Although the Second Coming of Jesus Christ is believed to be a future event by all orthodox Christians, there remains a question as to the nature of the event. Paul tells us that at the time of Jesus Christ’s coming in glory, “God will bring with himthose who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. Forthe Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice ofan archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” (1 Thess. 4: 14-17).
The issue is whether or not the translation of the living saints into their glorified state will be a separate event called “The Rapture.” There are three main views (or four if Pre-Wrath is considered apart from Mid-Trib). The first two separate the rapture from the second coming by introducing a prior coming of Jesus for His saints either before the Tribulation (Pre-Trib) or during it (Mid-Trib / Pre-Wrath depending on timing). The last view sees Jesus’ Return, the Resurrection, and the Rapture as all occurring at the same time at the close of the Tribulation (Post-Trib). Some of each view’s main arguments are included below after a brief description.
Pre-Tribulationism is a futurist interpretation of end time events. It teaches that the church will be caught up to Christ sometime before the “tribulation” period (which they claim is Daniel’s Seventieth Week and thus a seven-year period) begins. This removes the church from the earth and conveys it into Heaven while divine judgment is poured out on the unbelievers who remain. Typically pre-trib teaching includes the belief that there will continue to be people saved who were left behind, many who are converted by the preaching of the 144,000 “witnesses” of Rev. ch. 7. These believers are the “tribulation saints” who must wait until Christ returns a second (third?) time to receive their eternal inheritance, although most will be martyred by then. Upon Christ’s return with the church, a 1,000-year period of earthly rule by Christ will begin (pre-millennialism).
- The Separation of the Church and Israel: The events of the 7 last years are for Israel, they were prophesied for Israel (Dan 9:24-27), not for the Church. The Church and Israel are separate, and are under different redemptive plans. Therefore the Church cannot be present on the earth during the end times.
- Believers Kept from God’s Wrath: God says believers are not appointed to suffer wrath (Romans 5:9, 2 Thess 5:9). Obviously if God is pouring out His wrath on the earth, then believers cannot be present.
- The Day of the Lord: In 2 Thess2: 1-2, Paul tells the Thessalonians that because the rapture had not occurred, they could not be in the day of The Lord. This would make no sense if they believed in a post-trib rapture.
- Kept from the Hour: Rev 3:10 promises the true church that it will be kept from the hour of testing that will come upon the whole world. The church would have to be removed from the earth to avoid being in this hour of trial. God’s purpose is to test the world, not the Church.
- John’s Calling Up To Heaven: In Rev 4:1 John, who is representative of the church, is pictured as being called from the earth and brought into heaven. After this verse the church (which has been mentioned often in the book so far) is no longer mentioned until Christ’s return (Rev 19:7-16).
- Resurrected Saints: In Rev 19:11-16 Christ is seen to return with the church. Later, in ch. 20:4-5 the martyred tribulation believers are resurrected. Now, if the rapture were to occur at Christ’s Second Coming, and the dead in Christ will rise first (1 Thess 4:16- 17), where would the martyrs come from?
- Populating the Millennial Kingdom: The Bible teaches that only the tribulation martyrs will enter the Millennial Kingdom. They are believers (Ezk. 20:33-38), and they are mortal (Isa. 65:17-25). If the believers are all raptured at the time of Christ’s coming, and all unbelievers are judged and destroyed (Ezk. 20:33-44; Matt 24:30 & 25:30-32), who then is left to enter the Kingdom?
- The Restrainer: 2 Thess 2:6-8 states that the Restrainer must be taken out of the way. The Restrainer is the Holy Spirit, and for Him to be removed, the church must be removed.
- What or Who Do We Wait For? 1 Thess 1:10, and Titus 3:13 tell us that we are to wait and hope for Christ, not tribulation. If any signs precede His coming for us we would be told to wait for those signs, and our hope would be greatly diminished.
- Imminence: Matt 24:42 and 25:13 are quite clear that we will not know the day or the hour of Christ’s coming for us. The early church seemed to believe He could come at any moment. To place this at the end or middle of the 7 year period destroys this idea because it would be proceeded by signs.
- Christ’s Army: Revelation 19:14 has Christ returning to earth with His army of saints. This army is made up of believers that have already been raptured.
- Believers like Yo-Yo’s: If Christians were called up to meet Christ in the air during His return to earth (1 Thess. 4:17) we would go up, and then right back down again like Yo-Yo’s, what would be the point in that?
