Matthew 24:2-34; Mark 13:5-30; and Luke 21:8-28 record Jesus Christ’s description of the traumatic events that will take place during what most Bible scholars believe will be a seven-year period of severe tribulation (generally referred to as the Tribulation (or the Great Tribulation), which will occur sometime before Christ’s return to the earth (the Second Advent). Significantly, many of these events will occur before God brings His wrath on the earth in the form of the seven last plagues. The events that will precede these plagues include the following:
- False christs and false prophets will appear and will show “great signs and wonders”
- There will be wars and rumors of wars
- There will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes
- Christians, including family members, will betray one another
- There will be lawlessness
- The sun “will be darkened” and the moon ”will not give its light”
- The stars “will fall from heaven”
Before we continue, we think it would be beneficial to clarify the meaning of the term plague when it is mentioned in this article. The first definition of this term that Webster’s Dictionary gives is “anything that affects or troubles; calamity; scourge.” This definition is the one to which this article is referring. (In contrast, when many, if not most, people think of the term plague, they probably regard it as a contagious epidemic disease that can be deadly, which is a narrower definition provided by Webster with regard to this term.)
Given the foregoing considerations, it would be comforting to Christians to be justified in believing that, if they are living on the earth just before the beginning of the Tribulation, they will ascend, or be “caught up,” to meet Christ in the sky (the Rapture) and go with Him to heaven, thus avoiding having to endure the distress and the suffering that will result from the persecution and the terrible disasters that will occur during the Tribulation. However, there are reasons to doubt that such a belief is justified.
We will consider two basic questions that relate to this matter:
- Who are the elect who will need to endure The Tribulation?
- What is the blessed hope for Christians?
Who Are the Elect Who Will Need to Endure the Tribulation?
In Matthew 24:9, after describing some of the other events that will occur during the Tribulation, Jesus Christ tells His followers, “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake.” Later in the same chapter, in verses 21-22, Jesus asserts, “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened.” (Mark 13:18-20 provides a similar account.)
[Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible.]
Although it is sufficiently clear from the preceding scriptures that “the elect” will need to endure the Tribulation, there is disagreement among Christian Bible scholars as to who are the elect. However, Strong’s Concordance of the Bible reveals that when the same Greek word eklektos that is translated as “the elect” in Matthew 24:22 and Mark 13:20 is used in other New Testament scriptures, it refers to Christians. (These other New Testament scriptures include Romans 8:33; Colossians 3:12; Titus 1:1; 1 Peter 1:2; and 1 Peter 2:9.) What is uncertain is whether the term “the elect” in these scriptures refers to Christians who are living on the earth when the Tribulation begins and to people who become Christians during the Tribulation, or just to the latter.
Some Bible scholars believe that the term “the elect” does not pertain to the Church (i.e., all those who have trusted in Jesus Christ as their Savior), which in this instance can be defined as the institution consisting of all Christians who are on the earth immediately before the Tribulation begins. Those who have this belief argue that there are no scriptures which specifically mention that the Church will be present during the Tribulation. However, this is an argument from silence, which most scholars regard as not a credible form of argument. Therefore, just because the Church is not specifically mentioned in scriptures that pertain to the Tribulation, this is not a valid reason to believe that Christians will be raptured before the Tribulation begins.
Another argument in support of the belief that Christians will be raptured before the Tribulation begins is based upon the belief that the Holy Spirit will not be present during the Tribulation. The basis for this belief is 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7, which says, “[N]ow you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed in his own time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way.”
Both prior and subsequent verses in 2 Thessalonians 2 reveal that the person who will be restrained is “the lawless one,” whom most Christian Bible scholars believe will be the Antichrist. And, many of these Bible scholars believe that the Holy Spirit is the restrainer to whom this scripture passage alludes. Furthermore, most of these Bible scholars think the Holy Spirit would not be removed from the earth while the Church remains on the earth, so if the Holy Spirit is not present on the earth, it is their belief that the Church also would not be on the earth.
However, even if the restrainer is the Holy Spirit, it should be noted that 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 states only that the restrainer will be “taken out of the way.” So, if the Holy Spirit is the restrainer, this scripture does not necessarily mean that He will no longer be present on the earth. If the Holy Spirit were to leave the earth, it is highly doubtful that anyone could become a Christian while He is gone, because the Bible implies that it is only through the influence of the Holy Spirit that a person can have the ability to genuinely trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior. In other words, the Holy Spirit must be present for a person to realize his (or her) need for eternal salvation. Among the scriptures that support this perspective are John 3:5 and John 16:7-9.
