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Will There Be a Rapture before The Tribulation?

Pastor of Iglesia Conexiones, a baptist church in Jessup, MD. B.A. in Bible, B.S. English Ed., M.S. in Educational Leadership.

I was taught all my life that the rapture will take place before the tribulation. That belief was reinforced when I was in Bible college. However, whenever I heard someone preach about the rapture, I felt that some things didn't add up. Eventually, I decided to postpone the topic until a time when I was ready to explore it.

Recently, I began to question the pretribulational rapture. I concluded that most of what I was taught about it is wrong. "Coincidentally," during that time of questioning I happened to find out that two of my favorite Christian scholars do not believe in the pretribulational ratpure either.

In this article, I’m going to take a close look at what the Bible says about the rapture.

Those Caught Up to Heaven — Pictures of The Rapture?

I have heard pastors preach that the rapture is represented in the Old Testament by Enoch, Noah, Lot, and Elijah; and by the Lord Jesus Christ and the apostle John in the New Testament. Let's start with them examining the evidence.

Enoch

"Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him." (Genesis 5:24, KJV)

This is all we know about Enoch's “rapture.” Notice that we aren't even told where God took him. Sure, we can say that He obviously took Enoch to heaven, but Genesis doesn’t say this: we’re just making an assumption based on our doctrinal views.

Surely, no one who read these verses in Moses' times would have come to a conclusion that this incident represented the pre-tribulational rapture of the church.

Nevertheless, we do learn something valuable: someone who enjoyed a close relationship with God was taken by God, he was nowhere to be found, and this event was a good thing.

Noah & Lot

Noah and his family (along with hundreds of animals) escaped the waters of the flood in an ark, and Lot was allowed to escape the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

"If [God] did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly; 6 if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; 7 and if he rescued righteous Lot, greatly distressed by the sensual conduct of the wicked 8 (for as that righteous man lived among them day after day, he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard); 9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment...." (2 Peter 2:5-9, KJV)

No one went to heaven in the accounts of Noah and Lot. However, Peter does derive an important lesson from these two accounts: God rescues the godly from trials.

Elijah

In regards to Elijah's "rapture," here's what the Bible says:

1Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.... 11And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” (2 Kings 2:1,11, KJV)

Elijah's rapture is a unique experience in the Bible—a very unique and awesome experience. However, it is nothing like what we think the rapture of the church will be: we're not expecting to go up to heaven in a whirlwind, much less in chariots of fire.

However, Elijah's rapture does give us some new information: it tells us Elijah went to heaven. Obviously, God wasn't taking Elijah up to the sky, where the clouds are. He was taking Elijah up to heaven, that very special place where God is.

Jesus

The Lord's ascension is a lot more like what we think the rapture will be.

"So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God." (Mark 16:19, KJV)

As you can see, the Gospel of Mark gives us more detail than the previous accounts: once in heaven, Jesus sat at the right hand of God.

The gospel of Luke, on the other hand, does not give us as much detail.

"And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven." (Luke 24:51, KJV)

Nevertheless, the most detailed account of the Lord's ascension is in the book of acts Acts.1:9-11.

"And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. 10 And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; 11 Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven." (Acts 1:9-11, KJV)

As you can see, Luke adds more details in his second book: a cloud, two angels, and a prophecy of his return.

John and Ezekiel

Beside the ascension of these men, there are pastors who see John's ascension to heaven in the book of Revelation as a foreshadowing of the church's rapture, but this is unlikely.

“After this I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven: and the first voice which I heard was as it were of a trumpet talking with me; which said, Come up hither, and I will shew thee things which must be hereafter. 2 And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne.” (Revelation 4:1-2, KJV)

As you can see, John's ascension was neither a physical one nor a permanent one. John's spirit ascended to heaven temporarily to see visions, but history tells us John was still on Earth after he wrote the book of Revelation—he didn't stay in heaven.

John's spiritual ascension to heaven is more reminiscent of Ezekiel's vision (Ezekiel 1:1). Both Ezekiel and John saw heaven open, and this allowed them to see revelations, but neither of them stayed in heaven, as Enoch, Elijah, and the Lord Jesus did.

