Saturday, July 23, 2022

Future Events to Come: The Rapture

Many people these days wonder if we are living in the End Times. The answer is yes! In fact, several prophetic events await future fulfillment and we are nearer to these events than ever before. These include the rapture, the tribulation period, the coming of the Antichrist, the day of the Lord, the second coming of Jesus, the millennium, Satan’s final revolt, and the eternal state.

The rapture is one of the most recognizable events of eschatology. Popular books and movies have made the rapture a topic of discussion for many. Some fixate on this issue, and others ignore it or treat it with scorn. But what is the biblical view of the rapture?

The English word rapture comes from the Latin term raptura, which in Latin Bibles translates the Greek word harpazō. This Greek word means “to suddenly remove” or “to snatch away.” The New Testament uses it in reference to stealing or plundering (Matt. 11:12; 12:29; 13:19; John 10:12, 28, 29) and removing (John 6:15; Acts 8:39; 23:10; Jude 23). A third use focuses on being caught up to heaven, as visible in Paul’s third-heaven experience (2 Cor. 12:2–4) and Christ’s ascension (Rev. 12:5). Harpazō also describes God’s sudden taking of the church from earth to heaven as the first part of Christ’s second coming (1 Thess. 4:17). However, this word contains no hint of the rapture’s time in relation to Daniel’s seventieth week. The timing of the rapture must be determined by other factors.

First Thessalonians 4:16–17 tells of a rapture that is eschatological in nature. Here, harpazō is translated “caught up”:

For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord (NASB).

While not employing harpazō, 1 Corinthians 15:51–52 refers to the same eschatological event as 1 Thessalonians 4:16–17:

Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed (NASB).

Thus, Scripture points to an eschatological rapture, even though neither of these foundational texts contains any explicit time indicators.

So when will the Rapture occur? 

Views on the Timing of the Rapture. The passages cited above mention a snatching away and transforming of Christians, but they do not state when this event occurs. Four views on the timing of the rapture exist. These views address when the rapture will happen in relation to the coming seventieth week of Daniel.

First, the pretribulational rapture view asserts that the church will be raptured before Daniel’s seventieth week. Since the entire period of tribulation is the “wrath of God,” the church must be rescued prior to the tribulation to fulfill God’s promise that the church will escape the wrath of God (1 Thess. 1:9–10; Rev. 3:10). The pretribulational rapture functions as a rescue mission by which Jesus delivers his church from the divine wrath of the tribulation.

Second, the midtribulational rapture view argues that the church will be raptured at the midpoint of Daniel’s seventieth week. The church goes through the first half of the tribulation but then is raptured at the midpoint to avoid the most severe wrath of God that characterizes the latter period of Daniel’s seventieth week. The midtribulational perspective arbitrarily does not see the first half of the tribulation as divine wrath; it maintains that the wrath of man and Satan is occurring but not the wrath of God.

Third, the prewrath rapture view teaches that the rapture will occur somewhere in the latter part of the tribulation and removes the church from the trumpet and bowl judgments, which it defines as the wrath of God. The rapture occurs after the midpoint of the tribulation but before Jesus’s second coming to earth.

Fourth, the posttribulational rapture view asserts that the rapture occurs at the time of the second coming and is the initial phase of Jesus’s bodily return. The church, which goes through the tribulation period, is snatched into the air to meet the returning Jesus, who then descends to earth with his people. The posttribulational scenario is like subjects of a king rushing out of a city to greet the returning and victorious king and then immediately returning to the city. This is the only rapture view that has the church going through the entire tribulation period.

Evidence for Pretribulationism. Pretribulationism has the most biblical support, and I believe that it is the correct view for several reasons. First, Jesus declares that the church will be removed prior to the hour of trial that is coming on the entire earth: “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth” (Rev. 3:10). Jesus promises a reward for “patient endurance.” This reward is that one is kept from a unique period—“the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world.” This helps answer the why of the rapture. The rapture is a promise or reward to the church for enduring patiently during suffering. The church that endures the trials of this present age will be kept from the special hour of testing for the people of the earth.

