By David Williams
The rapture is an area of Christian theology which has historically received little attention with regards to precise formulation. A brief survey of works detailing the development of doctrine (such as Bromiley, 1978) reveals almost no acknowledgment of the rapture. This is perhaps explained by Berkhof (1975, p. 259) who states,
The doctrine of the last things never stood in the centre of attention, is one of the least developed doctrines, and therefore calls for no elaborate discussion.
Further, the very notion of the rapture is much-derided by critics who find fault due to the allegedly non-existence of such a doctrine in the scriptures; the seemingly non-existence of the very word "rapture" in the scriptures (though such an argument would apply to the Trinity also); and the thought that the idea of a "secret rapture" where the Church is transported safely from a catastrophic time of tribulation is foreign to God's plans and purposes as revealed in history - for indeed, "the blood of the martyrs is the very seed of the Church" (Cairns, 1981, p.93).
Such arguments are untenable. The main basis for the rapture doctrine is I Thessalonians 4:13-18:
Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till 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 with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.
From this passage the notion of the rapture is clear; at some future time all of the saints of God, both dead and alive, shall be "caught up" into the air to be with their Lord! The Greek word for "caught up" is arpazo, which means to pluck away (Zodhiates, 1992, p. 1270) and would be well translated "rapture" in a Latin Bible (Willmington, n.d, p. 825), such as Jerome's Vulgate - so the word itself is scriptural (just not in an English translation), as indeed is the notion.
The third objection listed is specific to a particular theological framework and shall be discussed later. Indeed, many objections exist, not least that of sincere Christian brethren who seek to know what must happen to the defenseless family pet when its owners are suddenly raptured! Such an argument is, of course, based on emotional issues rather than the scriptures and detracts from the real issue at hand.
Paul reveals more information in I Corinthians 15:51-52:
Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed - in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
Having established a preliminary scriptural basis for the rapture, however, a new problem arises with regards to its chronological location. As Stern (1992, p. 623) points out, "Only in relation to the premillennial position does the issue of when the rapture takes place arise; for Post- and Amillennialists, the Rapture is vaguely identified with the Messiah's one and only return." This means that the concept of the rapture is only particularly defined in the pre-millennial system of theology.
However, this leaves three potential general times for the rapture to occur, defined in terms of the coming "great tribulation" - before the tribulation period (pre-tribulational), during the tribulation period (mid-tribulational) or after the tribulation period (post-tribulational). Some humorously (and non-seriously) suggest a fourth possibility of "pan-tribulationalism" - as God is in control there is no need to worry about such matters; all will eventually "pan" out according to His plans. The former three views however, are worthy of considerable discussion.
In essence, the post-tribulational system decrees that the rapture occurs after the tribulation period - the natural consequence being that the Church must endure it. Willmington (n.d., p. 825) dismisses this view of the rapture by appealing to I Thessalonians 5:9 ("For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ") and Revelation 3:10 ("Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth").
Nevertheless, post-tribulationists dismiss Willmington's views, appealing to John 16:33, "in this world you will have tribulation". To the post-tribulationist, it is unthinkable that God would offer a remarkable transport to the Church as an escape route in the face of global disaster, alluded to earlier (although such was the case with Noah). Truly throughout history the Church has suffered persecution - indeed under such persecution the Church has historically thrived - not materially, but in a spiritual harvest, as faith is refined and tested and the gospel is propagated to further regions. This was the case in Jerusalem - "Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went" (Acts 8:4). This was the case under Roman persecution (Cairns, 1981, p. 91-93). Persecution kept the Church pure - it kept hypocritical, dishonest and insincere people from the Church. "No light decisions were made for Christ in those times, especially when acceptance of Christ meant possible loss of citizenship; imprisonment with daily starvation and torture until death; crucifixion, and sometimes burning while still alive and hanging on the cross. . . ." (Hamon, 1981, p. 80-81). Such is the essence of the Puritan classic, Foxe's Christian Martyrs of the World.
The flaw in this logic, however, is that the tribulation period is not a time of persecution. Rather, it is a time of God's wrath being outpoured on the earth. During this time people shall cry to the mountains and the rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?" (Revelation 6:16-17). When Christ returns, "He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty" (Revelation 19:15). Willmington's verses above apply most certainly - for God has appointed His Church to salvation and not to wrath. Surely the day of the Lord will be terrible (Malachi 4:5)!
