Jesus said there is a day coming when an unprecedented event will take place: ‘I tell you on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.’ Luke 17.34-36. Paul had a revelation by ‘the word of the Lord’ that the dead in Christ will rise and those who are alive at the time of His coming ‘shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord.’ 1 Thessalonians 4.16-7. The word ‘rapture’ is taken from the Latin form of the Greek word ‘harpazo’ used in this verse for ‘caught up.’ At this time all those who believe in the Lord Jesus, that He died for our sins and rose again from the dead, will be supernaturally transported from the earth to meet him ‘in the air.’ This leads to a question that concerns those who believe this is going to happen at the end of this age.
Does the Rapture come before, during or after the tribulation?
What follows is a brief summary of the main points of this discussion, a subject many books and multitudes of articles have been written about.
There are three main views in answer to this question.
View 1 (the pre-tribulation rapture) teaches that the believing church will be caught away (raptured) before the seven-year period of great tribulation. Those who have previously died in the faith will also be resurrected and together they will ‘meet the Lord in the air.’ Following the great tribulation Christ will return to the earth with the saints (those taken in the rapture), who will come in glorified bodies and reign with Christ on the earth during the 1000 year Millennial Kingdom. Those martyred during the tribulation will be resurrected. Those who survive the tribulation, having come to faith in Jesus, will go into the Millennial Reign of Messiah in their mortal bodies. They will have children who will repopulate the earth after the devastation of the tribulation period. At the end of the Millennium the earth will be burned up and there will be new heavens and a new earth in which believers will dwell forever.
View 2 (the mid-tribulation rapture) teaches that the rapture occurs midway through the rule of Antichrist (i.e. after three and a half years of the tribulation).
View 3 (the post- tribulation rapture) teaches that the rapture occurs at the end of the tribulation.
There are some variations within each of the views, but in general all three views agree that there will be a literal 1000 year reign of Christ on the earth after His Second Coming, roughly along the lines indicated in View 1 above. This is called Pre-millennialism, being based on the view that Christ returns to the earth ‘pre’ (before) the Millennium. There are also those who deny that there will be a literal Millennium who are known as a-millennials. I will not deal with that question in this article (except to say that I disagree with it!).
What we believe about this question does make a difference to how we view the return of the Lord. If view 1 is correct then we should be looking for and expecting the return of the Lord and believing that it could happen at any time. If view 2 or 3 are correct then the Lord cannot come at any moment now, because certain events described as happening in the tribulation have not yet occurred. Revelation describes the rise of the Beast (or Antichrist) and the ‘Mark of the Beast’ system being set up, along with wars and disasters striking the earth on a far greater scale than anything experienced so far.
In looking at this question I am just giving Bible references to save space, but to get the full picture you need to look up the passages concerned.
Arguments in favour of View 1.
- The Bible does indicate a ‘two stage’ coming of the Lord. 1 Thessalonians 4.13- 5.11 speaks of the Lord coming in the air to gather together believers whereas other passages (Zechariah 14.3-5, Jude 14-15, Revelation 19.11-16) speak of him coming to the earth with the ‘saints.’ The saints are those previously taken at the rapture along with all who died in faith during the Christian era. When he comes to the earth He will resurrect those who died during the tribulation (Revelation 20.4) and judge the survivors of the tribulation, before bringing in His reign from Jerusalem during the Millennium. The pre tribulation view is that these two events – the Rapture of the Church and the coming of Christ to the earth with the saints – are separated by the 7 year period of the tribulation on earth. During this time those taken in the Rapture will receive new immortal bodies (1 Corinthians 15.51-54), go before the Judgement Seat of Christ for judgement of their works (2 Corinthians 5.10, 1 Corinthians 3.12-15) and then experience the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19.7-9).
