One of the most fascinating doctrines of the Bible is the doctrine of end times, properly called eschatology. If you were to ask the average person, particularly in the Southern Baptist Convention, what’s going to happen in the end, they would certainly affirm that Jesus Christ is coming back, but they’d also likely say that Jesus’ return will be in two stages. They would say that first, Jesus is going to return partially to earth to “rapture” the Church. Second will be a period of intense tribulation on the earth for seven years, and then Jesus will fully return to the earth at the end of those seven years. This viewpoint is properly called the pretribulational rapture view and is by far the majority view in American Evangelicalism.
While I certainly cannot wonder at its popularity, I do wonder if this doctrine is fully biblical. I’ll explore this question in this article.
A Call for Grace
Before I begin, I must say that we should come at the doctrines of the end times with great charity for one another. We must see that the primary doctrine that is clearly taught in the Scripture is that Jesus Christ is coming back and that God is going restore the universe to perfection. Everybody should affirm this truth without leeway.
But when it comes to the timing and nature of His return, there is leeway in the scope Christian orthodoxy. Will the rapture happen before, in the middle of, or after the Tribulation? Will Christ return before or after the millennium? Is the millennial reign of Christ physical or spiritual or both? The answers to these questions have been debated for years by Christians and will continue to be debated. Therefore, while I can be dogmatic about my stance, I must be dogmatic with grace because people who equally love God and love the Bible and are thorough-going Christians disagree.
The doctrine of the rapture is not a primary doctrine that defines Christianity and sets it apart from other religions. It’s not even a secondary doctrine that should divide churches and denominations. The doctrine of the rapture is a tertiary, or a third order, doctrine that shouldn’t divide anybody. Christians in the same church should be able to lovingly agree to disagree.
I’m not saying it’s not important. I’m just saying it shouldn’t be divisive. However, if you agree to disagree, you’re disagreement had better be founded on the rock solid teaching of God’s Word and not on notions and teachings picked up from the popular Christian media. So, the question remains: is the doctrine of a pretribulational rapture fully biblical? We’ll get at this question by answering four other questions
What is the rapture?
If you turn to your Bible concordance and look for the word rapture, you won’t find it. The word rapture is not a Bible word, but that’s okay because the idea is biblical. The word trinity is not in the Bible either, but again, the idea is biblical.
We get our word rapture from the Latin translation of 1 Thessalonians 4:17, Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up [rapturō in the Latin] together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. The words caught up (rapturō) translate from the Greek word harpadzō, which means “to snatch up, to seize suddenly, or to transport to another place.” So, a basic definition of the rapture is “the moment when those who believe on Jesus Christ are snatched up to meet Jesus in the air.”
There are three basic views as to when this event is going to take place, and each view is thought of in connection to the Tribulation, which is the time on the earth when the Anti-Christ will wreak havoc. The three basic views are as follows:
- Pretribulational Rapture: followers of Jesus Christ will be raptured just before the beginning of the Tribulation so that God can deal with the nation of Israel; they remain in Heaven with Jesus for 7 years and enjoy the Marriage Supper of the Lamb and return with Jesus at the 2nd coming
- Midtribulational Rapture: followers of Jesus Christ will be raptured just before the Tribulation gets really bad so that God can deal with the nation of Israel; they will remain in Heaven with Jesus for approximately 3.5 years and enjoy the Marriage Supper of the Lamb and return with Jesus at the 2nd coming
- Postribulational Rapture: followers of Jesus Christ will be raptured at the end of the Tribulation as Jesus is returning to earth so that Jesus can set up His Kingdom and enjoy the Marriage Supper of the Lamb
Again, of these three views, the most popularly held view, at least here in America for the last 100 years, particularly in the Southern Baptist Convention, is the pretribulational rapture view. It has really become the default position, but this reality has only been the case for the last 100 years. Another popular doctrine has arisen that brought the pretrib understanding of the rapture to the forefront.
What is the doctrine behind the doctrine of the pretrib rapture?
All Bible doctrine is like a spider web in that the individual doctrines are linked together to form a complete understanding of the Bible. We believe there is no error in the Bible, that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself. Therefore, the doctrines of the Bible fit together and are interlinked.