Does the phrase “keep you from” (Gk. tēreō ek) in Revelation 3:10 mean “a continuing safe state outside of” or “a safe emergence from within”? The former would be consistent with a pretribulational rapture, the latter with a posttribulational rapture. The Greek preposition ek sometimes carries the idea of emergence, but this is not always so. Two notable examples are found in 2 Corinthians 1:10 and 1 Thessalonians 1:10. In the 2 Corinthians passage, Paul rehearses how God rescued him from death. Here Paul did not emerge from a state of death but was rescued from potential danger. Even more convincing is 1 Thessalonians 1:10, where Paul states that Jesus will rescue believers out of the wrath to come. The idea is not emergence after going through something but rather protection from entering it.

Also, if Revelation 3:10 refers to divine protection within the hour of trial, then what about those who died for Jesus during this time? Were they not protected? The widespread martyrdom of saints during the tribulation demands that the promise means “keeping out of” the hour of testing, not “keeping within.”

Second, the church goes unmentioned in Revelation 6–18. The common New Testament term for “church” is ekklēsia. It is used nineteen times in Revelation 1–3 in relation to the historical church of the first century. However, “church” appears only once more in Revelation, in the epilogue of the book (Rev. 22:16). Nowhere in Revelation 6–18 is the “church” mentioned. Why is this significant? It is unlikely that John would shift from detailed instructions for the church in Revelation 1–3 to absolute silence about the church for thirteen chapters if the church continued into the tribulation. If the church will experience the tribulation, surely the most detailed study of tribulation events would include the church’s role in this period. But it does not. A pretribulational rapture best explains the total absence of the “church” on earth during the events of Revelation 6–18.

Third, the rapture is rendered inconsequential if the church goes through the tribulation. If God miraculously preserves the church through the tribulation, why have a rapture at all? If it is to avoid the wrath of God at Armageddon, then why would God not continue to protect the saints on earth (as postulated by posttribulationism) as he protected the church in the events leading up to Armageddon or as God protected Israel from the plagues in Egypt (Ex. 8:22; 9:4, 26; 10:23; 11:7)?

Also, if the rapture occurs in connection with a posttribulational coming, the subsequent separation of the sheep from the goats in Matthew 25:31–46 would be redundant. Separation would have already taken place at the rapture with no need of another. Plus, if all tribulation believers are raptured and glorified just prior to the millennial kingdom, what people will populate the kingdom? Every believer would have a glorified body at that time, while the Scripture indicates that living unbelievers will be judged at the end of the tribulation and removed from the earth (Matt. 13:41–42; 25:41). These realities do not correlate with the Bible’s teaching that children will be born to believers during the millennium and that these children will be capable of sin and rebellion (Isa. 65:20; cf. Rev. 20:7–10), which would not be possible if all believers on earth had been glorified through a posttribulational rapture.

In addition, the posttribulational paradigm of the church being raptured and then immediately brought back to earth leaves no time for the bēma judgment of Christ (1 Cor. 3:10–15; 2 Cor. 5:10) or for the marriage supper (Rev. 19:6–10). Thus, the timing of a posttribulational rapture does not make sense chronologically. It is incongruous with the sheep-goat nation judgment and two critical end-time events. A pretribulational rapture avoids these difficulties.

Fourth, the Epistles contain no preparatory warnings of an impending tribulation for church-age believers. God’s instructions to the church in the Epistles contain a variety of warnings, but believers are not warned to prepare for entering and enduring the tribulation. The New Testament warns vigorously about coming error and false prophets (Acts 20:29–30; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 John 4:1–3; Jude 4). It warns against ungodly living (Eph. 4:25–5:7; 1 Thess. 4:3–8; Heb. 12:1). The New Testament admonishes believers to endure in the midst of present tribulation (1 Thess. 2:13–14; 2 Thess. 1:4). However, there is silence concerning preparing the church for the global and catastrophic tribulation described in Revelation 6–18. It is difficult to view the Scripture as being silent on such a traumatic event for the church if the church is to endure this period. If the church experienced any of the tribulation period, one would expect the Epistles to teach the church’s existence, purpose, and conduct in it. Yet there is no teaching on this matter. Only a pretribulational rapture satisfactorily explains this lack of instruction for the church.