- Daniel 9.24-27. Daniel is given a message by the angel Gabriel of 70 weeks of years (i.e. 70 x 7 years) which will begin with the command to rebuild Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity and end with the fulfilment of these ‘70 weeks’. The period is divided into three sections, 7 x 7 years + 62 x 7 years + 1 x 7 years. After the 7 + 62 x 7 years (i.e. 483 years) Messiah is cut off (dies a violent death) after which the city of Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed. This fits in with the events of the crucifixion of Jesus and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans 40 years later. Bible students have worked out that the crucifixion took place 483 Hebrew years after the command to rebuild Jerusalem.
This leaves one period of seven years unaccounted for. The previous 69 weeks of years have to do with God’s dealings with Israel and Jerusalem. The remaining 70th week indicates that there is unfinished business to complete concerning Israel, which a number of scriptures in the Hebrew Prophets also indicate. Elsewhere in Daniel and in Revelation there is reference to seven year period at the end of the age, which corresponds to the Great Tribulation period.
Commentators on this passage also believe that the countdown to the last 7 years will begin with a covenant (peace treaty) signed between Israel and the Antichrist. The explanation for the gap between the fulfilment of the prophecy at the end of the 69th week and the beginning of the 70th week is that the intervening period is the ‘Church Age’ beginning at Pentecost and ending with the rapture of the church. This age was not the subject of Daniel 9, which deals exclusively with God’s purposes for Israel. After the rapture of the church it is then taught that the elect of the Jewish people become the agents of salvation during the tribulation period. This period ends with the return of Jesus at the end of the tribulation and the deliverance of Jerusalem and Israel from the armies of the Antichrist (Zechariah 12.10, 14.3-9, Luke 21.24, Revelation 19.11-21). Following this He brings in the Messianic Kingdom, reigning from Jerusalem and bringing the fulfilment of all that is promised in Daniel 9.24. I have written more on this subject in our Winter 2011/2 edition, which is available on request.
- The emphasis on the unexpectedness of this event is described in 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11. Paul says it will happen as ‘a thief in the night’ (i.e. unexpectedly) when people are saying ‘Peace and Safety.’ If the world had already gone through seven years of tribulation and the armies of the world were gathering at Armageddon it would hardly be unexpected. Also few people would be saying ‘peace and safety.’ (1 Thessalonians 5.2). If the event takes place midway through the 7 year period of Antichrist’s reign or at the end of it students of the Bible should have a rough or even a precise idea of the timing of the event which Matthew 24.36 says we will not have. Luke 17.26-37 describes a time when life is going on as normal with people eating and drinking, buying and selling, building and planting, and marrying. Suddenly the Lord comes and ‘one is taken and the other left.’ This fits in more with the period before the tribulation than the conditions at the end of it.
- There are promises to believers which have been interpreted to mean that the faithful church will be spared the end time tribulation: ‘Watch therefore and pray that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass and to stand before the Son of Man’ Luke 21.34-36. ‘God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ 1 Thessalonians 5.9. In this verse wrath is interpreted as the tribulation, which we are delivered from. ‘Because you have kept my command to persevere I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world to test those who dwell on the earth.’ Revelation 3.10. ‘The hour of trial’ is the tribulation which believers will be kept from. Revelation 4.1. It is said that just as John was taken up into heaven before receiving the revelation about the tribulation, so the church will be taken up into heaven before it happens. There is no mention of the church as such from Revelation 6 onwards.
- In Revelation 20.4 we are told about those who were martyred for their faith during the tribulation period (see Revelation 6.9-11, 7.13-17). They are resurrected during the millennium. Why do this group specifically need to be resurrected at this time? They are not the only martyrs in church history. The answer according to this view is that those who were believers before the rapture and those who died beforehand have already been caught up to meet the Lord as He came in the air. They will return to earth with Him in glorified bodies at the Second Coming (see Jude 14-15, Revelation 19.14). The people referred to in Revelation 20.4 were not believers at the time of the rapture; therefore they were not taken at this point in time. They were converted after the rapture and then martyred. As believers therefore they have a place in the Millennial Kingdom and need to be resurrected.
