No one knows on what day Jesus will return, (Matthew 24:36, 42) so do not look here for a prediction. Instead, this article considers the question of whether the Rapture will come before, during or after the Tribulation.
The Rapture refers to the time when Jesus will return to the Earth and believers will be "caught up" (rapturo in Latin) to meet him in the clouds. It is described in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17: "The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever." (NIV)
Jesus described the Tribulation as a time when "there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again." (Matthew 24:21) Paul explains that the Tribulation will be caused by "the man of lawlessness," who "will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is God or is worshiped." (2 Thessalonians 4:3-4) The "man of lawlessness" is also called the boastful little horn in Daniel 7:19-25, the "Antichrist" in 1 John 2:18-22 and "The Beast" in Revelation 13-16 and 19-20.
So, the question is, does the Rapture come before the Tribulation (Pre-Trib), in the middle of the Tribulation (Mid-Trib) or after the Tribulation (Post-Trib)?
Although some have claimed that Ephraem the Syrian (306-373) taught a Pre-Trib Rapture, the vast majority of Christians believed that the Rapture would come after the Tribulation. In the mid 1800's, the Pre-Trib Rapture was popularized by John Nelson Darby. It was picked up by C. I. Scofield and incorporated into the footnotes of the Scofield Reference Bible. Here are the most relevant Bible passages and an interpretation of each.
1st and 2nd Thessalonians
1 Thes. 4:13-5:4. Paul wrote, "According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words." 1 Thes. 4:15-18
Paul described several signs that mark the Rapture: "The Lord himself will come down from heaven," "with the voice of the archangel," "with the trumpet call of God," "the dead in Christ will rise first," "we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air."
2 Thes. 2:1-12. Paul wrote, "Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come. 3 Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. 4 He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. 5 Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? 6 And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. 7 For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. 8 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming." 2 Thes. 2:1-8.
The Pre-Trib position requires that 1 Thes. 4 and 2 Thes. 2 must be describing two different comings of Jesus Christ. Obviously, the Tribulation would not occur if the man of lawlessness, the Anti-Christ, was destroyed when Jesus returned before the beginning of the Tribulation. So, the Pre-Trib position requires a Rapture where the believers meet with Jesus in the air and are taken back to heaven, followed by a Second Coming of Christ at the end of the Tribulation. The Mid-Trib position also requires a similar Rapture preceding the Second Coming, but it would allow 1 Thes. 4 and 2 Thes. 2 to refer to the same event, with the understanding that man of lawlessness is revealed as being evil in the middle of the Tribulation, but is not destroyed, according to verse 8, until the end of the Tribulation. The Post-Trib position also teaches that 1 Thes. 4 and 2 Thes. 2 refer to the same event, but that the Rapture is included in the Second Coming of Christ as one event. After the believers meet Jesus in the air, they accompany him to the Earth where the man of lawlessness is destroyed.
Since Paul includes himself in the group which meets Jesus in both 1 Thes. 4:16 and in 2 Thes. 2:1, he must be describing the same event. Apparently, some of the Thessalonians became upset because they thought that the Rapture had already occurred and that they had missed it. So, in his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul told them not to worry about missing the Rapture because there would be clear signs: the rebellion and the man of lawlessness is revealed, verse 3-4. The Thessalonians would surely know if the man of lawlessness had set himself up in the temple to be worshiped. Believers today can be just as sure that Jesus will not gather the saints to himself before the Anti-Christ is publicly revealed.
Pre-Trib proponents claim that this passage supports their position because the church is what is holding back lawlessness in verses 6-7. When the church is raptured, then the tribulation will begin. The problem with this interpretation is that the gender of the personal pronouns used do not match in the original Greek. The words translated "what is holding" in verse 6 are neuter, while the words translated "who now holds" in verse 7 are masculine. The Greek word translated church, ekklesia is feminine, so it does not fit either verse. A better interpretation is that the one holding back lawlessness is the Holy Spirit. The Greek words translated Holy Spirit, hagion pneuma are neuter, so they naturally fit in verse 6. The nature of the Holy Spirit can be thought of as masculine as is God the Father and God the Son, so the Holy Spirit would also fit in verse 7.
Therefore, the evidence from 1 and 2 Thessalonians strongly contradicts the Pre-Trib Rapture position, and fits both the Mid-Trib and Post-Trib positions.
