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), which will occur sometime before Christ’s return to 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 the seven last 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”
It would be comforting to Christians to be justified in believing that, if they are living on 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 as a result of these events. However, there are reasons to doubt that such a belief is justified.
We will consider two basic questions that relate to this matter:
- What is the blessed hope for Christians?
- Who are the elect who will need to endure The Tribulation?
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 mentions the blessed hope.
[Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, unless indicated otherwise. When words in a quoted scripture passage are shown in bold print, the emphasis is our own.]
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 (and last) trumpet, which is alluded to in Revelation 11:15, although it was not until two or three decades later that the Disciple John wrote the manuscripts that now comprise the Book of Revelation. 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 or the Great 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. Nevertheless, 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 are likely to endure at least some of the traumatic events during the Tribulation that precede the manifestations of God’s wrath.
Revelation 3:10 is another scripture that 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 pertain to the Rapture, but even if it does, it may refer 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.
However, if the Rapture occurs before the inception of the Tribulation and the great multitude of Christians mentioned in Revelation 7:9, 13-14 includes 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 entire Tribulation, including the period when God will inflict His wrath on the earth.
Another scripture cited by those who believe either that the Rapture will occur before the beginning of the Tribulation or that it 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.
Nevertheless, we think that there is sufficient evidence to believe that God will spare Christians from His wrath during the Tribulation. This does not mean that Christians living during the Tribulation will not need to endure the adversities that will occur before God brings His wrath on the earth.
On pages 26 and 27 of his book entitled The Sign, Robert Van Kampen asserts,
[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 (i.e., Christians) will go through the tribulation of Antichrist. On page 286 of his book, he states,
[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 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, notably Daniel 9, indicate that God will not manifest His wrath on the earth until after Christians have endured the tribulations that will occur during the first three and one-half years of the seven-year Tribulation period.
Thus, Christians who are alive during the Tribulation will almost certainly need to endure the terrible persecution and other horrendous events that will occur during the first half of the Tribulation period. But, if they are raptured before the second half of the Tribulation, they will not need to endure God’s wrath. This scenario is consistent with the belief that God would not inflict His wrath on Christians, just as he did not impose His wrath on the people who worshipped Him during Old Testament times.
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.”
These verses of scripture evidently pertain to all the Christians who will be martyred during the Tribulation. Therefore, although the Rapture is a blessed hope for everyone who becomes a Christians before the Rapture occurs, it will not occur before many Christians are martyred during the Tribulation.
Unfortunately for those who become Christians after the Rapture occurs, they will not have this hope. Nevertheless, they, like all other Christians, can be comforted by the assurance of their eternal salvation. Therefore, it is our belief that the ultimate blessed hope for Christians is to spend eternity with Jesus Christ.
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, Christ 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.”
Matthew 24:24-29 describes more of the events that will occur during the Tribulation. Then, verse 31 states that Christ “will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” (Mark 13:19-27 provides a similar account.)
Although it is clear from the preceding scriptures that “the elect” will need to endure the Tribulation, there is uncertainty 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 scriptures include Romans 8:33; Colossians 3:12; Titus 1:1; 1 Peter 1:2; and 1 Peter 2:9. What is not certain is whether the term “the elect” refers to everyone who is a true believer before the Tribulation begins, as well as 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, which in this instance can be defined as all the people who are Christians when the Tribulation begins. Those who hold 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. Just because the Church is not specifically mentioned in scriptures that deal with the Tribulation is not a valid reason to believe that Christians who are living when the Tribulation begins will be raptured so that they will not need to endure the Tribulation.
Another argument in support of the belief that the Church will not need to go through The Tribulation 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, a vague passage regarding the end times, 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 many, if not most, Bible scholars believe will be the Antichrist. And, many people believe that the Holy Spirit is the restrainer to whom the scripture passage alludes. Furthermore, most of those who believe that the restrainer is the Holy Spirit think He would not be removed from the earth as long as the Church remains on the earth.
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 leave the earth. If the Holy Spirit does leave the earth, it is highly doubtful that anyone could become a Christian while He is gone, because the Bible infers 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.
There are also scripture passages 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.
Furthermore, the Bible indicates that many people will become Christians (i.e., part of the Church) during The Tribulation. The scripture passage that seems to provide the best support for this belief is Revelation 7:9, 13-15, which states,
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. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve Him day and night in His temple. And He who sits on the throne will dwell among them.”
On the basis of the aforementioned considerations, the restrainer referred to in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 could be the church of Jesus Christ (i.e., all genuine Christians who are living on the earth during that period of time). And, if the Rapture does not occur prior to the time alluded to in this scripture, there seems to be no valid reason why Christ’s Church could not be the restrainer.
Another possibility is that the restrainer is the archangel Michael. On page 199 of his book, Van Kampen says 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 this verse in Daniel adequately supports Van Kampen’s belief that Michael is the restrainer mentioned in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7. Daniel 10:21 simply says, “But I will tell you what is noted in the Scripture of Truth. (No one upholds me against these, except Michael your [i.e., God’s] prince.)”
There is relatively strong evidence that the Rapture will occur before God inflicts His wrath on the earth, which probably will be sometime near the middle of the seven-year period referred to as the Tribulation. Although many Christians believe 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 last two positions is significantly weaker than the evidence for the prewrath position.
