According to popular eschatology, the end will occur something like this:
In the last days there will be a seven-year tribulation encompassing the whole earth. In the midst of this there will arise the long-feared Antichrist and False Prophet, world leaders who lead the whole world astray. At the end of those seven-years Christ will return in glory to defeat the powers of evil and to set up his kingdom, a millennial reign lasting one thousand years. Oh, and one other thing: the church will be raptured out of the earth prior to the seven-year tribulation period, thus missing the Antichrist and the ensuing carnage he unleashes. At the end of the tribulation period, those raptured out will return with Christ at his Second Coming and will reign with him on the New Earth.
Well, that’s what I once thought. In fact, not only was it my view, but I assumed it was the view of every Bible-believing Christian. After all, my Scofield Study Bible taught it, all of the prophecy guys on the radio were on board, and multiple books, charts, and movies showed these end-time events in stark reality. And then one day there was a change. The exact year escapes me – sometime in my early to mid-twenties, I believe – but what doesn’t escape me is what created the seeds of doubt in my mind. Not a teacher, not a book, not a movie. It was the Bible. When I picked it up and began reading it – I mean, really reading it, as in studying it closely – what I found was that the pretribulational rapture (PTR henceforth) is rather hard to find. One section in particular stuck with me, and this passage (along with a sister passage) sealed the deal. However the last days would play out, there was one thing I was quite certain of: the church will not be raptured out of the world seven (or three and one-half) years before the Second Coming.
What follows is my take on this issue. It’s not exhaustive by any means. I only hope to show from a plain reading of Scripture what it says, and let it interpret itself. Next, I’ll entertain a handful of common objections. Lastly, I’ll give a brief summary of why this issue needs discussion.
At the outset let me say that much of what I wrote at the beginning describing the end time is still what I hold today. My biggest beef is in the idea that the church will be plucked out of the earth for the duration of the tribulation week. That being said, let’s begin. The primary focus will be on a passage from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians: 2 Thess. 1:4-11; 2:1-12 (cf. also 1 Thes. 4:13-5:9).
As a starting point, let’s review what Paul writes in his second letter to the Thessalonians. These verses serve as fitting launch point, and will touch on the key issues.
2 Thes. 1:4-11 (ISV)
4 As a result, we rejoice about you among God’s churches—about your endurance and faith through all the persecutions and afflictions you are experiencing. 5This is evidence of God’s righteous judgment and is intended to make you worthy of God’s kingdom, for which you are suffering. 6Certainly it is right for God to pay back those who afflict you with affliction 7and to give us who are afflicted relief when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels 8in blazing fire. He will take revenge on those who do not know God and on those who refuse to obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9Such people will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction by being separated from the Lord’s presence and from his glorious power, 10when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be regarded with wonder on that day by all who have believed—including you—because you believed our testimony. 11With this in mind, we always pray for you, asking that our God might make you worthy of his calling and that through his power he might help you accomplish every good desire and faithful action.
I’ve highlighted the phrases dealing with the Lord’s return and underlined the sections to do with both believers and unbelievers. This is for ease of reference when the questions below are asked. Based on the text above…
—When will the Lord “pay back those who afflict you with affliction”? (non-believers)
—When will the Lord “give us who are afflicted relief”? (believers)
——Answer: “When the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels.”
—When will the Lord “take revenge on those who do not know God”? (non-believers)
—When will the Lord “be glorified by his saints and regarded with wonder … by all who have believed—including you”? (believers)
——Answer: “When he comes … on that day”
The purpose of this exercise is to show that when the Lord returns, both believers and unbelievers will be greatly affected, albeit in radically different ways. For believers, there will be relief from persecution and suffering, and they will revel in his coming. For unbelievers, there will be great affliction, punishment, and finally, eternal destruction. All of this will occur “when he comes.” Therefore, it is difficult, and I would say hermeneutically irresponsible, to insert a secret pretribulational rapture of the church in this section. It’s not there, and the most straightforward reading of the passage doesn’t allow for it.
But there are some objections, so let’s review some of the most common.
Objection One: When “he comes” the Lord will translate believers. For unbelievers, the seven-year tribulation period will begin their affliction, culminating in their destruction at the end of the tribulation at the Second Coming. Therefore, the above passage can be viewed through the lens of a PTR.
This objection makes sense, but does it work? I don’t believe so. But to show its flaw, we have to expand our context a bit to include 2 Thes. 2:1-12, where Paul writes: “Now we ask you, brothers, regarding the coming of our Lord Jesus, the Messiah, and our gathering together to him …”(v.1) This is a clear reference back to what he was just discussing a few verses earlier. Apparently, there were some false teachers saying that the Lord had already come, and this was disturbing the church. Paul responds thusly: “Do not let anyone deceive you in any way, for it will not come unless the rebellion takes place first and the man of sin, who is destined for destruction, is revealed” (v.3). What we see is that the Lord’s coming (“it will not come”) will take place after the “rebellion” and the revealing of the “man of sin.” This was a teaching Paul had personally given to the church (v.5) and it serves as a marker or sign of the end times. The whole tenor of this section indicates that believers would witness these things; otherwise, how would all of these details of the tribulation period instruct and encourage them?