Messianic Jewish scholar David Stern offers a different and original reason for his holding to the post-tribulation view - it is unthinkable "that Messianic Jews are to be faced with the decision of whether to identify with their own people the Jews and stay to suffer or with their own people the believers (the Messianic Community, the Church) and escape" (Stern, 1992, p. 623). Stern develops this idea further:
But if Sha'ul [Paul] and other Jewish believers are members both of Israel and of the Messianic Community, Pre-Tribulationists must answer this question: when the rapture takes place, do Jewish believers in Yeshua [Jesus] stay behind with the rest of physical Israel, or do they join the rest of the Messianic Community with Yeshua in the air? They can't be in both places at once. Is it a matter of our personal choice? Do we have to choose whether to be more loyal to the Jewish people or to our brothers in the Messiah? This is an absurd question, absurd because the situation proposed will never arise (Stern, 1992, p. 804).
Stern's objections, however, are based heavily on his emphasis that Jewish people remain Jewish once becoming Christians; indeed, they are "fulfilled" Jews. This is, of course, true, but Stern's emphasis is so great that he (unintentionally, but effectively) divides the body of Christ in two - those who are Jewish and those who are Gentiles, despite Paul's admonition that "there is neither Jew nor Greek. . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). Stern continues, ". . . . This is not what they [Messianic Jews] bought into when they came to faith. They were told, 'Now you're a Jew who has accepted his Messiah.' They were not told, 'Now you have abandoned your Jewish people and will spend eternity without them'" (Stern, 1992, p. 804). Certainly the Gentile Christian is distinct from the Gentile non-Christian (who will unquestionably remain after the rapture). The deciding factor is not whether one is Jewish or otherwise, but whether one is a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ or not.
Finally, the rapture is quite distinct from the Second Coming in which Jesus returns to the earth, to the Mount of Olives (Zechariah 14). At the rapture, Jesus draws the Saints to Himself in the clouds (I Thessalonians 4:15-17). At the Second Coming, He returns with the Saints (Revelation 19:11-16). The post-tribulational view virtually has the Saints of God acting like a yo-yo - arising into the air, only to return immediately to the earth. This further gives no time for the Bema seat of Christ or the marriage supper of the Lamb.
The mid-tribulation view of the rapture is that it will take place midway through the tribulation period.
Such a view is a curious exposition of scripture, for the Antichrist makes a covenant with the Jewish people and then breaks it three and a half years into the tribulation (Daniel 9:27). Even if the mid-tribulation rapture occurs earlier than this time, it still must take place after the Antichrist has been revealed, which can only happen after the "restrainer" is removed (II Thessalonians 2:7-8).
Some have suggested that the identity of the "restrainer" is the Antichrist himself - a non-sensical notion indeed, particularly in light of Paul's teaching that "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. And then the lawless one will be revealed" (II Thessalonians 2:7-8).
Others suggest the "restrainer" is the Holy Spirit (Dake, 1963, p. 230). However, John sees those who have become Christians during the tribulation, and martyred for their faith (Revelation 7:14). It is only by the work of the Holy Spirit that one can be brought to Christ (John 16:8), not by man, and so the Holy Spirit can not be the "restrainer" removed from the earth.
"restrainer" is in fact none other than the Church - the "salt
of the earth" (Matthew 5:13) and the "light of the world"
(Matthew 5:14). Hence, the Church must be raptured before the Antichrist may be
revealed and so the mid-tribulation view of the Antichrist being revealed
before the rapture is not possible. (The
identity of "the restrainer" is open to debate.....Keygar)
(The identity of "the restrainer" is open to debate.....Keygar)
Furthermore, the mid-tribulation position requires the tribulation to be broken into two unrelated halves, which has the potential for requiring many Biblical passages to have an allegorical interpretation in order to be consistent. For one, the seventieth "week" of years of Daniel's remarkable prophecy (Daniel 9:24-27) could not be for "his" (Daniel's) people - the Jews (Daniel 9:24) - it would also of necessity pertain to the Church.
One possible basis for the mid-tribulation rapture is the inability to distinguish between the rapture of the Church and the rapture of the two witnesses which does take place midway through the tribulation period (Revelation 11:3, 7, 11). However, the two witnesses are hardly representative of the entire Church and it must be concluded that they are quite separate.
Some scholars identify the "last trump" of I Corinthians 15:52 with the blowing of the "seventh trumpet" in the middle of the tribulation (Revelation 11:15-18). Rosenthal (1995, p. 5) states, "One of the major fallacies which has led to so much confusion in prophetic interpretation has been the tendency to identify Paul's 'last trump' with 'the seventh trumpet' of the Book of Revelation".