Comparison

As you can see, the experience of ascending to heaven became more complex as time went on—more information was given every time someone went to heaven.

If we put aside John’s and Ezekiel’s spiritual experience, we see can see that the ascensions of Enoch, Elijah, and the Lord do show that people can ascend to heaven. However, it is important that we realize that none of these ascensions show that people are taken to heaven (raptured) to spare them from trials or tribulations.

You may have heard that Enoch was taken up to heaven to spare him from the flood, but that’s not true: Enoch was taken up to heaven 669 years before the flood (he was taken on the year 365 of his life, and the flood occurred on the year 600 of Noah’s life). It is therefore unlikely he was taken up to heaven so he could escape the flood.

In regards to Noah and Lot, their experiences do show that God rescues the godly from trials. However, their experiences are not related to any ascension. It makes sense, then, that Peter does not teach the rapture in his epistle. His main point is that false teachers will be judged by God. He also mentions in passing—without giving us details—that God will deliver believers in Christ (2 Peter 2:4-10). This kind of deliverance does not necessarily point to a rapture. After all, Lot was delivered by being guided out of Sodom, and Noah was delivered through the ark. Neither of them was delivered by a rapture.

The Rapture in The Gospel of John?

John 12:26

"If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will my Father honour." (John 12:26, KJV)

In the Gospel of John (John 12:26), Jesus says that his servants will be where he is. From the context of this passage, we can deduce that he was talking about where he would be present after his resurrection and ascension (John 12:23, 35-36).

According to the New Testament, after his resurrection, Jesus ascended to the Father in heaven (Acts 1:11, 2:34, 3:21, 7:55; Revelation 3:21). This concept is also clearly taught in the Gospel of John (John 3:13, 20:1).

From this passage, then, we know that the Lord’s disciples would one day be with the Lord in heaven—but we don’t know when this will happen.

John 14:2-3

"2In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also." (John 14:2-3, KJV)

In John 14:2-3, the Lord clearly states that he is going to the Father’s house to prepare room for them. He had already said to his disciples that he would be glorified soon and straightway (John 13:31-32). Moreover, he told his disciples that they could not come where he was going (John 13:33), and that he was going to the Father (John 14:6, 12). Finally, the Lord tells them that he will return and take them to himself so they can be where he is (John 14:3, 18, 28).

But the Lord is not specific about when he will return to them. However, in the same gospel, the Lord does warn his disciples that they will have tribulation (John 16:33).

As far as we know, the Lord hasn’t returned yet for his disciples. The same Gospel of John hinted that both Peter and John would die before he returned for them (John 21:17-24).

Timeline 1

As we consider these verses and others related to them, a basic timeline does emerge in the Gospel of John.

  1. First, the Lord would ascend to the Father (John 14:28) and leave the disciples behind (John 14:12, 16:16-19).
  2. Afterwards, the Holy Spirit would come to the disciples (John 14:16-17), convict the world (John 16:7-8), and guide the disciples, and give them revelation (John 16:12-15). The disciples would also need to pray (John 14:13-16) because they would experience tribulation in the world (John 16:20-22, 33).
  3. Eventually, at least two disciples would die (John 21:17-24).
  4. Finally, after all these things, the Lord would return for the disciples—an event that we believe is still in the future.

The Rapture in 1 Corinthians 15?

1 Corinthians 15:23-24

"But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ's at his coming. 24 Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. 25 For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet." (1 Corinthians 15:23-25, KJV)

Another Scripture we should consider when discussing the rapture is 1 Corinthians 15. In this chapter, Paul corrects the Corinthian believers who thought there was no such thing as the resurrection of the dead. Paul bases his argument on the fact that Jesus Christ himself rose from the dead.

After teaching that the resurrection of the dead is a doctrine believers should take seriously, Paul discloses, in verses 23 and 24, the order in which some events will take place:

  • First, the resurrection of Christ would take place—this resurrection had already taken place when Paul wrote the epistle.
  • Second, the resurrection of Christians would take place at the coming of the Lord.
  • Third, the end would come: that time when Christ would deliver the kingdom to the Father after putting down all enemies.

