Eschatological Confusion Part 2: The Rapture

Rapture 1

In Part 1 of this series, we discussed the major issues surrounding end-time events. In Part 2 we will focus our attention on the rapture.

As mentioned in Part 1, the term “rapture” is never actually used in Scripture, but the concept is. While consoling the believers in Thessalonica concerning their fellow church members who had fallen asleep (died), Paul spoke of the time when “we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air…” (1 Thes. 4:17). In this passage, the “we” refers to Paul and all the believers in Thessalonica (and as an extension, believers anywhere). “Them” refers to believers who have already fallen asleep. Therefore Paul speaks of a day when all believers, whether dead or alive, will be joined together with each other, and most importantly, with Christ. This idea of being “caught up together” is where we derive the concept of the rapture from.

The idea of the rapture is only mentioned a few other places in Scripture. In 2 Thessalonians 2:1, Paul again writes concerning “the coming our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to Him.” In His Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, Jesus also seems to mention the rapture. In 24:31 He says, “He [the Son of Man] will send out His angels with a loud trumpet, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.” This meshes well with 1 Thessalonians 4:16, where angels and a trumpet are also mentioned. In fact, there are more than 10 similarities between Jesus and Paul’s discussions of the rapture and other eschatological events that can be found in Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4-5. Paul also mentions trumpet blasts and the raising of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52.

As you can tell from the compatible mentions in Scripture, the event of the rapture itself is not in question. The question is not will Christ rapture His people. The question concerning the rapture is when it will take place. This issue is tied up with what we know as the “tribulation.”

The discussion about the tribulation begins in Daniel 9:27. Daniel prophesies that the antichrist will make a covenant with God’s people for “one week,” which equates to seven years. Therefore it is believed that the tribulation will last for these seven years. Daniel also says that in the middle of this week (three and a half years into it), the abomination of desolation will take place in the temple. This seems to speak of a more intensified time of persecution towards Christians. When you fast forward to the New Testament, you find Jesus mentioning very similar things. When asked by the disciples what the signs of His coming and the end of the age will be, Jesus told of persecution, deception, the “abomination that causes desolation,” and even the “great tribulation” (Matt. 24:3-28). Paul also hints at a time of tribulation in 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, as does John the Revelator.

Scripture is clear that both of these events, the tribulation and the rapture, will take place. The question is, which will happen first? Will God’s people be raptured before the tribulation, so they will not have to endure it (pretribulationism)? Will they endure the first half of it but be raptured before the last three and a half years of intense persecution (midtribulationism)? Or will believers be present for the entire period and be raptured afterwards (posttribulationism)? There are proponents for all three views…

Pretribulationism
Those who advocate a pretribulation rapture are certainly the most hopeful. If given the choice, who would want to believe Christians would have to endure the tribulation? This hope is specifically based on two main passages: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and Revelation 3:10.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 Paul describes the rapture. Then, in 5:1-11, he further explains things, including the mention of “the Day of the Lord,” which possibly refers not to a single day but to the entire seven year tribulation (according to pretribulationists; based on Old Testament texts). In 5:4 Paul speaks to the believers and says, “But you, brothers, are not in the dark, so that this day would not overtake you like a thief.” The pretribulationist takes this to mean that believers will not be overtaken by the tribulation, suggesting believers will be raptured before the seven year period. But is that what Paul said? He didn’t say that it wouldn’t overtake them at all, he simply said it wouldn’t overtake them like a thief. The point is not that believers will be gone before this day, but that this day will not catch them off guard like a thief in the night. They will be well-prepared, for they are in the light; they have been warned ahead of time that this day is coming.

Revelation 3:10 is part of Christ’s letter to the church at Philadelphia, and it reads, “Because you have kept My command to endure, I will also keep you from the hour of testing that is going to  come over the whole world to test those who live on the earth.” Pretribulationists believe that Jesus is referring to the tribulation when He mentions the “hour of testing.” This, though, is debated. If they are correct, they believe the way Christ will “keep” them from this testing/tribulation is by means of the rapture. Yet there is much debate with this translation. Does the Greek word used mean they will be protected by means of removal or that they will be protected though present? Both are possible, leaving the interpretation of this passage at a stand still.

Midtribulationism
Combining texts from Daniel and the New Testament, midtribulationists believe that believers (the church) must be present for some of the tribulation, but not necessarily for all of it. As mentioned above, Daniel 9:27 speaks of a seven year tribulation against God’s people, with the abomination of desolation taking place at the midway point (three and a half years). In Matthew 24:15 Jesus indicates that the disciples and other believers will be around to see this abomination that Daniel spoke of, which suggests they won’t be raptured before the tribulation begins. But for the midtribulationist, this doesn’t mean the church will be around for the entire seven years.