Due to the fact that I Corinthians was written about 55 A.D. and Revelation was written about 96 A.D. (some would say 70 A.D., but nevertheless, it was written after I Corinthians and Paul's martyrdom). Explicitly John states that the contents of the book of Revelation were given by God the Father to the Lord Jesus, who in turn used an angelic messenger to convey the message to John (Revelation 1:1-2). The very word "revelation" means an unveiling of that which was hitherto unknown or concealed. Rosenthal (1995, p. 5) continues,
Therefore, when Paul wrote of one generation of believers experiencing rapture (being "changed") at "the last trump," neither he nor the Corinthians knew anything concerning the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls of the Book of Revelation. Paul's "last trump" and the Book of Revelation's "seventh trumpet" are not synonymous.
The true meaning of "the last trump" requires an understanding of the Jewish notion of the "Day of the Lord" used nineteen times by eight Old Testament prophets. This was the future time when God would go to war (Rosenthal, 1995, p. 5). Associated with this would be the blowing of a trumpet - the Jewish shofar (Joel 1:15; 2:1; Zephaniah 1:14-16). Indeed, the phrase "the last trump" hardly shows a mid-tribulation rapture because it instead refers to the commencement of the very last time of battle in this age - the very start of the dreadful Day of the Lord - the tribulation period itself.
The pre-tribulation view may be summarized thus,
It was held that the return of Christ would take place in two stages. First there would be a quiet appearance of Christ when all true Christians would be taken from the earth - the 'rapture' of the saints. After this, Antichrist's reign would continue but be brought to an end by the appearing of Christ in glory and the introduction of a 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth from Jerusalem (Humphreys & Ward, 1995, p. 128-9).
If the book of Revelation is to be taken as a chronological work, which most futurists would agree, there is great significance in the similarities between I Thessalonians 4:16-17 above and Revelation 4:1-2 - again a voice like a trumpet is heard and John is transported instantly through a door in heaven to the very throne-room of God.
Indeed, the very "door" is significant to those who see a secondary meaning in the seven Churches of Revelation chapters 1-3, being the historical development of the Church over history, from the early Church to that at the time of the Second Coming. With this view the door of Revelation 3:10, opened to the Philadelphian Church, is equated with that of Revelation 4:1 (Cartledge, n.d., p. 119). This view then equates the lukewarm Laodicean Church as the false religious system that arises during the tribulation. Such a view however is counter-productive as the Philadelphian Church is still part of the Church and so requires the Church to be divided - the lukewarm left behind, which implies a Protestant purgatory.
Nevertheless, there is great significance in the fact that John is told to "Come up hither" (Revelation 4:1) - the very same words spoken to the two witnesses before they too are raptured (Revelation 11:12).
Further, the Church is remarkably absent from any of the proceedings from Revelation 4:1 to 19:11 when Christ returns - indeed, the Church surely has no part in the tribulation.
Not only so, but the tribulation period is the final "week" of years in Daniel's prophecy (Daniel 9:24-27), specifically designated for the Jewish people. The times of the Gentiles are complete, and God again turns His hand to His ancient peoples, the end result that at His Second Coming the Jews will look on Him whom they have pierced (Zechariah 12:10) and all Israel will be saved (Romans 11:26) - the Messiah they expected at Jesus' first coming will finally arrive (Edersheim, 1993, p. 113)!
The honest Christian theologian can do nothing less than assimilate the data of revelation provided in the scriptures and draw from this one's theology and framework of belief. To do otherwise is wrong, and one must not be persuaded by purely emotional arguments, or seek to manipulate scripture to conform to a preconceived world-view.
When one examines the conflicting views of the rapture in the pre-millennial framework, it becomes apparent that the only one which consistently fits the facts of Biblical data is the pre-tribulation view. Certainly as Christians we look not for tribulation, but for "His Son from heaven who has delivered us from the wrath to come" (I Thessalonians 1:10). The early Church expected the coming of the Lord imminently and did not expect any intervening events, especially the Thessalonians (Matthew 24:44; I Thessalonians 5:2).
Just as Noah and his family were saved from God's wrath (Genesis 7:6-7), as was Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19:14), and indeed the Children of Israel were saved from the plagues on Pharaoh (Exodus 7:18; 8:3, 21-22; 9:3-4; 10:22-23; 11:6-7), so too the Church shall be saved from the coming great tribulation by the rapture.
The Christian is commanded to look up - for their redemption draws near (Luke 21:28)! What can be said but "Amen. Come, Lord Jesus." (Revelation 22:20).