Fifth, 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 demands a pretribulational rapture. Suppose that some other rapture view is true. What then would we expect to find in 1 Thessalonians 4? The reverse of the concerns reflected there. To begin, we would expect the Thessalonians to be rejoicing that their loved ones are home with the Lord and will not endure the horrors of the tribulation. But instead, we discover that the Thessalonians are actually grieving because they fear their loved ones will miss the rapture. Only a pretribulational rapture accounts for this grief. Also, we would expect the Thessalonians to be grieving over their own impending trial rather than over their loved ones who escaped it. Furthermore, we would expect them to be inquisitive about their own future. But the Thessalonians have no fears or questions about the coming tribulation. We would expect Paul to have provided instructions and exhortation for such a supreme test. But we find no indication of any impending tribulation.

Sixth, the close parallels between John 14:1–3 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, two texts referring to Christ’s second coming, fit with a pretribulational rapture:

1. The promise of presence with Christ:

“Where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:3 NASB)

“So we shall always be with the Lord.” (1 Thess. 4:17 NASB)

2. The promise of comfort:

“Do not let your heart be troubled.” (John 14:1 NASB)

“Therefore comfort one another with these words.” (1 Thess. 4:18 NASB)

Jesus instructed the disciples that he was going to his Father’s house (heaven) to prepare a place for them. He promised them that he would return and receive them so that they could be with him wherever he was (John 14:1–3). The phrase “where I am,” while implying continued presence in general, here means presence in heaven in particular. Our Lord told the Pharisees in John 7:34, “Where I am you cannot come.” He was not talking about his present abode on earth but his resurrected presence at the right hand of the Father. In John 14:3, “where I am” must mean “in heaven,” or the intent would not make sense.

A posttribulational rapture demands that the saints meet Christ in the air and immediately descend to earth without experiencing what our Lord promised in John 14. Since John 14 refers to the rapture and makes no reference to judgment, then only a pretribulational rapture satisfies the language of John 14:1–3 and allows raptured saints to dwell for a meaningful time with Christ in his Father’s house.

Seventh, events at Christ’s return to earth after the tribulation differ from the rapture. If one compares what happens at the rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 and 1 Corinthians 15:50–58 with what happens in the final events of Christ’s second coming in Matthew 24–25, at least eight significant contrasts or differences can be observed, which demand that the rapture and Christ’s second coming occur at different times:

1. At the rapture, Christ comes in the air and returns to heaven (1 Thess. 4:17), while at the final event of the second coming, Christ comes to earth to dwell and reign (Matt. 25:31–32).

2. At the rapture, Christ gathers his own (1 Thess. 4:16–17), while at the second coming, angels gather the elect (Matt. 24:31).

3. At the rapture, Christ comes to reward (1 Thess. 4:17), while at the second coming, Christ comes to judge (Matt. 25:31–46).

4. At the rapture, resurrection is prominent in Jesus’s coming (1 Thess. 4:15–16), while at the second coming, no resurrection is mentioned with Christ’s descent.

5. At the rapture, believers depart from the earth (1 Thess. 4:15–17), while at the second coming, unbelievers are taken away from the earth (Matt. 24:37–41).

6. At the rapture, unbelievers remain on the earth (implied), while at the second coming, believers remain on the earth (Matt. 25:34).

7. At the rapture, there is no mention of Christ’s kingdom on earth, while at the second coming, Christ’s kingdom on earth is established (Matt. 25:31, 34).

8. At the rapture, believers will receive glorified bodies (cf. 1 Cor. 15:51–57), while at the second coming, no one who is alive receives glorified bodies.

Additionally, several of Christ’s parables in Matthew 13 confirm differences between the rapture and Christ’s second coming to earth. In the parable of the wheat and the tares, the tares (unbelievers) are taken out from among the wheat (believers) at the climax of the second coming (Matt. 13:30, 40), while believers are removed from among unbelievers at the rapture (1 Thess. 4:15–17). In the parable of the dragnet, the bad fish (unbelievers) are taken out from among the good fish (believers) at the culmination of Christ’s second coming (Matt. 13:48–50), while believers are removed from among unbelievers at the rapture (1 Thess. 4:15–17). Finally, there is no mention of the rapture in the detailed second-coming texts Matthew 24 and Revelation 19.