May 21, we’re told, is the end of it all. Harold Camping tells us it’s the day when the Rapture of the church will happen. Historic Christianity, of course, stands with Jesus over anyone who claims he knows the day or the hour of Jesus’ coming (Matt. 24:3-8). But what about the larger idea here? Is there a secret, sudden Rapture? Is that what we should expect?
While all orthodox Christians everywhere have affirmed the physical, bodily return of Jesus at the end of the age, contemporary evangelicals have disagreed—sometimes sharply—over the timing of this event, especially as it relates to the tribulation and the rise of the antichrist.
The emergence of dispensationalism in the nineteenth century fueled the idea of a pretribulational rapture. This is the view that the second coming arrives in two stages: a secret, unexpected “catching away” of believers before the tribulation, and a public, visible coming of Christ with his church at the end of this time of Jacob’s trouble.
A pretribulational rapture makes perfect sense within the context of a dispensationalist hermeneutic. The doctrine rests on several considerations: a sharp distinction between Israel and the church, the church as a parenthesis in God’s prophetic timetable, God’s promise that he will deliver his people from judgment, and the imminent return of Christ. The pretribulational rapture initially was argued by dispensationalists such as Darby and Scofield most significantly as the end of the “church age”—when God restarts his prophetic timetable with Israel, the onset of Daniel’s seventieth week, which has been on “pause” since the rejection of Jesus by the Jews in the first century. At the rapture, the “times of the Gentiles” are fulfilled and God turns again to his earthly people, Israel.
Dispensationalists still hold to a distinction between the church and Israel, but the idea of two peoples and two programs, is almost wholly abandoned by contemporary dispensationalist theologians, evacuating the primary theological reason for a pretribulational rapture.
The second important reason for a pretribulation rapture remains in place for most dispensationalists: in prophetic passages in the New Testament the church is said to be “not destined . . . for wrath” (1 Thess. 5:9). But the question is whether this passage speaks of “wrath” in terms of the tribulation or of ultimate wrath—condemnation and hell. It would seem to speak of the latter, since Paul contrasts this wrath with “salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us” (1 Thess. 5:9b–10a). God does promise that believers are exempt from wrath (Rom. 8:1), but he does not promise that they are exempt from tribulation; indeed he guarantees it for all who will live godly in Jesus (Rom. 8:17; Phil. 1:29; 1 Pet. 4:12–19).
In the Revelation, Jesus does promise the church at Philadelphia that he will keep it “from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world” (Rev. 3:10). It does not suggest, however, that he will do so by removing the church from the world.
Indeed, the pattern of God’s provision for his people, as he is pouring out judgment around them, is to bring them safely through such a disturbance—not to “rapture” them out of it. Thus, as the plagues fall on Egypt, for example—plagues that are repeated and intensified during the Apocalypse—God “makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel” (Exod. 11:7) by protecting Israel from the judgments, but he does not remove Israel until after the plagues are ended.
Moreover, the “salvation from wrath” argument is internally inconsistent. If even one redeemed person goes through the tribulation—and dispensationalists insist some will, Gentiles who turn to Christ after the rapture and the redeemed Jewish remnant—then this argument does not work. Someone who belongs to Christ is passing through the wrath of God in the tribulation.
The strongest argument for a pretribulational rapture is the case from imminence. The Scriptures call on believers always to be ready for the coming of Jesus, an unexpected event that will hit like a “thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2). A signless rapture certainly does preserve the unpredictability of an anytime coming of Christ. And yet this argument assumes that the tribulation is a time wholly and obviously incongruous with the present era.
It assumes that an observer could read the newspaper and say, “Well, since the antichrist is on the move and Israel is converting, we have about six and a half years left until Jesus comes.” As we have noted above, the tribulation is an intensification of God’s judgments already being poured out on the cosmos; an explosion of persecutions that are already at work. How does one know that an antichrist on the scene now is the final antichrist?
To believers in some Islamic terrorist states, it may seem as though the great tribulation is now in full force. They may see the materialism and opulence and spiritual apathy of the West as a clear fulfillment of the great Babylon of the Apocalypse. Jesus does tell us his coming could be at any time, but the Bible also tells us not to let the day surprise us like a thief (1 Thess. 5:4). It does not make much sense that the Apostle Paul would comfort the Thessalonians that the coming of Christ has not yet occurred because the antichrist has not yet been unveiled (2 Thess. 2), if in fact the coming for believers is before the antichrist comes to power anyway. We are to be looking to the signs of the times, always understanding that, like those of first-century Galilee, we could be mistaken about whether God is fulfilling prophecies all around us.
Just because these arguments for a pretribulational rapture are not conclusive, this does not mean that the second coming could not come in two stages, one of them being before the tribulation. The Bible nowhere precludes a pretribulational rapture, and God has in times past fulfilled in stages prophetic events (such as the coming of the Messiah, after all). I certainly hope I am wrong about the timing of the rapture and will gladly concede this point to my pretrib friends while flying through the atmosphere.
Like the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the rapture of the church is a kingly act. The Bible makes clear that Jesus calls the dead and the living to him in the air with a shout. Just as God the Creator calls all things into existence by his word and just as Yahweh showed his sovereignty by whistling for the nations and they come to him speedily from the ends of the earth (Isa. 5:26), Jesus demonstrates his regal authority by calling his people forward, and even those in the graves come to him (John 5:25–29). The second coming is one further example that the sheep hear the voice of the Shepherd, and they follow him (John 10:3)—even into the air itself. The simultaneous explosion of cemeteries across the globe is a globalization seen in Jesus’ calling of Lazarus from his grave. Just as then, in Jesus’ death defying voice we see the glory of a God who always hears his Son (John 11:40–42).