Notice that between the resurrection of believers and the time when Christ delivers the kingdom to the Father, Christ first puts down all enemies—an event that may coincide with a literal millennium.

Notice also that the resurrection of all believers takes place at the coming of the Lord.

1 Corinthians 15:49-54

"49 And as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly. 50 Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. 51 Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory." (1 Corinthians 15:49-54, KJV)

In 1 Corinthians 15:49-54, Paul gives us more relevant details about the resurrection of those who believe in Jesus Christ..

First, he tells us that, when we resurrect, we will bear the image of Christ, not the image of Adam (v.49). According to verses 44 to 50, our bodies then will not be natural, earthy, and corruptible; instead, they will be spiritual, heavenly, and incorruptible.

Second, Paul tells us that not all believers will sleep. Often in the gospels, the Lord referred to those whom he was about to raise from the dead as being asleep (Matthew 9:24, Mark 5:39, Luke 8:52, John 11:11, 13). Also, in the rest of the New Testament, dead believers in Christ are often said to be asleep (Acts 13:36, 1 Corinthians 11:30, 1 Thessalonians 4:14, 1 Thessalonians 5:10). Thus, what Paul means is that not all believers will die, but that all will be transformed (receive spiritual, heavenly, and incorruptible bodies) after the dead believers are first resurrected.

According to Paul, the resurrection and the transformation will take place in the blink of an eye.

The third detail we should note is that the resurrection of all dead believers and the transformation of all believers (the ones that were alive and the ones that were resurrected) will immediately follow the sound of a trumpet.

Timeline 2

If we combine the timeline from John with the timeline from 1 Corinthians 15, we get something like this:

  1. First, the Lord would resurrect (1 Corinthians 15:23).
  2. The Lord would ascend to the Father (John 14:28) and leave the disciples behind (John 14:12, 16:16-19).
  3. Afterwards, the Holy Spirit would come to the disciples (John 14:16-17), convict the world (John 16:7-8), and guide the disciples, and give them revelation (John 16:12-15). The disciples would also need to pray (John 14:13-16) because they would experience tribulation in the world (John 16:20-22, 33).
  4. Eventually, at least two disciples would die (John 21:17-24).
  5. Several Christians would die, but not all Christians would die (1 Corinthians 15:51).
  6. The Lord would return (1 Corinthians 15:23).
  7. The last trumpet will sound (1 Corinthians 15:52).
  8. The dead in Christ would be resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:18, 21).
  9. All Christians (those who were alive at the Lord's coming and those who resurrected) would be transformed (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).
  10. Death is swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54).
  11. Christ will reign (1 Corinthians 15:25).
  12. Christ will put down all rule and authority (1 Corinthians 15:24).
  13. Death will be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26).
  14. Christ will deliver the kingdom to God the Father (1 Corinthians 15:24).

The Rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17?

In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, Paul teaches that all deceased believers will be resurrected, be caught in the clouds with all believers who were alive, meet the Lord in the air, and be forever with him. Just as the resurrection of believers was patterned after the resurrection of Christ in 1 Corinthians 15:20, this ascension of living and resurrected believers will be very similar to the Lord’s own ascension (Acts 1:9).

"16For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first:

17Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord." (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17, KJV)

Because the Lord's own resurrection was literal, and the resurrection of believers is also literal, and the ascension of Christ was literal, it is logical to infer that this ascension (what is called the rapture) of all believers will also be literal.

In context, the reason Paul told all this to the Thessalonians is that they were mourning for those Christians who had died (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). Therefore, Paul reminds them about the resurrection, and he adds the detail that the ones alive will not meet the Lord without the dead. Paul was trying to comfort them (1 Thessalonians 4:18).

Notice, however, that Paul does appear to give us an important hint about the time when this will occur. This ascension of believers will take place immediately after the Lord descends from heaven, calls out with a shout, the voice of an archangel, and God’s trumpet, and the dead believers resurrect.

Some scholars quickly point out that Paul does not mention that the Lord’s feet will land on the mouth of olives (Zechariah 14:4), so this coming of the Lord isn’t his second coming (Matthew 24), but only the Lord coming to the atmosphere of planet Earth for his church. From there on, the Lord will take his disciples to heaven, as he promised in John.

