When the conversation turns to different views of the rapture, some people will frankly admit, “I just don’t want to be here for all that terrible stuff!” Now, some of this stems from the perception that the tribulation will be seven years of one horror after another. Actually, the Bible seems to indicate that the most dramatic judgments and signs will occur at the very end—some even occurring after the tribulation. It’s as if, in the final moments, all of history builds to a screaming crescendo. We’ll look at this more closely in a future post.
Still, even with this improved perspective, it’s only natural to want to escape anything referred to as “the Great Tribulation.” If a lot of teachers and books and tape series are telling us that we won’t be here for this scary period of time, it’s easy to just say, “Amen!” and breathe a little easier. But is this really what Scripture teaches? The second supporting claim on our list [see Rapture 101 for the whole list] tends to be the one that people use the most when presenting a pretrib rapture. So we need to take a good look at the strengths and weaknesses of this argument.
What exactly is this claim by pretrib proponents? It’s based on something the apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:9-11):
For God chose to save us through our Lord Jesus Christ, not to pour out his anger on us. Christ died for us so that, whether we are dead or alive when he returns, we can live with him forever. So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing.
The statement we need to take special note of is the first one: “For God chose to save us through our Lord Jesus Christ, not to pour out his anger on us [emphasis added].” All believers, including pretrib and posttrib believers, can affirm this claim—and give thanks for it! But the pretrib teachers build on this reassuring truth. They argue that, since the tribulation is the time when God pours out his wrath on a rebellious world, if God doesn’t intend to pour out his wrath on us . . . we must not be here!
There’s a certain logic to this. If we had clear passages in the Bible showing a separate rapture event before the final return of Christ, this passage could fit comfortably with such an idea. But, as we’ve seen, there’s just no passage that presents the rapture and the return of Christ as separate events. And notice that the passage above doesn’t specify how we will escape the wrath of God, only that he won’t pour out his anger on us. It’s true that removing us from the earth could accomplish this, but so could preserving us through this time of tribulation. There’s nothing in this one text to cause us to lean one way or the other. But what do we see in the rest of Scripture?
Does God remove his people before he tests and judges others or does he preserve them through the judgment? Which pattern do we see in Scripture?
The first great judgment we see in the Bible is the flood. This a helpful place to begin because many pretrib teachers have compared the rapture to the ark. Just as—because of their faith in God’s message—Noah and his family entered the ark and escaped the wrath of God’s flood, so those who have placed their faith in Christ will escape the coming time of God’s wrath by being raptured.
But there’s a problem with this comparison. Where did God pour out his judgment during the flood? On the earth. And where was Noah and his family? On the earth. Did God remove them from the earth before he poured out his righteous anger on a rebellious world? No, he did not. He preserved them through the judgment. They were present on the earth for the entire flood event, but they were supernaturally protected by God. Though they were right in the midst of the flood during this pouring out of God’s wrath, his wrath was not poured out on them. God sheltered them from his judgment.
The plagues of Egypt
For centuries, Bible students have noticed a strong parallel between the plagues God poured out on Egypt and the plagues God will pour out on earth in the last days, as described in the book of Revelation. In both accounts people tragically resist the extreme lengths to which God goes for them. He offers them chance after chance to stop rebelling against his will and accept him as God. The plagues are increasingly direct, interrupting their lives and arresting their attention, yet some refuse to open their eyes and acknowledge the truth.
So what happened with God’s chosen people while he was pouring out his judgment on Egypt? Were they removed first to the promised land? No, they remained in Egypt through the entire span of ten plagues, and only then were they removed from Egypt. Did they experience God’s wrath right along with the Egyptians? No, they didn’t. We notice some crucial details included in the Exodus account:
Then the LORD told Moses, “Get up early in the morning and stand in Pharaoh’s way as he goes down to the river. Say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: Let my people go, so they can worship me. If you refuse, I will send swarms of flies on you, your officials, your people, and all the houses. The Egyptian homes will be filled with flies, and the ground will be covered with them. But this time I will spare the region of Goshen, where my people live. No flies will be found there. Then you will know that I am the LORD and that I am present even in the heart of your land. I will make a clear distinction between my people and your people.’”
“If you continue to hold [my people] and refuse to let them go, the hand of the LORD will strike all your livestock—your horses, donkeys, camels, cattle, sheep, and goats—with a deadly plague. But the LORD will again make a distinction between the livestock of the Israelites and that of the Egyptians. Not a single one of Israel’s animals will die!”