Furthermore, the Bible indicates that the Holy Spirit will be present on the earth during the Tribulation, as evidenced by the prophesy that many people will become Christians during the Tribulation. The scripture verses that seem to provide the best support for this belief are Revelation 7:9, 13-14, which state,
After these things I [i.e., the writer of Revelation] looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands. . . . Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, “Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?” And I said to him, “Sir, you know.” So he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
There are also scriptures which state clearly that when a person becomes a Christian, he (or she) will receive the Holy Spirit as a deposit, guarantee, or seal, so he (or she) can be assured of their eternal salvation. If the Holy Spirit were not present, Christians would not have this assurance. Among the applicable passages are 2 Corinthians 1:21-22, 2 Corinthians 5:5, Ephesians 1:13-14, and 1 John 3:24.
Another possibility is that the restrainer will be the archangel Michael. Robert Van Kampen says in his book entitled The Sign, that Michael is “the great restrainer who has been the heavenly protector of God’s people since ancient times (see Dan. 10:21).” However, it is questionable if Daniel 10:21 supports Van Kampen’s belief that Michael is the restrainer. This verse simply says, “But I will tell you what is noted in the Scripture of Truth. (No one upholds me [Daniel] against these, except Michael your [God’s] prince.)” There is no indication that Michael will subsequently be a protector of Christians or anyone else during the End Times.
Regardless, we believe that the elect who will go through at least some part of the Tribulation will be all the Christians living on the earth at that time. Those who will be raptured before God brings His wrath on the earth will need to endure only about the first three and one-half years of the seven-year Tribulation, whereas those who do not become Christians until after the Rapture will apparently need to endure the entire Tribulation, assuming that they do not die before the Tribulation ends.
What Is the Blessed Hope for Christians?
Several Bible scriptures allude to what is referred to as the “blessed hope” for Christians. For example, Titus 2:13 mentions “the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” Two other scriptures that also may pertain to the blessed hope are John 14:3 and 1 Thessalonians 4:17, but neither specifically mentions the blessed hope.
In John 14:3, Jesus Christ says to Thomas, His Disciple, “I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” And, 1 Thessalonians 4:17 indicates that after Christians are raptured, they “shall always be with the Lord.”
Another scripture sometimes associated with the blessed hope for Christians is 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, in which the Apostle Paul states, “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall 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 incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
This last statement by Paul may refer to what will happen following the blowing of the seventh trumpet, which is the last trumpet alluded to in Revelation 11:15. However, even if this scripture refers to the Rapture, it indicates that the Rapture will not occur until sometime after the inception of the period that the Bible refers to as the Tribulation, since the blowing of the last trumpet is expected to occur near the end of the Tribulation.
And, in Luke 21:28, following the description by Jesus Christ earlier in the same chapter regarding the persecution that His followers will need to endure, Jesus tells His disciples that “when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.” In other words, the followers of Jesus Christ will not be redeemed until after many of them have suffered through a period of severe persecution that will occur during the Tribulation. In any case, there is no indication in Luke 21:28 that Christians will need to endure God’s wrath, which will occur sometime after the first half of the seven-year period of the Tribulation.
Likewise, passages in Matthew 24 and Mark 13 suggest that Christians who are living on the earth during the Tribulation will need to endure the terrible events that precede the manifestations of God’s wrath.
In contrast with the preceding scriptures, Revelation 3:10 is regarded by some Christians as a promise by Jesus Christ that everyone who becomes a Christian prior to the beginning of the Tribulation will be raptured before the inception of the Tribulation. In this verse of scripture, Jesus declares, “Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.” However, this verse may not allude to the Rapture. Even if it does, it may pertain to the time immediately before God brings His wrath on the earth, not to the time prior to the inception of the Tribulation.
An additional reason that is given for believing that the Rapture will occur before the beginning of the Tribulation is based upon the precedent established by instances in the Old Testament. In these instances, God did not inflict His wrath on people who worshipped Him. For example, God spared Noah and his family from the Great Flood that He sent to destroy all the wicked people on the Earth. Likewise, God spared Lot and his family from the fire and brimstone that He sent to destroy all the immoral residents of Sodom and Gomorrah.