However, other scholars have pointed out that this passage is reminiscent of a Roman custom. According to the custom, when a Roman army would return to its city, the people of the city would come out to welcome the army, and then they would accompany the army back in the city. In the opinion of said scholars, 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is saying that when the Lord returns to Earth, he will first be received by the church in the air, and then he will then be accompanied by the church back to Earth.

To be fair, if this coming of the Lord cannot be the Lord’s second coming because his feet do not land on the Mount of Olives, this coming of the Lord cannot be a pretribulational rapture because Paul says nothing about the seven years of the tribulation following the church’s ascension. In other words, we shouldn’t argue from silence because it works both ways.

Timeline 3

If we combine the previous timeline with the new information we get from this passage, we get something like this:

  1. First, the Lord would resurrect (1 Corinthians 15:23).
  2. The Lord would ascend to the Father (John 14:28) and leave the disciples behind (John 14:12, 16:16-19).
  3. Afterwards, the Holy Spirit would come to the disciples (John 14:16-17), convict the world (John 16:7-8), and guide the disciples, and give them revelation (John 16:12-15). The disciples would also need to pray (John 14:13-16) because they would experience tribulation in the world (John 16:20-22, 33).
  4. Eventually, at least two disciples would die (John 21:17-24).
  5. Several Christians would die, but not all Christians would die (1 Corinthians 15:51).
  6. The Lord will descend from heaven (1 Thessalonians 4:16) and return (1 Corinthians 15:23).
  7. The Lord will shout, use the voice of an archangel, use the trumpet of God (1 Thessalonians 4:16), which is most likely the last trumpet that will sound (1 Corinthians 15:52).
  8. The dead in Christ will be resurrected first (1 Corinthians 15:18, 21, 1 Thessalonians 4:16).
  9. All Christians (those who were alive at the Lord's coming and those who resurrected) would be transformed (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).
  10. Death is swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54).
  11. All Christians (those who were alive and those who resurrected) will be caught in the clouds, meet the Lord in the air, and be forever with him (1 Thessalonians 4:17)
  12. Christ will reign (1 Corinthians 15:25).
  13. Christ will put down all rule and authority (1 Corinthians 15:24).
  14. Death will be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26).
  15. Christ will deliver the kingdom to God the Father (1 Corinthians 15:24).

Addressing Objections

Let us now consider some objections to the timeline I have presented above.

2 Thessalonians 2:6-7

Proponents of the pretribulational rapture may argue that, according to 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7, the Man of Sin (usually called the Antichrist) cannot appear until the church is raptured.

Nevertheless, it cannot be stated with certainty that 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 is related to the rapture. I have already addressed this passage in my article Who Restrains the Man of Sin? Analysis of 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7, so there is no need for me to write about this passage once again.

Revelation 3:10

Proponents of the pretribulational rapture may also argue that Revelation 3:10 indicates that the church will be kept from the hour of temptation (trial, tribulation) that is coming on the whole world.

However, the passage does not clearly reveal how the Lord will do this, so other interpretations are possible. Some interpreters, for example, think it is possible that the Lord will miraculously preserve his church as he preserved Israel from the plagues He sent over Egypt (Exodus 9:6, 9:26, 10:23, 12:23).

But the main point to remember is that there is no textual reason to link Revelation 3:10 to 1 Corinthians 15 or 1 Thessalonians 4.

The Time of Jacob’s Trouble

Another objection that proponents of the pretribulational rapture may raise is that, in Jeremiah 30:7, the great tribulation is called “the time of Jacob’s trouble.” According to them, since the great tribulation is a time of trouble for Jacob (Israel), it cannot be a time of trouble for the church. However, this position is based on an assumption, not a clear passage of Scripture.

Consistent with the dispensational, premillennial, and pretribulational view, believers in Jesus Christ from all nations (not only Jews) will be persecuted during the great tribulation (Revelation 7:9, 14, 12:17).

The way in which dispensational, premillennial, and pretribulational interpreters try to avoid the apparent contradiction is by claiming that the believers who are persecuted during the tribulation are not part of the church—they are neither Israel nor the church, but their own category. But how do you defend this claim from Scripture? While it is possible to reason that the dispensation of the great tribulation is similar to the dispensation of the Law (when there were righteous gentiles who were not part of Israel), the argument is still based on a theological assumption: there is not clear passage in the Bible that addresses this specific issue.

