Questions that Confirm the Pretribulation Rapture, Pt 1
You may wonder why I am again writing in defense of the pretribulation Rapture, the belief that Jesus will come for His church before the start of the seven-year tribulation. I am doing so because we live in a time when many inside and outside the church ridicule our hope in Jesus’ imminent appearing. How do we answer those who mock the hope we hold so dear?
Additionally, because of the day in which we live, those of us who eagerly wait for our “blessed hope” need frequent reminders of our excited expectation. Because we live in a world riddled with fear, deception, and wickedness that continues to grow exponentially, it’s so easy to take our eyes off of the prize before us.
In this two-part series, I will answer twelve questions that together confirm our belief that the New Testament indeed teaches a pretribulation Rapture.
- Is Premillennialism Biblical?
In any quest to establish the biblical soundness of the pretribulation Rapture, one must start with this question: is premillennialism biblical?
If one denies the literalness of a seven-year tribulation, as do the amillennialists, then it makes no difference where one places the Rapture. If there’s no future outpouring of God’s wrath for us to avoid, the timing of the rapture becomes a moot point. What’s the point of one saying he or she believes in a posttribulation Rapture if that person rejects the biblical teaching of the literal seven-year tribulation?
Furthermore, those who tell us there is no tangible time of tribulation, as well as no distinct thousand-year reign of Jesus, interpret biblical prophecy through the lens of allegory. The arguments that support a pretribulation Rapture, however, find their basis in what the writers of Scripture intended to communicate at the time they wrote. The path to establishing a pretribulational Rapture finds its basis in the words of Bible prophecy rather than allegorical interpretations gleaned from human wisdom.
If you are one that interprets future prophecy allegorically, you are welcome to keep reading, but please know that the following factors favoring a pretribulation rapture are based on the original intention of the authors of Scripture when they wrote of still future events.
- Are Rapture and the Second Coming the Same Event?
Proceeding on the basis that premillennialism is a biblical necessity, and it is, we come to the next question in our quest: are the Rapture and Second Coming the same event? If such is the case, this would place the Lord’s appearing for us at the end of the seven years of tribulation and thus end our journey of verifying a pretribulation Rapture (as do a few premillennialists).
However, the biblical descriptions of the Rapture and Second Coming differ significantly in many ways that make it impossible to reconcile the two into one event. They cannot occur at the same time.
The timing of the resurrection of those who have died in Christ confirms this distinction. The resurrection of dead saints happens first in the order of events that Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 and in 1 Corinthians 15:50-54. With the Second Coming, the resurrection of tribulation saints does not happen until after a lengthy sequence of many other events (see Rev. 19:11-20:4); it may not even occur until a day or two or more after Jesus’ begins His return to the earth.
Please also note that the resurrection of the dead in Revelation 20:4 includes only a subset of believers, the tribulation saints, while the passages referring to the Rapture teach that Jesus raises all the dead in Christ. This not only distinguishes the two events but necessitates a significant time lapse between them for people to come to Christ and experience martyrdom before the Second Coming.
These are just two of several significant differences that exist in the passages describing the Rapture versus those depicting the Second Coming. If the words of Scripture matter, and they do, then we cannot combine these two events into one occurrence.
- What Is the New Testament Expectation of Jesus’ Appearing?
Now that we have established that the Rapture and Second Coming cannot be the same event, the next task is to explore the separation of time that must exist between the two. We begin this task by asking this question: does the New Testament speak of Jesus’ appearing as imminent or one that happens after or during the events of the tribulation?
The New Testament saints watched for the Rapture as though it could occur at any moment. The apostles repeatedly described their readers as eagerly anticipating Jesus’ return for them (1 Cor. 1:7; 1 Thess. 1:8-10; Titus 2:11-13; James 5:8; 1 Peter 1:13). They regarded Jesus’ future appearing as imminent, one that could even occur in their lifetime (1 Thess. 1:8-10; 4:17).
In Philippians 3:20-21, Paul wrote, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him to subject all things to himself.” The Greek word for “await” in verse 20 points to an “intense anticipation” or an “excited expectation” of a future event.[i] This is the word usage we would expect if the apostle expected that the Rapture could occur at any moment.
As for the Second Coming, Jesus told us that at least two major events would happen before it occurred. In Matthew 24:15-29, He says that the defilement of the temple by the antichrist and the “great tribulation” that follows it will happen before He returns to earth.
In order to be an imminent event, the Rapture must happen before the events that Jesus tells us will happen during the tribulation.
- Is There an Example of an imminent Expectation in the New Testament?
Having noted the excited anticipation of Jesus’ imminent appearing that Paul wrote about in Philippians 3:20-21, we come to our next question: does the New Testament provide an example of such an expectation of Jesus’ appearing?