In two scenes from Revelation (6-8 and 14-16) depicting God’s wrath being poured out, midtribulationists see the rapture occurring before the worst of it is released. They say this indicates that the church will be present for the wrath of the first six seals of Rev. 6, but not for the seventh and final seal of Rev. 8. Likewise, before the bowls of judgment are poured out in Rev. 15-16, the rapture occurs in Rev. 14. In both of John’s illustrations, the rapture seems to takes place before the wrath of God is fully experienced. Therefore God’s people, the church, may be present when the tribulation begins, but will possibly be raptured before its completion, prior to Christ’s return.

The evidence for believers being present during the tribulation is strong and reliable (which is tough for pretribulationists to handle). After all, why would Jesus, Daniel, Paul, and others all warn believers about the tribulation if they would be raptured before it took place? But still, the evidence for believers to be raptured in the middle of the tribulation is weak. Before making a decision, we should take a look at the final position: posttribulationism.

Posttribulationism
No believer necessarily wants to hold a posttribulation view and wish seven years of tribulation on themselves. Yet posttribulationists find in Scripture that this might be the case. When Paul mentions the rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, he does not mention that its purpose is to escape something such as the tribulation. Instead, he says the purpose of the rapture is for all believers, whether dead or alive, to be joined with each other and with Christ, and to be with Him “always.”

Most people understand the rapture to be an event where believers are snatched off the earth and taken to heaven, but Scripture does not explicitly explain it that way. 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 says that the Lord will descend and that all believers, whether dead or alive, will meet the Lord in the air. So Christ leaves heaven above, and believers leave earth below, but obviously everyone doesn’t just remain in the air. The question is: Does everyone return to heaven or to earth? We automatically assume heaven, but we should be careful about this. The Greek word used in v17 explaining believers will “meet” the Lord in the air is a word often used in Greek literature to describe a delegation of people going to meet a visiting dignitary before ushering him back to their (the delegate’s) city. Applying this understanding to the word would suggest that believers go to meet the Lord in the air and then they all return to the earth (most likely to begin the millennial reign).

Jesus also gives evidence that believers will not be taken before the tribulation. As was mentioned above, He said in Matthew 24:15 that believers would be present for the abomination of desolation. He goes on in 24:21 to mention the “great tribulation,” explaining how terrible it will be, but says that those days will be limited “because of the elect” (believers). This suggests that believers (the elect) will be present during the entire tribulation; it is because of their presence that it will be limited. Furthermore, Jesus explicitly states in 24:29 that, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days” signs will occur and people will “see the Son of Man coming” and “He will send His angels with a loud trumpet, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.” Jesus clearly states that His people will be gathered (raptured) “after the tribulation.”

Where Do I Stand?
Being raised in the Baptist faith, I grew up hearing about and believing in a pretribulational rapture. How could a loving God make His people go through such an intense time of suffering? Why would He not rapture them before pouring out this wrath? The argument makes sense, and it is hard for me to let go of it, but posttribulationists present a very convincing argument that the saints will be on earth during the tribulation yet will be protected through it.

I have long been aware of the eschatological texts such as Daniel 7-12, the Olivet Discourse, 1 Thessalonians 4-5, and Revelation, but have always had trouble reconciling them. Each position concerning the rapture attempts to do this, but posttribulationism makes the most sense. Everything Jesus says in His Olivet Discourse leads me to believe His people will not be raptured and joined together with Him until after the final period of great tribulation. Jesus is clear that His followers (both then and now) will experience persecution, and that the abomination that causes desolation spoken of in Daniel will bring about a time of tribulation that is even worse. The key is that He says all these things, both the general persecutions and the great tribulation, will take place before He comes to rapture His people (in Matt. 24:29-31).

Outside of Jesus and the Gospels, Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 5 also lead me to believe the rapture is posttribulational. Contrary to what I used to believe, Paul isn’t saying that believers will escape the judgement, only that the judgment will not sneak up on them like a thief. Both houses will be broken into, only some homeowners will be prepared and some won’t be. Another problem I always had with a pretribulation rapture that is solved by posttribulationalism is the fact that if the rapture precedes the tribulation, Christ has to return twice. He would have to come before the tribulation to rapture believers, then return afterwards to set up His kingdom. The Bible doesn’t speak of a third coming, only a first and second. For all of these reasons and others, I lean towards a posttribulational view of the rapture.

But what if you don’t? What if I haven’t convinced you? Well that’s OK! Let me make it very clear that this is a secondary issue. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it, though. It simply means that whatever you choose to believe concerning this issue will have no effect on your salvation. All we need to believe is that Jesus will return at some point.

But we all want to know when that day will come. We all want to know when we will see our Savior coming to rescue us. The thing is, not even Jesus knows when that day will come. In Matthew 24:36 He said, “Now concerning that day and hour no one knows—neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son—except the Father only.” If even Jesus doesn’t know, why should we expect to know? And if we can’t know, then why worry about it?

We have more important things to do than worry. We have a mission to complete. We only have so many days left until Jesus returns, and we need to spend those days sharing the gospel with those who have never received it. In fact, that’s exactly what Jesus told His disciples in Acts 1:6-8. When they asked about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel in v6, He told them, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Will you be His witness until He returns?

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