A scripture cited by both those who believe that the Rapture will occur before the beginning of the Tribulation and those who believe that the Rapture will occur during the Tribulation but before God inflicts His wrath on the earth, is 1 Thessalonians 5:9. This verse states, “For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” However, this verse may refer to God’s ultimate wrath, which involves eternal death (or separation from God) for those who have not trusted in Jesus Christ as their Savior.
Be that as it may, we think there is sufficient evidence to believe that God will spare Christians from the wrath that He will inflict on the earth during the second half of the Tribulation. However, if Christians are not raptured until immediately before God inflicts His wrath on the earth, they will need to endure the adversities that will occur during the first half of the Tribulation.
In this regard, Robert Van Kampen asserts on pages 26 and 27 of his book entitled The Sign,
[A]lthough Christians will be delivered from God’s wrath, Scripture is equally clear that believers are not promised freedom from persecution and tribulation, and that they can in fact expect persecution and tribulation to come for the very reason that they are Christians.
[J]ust as Scripture makes abundantly clear that believers will escape God’s wrath, it makes equally clear that believers are not promised escape from the wrath of the world and of Satan, especially from the persecution of God’s elect during the great tribulation by Antichrist (Rev. 12:12).
Van Kampen also asserts that there is historical precedent for believing that the Church will go through the Tribulation caused by the Antichrist. According to Van Kampen,
[T]he position not only of the New Testament church but also of the leading church fathers of the first several centuries (with the exception of Origen and Clement of Alexandria, who allegorized much of Scripture) was that the church would go through the great tribulation by Antichrist. Since this is indeed true, the true church of Christ must be prepared for these terrible days of persecution.
Matthew 24:2-34, Mark 13:5-30, and Luke 21:8-28 all provide strong support for the belief that the tribulations resulting from God’s wrath will follow a number of other tribulations that occur earlier during the Tribulation period. And, other scriptures, most notably Daniel 9, indicate that God will not inflict His wrath on the earth until after Christians have endured the tribulations that will occur during the first half of the Tribulation (i.e., approximately three and one-half years of the seven-year Tribulation period).
Revelation 7:9, 13-14 provides further support for the viewpoint that Christians who are living when the Tribulation begins will need to endure the first half of the Tribulation. In these verses, the Apostle John states,
I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb [i.e., Christ], clothed with white robes. . . .
Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, “Who are these arrayed in white robes, and where did they come from?’ And I said to him, “Sir, you know.” So, he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
Therefore, if the Rapture occurs before the inception of the Tribulation, but the great multitude of Christians mentioned in Revelation 7:9, 13-14 consists entirely of Christians who become believers during the Tribulation (i.e., after the Rapture has already occurred), the Rapture will not be a blessed hope for them, because they will need to endure the Tribulation, including the period when God will inflict His wrath on the earth. In other words, if the Rapture is the so-called “blessed Hope,” only people who become Christians before the Rapture will have the blessed hope.
Nevertheless, all Christians will have assurance of their eternal salvation. As a result, it is our belief that the ultimate blessed hope for Christians is to spend eternity with Jesus Christ.
Although many Christians believe that the Rapture will occur before the Tribulation and other Christians think it will occur after the Tribulation, we think the evidence for either of these two positions is relatively weak. In contrast, we believe there is strong evidence that the Rapture will occur before God inflicts His wrath on the earth, which probably will be about the middle of the seven-year period referred to as the Tribulation.
On page 34 of Van Kampen’s aforementioned book, he provides the following comments explaining the prewrath point of view:
Simply stated, the prewrath view contends that the church will go through the great tribulation by Antichrist during the end times, but will be raptured before the wrath of God, when Christ cuts short the persecution [by] Antichrist. The great tribulation is the time that occurs after the midpoint of the seventieth week, when Antichrist has complete control of the earth (Matt. 24:15) and seeks to destroy all who will not worship him (Matt. 24:21, 22). This will be a time of putting to a proof those who name the name of Christ, as God permits the persecution by Antichrist to purify genuine but unfaithful believers in order to make them worthy to be the bride of Christ.