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.]
On page 36 of the same book, Van Kampen provides the following 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 it 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, are more apt to lose their faith if they are confronted by the choice of whether or not to endure such persecution. As a result, these Christians may be included 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 at least allow for the possibility that the Rapture will not occur before the Tribulation begins.
Although we believe the weight of the evidence indicates that the Rapture is most likely to take place during the Tribulation but before God inflicts His wrath on the world, we do not want to be dogmatic about our belief. The Adult Learner Guide for winter 2008-2009 says, “Christian Bible students with equal devotion and scholarship have differed for centuries over the interpretation of end-time events.”
In this regard, John F. Walvoord, Th.D., former President of Dallas Theological Seminary and a strong advocate of the pretribulation position, states on page 144 of his book entitled The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation,
In the study of the relative merits of arguments supporting pretribulationism and posttribulationism, it becomes evident that not all the arguments for either conclusion are necessarily decisive. If either the pretribulational or posttribulational rapture was unequivocably [sic] taught in Scripture, it is doubtful whether worthy scholars would divide on the question.
In any case, we think all Christians should give ample consideration to the possibility that they will not be raptured prior to the Tribulation and, therefore, they need to be prepared for the likelihood that it may be necessary for them to endure at least the period of severe persecution that will occur before God brings His wrath upon the world..
[Note: For further commentary regarding whether or not Christians will need to endure the Tribulation, see the appendix that follows.]
Excerpts from Article Entitled “The Deception That Was Yet To Come”
By Marvin J. Rosenthal, Executive Director of Zion’s Hope
The twin qualities of biblical discernment and godly demeanor are critical to guard against the voices of the false shepherds who have always been present, but whose clamor and persuasiveness will intensify during the “Tribulation” period., with a view toward misleading the sheep for ungodly purposes.
The grave danger has been, in my opinion, unintentionally but effectively neutralized by the teaching, however sincere, which suggests believers will be raptured pretribulationally and, therefore, before false christs and prophets appear on the scene. Such thinking is like administering a placebo (a medication prescribed more for the mental relief than for its actual effect on the disorder). Even worse, it serves as a spiritual anesthetic that dulls one’s perception of the danger of personal involvement in the coming storm.
The warning given by the Lord is a specific warning related to a unique moment of history. If believers think they are exempt from the unique problems of the “Tribulation” period because they will not be present, then warnings of danger for that time frame become irrelevant and lose their urgency.
I ministered more than thirty years as a strong and widely recognized advocate of pretribulational rapturism. I know what the position believes, why it is believed, which Scriptures are appealed to, and the dispensational Church/Israel distinction used to help sustain that position. I do not question . . . the integrity or commitment to Christ of those distinguished Christian leaders who, during the past 100 years, trail-blazed the concept of pretribulational rapturism. But I am equally convinced that viewpoint will not endure the test of time. It is built on inference, innuendo, and a supposedly consistent dispensationalism.
A growing number of voices from within conservative circles are sounding an alarm. They do not wish to be argumentative or divisive, but lovingly corrective. The concept of rapture before the “Tribulation” period has a comforting appeal, but it is a false comfort that is tranquilizing God’s people. The concept of entrance into the “Tribulation” period before rapture is disquieting, but it is a true disquieting that will help people “take heed” as the Lord warned.
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.
To my knowledge, there is not a verse in the Bible that teaches the entire seventieth week of Daniel . . . is God’s wrath. It is true that the Church is not appointed to endure God’s wrath (1 Thessalonians 5:9), but God’s wrath is clearly said to begin following the opening of the sixth seal and in anticipation of the opening of the seventh seal. [See chapters 6-8 in Revelation.]
God’s wrath begins with the opening of the seventh seal. The word “wrath” is used eight times in the Book of Revelation. . . . God’s wrath is said to begin with the opening of the seventh seal, but never is the phrase “God’s wrath” used in the first six seals.
To my knowledge, there is not a verse in the Bible which teaches two second comings of Christ: one for the Church by rapture to the clouds, and then a second coming seven years later – with the Church – back to the earth.
The Lord’s second coming is consistently portrayed as a singular event.
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.
And not coincidentally, the great creeds and confessions of church history are also silent about it. None mention, let alone support, a pretribulational rapture. It cannot be found in “The Apostles’ Creed,” “The Nicene Creed,” “The Athanasian Creed,” “The Westminster Confession of Faith, “The Baptist Confession of 1689,” or “The Philadelphia Confession of Faith.”
Pretribulational rapturism simply does not naturally emerge from an unbiased study of the Word of God.
To my knowledge, thee is not a verse of Scripture that teaches the concept of imminence – that the Rapture can occur at any moment, is signless, and that no prophesied events will precede it.
The Rapture is not imminent and signless. It is expectant and ablaze with indicators of Christ’s coming for believers who enter the “Tribulation” period. The indicators will not reveal the day or hour of Christ’s return, but they will reveal the general time period. Just as a fig tree indicated to Israel that summer was getting close (Matthew 24:32-33) – the events of Matthew 24:4-29 will indicate to believers living in the “Tribulation” that the Rapture is getting close.
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.