesus gave is: “And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matthew 24:31).
This is one of the most encouraging verses in the entire Olivet Discourse. As Jesus is descending to earth, He’ll be followed by an army of angels from heaven. They will be responsible for gathering God’s faithful saints who are scattered “from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other”—meaning they are scattered all over the earth.
This gathering will include all of God’s faithful people, past and present. The apostle Paul gave more details about this in 1 Thessalonians 4:16: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.”
So we see two groups of people who will be “gathered” or “caught up” at Christ’s return:
1. “The dead in Christ.” The first group will be God’s faithful people slumbering in the sleep of death. The Bible shows the dead are unconscious, sleeping in their graves. At His return, “the dead in Christ” will be raised from that sleep and given new immortal spiritual bodies. In another place Paul describes it this way: “The dead will be raised incorruptible” (1 Corinthians 15:52). Incorruptible means they will no longer be subject to death and decay.
Though many have the misconception that righteous people go to heaven when they die, the Scriptures show that the dead will not live until they are resurrected. To learn more about the Bible’s teaching on death, read “Do We Go to Heaven When We Die?”
2. “We who are alive and remain.” This second group describes God’s people who will be protected from or survive the Great Tribulation and be living when Christ returns. After the “dead in Christ” rise, God’s living saints will rise into the air as well and also experience the transformation from flesh to spirit. Together, God’s faithful people from all ages will “meet the Lord in the air.” Yes, all of God’s people will be glorified and meet their Savior together (Romans 8:17).
Jesus even gave a short description of what this will be like from the perspective of those on earth: “Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left” (Matthew 24:40-41).
What this describes is two people working together—one a Christian following the teachings of Jesus and the first-century Church and the other an unbeliever. When the trumpet sounds, the authentic Christian will rise in the air to be changed and meet Christ.
The reality of Christ’s second coming is our world’s greatest and only true hope.Jesus’ description of “one will be taken and the other left” has caused some confusion. Some use these verses as proof texts for a secret rapture. (The popular Left Behind book and movie series gets its name from this passage.) The idea is that the “taken” Christians disappear because they are raptured to heaven—causing unbelievers to be left behind to face the Tribulation.
The problem is that the rapture supposedly happens before the Tribulation, but these verses (verses 40-41) describe something that happens at the “coming of the Son of Man” (verse 39) after the Tribulation (which is discussed earlier in verse 21).
Also note that Jesus simply said that one will be “taken”—not that he or she will vanish into thin air and go to heaven (as the proponents of the rapture theory often explain it). To learn more, read “Did Jesus Teach the Rapture?”
When we place Jesus’ statement in the context of the rest of the Olivet Discourse and other scriptures, what is being described is clear. As Jesus descends to earth, He’ll gather His saints wherever they are on earth. When the trumpet is sounded, it doesn’t matter what they are doing or where they are—they will be taken up into the clouds to meet the returning King.
What happens after the saints meet Christ?
The saints won’t remain floating in the clouds or go up to heaven. We are told they will “be with the Lord” forever from this point forward (1 Thessalonians 4:17). Where will Christ be after He meets the saints in the clouds?
The prophet Zechariah describes Him landing on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives and beginning His rule from that city (Zechariah 14:4). From the holy city, He will “rule all nations with a rod of iron” (Revelation 12:5). His saints will be here on earth with Him, ruling as “kings and priests” (Revelation 5:10).
Together, Christ and His glorified family will lead the greatest transformation humanity has ever seen. The world will not end, but this age of man’s rule will end. Satan, the instigator of sin and suffering, will be banished for 1,000 years, and this world will be transformed into a place of peace and justice.
The reality of Christ’s second coming is our world’s greatest and only true hope.
To learn more about Jesus’ second coming, explore the resources at “Why, When and Where Will Christ Return to Earth?”