And, with regard to the pre-Tribulation point of view, Van Kampen asserts, on page 278 of his book,
Either the church goes through the severe persecution by Antichrist or it doesn’t. This [his book entitled The Sign] has tried to warn the believer that he (or she) must be prepared for this time of unparalleled distress. . . . [The timing of the Rapture] must be a clear teaching of the New Testament, not a position such as pretribulationalism whose defenders admit in writing that it is not “an explicit teaching of the Scriptures” that “the Bible does not, in so many words, state” or whose “proof at times has been logically invalid or at least unconvincing”. . . . [Note: The quotations by pretribulationists are from The Rapture Question, by John F. Walvoord, and The Prophet’s Watchword, the Day of the Lord, an unpublished doctoral dissertation by Richard Mayhue.]
Likewise, Marvin J. Rosenthal, Executive Director of Zion’s Hope, makes the following statements in his article entitled “The Deception That Was Yet to Come”:
To my knowledge there is not a verse in the Bible that teaches a pretribulational rapture of the Church; not Matthew 24, not John 14:1-3, not 1 Corinthians 15:51-54, not 1 Thessalonians 4:13 – 5:11, not 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2, not Revelation 3:10, or any other verse in Scripture. It is not a question of “proof texting” as some critics suggest, but a question of biblical evidence. If the Bible is the final authority, then let the Bible speak – and not a system superimposed upon it. There are many verses that teach the Church will be raptured, but none that teach it will be raptured pretribulationally.
There is clear evidence that there is a second coming of Christ sometime after the middle of the seventieth week of Daniel (see also Matthew 24:3, 15, 27), but there is no evidence of an earlier second coming to rapture the Church.
If . . . the Church enters the “Tribulation” period having been convinced she will be raptured pretribulationally, she will be stunned, confused, and caught totally unprepared. Her faith will be shaken, and she will question in what other areas she has strayed. Amidst the confusion, many believers will be prime targets for the false prophets, who will rise and deceive many. It could well be a spiritual catastrophe.
Van Kampen, in his previously-referenced book, provides the following similar explanation as to why it is especially important for Christians to draw the correct conclusion regarding when the Rapture will occur:
If, as this volume [i.e., his book entitled The Sign] strongly insists, Christ will not rapture His church until sometime during the great tribulation by Antichrist – rather than before the seventieth week or before the great tribulation by Antichrist begins – the significance for Christians is almost inestimable. It is absolutely true, of course, that a Christian’s view of the end times in no way affects his salvation. But one’s view of the end times will have exceeding importance for believers who must suffer or be in real danger of the worst human oppression of all time. In fact, the whole reason that this book is written is to help prepare those Christians . . . for the cataclysmic days that lie ahead.
Nevertheless, some Christians may question if it really matters whether the Rapture occurs before, during, or after the Tribulation. We believe that it definitely does matter. Like Van Kampen and a number of other Bible scholars, our concern is that Christians who are not prepared to endure a period of severe persecution, because they expect to be raptured before the Tribulation begins, will be more apt to lose their faith if they are faced with such persecution. Evidently, these Christians will be among those about whom Jesus Christ says in Matthew 24:10, with regard to the End Times, “many will turn away from the faith. . .” (NIV). Therefore, it behooves every Christian to not only seriously consider the evidence that indicates the Rapture will not occur before the Tribulation begins, but also to commit themselves to being faithful, even if they are likely to be persecuted because they are faithful to their Christian beliefs.
With regard to who are the elect to whom the Bible refers in regard to End Times events, it is our belief that they are Christians who will go through at least some part of the Tribulation. Those who will be raptured before God brings His wrath on the earth will need to endure only the first half of the Tribulation, whereas those who do not become Christians until after the Rapture will need to endure the entire Tribulation, assuming that they do not die before the Tribulation ends.
We also believe that the blessed hope for Christians that several Bible scriptures mention or allude to is the Rapture, which we do not think will occur until immediately before God inflicts His wrath on the earth. However, even if there will be Christians who will need to endure the entire Tribulation, they will have the ultimate blessed hope of spending eternity with Jesus Christ.
In light of the foregoing considerations, we think all Christians should give ample thought to the probability that the Rapture will not occur until just before God inflicts His wrath on the earth and, therefore, they need to be prepared for the possibility that it will be necessary for them to endure at least the period of severe persecution that will occur previously during the Tribulation.