- The millennium (Reign of Messiah on earth) needs people to be in it who will dwell in mortal bodies and have children (Isaiah 65.17-25). Following the return of Jesus there will be a judgement on earth of the ‘sheep and goats’ at which only believers will be allowed in to the Messianic kingdom (Ezekiel 20.33-38, Matthew 25.31-46). These will have children in the normal way, (Isaiah 11.6-8, 65.20) and repopulate the earth after the devastation of the tribulation period. If all believers are taken in the rapture at the same time as the second coming of Christ and all unbelievers are cast off the earth at the judgement that follows this event, there will be no one left to populate the earth at the beginning of the millennium.
View 2. The mid-tribulation rapture.
- 2 Thessalonians 2.1-4 implies that the apostasy (falling away from the faith) and the revelation of Antichrist have to come before the rapture of the church: ‘For that day will not come unless the falling away comes first and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition.’ Therefore believers will see the first part of Antichrist’s reign (the first 3 ½ years while he is gaining power) but not the second part (the 3 ½ years of great tribulation following the ‘abomination of desolation’.)
- The word ‘wrath’ is used of the tribulation period and used of the bowl judgements, the third sevenfold series of disasters in Revelation 16, but not of the first and second series, the seal (Revelation 6-7) and the trumpets (Revelation 8- 11). According to this view Christians will go through the first part of the great tribulation but not through the worst part, which is the expression of divine wrath.
View 3. The post tribulation rapture.
- Matthew 24.29-31 is the strongest argument for the post tribulation rapture. If these verses describe the same event as Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5, then the rapture has to be after the tribulation. Matthew 24.31 says ‘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.’ This event comes ‘after the tribulation of those days’ according to verse 29.
- 1 Corinthians 15.51-2 describes the events surrounding the ‘last trump:’ ’Behold, 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 incorruptible, and we shall be changed.’ The post tribulation rapture view says that this is the same event as the seventh trumpet in Revelation 11.15 when ‘the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and of His Messiah’. This trumpet is ‘the last trumpet’ and said to be the same event as the trumpet of the rapture described in 1 Thessalonians 4, which means that the coming of the Lord to take the church at the rapture will happen at the end of the tribulation.
- The pre tribulation view was not taught before 1830 when it began to be taught by J N Darby in England and spread to the US where it was popularized through the Schofield Reference Bible and then by popular writers like Hal Lindsay (‘The Late Great Planet Earth’) and the ‘Left Behind’ series amongst others. Before that time all Bible teachers took the post tribulation view.
- Revelation speaks of the world being evangelized with a great multitude saved (Revelation 7) and saints being persecuted (Revelation 13) by the Beast or Antichrist during the tribulation. Who is going to evangelise the world and who is Antichrist going to persecute if the church has disappeared?
- The Greek word ‘parousia’ used for the coming of the Lord for his saints was often used to describe the visit of a king to one of his cities, when he would be met by a group of his officials and relatives who would then accompany him in procession into the city to be seen by the resident population. The two events would follow each other immediately, therefore the rapture of the church (believers meeting the Lord in the air) will be immediately followed by his coming to earth to be visible to all its inhabitants.
- Some of the verses used to imply that the church will be taken before the tribulation can be explained alternatively. For example ‘I will save you from the hour of trial’ in Revelation 3.10 could mean the Lord will keep his people in the time of trial rather than take them out of the way of the trial.
- The passage about the Lord coming ‘as a thief in the night’ does not necessarily mean unexpectedly, before the tribulation, as it is used in Revelation 16.15 at the time of the armies gathering at Armageddon, an event timed for the end of the tribulation.
Answers to objections to pre-tribulation view.