So, what is the doctrine behind the doctrine of the pretrib rapture? It’s the doctrine of Dispensationalism. The primary teaching of Dispensationalism is that God has two peoples and has different programs for these two peoples. One of God’s peoples is named Israel, and the other is named the Church. Israel is God’s earthly people, and the church is God’s heavenly people. The Church is the bride of Christ, and Israel is not. So, Dispensationalism maintains that there is a fundamental distinction between God’s plans for national Israel and for the New Testament Church.
An important part of this understanding is that while God has two peoples, He chooses to deal with them only one at a time. They see it this way:
- God dealt with the nation of Israel until they rejected the Messiah
- God then turned His intentions toward the Church program and put the program with national Israel on pause
- God will someday finish the Church program by rapturing out the Church and begin again His program with Israel
This is where the idea of a pretrib rapture was brought into being. It’s a dispensational teaching. The church must be taken out of the way so that God can continue His plan with Israel. Therefore, Jesus basically has to come twice. Do you see the connection? How many peoples does God have according to Dispensationalism? Two peoples. From a pretrib view, how many times does Christ come near the end of time? Twice. He comes part way at the rapture and then all the way at the judgment. Dispensationalists see two returns because God has two peoples.
For those of you who have done the Beth Moore study on the book Daniel, let me quote her from page 151 of the student book, “Dispensational premillennialism is the view we are following in our Bible study. Dispensationalists understand Israel to be a people distinct from the Church.” Let me quote her again from page 169, “A variety of premillennialism has gained increasing popularity since the 19th century. It is called pretribulational premillennialism or dispensationalism. Note that I will use these terms interchangeably.”
She makes two important statements here. First, she states that the pretrib rapture doctrine is a dispensational doctrine. I’ve labored fairly hard over the past year to try to convince you that the Scripture does not teach that God has two peoples, but rather only one. For help in this particular area, I refer to my blog The Israel of God. So, I’m only going to say this about the subject: God’s people from the garden of Eden to Jesus’ 2nd coming is made up all Jews and Gentiles who put their hope in the Messiah Christ. The church is part of true Israel. Those who came before the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus looked forward in faith to His day, and those like us who have come after the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus look backward in faith to His day. Jesus Christ and the cross is the centerpiece of all human history and always has been the only way to the Father. You see, the Bible is Jesus-centered, not Israel-centered. On this point, Dispensationalism falls flat on its face
Second, Moore states that this view has gained popularity since the 19th century. This statement is important to note because the doctrine of Dispensationalism along with its pretrib rapture teaching didn’t exist before the 19th century. Friends, it’s not enough to simply be a student of the Bible! You must be a student of history as well!
It was around the year 1830 when John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren in Great Britain first gave birth to this teaching. Church history before that time knows nothing of Dispensationalism or the Pretrib rapture. Darby then brought this teaching to America where it was further spread by C. I. Scofield, the Moody Bible Institute, and Dallas Theological Seminary. So, historically speaking, the pretrib rapture is a new doctrine.
While that last statement is certainly true, I must be careful to say that history is not our authority. Perhaps the whole of Christendom had been wrong until 1830. So, the ultimate question is: does the Bible teach a pretrib rapture?
Do the texts used to teach a pretrib rapture actually teach it?
There are certain proof texts that people usually turn to say that the Bible teaches a pretrib rapture. Probably the most vivid is the found in the parallel passages of Matthew 24 and Luke 17. The popular song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” summarized these passages this way: A man and wife asleep in bed; She hears a noise, turns her head; he’s gone. I wish we’d all been ready. Two men walking up a hill; one disappears, and one’s left standing still. I wish we’d all been ready.
Look at Matthew 24:40-41 speaking about the 2nd coming of Jesus, Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one will be left.
Luke 17:34-36 essentially says the same thing, I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other will be left. There will be two women grinding at the same place; one will be taken and the other will be left. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other will be left.
Those who believe the Bible teaches a pretrib rapture say, “See there, there’s the rapture. Jesus has come and snatched up his church and left behind the nonbelievers,” but as you know, context is everything!
When we look at the broader context of Matthew 24:36-42, we find that this is not a rapture passage, but a judgment passage:
- But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and they did not understand until the flood came and took them all away; so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Then there will be two men in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one will be left. Therefore be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming.
