A PRETRIBULATION RAPTURE? – II
by Bob Wheeler
We have seen how Jesus in the Olivet Discourse leads us to believe that the rapture of the Church will occur “immediately after the tribulation of those days” (Matt. 24:29; NKJV). But what about the rest of Scripture? What does the rest of the Bible say about the subject?
The apostle Paul addressed the subject of the End Times at some length in his letters to the Thessalonians. He describes the rapture itself in I Thessalonians 4:13-18, where he says, “Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord” (v. 17). But the passage does not say when the rapture will take place. Or does it?
The passage does mention one important detail regarding the timing of the event. The main point of the passage in question is that those who die in Christ will someday rise from the dead. But Paul makes a point of emphasizing that the resurrection of the righteous dead will precede the rapture of the living saints. “. . .we who are alive and remain until the coming (parousia) of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. 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 . . .” (vv. 15-17). And when does the resurrection of the righteous occur? At the Second Coming of Christ at the end of the Great Tribulation (Rev. 20:4-6). And the language of the text itself (“the parousia of the Lord,” “a shout,” “the voice of the archangel,” “the trumpet of God”) suggests that the rapture will occur at the Second Coming of Christ.
But Paul goes on in the next chapter to elaborate further. He says, “But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night” (5:1,2). The standard Dispensational interpretation is that Paul here is introducing a new subject. In 4:13-18 he has been discussing the Rapture, whereas in 5:1-11 he is discussing the “Revelation,” i.e., the Second Coming of Christ. But there is little in the passage itself to indicate a transition of thought, and upon close examination it is evident that he is, in fact, discussing the same event.
When we look more closely at 5:1-11 it becomes apparent that the Church will be here, on earth, when Christ returns at “the Revelation.” In verse 3 Paul says, “For when they say, ‘Peace and safety!’ then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape.” But then he goes on in verse 4 to say, “But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief.” The clear implication is that the Church will be here to witness the same event. Paul then goes on to exhort his readers to “watch and be sober” (vv. 6-8).
Dispensationalists have long used verse 0 as a proof text for a pre-trib rapture. “For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ . . .” But the “wrath” in verse 9 most likely refers to the “sudden destruction” in verse 3, not for the Tribulation as a whole. What we are spared from is the judgment of God that falls on the human race at the very end of the Tribulation, not the persecution of the saints by the Antichrist during the Tribulation itself.
Apparently Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians did not resolve all of their difficulties, and he was soon compelled to write a second letter. He begins this letter by mentioning their “patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that you endure” (1:4). It is worth noting that he is writing to a persecuted church, and aims to help them put their sufferings in context. He tells them that they have been “counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you also suffer” (v. 5), and that God will “repay with tribulation those who trouble you” (v. 6). But then he says that God will “give you who are troubled rest with us” (v. 7). When? “. . . when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .” (vv. 7,8). The clear implication is that we will not experience rest until the Second Coming of Christ at the end of the Tribulation.
But Paul is even more explicit in Chapter 2. He says “Now, brethren, concerning the coming (parousia) of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him . . .” The word translated “gathering together” is episynagoges, which is noun form of the verb that Jesus used in Matt. 24:31: “and they will gather together His elect . . .” It almost certainly refers to the rapture described in I Thess. 4:17. Paul then lumps both events together (the “coming of our Lord” and “our gathering together”) into “the day of Christ” (some manuscripts read “the day of the Lord” – cf. NASV,NIV,ESV), and says that that Day will not come “unless the falling away come first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition” (v. 3). He then goes on to describe the career of the Antichrist, as we have seen before. But Paul’s whole point in the passage is that “our gathering together to Him” will not take place until after the rise of Antichrist.
It is hard for us to conceive of this because, unlike the Thessalonian church , we have not experienced persecution. It is easy for us to imagine that ours is the normal state of the church. But for most of the church’s long history the true believers have been persecuted, as they are even now in many countries around the world. There is therefore no real reason to expect that we will be spared from the last great final tribulation at the end of the age. Indeed, the whole point of these passages about the end times is to prepare us for it.