According to the pre-tribulation view Matthew 24.29-31 is not about the rapture of the church but the gathering of the elect of Israel at the end of the tribulation. During the tribulation period God will save a significant number of Jewish people and through them a great multitude of Gentiles. At the end of the tribulation they will be gathered together. This can be seen to harmonise with Isaiah 27.13 which speaks of the trumpet sounding to gather the remnant of Israel at the end of the age.
Regarding 1 Corinthians 15 and the last trump, it is pointed out that when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, Revelation was not yet written so he could not have been referring to Revelation 11 when he spoke of the last trump. As far as believers are concerned this will be the ‘last trump’ they will hear. There are significant differences between the ‘last trump’ in 1 Corinthians 15:52 and the seventh trumpet in Revelation 11:15. The trumpets in Revelation introduce fearful judgments upon the world and mankind; the one in Corinthians calls the dead in Christ out of their graves and summons both the ones raised and the believers still living into the Lord’ s presence. The trumpet judgements of Revelation are followed by the 7 bowls of wrath poured out on the world, so the seventh trumpet of Revelation 11 is not the end of the tribulation period.
2 Thessalonians is dealing with an issue the Thessalonian church had concerning a teaching they had received, allegedly from Paul himself, that the ‘day of Christ’ had come (2 Thessalonians 2.2). Since this church had already had teaching on the rapture the implication is that this event had occurred and they had been left behind. To reassure them on this point Paul tells them that this day has not yet come. He goes on to say that the falling away (apostasia) comes first and the man of sin is revealed. Thomas Ice argues argues that the word ‘apostasia’ can mean a departure from one place to another and that in this verse it refers to a moving from one place (the earth) to another (meeting the Lord in the air). In this case the rapture precedes the coming of the Man of Sin, or Antichrist. Other scriptures tell us we should be looking for the coming of Christ, not Antichrist.
The lack of teaching about the pre-tribulation rapture in the early church is not conclusive. We do not have a record of all that the early church taught, although there is an ancient reference to the pre- tribulation rapture in the writings of Ephraem the Syrian: ‘All the saints and elect of God are gathered together before the tribulation, which is to come, and are taken to the Lord, in order that they may not see at any time the confusion which overwhelms the world because of our sins.’ Pseudo-Ephraem (c. 374-627). It is also worth noting that the Jewish believers in Jesus at the time He was with them generally failed to understand that the coming of the Messiah would be in two stages first as a Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53) and secondly as a Reigning King (Isaiah 2, Zechariah 14). So it is quite possible that Christians interpreting the scriptures could have missed the point that His second coming could in a similar way be in two stages.
If the rapture does happen unexpectedly and people remain on the earth after it has happened it would undoubtedly cause a tremendous amount of questioning, which would lead many to look into the Bible and discover what had happened. It is likely that many would accept Jesus as Saviour and then tell others what had happened with the result that there would be a large remnant of people who would turn to Him. A number of scriptures speak of a turning to the Lord amongst the Jewish people in the last days (Romans 11). Revelation 7 speaks of a revelation of Jesus as Messiah being given to 144000 Jewish men who then bring a great multitude to faith in Jesus during the tribulation period. It is possible therefore to see a movement of world evangelism taking place in the tribulation after the church has been removed. 7
Christians who hold different views on this subject should avoid breaking fellowship and denouncing each other. I have taught the pre-tribulation view, but I do understand that there are valid reasons to believe the mid tribulation view and the post tribulation view. In the end only the Lord can cause the events surrounding His second coming to happen. We should be ready for His coming at any time – either at the rapture or at the moment of our death. At the same time we should also be ready to suffer and if necessary die if called upon to do so. We should use the time that remains to us to make sure of our salvation and to spread the Gospel message as the Holy Spirit enables us. Whatever our view on this subject is, all unbelievers will go through the tribulation and so we should be warning them to ‘flee the wrath to come’ and be saved from the judgement of God which is coming on this present evil world by believing in Jesus as Saviour and Lord.
Concerning His second coming Jesus said, ‘And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.’ Luke 21.25-28.