It’s going to be just like the days of Noah. Unbelievers weren’t ready for the judgment that was coming. They were going about life as usual and did not understand until the flood came and took them away to destruction in the floodwaters. So it will be when Jesus returns. Unbelievers will not be ready for the judgment to come. They’ll be going about life as usual and won’t understand until Jesus comes and takes them away to destruction. One will be taken to destruction and the other will be left behind. When we look at the context here, you actually want to be the one left behind because that means that you’ve not been destroyed by the judgment of Jesus.
The context of Luke 17:34-37 further confirms this understanding:
- “I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other will be left. There will be two women grinding at the same place; one will be taken and the other will be left. Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other will be left.” And answering they said to Him, “Where, Lord?” And He said to them, “Where the body is, there also the vultures will be gathered.”
When the disciples Jesus, “Where, Lord?” they mean, “Where are those being taken taken to?” Jesus’ answer is that those who are taken are being taken to death—where the body is, there also the vultures will be gathered. It’s the Christians who are left behind! The entire “left behind” scenario of the pretrib rapture is not taught in the Bible.
To make my case even stronger, if you look at the even wider teaching of Matthew 24, you will see that followers of Jesus will endure the tribulation and then be raptured. I would like to touch on the whole of Matthew 24, but we’ll look only at Matthew 24:29-31:
- But immediately after the tribulation of those days THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED, AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT, AND THE STARS WILL FALL from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF THE SKY with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels with A GREAT TRUMPET and THEY WILL GATHER TOGETHER His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.
If you’re looking for the rapture in Matthew 24, it’s right there in v31, and Jesus clearly says that this comes after the tribulation.
1 Thessalonians 5:9 is also a favorite passage used to argue for a pretrib rapture, For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. They’ll say, “See there, God’s not destined us to wrath. He’s going to rapture us before the tribulation,” But clearly that’s reading into the text what’s not there. Wrath is being compared to salvation not the rapture. God is saying, “You’re going to heaven instead of hell. Be of good courage!”
Revelation 3:10 is another favorite, Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. They’ll say, “See there, God’s going keep us from the hour of testing, which is the Great Tribulation, by rupturing us out.” First off, I could say that this is a letter written to a specific church and is a specific promise to the church of Philadelphia, but I think it would be more helpful to look at the verb “will keep from.”
The Greek word for “keep” in this verse is tāreō, which means “to watch over, to guard.” The word for “from” is ek. The only other passage in the New Testament that combines these two terms appears in another book that John wrote, the gospel of John 17:15. On the night before Jesus’ crucifixion, He prayed for his disciples, I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from (tāreō ek) the evil one. I believe this sheds strong light onto Revelation 3:10. In John 17:15, Jesus is praying for protection from something harmful while Jesus’ disciples remain on the earth. I believe that in Revelation 3:10, Jesus is promising the same. He’s not going to take us out of the world. He’s going to protect us and guard us in the day of trial and tribulation.
Let’s look at two logical arguments the pretrib rapture. First, you might hear somebody say that proof of a pretrib rapture is found in the fact that the word “church” isn’t used after Revelation 3. They’ll say, “See there, the church isn’t there anymore.” The statement about the word “church” is basically true, but you also have to say that the only way the word “church” is used in Revelation 1-3 is in relation to the seven local churches of Asia minor. The word “church” is never used to mean the church universal until Revelation 22.
But the absence of the word “church” in chapters 4-21 of Revelation proves nothing about the timing of the rapture. While the word “church” might not be in chapters 4-21, the word “saints” certainly is, which refers to the redeemed in Jesus Christ.
Second, you also might hear somebody say that they believe in a pretrib rapture because they just believe God’s not going to beat up on Jesus’ bride. I would begin to respond to this argument by saying that the Bride is not just the New Testament church. The Bride is all believing Jews and Gentiles from the Garden of Eden to Jesus’ 2nd coming. The bride will include those who come to faith during the tribulation. The Bride is all of mankind who are redeemed by the blood of Jesus. Have the Old Testament saints been redeemed by the blood of Jesus? Absolutely! Will the tribulation converts be redeemed by the blood of Jesus? Most certainly! Then they are the bride of Christ too.
To that statement I would also say that when God pours out His judgments on the earth during the tribulation, I believe that the saints will be protected. We’ve already been promised in Revelation 3:10 that God will protect his saints in the tribulation. Furthermore, we have an example of God doing this very thing in the book of Exodus. Was Israel in the land when God poured out judgment on Egypt? Most certainly, but they were protected. I believe it will be the same for the church during the tribulation. God loves His Son’s bride and will protect her through the tribulation. In fact, Matthew 24:22 tells us that the days of the great tribulation are cut short for the sake of the elect, for the sake of Christ’s bride.