Matthew 24 (and Mark 13)
The entire chapter in Matthew is an answer to the disciples questions about the destruction of the Temple, Jesus' coming and the end of the age. They probably assumed that all three events would happen at the same time.
Jesus talks about false christs, persecution, and desolation of the Holy Place. The first section, verses 4 to 35, appears to be one chronological narrative. The second section, verses 36-51, goes back to provide further details about the events in the first section. Parts of the first section might apply to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, the Tribulation and Jesus' return, but verses 29 to 35 can only be completely fulfilled in the final Tribulation and Jesus' return. Notice the progression in verses 29 to 31.
"Immediately after the distress of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’ Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other." Matthew 24:29-31.
Notice that this passage mentions the same signs of the Rapture included in 1 Thessalonians 4: Jesus coming on the clouds, angels, a loud trumpet call and the elect being gathered to Jesus. It is obvious that this passage refers to the Rapture and that it comes after the Tribulation. People who hold the Pre-Trib Rapture position claim that "his elect" in verse 31 refers only to the Jews, not Christians. However, Paul uses the same Greek word, translated "elect" here, in Colossians 3:12 where it is translated "chosen." "Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience." Here he is clearly speaking to Christians.
Therefore, Matthew 24 also supports the Post-Trib Rapture position.
People who hold the Pre-Trib Rapture position claim "the Rapture occurs in Revelation 4:1 when Jesus told John, "Come up here," and the church is never mentioned again until chapter 20." However, none of the signs of the Rapture are mentioned here. While the word "church" does not appear again in Revelation, and the word "churches" does not appear again until Revelation 22:16, the word "saints" appears in 5:8, 8:3, 8:4, 11:18, 13:7, 13:10, 14:12, 16:6, 17:6, 18:20, 18:24 and 19:8. Revelation 6:9-11 refers to "souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God." "They were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed." 13:10b says, "If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints." 14:12-13 says, "This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God's commandments and remain faithful to Jesus. Then I heard a voice from heaven say, 'Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.'" 20:4b says, "And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image." These four passages all refer to believers who are being killed. The last three passages imply that they are killed by people who worship the Beast.
These verses in Revelation clearly refer to believers who are killed during the Tribulation. People who hold the Pre-Trib Rapture position claim that these passages refer to people who become Christians after the church is raptured, even though there will be no one to evangelize them or disciple them. It is possible that these believers are Jews who trust in Jesus after they see the Bible prophecies fulfilled. However, this interpretation would mean that God removed all of the mature Christians from the Tribulation but allowed baby Christians to suffer through the worst persecution in history. This does not seem reasonable to me. These passages in Revelation contradict the Pre-Trib position.
"For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Thessalonians 5:9) is often quoted to support the idea that the church is raptured before the Tribulation, but these passages clearly prove that believers will suffer during the Tribulation. One way to reconcile these verses is to realize that the saints will suffer the wrath of men, but could be sheltered from the Wrath of God.
Another way to reconcile these verses is offered by the Mid-Trib position. Saints suffer during the first half of the Tribulation, but are raptured before the Wrath of God is poured out in Revelation 14-19. Most say that the Rapture occurs during Revelation 11, which describes the Two Witnesses who were killed by the Beast. After three and a half days, they are resurrected (11:11), a voice from heaven calls to them "Come up here." and they went up to heaven (11:12). Later, the seventh angel blows his trumpet (11:15).
Revelation 11 has more signs that are included in the description of the Rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 than Revelation 4 when John is called up to heaven. Besides the call, "Come up here,", Revelation 11 includes a resurrection and an angel's trumpet call. The Mid-Trib Rapture position has more evidence in Revelation than the Pre-Trib Rapture position, and is more consistent with the persecution of the saints mentioned in the Revelation passages.
Revelation 19:11-20:6. The return of Jesus is described in 19:11-16. The capture and destruction of the Beast (Anti-Christ, man of lawlessness) at the Lord's coming is described in 19:19-20. The resurrection of the saints is described in 20:4-5. While this passage does not have all of the signs of the Rapture described in 1 and 2 Thessalonians, it does include the most important signs. Although this passage does not closely associate the return of Jesus in chapter 19 and the resurrection of the saints in chapter 20, it does include both, which is unlike chapters 4 or 11.