. . . And the LORD did just as he had said. The next morning all of the livestock of the Egyptians died, but the Israelites didn’t lose a single animal.
The LORD sent a tremendous hailstorm against all the land of Egypt. Never in all the history of Egypt had there been a storm like that, with such devastating hail and continuous lighting. It left all of Egypt in ruins. The hail struck down everything in the open field—people, animals, and plants alike. Even the trees were destroyed. The only place without hail was the region of Goshen, where the people of Israel lived.
. . . a deep darkness covered the entire land of Egypt for three days. During all that time the people could not see each other, and no one moved. But there was light as usual where the people of Israel lived.
And, of course, we can’t forget the final plague, when God took the lives of every firstborn male in Egypt. These were his words to his own people:
On that night I will pass through the land of Egypt and strike down every firstborn son and firstborn male animal in the land of Egypt. I will execute judgment against all the gods of Egypt, for I am the LORD! But the blood on your doorposts will serve as a sign, marking the houses where you are staying. When I see the blood, I will pass over you. This plague of death will not touch you when I strike the land of Egypt.
So every year when the people of Israel observe the Passover, they are commemorating the truth that God chooses his people to save them, not to pour out his wrath on them. But he did this for them by preserving them through the judgment, not by removing them from where the judgment was taking place.
The plagues in Revelation
When we compare the plagues described in the book of Revelation, what do we see? Do we find God removing his people before the judgment, or protecting them during the judgment? Let’s see if we notice any parallels:
And I saw another angel coming up from the east, carrying the seal of the living God. And he shouted to those four angels, who had been given power to harm land and sea, “Wait! Don’t harm the land or the sea or the trees until we have placed the seal of God on the foreheads of his servants.”
Then locusts came from the smoke and descended on the earth, and they were given power to sting like scorpions. They were told not to harm the grass or plants or trees, but only the people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads.
Then a third angel followed them, shouting, “Anyone who worships the beast and his statue or who accepts his mark on the forehead or on the hand must drink the wine of God’s anger.”
So the first angel left the Temple and poured out his bowl on the earth, and horrible, malignant sores broke out on everyone who had the mark of the beast and who worshipped his statue.
Then I heard another voice calling from heaven,
“Come away from [Babylon], my people.
Do not take part in her sins,
or you will be punished with her.
Do we see the same pattern in Revelation as in Exodus? Does God remove his people from the earth before judgment or does he protect them during the judgment?
But what about Revelation 3:10?
Some point to Revelation 3:10 as a passage that teaches a pretrib rapture:
Because you have obeyed my command to persevere, I will protect you from the great time of testing that will come upon the whole world to test those who belong to this world.
We immediately see a problem with using this verse to teach a pretrib rapture. Just as with 1 Thessalonians 5:9 above, this passage tells us that God will protect us from this great time of testing, but it doesn’t tell us how he’ll do this. Will he remove us from the earth, or protect us during the time of testing? We can’t know from this one verse, and we’ve seen that the pattern of Scripture doesn’t support the idea of God removing his people from earth before this testing.
In fact, there’s only one other place where the Bible uses this same Greek wording (“protect from”), and that’s in John 17:15 where Jesus prays for his apostles:
I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one.
Here we see that this protection or ‘keeping safe’ is not accomplished by removing the apostles from the world, but by protecting them while they’re right in the midst of the danger. We really have no reason to assume that Revelation 3:10 means anything other than this same kind of protection. There is nothing in Scripture leading us to think God will remove us from the earth before this period of testing. But we can be sure that he’ll protect us from the judgment he will pour out on those who continue to defy him. [The one remaining claim is that the rapture must be imminent, it must be able to happen at any time. We'll examine this belief next week.]
Understanding this biblical pattern helps us to see some Scriptures in a different light, such as Isaiah 26:20-21:
Go home, my people,
and lock your doors!
Hide yourselves for a little while
until the LORD’s anger has passed.
Look! The LORD is coming from heaven
to punish the people of the earth for their sins.
The earth will no longer hide those who have been killed.
They will be brought out for all to see.
This also helps us understand why Jesus said:
So when all these things begin to happen, stand and look up, for your salvation is near!
Once again, God will pass over his people as he brings testing and judgment to a rebellious world. And once again, after this time of testing is completed, he will deliver his people from their bondage.
The return of Christ series:
Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected? [see above]