Please be sure to see my previous 2 posts if you are joining us now. In one post, I will attempt to present a “defense” of the pre-tribulation rapture. My last post explains my reasons for doing so. How to begin?
In the Old Testament there are prophecies about a coming Messiah, yet some of these prophecies were confusing – as some depicted this Messiah as a humble servant while others portrayed Him as a conquering king. Which was it? It wasn’t until after the fact that it became clear that these prophecies were about the first and second coming of Jesus. Jesus came the first time as a humble servant, and when he comes the second time it will be as conquering king.
Perhaps in a similar fashion, those who believe in the rapture see two phases to Christ’s second coming – once for the church prior to the tribulation, and then again prior to the Millennium. It needs to be admitted that pre-tribulationism is not an explicit teaching of Scripture, but it is rather an inference or induction from various biblical texts that allows for a harmony of verses related to the second coming.
Belief in the rapture is closely tied to beliefs about ecclesiology – the church. This rabbit trail is necessary. A covenant theologian sees a great deal of continuity between the Old and New Testaments, and more broadly defines the church as “God’s people” whether in the Old or New Testament times. Dispensationalism sees more discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments, and the church as something distinctly new in the book of Acts. Dispensationalism emphasizes a distinction between Israel and the church. Israel is the people of God under the old covenant, and the church is the people of God under the new covenant. It is not that dispensationalism sees no continuity at all between the Old and New Testament. Of course, Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy and such. Yet, the distinction between Isreal and the church is important. What’s the point here? This distinction is why dispensationalism sees different prophetic end-times “programs” for Israel and the church.
Regarding the church, Matt 16:18 is the first reference to the church in the NT, and Christ says he will build the church in a future tense. The book of Acts, especially the opening chapters, seems clear that with the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost that something totally new had begun with the church. Ephesians portrays the church as the Body of Christ, a new entity, with Christ as the cornerstone and the apostles as the foundation. Yet, Romans 9-11 focus on Israel, with chapter 11 emphasizing a future for Israel and that Israel will be restored to favor with God. Various Old Testament verses such as Gen 17:8 and Psalm 105:8-11 refer to the land and God’s covenant with Israel as eternal.
It does not seem that all these promises to Israel can be dismissed or seen as completely fulfilled by the church in a spiritual sense. It is true that some New Testament passages see the church receiving similar blessings to those of the new covenant with Israel, but similarity is not fulfillment. The church shares the blessings of the new covenant but does not fulfill its promises.
That background info was necessary, but now lets keep moving. Many Scripture passages teach that Christians should expect tribulation in this life. Yet, the scriptures also refer to a specific time of unparalleled tribulation, referred to as the “great tribulation” in Rev 7:14, which will immediately precede the return of Christ to earth. A presupposition for this view is a futuristic interpretation of Dan 9:24-27 (as well as other passages in Daniel 7-9, 11) and the book of Revelation. The book of Daniel seems to be the background for the Olivet Discourse of Jesus in Matthew 24, in which teaching is given on the end of the age and return of Christ. Jesus refers to the “abomination of desolation” and to a great, unprecedented tribulation (both referred to in Daniel). No matter how you interpret certain things, such as the “weeks” of Daniel, there does seem evidence for a period of tremendous tribulation before Christ’s return.
Are you still with me? As already emphasized, the church was a brand new entity, and there is also a future for Israel. Dispensationalism interprets the great tribulation as a prelude to Israel’s restoration and exaltation in the millennial kingdom, and to the ending of Gentile world dominion. The focus of the great tribulation is on the Jew and the Gentile world – not the church. Therefore, why would the church need to go through the tribulation?
This has been the historical, classic dispensational way of defending the rapture, yet there are other reasons to believe in it.
First Thess 4:13-18 is generally thought of as the “central rapture text.” Verse 17 refers to the believers being caught up into the air to meet the Lord in the air, and then being with the Lord from that time onward. This passage seems unique, and also articulates a movement from earth to heaven. The focus is on the believers, and how the rapture is to be a great comfort for them (vs 18), as they will be with the Lord from that time onward. However, other passages on the Second Coming such as in Matthew 24, Revelation 19, and Zechariah 14 focus on the movement of Christ from heaven to earth, and how Christ will come to judge and make war on the earth. The rapture text and the Second Coming texts seem to have a different focus and purpose. While it is true that I Thessalonians 4:13-18 is only one passage, its uniqueness can be an argument for it. Unique things have happened in the Scriptures before, such as Enoch and Elijah who were both caught up to heaven without facing death. Couldn’t the church be caught up too?
Another interesting point is that the term “church” is never used in the book of Revelation after chapter three. After chapter 3, there are references to saints and the elect (as people do become Christians during the Tribulation), yet why didn’t John simply use the term church as he did regularly in the opening chapters of the book? The sudden omission of the word after it was used regularly seems significant. Could it be because the church has been raptured?
Belief in the rapture also seems to relieve some “tensions” found among various texts regarding imminence and the signs of Christ’s coming. The doctrine of imminence can be defined as an “at any moment coming” of Christ. Believers should have an attitude of expectancy because Christ could return at any time. A number of New Testament passages emphasize that no one knows the day nor hour that Christ will return – and that believers should be living for the Lord while they wait (Titus 2:12-13, Matt 24:36, Mark 13: 32-37, II Peter 3:10-15).
However, both the book of Daniel and Matthew chapter 24 refer to the “abomination of desolation” as a specific sign that will occur mid-way during the Tribulation before Christ’s return. Which begs the question, how can Christ’s return be imminent (unexpected) if there is a specific sign that will precede it?
A belief in a two-stage coming of Christ seems to relieve these tensions. The Second Coming of Christ is one event in two stages. Christ will come first in the rapture for the church (and this will be imminent), and then at the end of Tribulation to deal with Israel and the Gentile world (for which there will be signs). Critics will argue that the rapture is a new teaching invented by John Nelson Darby. While there is some accuracy in this criticism, the doctrine of imminency is not a new doctrine with Darby. Imminency is taught not only in the New Testament, but by the early church fathers as well.
Whew, I’m exhausted. I don’t think belief in the rapture is something to obsess about, but I just wanted to present an explanation for it. If anyone has made it to the end of this post, thanks for reading it!