Revelation 20:4c-5 says "They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection." Actually, this is not the very first resurrection. The ministry of Elisha and Jesus included several resurrections, but they were a different kind of resurrection because the people eventually died again. Matthew 27:52-53 describes the resurrection of Old Testament saints. Revelation 11:11-12 describes the resurrection of the Two Witnesses. But Revelation 20:4-5 is the first resurrection of its kind, the resurrection of New Testament saints.
1 Thessalonians 4:16 clearly indicates that the Rapture includes the resurrection of the dead in Christ. Since the resurrection in Revelation 20 is the first resurrection of its kind, how could the Rapture come before Revelation 20?
Also, notice in Revelation 20:4b, "They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years." The ones who go into the Millennium are the ones who were killed during the Tribulation. This raises another problem for the Pre-Trib position. If the church is raptured before the Tribulation, is it also excluded from the Millennium?
So, Revelation 19:11-20:6 includes the most important signs of the Rapture mentioned in 1 and 2 Thessalonians. It is consistent with the description of believers suffering during the Tribulation as described in Revelation 6:9-11, 13:10b, 14:12-13 and 20:4b. And it is consistent with the passages which mention both the Tribulation and the Rapture, Matthew 24:26-31, Mark 13:24-27; and 2 Thess. 2:1-12, which always place the Rapture after the Tribulation.
Summary I believe in the Rapture, but not a Secret Rapture that comes before the Tribulation. It will hardly be a secret since "the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God." (1 Thessalonians 4:16) While none of the positions include all of he signs of the Rapture, the Pre-Trib Rapture has the fewest signs and the most contradictions, while the Mid-Trib Rapture has the most signs, but the Post-Trib Rapture has the fewest contradictions.
How important is it for Christians to have a correct understanding of the timing of the Rapture? Not very important today. It is certainly much more important for Christians to understand what Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians say about Christian living. I would not mind at all if I am wrong. I would be glad if the saints do not have to suffer through the Tribulation.
But a correct understanding of the timing of the Rapture will be very important when the Antichrist begins arresting and executing Christians. Christians who hold the Pre-Trib Rapture position will realize that they have entered the Tribulation and they will think that they have somehow missed the Rapture. This could really shake their confidence in God and in their own salvation at a time when the church is facing the most difficult time in its history. Christians will need to be mentally and spiritually prepared to face the trials and persecution that will occur during the Tribulation.
Revelation 13:9-10 warns: "He who has an ear, let him hear. If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If any one is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints."
The order of events at the end of the age is:
The Tribulation. Matt. 24:21, Mark 13:19, 2 Thes. 2:3-4, Rev. 6-18
The Wedding Supper is prepared for the Lamb and his Bride. Rev. 19:7-9
Jesus returns, and the saints who had died and the living saints, his Bride, meet him in the air: the Rapture. Matt. 24:30-31, Mark 13:26-27, 1Thes. 4:13-18, Rev. 19:11-14, 20:4-5,
Jesus destroys Satan's army and Satan is put in prison for 1,000 years. Revelation 19:19-20:3
Jesus and the saints rule for 1,000 years on Earth along with non-believers who survived the Tribulation: the Millennium. Revelation 20:4-6
At the end of the 1,000 years, Satan is released from prison and gathers another army from the non-believers. Revelation 20:7-9a
Jesus destroys Satan's army and Satan is thrown into the Lake of Fire. Revelation 20:9b-10
At the White Throne Judgment, everyone who has ever lived is judged. Non-believers are thrown into the Lake of Fire. Revelation 20:11-15
The New Jerusalem comes down from Heaven to the new Earth and God dwells with Believers for eternity. Revelation 21:1-22:6
Tribulation or Rapture - Which? by Oswald J Smith D.D. Litt.D. L.L.D. His account of converting from Pre-Trib to Post-Trib
One last thought about the identity of the Antichrist. When I was a young Christian in the 1970's, many believed that the Antichrist would be the Pope. However, the recent events with the rise of ISIS and the influx of Muslims to Europe suggest that the AntiChrist will be a Muslim.
If you have questions or comments, please email me.
© 2005-16 Rodney A. Smith
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If you have questions or comments, please email me.
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