THE RAPTURE – WHEN?
by Bob Wheeler
Recently I had the opportunity to engage in a brief but spirited debate on another blog (www.holdingforthhisword.wordpress.com) about the timing of the Rapture, that moment in the future when the church is removed from the earth and taken up to heaven. The blogger at holdingforthhisword, whose name is Eliza, takes what is known as the Pretribulation Rapture position, i.e., that the Rapture will take place just before the Antichrist appears and the Great Tribulation of the End Times begins. I, on the other hand, take the opposite position. I am convinced, on the strength of Scripture, that the church will remain here on earth through the Tribulation, and that the Rapture will take place at the Second Coming of Christ.
How to interpret Scripture
I would want to point out at the very beginning one central fact in the case: there is no passage of Scripture anywhere in the Bible that explicitly states that the Rapture will take place before the Tribulation. The idea of a Pretribulation Rapture is based on inferences, and one pretty much has to presuppose the whole Dispensational scheme of theology to make the inferences hold. No one other than Dispensational theologians has ever found a Pre-trib Rapture in the Bible.
But the proper way to approach Scripture is inductively – let the text speak for itself. We should come to Scripture with a humble and teachable mind, with no preconceived notions or personal agendas. Wherever possible we should take the words of the text in their natural sense, and we should follow the train of thought as it is developed in the context. As one old preacher put it years ago, “If the plain sense makes horse sense, seek no other sense.” What we do not want to do is impose some preconceived system of theology on the text. As Eliza herself likes to point out to people who disagree with her, we should follow Scripture, not human authority. If ever such helpful advice was needed, it is on a topic such as this one.
Eliza has written no less than three different blog posts in one day (June 13) on the subject of the Rapture, and she states her central thesis in the first post (“The Rapture: Part One”): “The tribulation is the declared wrath of God poured out upon this world for embracing lawless sinfulness and brazenly, sinfully rejecting God and His Son Jesus Christ.” She then quotes, in full, a number of passages of Scripture from various parts of the Bible: Jeremiah, Isaiah, Luke, Acts, II Thessalonians and Revelation. She then draws her conclusion: The passages above reveal God’s wrath is poured out on unbelievers, not His children. The tribulation is the execution of God’s wrath upon the sinful world; He is not going to include His precious children under that judgment.”
The conclusion, however, is a non-sequitur. The fact that God is pouring out His wrath upon this world during the Tribulation does not preclude the possibility that other things are going on as well. And the plain fact of the matter is that during the Tribulation there are “saints” who are being persecuted by the Antichrist.
Eliza tries to get around this difficulty by arguing that the saints who are persecuted during the Tribulation are a different group of people from the church. Commenting on Matt. 24:31 in “The Rapture: Part Three” she states, “This indicates that Jesus will already have His elect in heaven with Him, those that He has raptured before the tribulation, and will gather the tribulation saints, believers save through faith in Christ Jesus during the reign of Antichrist and the tribulation, from earth at the same time.” Here she is attempting to make a distinction between “His elect” and “the tribulation saints.” But what is the difference between the two? Are they not both elect, and are they not both God’s beloved children? If it would be unthinkable that God would allow the one group (“His elect”) to pass through the Tribulation, why would He allow the other to? Does He love the one group more than the other?
But the Bible itself makes no such distinction between the two. It is a classic example of Dispensational theologians reading something into the text that is simply not there. In Rev. 6:9-11 (which Eliza quotes in a different context) the martyrs already in heaven cry out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” And the answer they receive is that “they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed” (NKJV). In other words what we have here is the Church Triumphant (the saints already in heaven) and the Church Militant (the saints still here on earth). But it is all one church, the Bride of Christ: they are “fellow servants” and “brethren.” And many of the ones still on earth are destined to suffer martyrdom.
I & II Thessalonians
Some of the passages cited by Eliza in her blog posts point to the exact opposite conclusion from the one she draws. To look at the references from I & II Thessalonians, in I Thess. 4:13-18 (the classic passage on the Rapture) Paul specifically states that the Rapture will not take place until after the resurrection of the just, and that, in turn, will not take place until after the Antichrist is defeated at the Battle of Armageddon (cf. Rev. 20:4-6). And in I Thess. 5:1-11 Paul states that the “the day of the Lord,” and with it “sudden destruction,” will come “as a thief in the night.” But then Paul tells the Thessalonian believers, “But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief” (v. 4). They will not be surprised when it comes because they will have been expecting it. But the implication is that they will be here on earth to witness it when it happens.
In II Thessalonians Paul commends the Thessalonian believers “for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that you endure” (v. 4). This is what is so hard for the average American Christian to understand. If we are God’s beloved children, if He has promised to answer prayer, why would He allow us to suffer persecutions and tribulations? And yet this was precisely the experience of the Thessalonian Christians. But then Paul goes on to say that God will “give you who are troubled rest with us.” 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 . . .” (vv. 7,8). The clear implication is that Christians will not experience rest from persecution until the Second Coming of Christ.
Eliza also cites II Thess. 2:1-14 in which Paul describes “the man of sin” (i.e., the Antichrist). But Paul begins by saying, “Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him” (v. 1). The Greek word translated “coming” is “parousia,” the term commonly used in the New Testament for the Second Coming of Christ. “Our gathering together to Him” almost certainly refers to the Rapture. Paul then tells his readers not to be misled into thinking that “the day of Christ” has already come. It will be noted here that Paul treats “the coming of Christ,” “our gathering together to Him,” and “the day of Christ” as one and the same event. He then specifically states that this event will not take place “unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition” (v. 3).
In none of these passages is there any hint of a Pretribulation Rapture. And when they are taken together the picture they present is a vastly different one from the one drawn by Eliza. What we see are persecuted saints suffering for their faith, and they look forward to the return of Christ at the end of the Tribulation.
Yes, the Tribulation is a time when God’s wrath is poured out on a sinful human race. There are natural disasters, wars, and economic hardships. But in the midst of it all are faithful saints who refuse to bow the knee before Antichrist, and who suffer persecution and even martyrdom as a result.
One might ask the question, why would God permit such a thing? There are at least two answers to the question that we can see. The first is to purify the visible church. “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (I Pet. 1:6,7). When Christ comes back to receive His bride, it will not be the carnal, worldly church we see today, but the church whose faith and love have been tested and purified by the flames of persecution.
Secondly, believers suffer during the Tribulation precisely so that when the final judgment from God on the wicked comes, it will be absolutely just. After commending the Thessalonian believers for their patience under trial, Paul goes on to say that this is “manifest evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you might be counted worthy of the kingdom of God for which you suffer.” And then he adds, “since it is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you.” He then goes on to describe the Second Coming of Christ, as we have seen, and this will happen “when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints” (II Thess. 1:5-10).
We cannot tell for certain how close we are to the Great Tribulation. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the American church is about to enter into an experience that it has never had before – the challenge of remaining faithful to Christ while living in a hostile environment. Telling Christians that it is not God’s will that they experience tribulation is not at all helpful., and leaves them unprepared for what surely lies ahead.