So, do the texts used to teach a pretrib rapture actually teach it? Unequivocally, I believe they do not.
When then should we expect the rapture?
The answer is that the rapture will occur simultaneously with the 2nd coming of Jesus, postribulationally. We’ve already looked at Matthew 24:29-31, which clearly teaches that the rapture happens after the tribulation at the time of Jesus’ 2nd coming. Remember also that that passage tells us that Jesus is going to return with the sound of a trumpet.
This trumpet shows up again in 1 Corinthians 15:50-53:
- Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 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. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality.
Paul is saying that some of us will be alive when Jesus comes back. That’s what he means when he says we will not all sleep in v51. Some up us will alive and transformed into our glorified body. When does this happen? At the last trumpet. Surely the trumpet in Matthew 24 is the last trumpet since this last trumpet announces that Jesus is returning. So, once again, this passage clearly teaches that the rapture happens at the time of Jesus’ 2nd coming.
But we find the same thing in the Bible’s primary rapture passage, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18:
- But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 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. Therefore comfort one another with these words.
First, v15 says that some of us will remain until the coming of the Lord. The word “coming” is the Greek word parousia, which is a technical term for the personal, bodily return of Jesus to the earth. This is not a partial return. This is the whole shebang when Jesus is coming all the way down. The rapture happens at the same time that Jesus returns to the earth.
Second, there is no secret rapture in this passage. Verse 16 tells us that there’ll be a shout from heaven, the archangel will be blowing the trumpet of God, and graves all over the world will be blown open as the dead saints are resurrected. No way that this is a secret rapture! In fact, this event might be the loudest one ever known to man. A Metallica concert wouldn’t even compare! You couldn’t miss this happening if you tried!
Finally, we are raptured up to meet the Lord in the air and then finish His descent with Him to the earth. We know this from v17. We are raptured or caught up to meet the Lord in the air. The verb “to meet” here is our clue. This is the Greek word apantāsis, which is regularly used to refer to a welcoming party. In ancient days, people would leave their city or their home to go out to meet the honored guest, the visiting dignitary, or the triumphant military leader and then accompany them back to the city or house. So they would go out to meet them and then come back with them from where they came. That’s apantāsis.
This Greek word for “to meet” (apantāsis) is used only 2 other times in the New Testament, and both times a welcoming party is the picture. Matthew 25:5-10 tells us:
- Now while the bridegroom was delaying, they all got drowsy and began to sleep. But at midnight there was a shout, “Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him. (apantāsis him)” Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the prudent, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the prudent answered, “No, there will not be enough for us and you too; go instead to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they were going away to make the purchase, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding feast; and the door was shut.
The virgins were in the house waiting for the bridegroom, and when it was announced that he was coming, they got up and went out to meet him in the street to return to the house with him.
We see the same thing in the other apantāsis passage, Acts 28:14-16:
- There we found some brethren, and were invited to stay with them for seven days; and thus we came to Rome. 15 And the brethren, when they heard about us, came from there as far as the Market of Appius and Three Inns to meet us (ajpavnthsis us); and when Paul saw them, he thanked God and took courage. When we entered Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him.
Notice what happens: Paul is coming to Rome, people come out to meet him outside of Rome, and then they return to Rome together. This is the very same thing that will happen when Jesus Christ returns. We will be raptured and rise to meet Him in the air, and once we meet Him in the air, we will return back to the earth with Him in triumph. And so we shall always be with the Lord!
So, to answer the big question of this article: is the doctrine of a pretribulational rapture fully biblical? No, as best as I can understand the Scripture, it is not. Now, I’ll be glad to change my opinion in the air, but in all seriousness, don’t be afraid of being left behind. Be afraid of being found without Jesus as your Savior and Lord when He returns. You’d better be ready because Jesus has told us in Matthew 24:27, For just as the lightning comes from the east and flashes even to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Based upon the Scripture, don’t put your hope in a pretribulational rapture. Put your hope in the 2nd coming of Jesus who is your Great Protector and Deliverer. May you be found in Jesus when He comes again and rejoice in the rapture and the return!