Ultimately, the “man of sin” will be destroyed “by the manifestation of his (Jesus’) coming” (v.8). All agree that this undoing is at the Second Coming of Christ. But this creates a significant problem for PTR proponents. There’s no reason to view the coming in v.8 as distinct (seven years later) from the coming in v.1. If they are the same, the whole edifice of the PTR crumbles. However, if it’s maintained that they are not the same coming, then evidence is needed to defend this view. To be frank, nothing in the context would lead one to such an interpretive move, so I would not expect a good answer here. The only way to view two comings in this passage is to read one’s theology into the text. But this is an eisegetical approach, not exegetical. Scripture is not to be interpreted based on preconceived theology, rather it’s to be read based on what the text actually says.
Objection Two. The phrases “coming of the Lord” and “day of the Lord” refer to two different events. The former is when believers are gathered to him. The latter always refers to the Second Coming.
I’m not sure that this distinction helps matters. Assuming that the objection is true, it does nothing to overturn what has already been argued. While true that these phrases can have different emphases, it doesn’t follow that they must have different timetables. As seen in the passage above, it’s clear that they refer to the same event.
It should also be noted that PTR proponents take the entire seven-year tribulation period as the Day of the Lord. This is the wrath of God upon the earth and its unbelieving inhabitants. Due to this understanding, Christians cannot be on the earth, because they will not undergo God’s wrath. Therefore, they must be taken out. This is logical reasoning, but it’s based on a shaky foundation. It must be shown from Scripture that the wrath of God is poured out during the tribulation period, and not at the end when the Lord returns. It’s at this point that PTR teachers introduce an array of OT scriptures concerning Israel in the last days. It would go well beyond the humble intentions of this post to thoroughly examine them all. I will only point out that placing the wrath of God at the start of the tribulation period is arbitrary, and there is no clear biblical reference indi this to be so. As shown in my answer to the first objection, an examination of the “comings” in 2 Thessalonians shows rather clearly that believers will not escape the tribulation period; therefore, the wrath of God must begin at the end of this period.
Objection Three. What about Rev. 3:10? Doesn’t it prove we’ll be raptured prior to the tribulation period?
This objection falls outside the present context. I deal with it here because it’s considered the strongest single verse supporting the PTR. First, here’s what the verse says: “Because you have obeyed my command to endure, I will keep you from the hour of testing that is coming to the whole world to test those living on the earth.” Now, if one comes to this verse already assuming the PTR, it certainly would seem to be an obvious reference to the rapture. However, we need to step back and consider what’s being said and what’s not being said. First, it says nothing about how these believers would be kept from the “hour of testing.” There is no reason to assume a rapture when this statement could have several other meanings: (1) that they would be allowed to escape the trial, similar to the escape that Jesus had taught (cf. Luke 21:20-21,35-36; see also John 17:15), (2) the trial would not come to their particular area; (3) they would be kept through the trial, meaning a divine sustaining in the midst of suffering. Based on what Jesus stated in his Olivet Discourse, it seems most reasonable to view “keep you from” as a physical escape on the present earth, and not a translation into heaven.
Second, if a rapture is how we are to interpret “keep from,” what about the church at Smyrna? They also received no condemnation from Jesus. And what about the faithful believers within the other five churches? In the PTR, all born-again believers will be raptured. In the context of the seven churches, that would mean at least some of all of the churches would be represented. In light of this, it’s hard to read Rev. 3:10 as a rapture text. More likely, all of the churches would go through the trials of the coming tribulation, though in differing degrees. For the church at Philadelphia, it appears that 3:10 indicates that the worst of the tribulation would not afflict them to the degree that the other churches would experience.
Third, there is the issue of relevance to the churches themselves. There is little question that these letters were to actual churches, containing an unknown number of Christians. If Rev. 3:10 is referring to a still-to-occur time of tribulation, then no person from any of the churches would experience it since they have long since departed. In light of this, how does this verse encourage the Philadelphians, any more than it would anyone else from this time period? Much more likely, the verse is referring to a time of tribulation in that particular era. Otherwise, it’s a rather strange thing to say. Kind of like saying: “Because you have been faithful Paul (the Apostle), you won’t have to go through the Holocaust that will try my people.”
An additional word needs to be said concerning the history of interpretation regarding the second coming of Jesus. Prior to the early to mid-1800’s, virtually no Christian understood that there would be a secret rapture of the church. The first true advocate was John Nelson Darby, and from there the teaching spread and was eventually adopted by Dispensationalists, becoming one of the distinctives of their eschatology. The idea that the entire church for over 1700 years had missed the pretrib rapture is far-fetched. While it’s conceivable that everyone was wrong on this point and that it was hidden until the latter day, this seems most unlikely, and it strikes another serious blow to the PTR.
So why is this important? Aren’t there more pressing theological issues to discuss and debate? (I suppose this could be viewed as a final objection). Although more practical than theological, the question is nonetheless important. My beef with the PTR is that it leads people to the erroneous conclusion that they’ll escape the coming time of trial. If there is to be a time of severe tribulation (and I believe there will be), then what will become of the faith of those Christians who witness it, who endure it’s great afflictions, who see with their own eyes the man of lawlessness? Will some be so disillusioned that they buy into the great deception? Will others, thinking they’ve been deceived by false eschatology, have their faith shipwrecked? Another concern is that there are millions of Christians – primarily in the West – who are wholly unprepared for what’s coming. If the tribulation is soon, then they must be warned and told the truth of the matter. My hope is that more Christians will be like the Bereans, and will study Scripture diligently to see if these things are so. May God grant us to understand his word rightly, and to be prepared for trials and temptations in their many forms, including the final great tribulation.
1All Scripture taken from the Holy Bible: International Standard Version®. Copyright © 1996-forever by The ISV Foundation. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED INTERNATIONALLY. Used by permission.