The Church Is Not Appointed to Wrath

Proponents of the pretriulational rapture may also argue that 1 Thessalonians 1:10 clearly teaches that the church has been delivered from the wrath to come, and that 2 Thessalonians 2:8-10 clearly teaches that the Man of Sin (the Antichrist, who will be revealed during the great tribulation) will be sent to deceive those who do not believe the truth: therefore, the church cannot be present on Earth during the great tribulation.

The problem with this objection is that, although it is true that Christ has delivered the church from the wrath to come, and that the Antichrist will be sent to deceive those who do not believe the truth, it is not clear from this passage (a) that the wrath to come is the great tribulation, (b) how the Lord will deliver the church from the great tribulation, and (c) that the church cannot be present on Earth while the Man of Sin deceives unbelievers.

The Imminency of The Lord’s Return

Proponents of the pretribulational rapture argue that a pretribulational rapture is necessary to maintain the imminency of the Lord’s return. Perhaps, but is the imminency of the Lord’s return necessary?

In 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6, the Apostle Paul explains that the day of the Lord will come suddenly upon them (unbelievers). However, in regards to believers, he writes:

“But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief.” (1 Thessalonians 5:4, KJV)

In 2 Thessalonians 2:2, the Apostle Paul explains to Christian believers that something has to happen before the day of Christ (2:2) and the coming of the Lord come (2:1). Paul is telling them that before Christians are gathered to the Lord, there must first be a falling away and the Man of Sin must first be revealed (2:3).

The very same passage that is supposed to teach that we are fist gathered to the Lord before the Antichrist appears, actually teaches the opposite!

Eschatological Timeline

In conclusion, it seems to me that belief in a pretribulational rapture is not based on any biblical passage that clearly teaches it, but on arguments that are design to argue for a pretribulational rapture yet fail to acknwoelge that other interpretations of the passages used are possible. The pretribulational rapture position is based on assumptions.

Buy comparing the passages we have discussed thus far, I believe the following timeline is more logical:

Timeline 4

  1. First, the Lord would resurrect (1 Corinthians 15:23).
  2. The Lord would ascend to the Father (John 14:28) and leave the disciples behind (John 14:12, 16:16-19).
  3. Afterwards, the Holy Spirit would come to the disciples (John 14:16-17), convict the world (John 16:7-8), and guide the disciples, and give them revelation (John 16:12-15). The disciples would also need to pray (John 14:13-16) because they would experience tribulation in the world (John 16:20-22, 33).
  4. Eventually, at least two disciples would die (John 21:17-24).
  5. Several Christians would die, but not all Christians would die (1 Corinthians 15:51).
  6. A falling away will take place (1 Thessalonians 2:3)
  7. The Man of Sin is revealed (1 Thessalonians 2:3)
  8. The Lord will descend from heaven (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
  9. The Lord will shout, use the voice of an archangel, use the trumpet of God (1 Thessalonians 4:16), which is most likely the last trumpet that will sound (1 Corinthians 15:52).
  10. The dead in Christ will be resurrected first (1 Corinthians 15:18, 21, 1 Thessalonians 4:16).
  11. All Christians (those who were alive at the Lord's coming and those who resurrected) would be transformed (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).
  12. Death is swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54).
  13. All Christians (those who were alive and those who resurrected) will be caught in the clouds, meet the Lord in the air, and be forever with him (1 Thessalonians 4:17)
  14. The Lord will return (1 Corinthians 15:23) and destroy the Man of Sin with the brightness of his coming (2 Thessalonians 2:8).
  15. Christ will reign (1 Corinthians 15:25).
  16. Christ will put down all rule and authority (1 Corinthians 15:24).
  17. Death will be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26).
  18. Christ will deliver the kingdom to God the Father (1 Corinthians 15:24).

What do you think?

© 2020 Marcelo Carcach

Comments

Cheryl E Preston from Roanoke on October 02, 2020:

I don't know what to believe about the rapture. I do know He will come again

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