- Air or Earth? At the rapture, Christ is said to come in the air, while we know that His second coming will be to the earth. They are not described the same way, for they are two separate events.
- Joyful or Mournful? Christ’s coming for His saints is painted as a blessed hope (Titus 2:13), how can we look forward to that moment if it is only after the horrors of the Tribulation?
- Signs Before the Rapture? There are no rapture passages that contain signs before its occurrence, while there are many for the second coming. The verses describing the rapture there is no mention of surrounding trials, as there are concerning the second coming. There are other differences as well such as the timing of resurrection and rapture etc. These combine to show that the two events are not only different, but occur at different times.
Mid-Tribulationism teaches that the church will enter the seven last years, but will be taken to be with Christ 3 1/2 years later at the mid-point. Typically, this removes the church from the “Great Tribulation” which they believe to be contained in the second half, but does put the church through some of the more tolerable conditions during the first half. Like Pre- Tribulationism, this is a futurist / premillennial belief system. Many of its arguments reflect that of Post-Tribulationism, only taking a more sequential view of the Revelation narrative.
- Imminence: The church has held to an “any time now” expectation of Christ’s return. Along with this, however, we also see that at least some signs are said to present themselves before His return. The Mid-Trib view is a good balance between the two.
- The Middle of The Week: Both Daniel and Revelation contain time references concerning the end times that emphasize the mid-point of a seven year period (Dan 7:25; 9:27; 12:7-11; Rev 12) (note: in the Jewish Lunar month 3 1/2 years is 1,260 days). The Great Tribulation (which contains God’s wrath) will be in the second half of the 7 last years. Because believers will escape this time, they will be raptured before it takes place, or at the midpoint.
- The Rapture in Revelation 14: If the Mid-Trib theory holds, we would expect to find the rapture just before Christ’s judgments are carried out upon the unbelieving world. Revelation 14:14 describes just such an event. (This event is later described more fully in chapter 19).
- The Last Trump: The rapture is said to take place at the Last Trumpet (1 Cor 15:52 see 1 Thess. 4:16), not at the Last Bowl. The rapture will occur at the Seventh Trumpet Judgment, not at the Seventh Bowl Judgment.
The Pre-Wrath view is fairly new to the rapture debate. It basically follows a chronological view of Revelation as opposed to a recapitulating view. It is also futuristic and Pre- Millennial. The view strives to avoid the pitfalls of all the other views, while at the same time drawing off each one’s strengths. Pre-Wrath places the rapture past the midpoint, but before the end of the seven-year period of the end time…between the seals and the trumpets. Interestingly, in its more developed explanation of Revelation’s timing, it places the bowl judgments within the first 30 days after the end of the seven years (this time period is taken from Daniel 12:11).
- The Olivet Discourse: In Matt ch. 24-25 lists the signs that will precede the end of the age and usher in the Day of the Lord. After all the signs are listed, and especially after the sign of Christ’s coming, we see a gathering of the elect. Shortly thereafter we see Jesus describe this event in different parables, saying that the day and hour are not known. Every Pre- Tribulationist that says we cannot set dates for the rapture quotes this very verse! The rapture occurs after the Great Tribulation, but before God’s wrath at His coming.
- The Day of the Lord: In 1 Thessalonians 4-5, Paul has just finished explaining the the order of events surrounding the rapture of those in Christ whether alive or dead; he then turns to the subject of when this will occur. He says he does not need to instruct them since they know that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. It is not until 5:11 that he concludes his discussion of those who are asleep at the rapture.
- The Coming, Gathering, and Day of the Lord Equated: In 2 Thess. 2:1-2, Paul equates Christ’s coming, our gathering, and The Day of the Lord in one verse. That is because they are different aspects of the same event. (Note the disciple’s question back in Matthew 24…”What will be THE sign (that is, one sign) of your coming AND of the end of the age.” These are not two events separated by years. They are back to back events that follow THE sign. Note carefully the sequence of events surrounding the rapture here. First the apostasy must come, and with it the Antichrist. Then tribulation (the word for “afflict” is from the same root as the one for “tribulation”)… which will be cut short when God gives “relief” to His chosen ones, even as He pours out His wrath on the unbelieving world. It is the same sequence as the Olivet Discourse.