Yes, it does. A close look at 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 reveals the recipients of Paul’s letter not only believed that the rapture could happen in their lifetime, but mistakenly assumed that it would happen before they died. We see this in the way that Paul addresses the unnecessary grieving of the new converts in Thessalonica over the deaths of some in their midst.
If their sorrow had stemmed from a lack of belief in the future resurrection of their loved ones, Paul would have responded in much the same way that he addressed this issue with those in Corinth (1 Cor. 15), but he does not do that. Instead, he attributes their grief to a lack of information rather than a lack of belief in the resurrection. And in response, the apostle gives them further revelation regarding the rapture (4:13-17) rather than a future general resurrection.
Paul’s emphasis in these verses reveals the source of the problem: the Thessalonians mistakenly thought that the dead in Christ would miss out on the joy of the Rapture. So, in response to their grief, the apostle stresses the prominent role of the dead in Christ during Jesus’ appearing (4:13-16). Why would he reply in such a way if this were not the cause of their unnecessary mourning?
- Does the Imminency of Jesus’ appearing Signify that We Will Miss All of the Tribulation?
For me, the answers to the previous four questions confirm that the Rapture will happen before the start of the seven-year tribulation, but this is not the case with many pastors and believers. I remember hearing a sermon during which the preacher seemed to combine the Rapture and Second Coming. Then at the end of his message, he stated that the Lord could return that very afternoon.
Such a misunderstanding of imminency necessitates that we dig deeper in order to establish that, in fact, our eager anticipation of Jesus’ appearing signifies that we will miss all of the tribulation.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:2-3, Paul tells his readers that the start of the day of the Lord will surprise people on the earth “like a thief in the night” with its “sudden destruction” from which “they will not escape.” The day of Lord, a primarily Old Testament term, refers to an extended time of the Lord’s wrath on the earth leading up to and including Jesus’ return to the earth. The Old Testament usage of the phrase also includes Christ’s millennial reign on the earth (Isa. 13:9-12; Joel 2:28-32).
Because John wrote the book of Revelation forty years later, the apostle did not have it as a reference point, but we do. We can compare Paul’s Old Testament understanding of the day of the Lord, and its start, with the tribulation judgments listed in Revelation.
Since this coming time of wrath arrives as a surprise to people on the earth and occurs at a time when they are saying, “There is peace and safety” (1 Thess. 5:3), we must ask this, “When might such a surprise occur in the list of judgments recorded in Revelation 6-18?”
If the day of the Lord were to begin at any time after the seal judgments of Revelation 6 commence, the start of this day could not possibly catch anyone by surprise with its “sudden destruction.” Furthermore, no one will be saying “peace and security” (v. 3) during and after the pestilences, famines, pandemics, and wars of the seal judgments kill one-fourth of the earth’s population at that time, likely well over two billion people.
1 Thessalonians 5:9-10 gives us Paul’s assurance that we as believers will miss the onset of the day of the Lord upon the earth, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him.” Based on the context, this wrath is that of the day of the Lord, not hell. In these verses, Paul promises the Thessalonians that they will not see the devastating start to the day of the Lord.
- Did the Thessalonians Believe They Would Miss the Tribulation?
Thanks to some troublemakers that told the saints in Thessalonica that the day of the Lord had already begun, we know these new converts regarded 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10 as a promise that the Rapture would happen before the beginning of the ‘day of the Lord’ wrath on the earth.
In 2 Thessalonians 2:2, Paul wrote, “not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.” The words in this verse imply that the Thessalonians literally trembled with fear after they heard the report that the day of the Lord had already begun.
The panicked response of these new converts to this news tells us several things:
First, why would they shudder with fear at hearing such news if they expected to be on earth during the day of the Lord or even for a part of the tribulation? Their frightened response to the false report tells us they regarded Paul’s promise in 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10 as one of deliverance from God’s tribulation wrath. They did not expect to be on the earth at the beginning of the Lord’s future judgments. Otherwise, they would have expected such news and regarded it as a sign that Jesus’ appearing was that much closer.
Second, the trepidation of the Thessalonians regarding the start of the day of the Lord tells us they expected this time to be especially brutal in terms of affliction and destruction, such as Isaiah 24 describes it. At the time, they were experiencing intense persecution at the hands of the Jews (2 Thess. 1:4). Even with such current intense opposition, they trembled with fear in response to the news that the day of the Lord had begun.
Third, if the Thessalonians had misunderstood Paul’s promise of deliverance from the wrath of the day of the Lord in 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10, this was his chance to set the record straight by telling them that although this day had not yet started, they could expect to see a part or even all of its judgments. But the apostle does not do that!
Instead, the apostle again assures the Thessalonians that they will not be on earth during the start of the day of the Lord (2 Thess. 2:1-3), which for us signifies that we will miss all the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments of Revelation 6-18.
Stay tuned for part 2 and the remainder of the questions that establish a pretribulation rapture.
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[i] Colin Brown, editor, Dictionary of New Testament Theology Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1969) p. 244.