- Heavenly Multitude: If Christ’s teachings in the Olivet Discourse are on the end times for the church, and if Paul’s teachings on that sequence of events match, then we should expect Christ’s teachings in Revelation 6-7 to match that sequence. If you look at the six seals of the scroll (which contains God’s wrath), they seem to follow the same sequence of events that we have seen so far (False Christ(s), wars, famine, death (tribulation martyrs), the sign in the sky of the coming of Christ and His wrath). Now, IF these events as portrayed in Matthew are parallel then the next thing we should see is the gathering of the elect (the church). Revelation 7 opens with the sealing of the Jewish believers on earth before God judges the earth. So, we should expect to see the rapture here. And what do we find after the description of the Jews on earth? A multitude in heaven!
- The rest of the Pre-Wrath arguments are so close to Mid-Trib that I have not included them here. Basically this view claims to have found exactly where the rapture takes place without calling attention to the actual timing during the 7 last years.
Post-Tribulationism is the term used to describe the belief that the church will not be taken out of the last seven years, but instead will be protected through it, and caught up to Christ when He returns at the end of that period. The millennium will begin at that time, and so Post- Tribulationism is both futurist, and Pre-Millennial. Generally Post-Tribulationists see Revelation as a recapitulating story that culminates in the seventh of each of the major visions of seven (the seals, trumpets, and bowls). In this view, Christ will not have two separate returns or “comings”, but will return at the end of the time of judgment to be met by His followers in the air to be with him always.
- Only One Second Coming: Everyone agrees that the Rapture will take place at Christ’s coming. The Bible explicitly states that Christ will come after the tribulation, not before it. So for a Pre-Trib Rapture to occur, Christ would have to come back two more times. While there are passages that specifically describe Christ’s coming as Post- tribulational (I.E. 1 Thess. 4:13-18 see Dan 12:1-2 or Matthew 24: 21-31), there is not a single verse that describes it as occurring before the tribulation.
- Historical Precedence: Believers belong to a community of faith that spans centuries, and while historical interpretation does not in itself prove a particular view correct, it must be noted that the Pre- Tribulation idea was somehow absent from Christian thought until very recently, at a time, in fact, when many false ideas began to gain popularity.
- Watching for Christ’s Return: In 1 Thess. 4-5 Paul warns believers to watch for the Day of The Lord. He says that they will see the “abomination” in the temple, which Daniel places at the center of the last 7 years. If Christians are to watch for Christ’s return after that, then there cannot be a Pre-Trib rapture.
- The Olivet Discourse: Jesus clearly teaches His disciples (who would become the foundation for His Church) that signs would precede His coming in Matthew ch. 24. These signs show that things will happen before He returns and we are to look for His return during these signs, not before they even take place.
- Believers in the Tribulation: No one can dispute the fact that believing Christians are going to be in the Tribulation. Rev 7:9-10 shows believers coming out of the Tribulation. Obviously they could not come out of something they had never been in. This fact alone destroys any attempt to remove the Church from the Tribulation, for believers are the Church.
- God’s Wrath: God’s Wrath is specifically seen to be against unbelievers during the Tribulation. His bowls of wrath in particular are seen to be only against “those who dwell on the earth”, which most agree does not include believers. So we see God sparing believers from His wrath, not on the basis of removal, but on the basis of protection (Rev ch. 16 see Rev 7:1-3). God will protect the believing Jews from the time of “Jacob’s Trouble” in the end times just as He will protect believers from the “hour of trial”. When God’s judgment is pictured in the New Testament it is compared to similar times in the Old Testament where His protection involved believers within the trial, not outside of it. (Jer 30:7; Rev 7:1-10; Gen 7:23, 19:15-23; Josh 6:17,22-25).
- No Rapture in Revelation: Why would John write so extensively about Jesus’ coming to earth and the dead being raised (both events that are said to be during the Rapture), and yet fail to write a single word about Christ’s coming 7 years earlier to rapture the faithful? Pre-Tribulationists say that Revelation describes what was, what is, and what will be, so the rapture should have received some attention (and the claim that it is seen in Rev. 4:1 is hardly convincing – John is nowhere said to represent the Church).
This should not be a divisive issue – no single view has been defined as Christian orthodoxy or heresy. A lot more could be said about, for, and against each of these views – this is just a helpful starter guide. For a more detailed consideration, I would suggest reading:
- Stanley Gundry Three Views on the Rapture. Zondervan, 2010. (Covers Pretribulation, Prewrath, and Posttribulation)
- Stanley Gundry Three Views on the Rapture. Zondervan, 1996. (Covers Pretribulation, Mid-Tribulation, and Posttribulation)