When we talk about different views of the return of Christ, many people immediately think of the rapture. Especially since the 1970s, there have been countless books, articles, tape series, and even movies about the rapture. Whether from The Late, Great Planet Earth in the 70s or the Left Behind series of books beginning in the 90s or Harold Camping’s unsuccessful prediction that the rapture would occur May 21, 2011 (and then October 21, 2011), there is strong interest in the rapture. Even the secular media report at times on this fascination with the rapture.
What’s a “rapture”?
So what is the rapture? This phenomenon is described in scriptural passages such as
1 Thessalonians 4:15-18:
We tell you this directly from the Lord: We who are still living when the Lord returns will not meet him ahead of those who have died. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the Christians who have died will rise from their graves. Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever. So encourage each other with these words.
The rapture refers to this event when the remaining believers are “caught up” to meet the Lord. The Latin for caught up is rapere, and from this we got the word rapture. So the rapture is when the living Christians are caught up to meet the returning Christ in the air. This is definitely not your typical, everyday happening, and it invites interest and anticipation. But why are there different views about this rapture event?
Why the debate?
Many Christians who believe in the rapture also expect there to be a time before the return of Christ that Scripture calls the ‘tribulation.’ This tribulation is usually thought to be a period of seven years. At least part of this seven-year period will include satanically-inspired persecution against God’s people and also judgment poured out by God on a rebellious world. We’ll explore the topic of the tribulation more in a future study, but here’s why it’s important now: There are three major views that people hold regarding the timing of the rapture, disagreeing on whether the rapture comes before this tribulation, in the middle of the seven-year period, or after the tribulation.
For those who are new to discussing these issues, this is where things can get a little tricky. Remember there are three views Christians hold regarding the millennium: pre-mil, post-mil, and a-mil. [If you don’t recognize these views, you might want to read Millennial match-up and More on the millennium.] Well, now we also have three views on the rapture: pre-trib, mid-trib, and post-trib. You don’t want to confuse these. There’s a big difference between being posttrib and postmil! Most of the people who describe themselves by one of these views of the rapture (pretrib, midtrib, or posttrib) are premil, which means they believe that when Christ returns he will usher us into the golden age of the millennium.
Everyone still with me?! Okay, so let’s look a bit more at each of these three views on the timing of the rapture. As we did two weeks ago when discussing the millennium, I’m going to present these views in the historical order in which they were held by Christian believers. And, as before, I’m going to try to present them in such a way that you won’t know which view I hold. Ready? Here we go:
Because the pretrib view has seemed so predominate in the past century, many are surprised to learn it wasn’t the view of the early church. In the early centuries of the church’s history, all believers appear to have held to the posttrib view. Because there was no controversy regarding the timing of the rapture, there wasn’t as much need for this issue to be discussed, so we don’t have any written exchanges or debates on this subject. Instead, it was simply taught that the rapture and the return of Christ are both part of the same event.
They understood that when Christ returned, the dead in Christ and the living Christians would meet him in the air and then accompany him in his triumphant return to earth. This sounds odd to some today, especially to those who have grown up hearing the pretrib rapture taught. But it was actually a familiar concept to the people then. It was common for a returning, victorious general or king to be greeted outside the city by the people, who would then join his entourage and accompany him back to the city rejoicing and celebrating with him.
This is the way the church viewed the rapture for hundreds of years. In fact, we don’t see any hint of another view of the rapture until the 19th century. Because of this, some refer to the posttrib view as historic premillennialism, a reminder that the original premil view of the early church included a posttrib view of the rapture. Of course, just because a certain view is older or has been held for longer periods of time doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right. We need to be careful to evaluate each view on its biblical merits. (We’ll begin evaluating these views next week.)
The pretrib view was first taught by a man named John Nelson Darby in the 1830s. Darby was part of the Plymouth Brethren movement of churches in Ireland and England. During this time, many began to return to the premillennial view of the early church (that Christ would return and establish his kingdom on earth). This revival of premil thinking caused a flurry of excited study and discussion regarding end times prophecy. There are disputed accounts as to exactly how this view originated, but sometime during this period, Darby and others began teaching what they called the “secret rapture” of the church. They claimed that seven years before Christ returns to earth, he will return secretly for his own people.
This view was very controversial within their fellowship of churches, causing some division between those who accepted the new understanding and those who did not. Later Darby traveled widely in Ireland, England and the United States, teaching both the premil and the pretrib views. Both views were unfamiliar to most Americans, and many assumed that the premil and the pretrib views were necessarily interwoven. Through Darby’s teachings, and later the Scofield Reference Bible, this view became widespread in the US.
By the early 20th century, many of the established religious colleges and seminaries had slipped into liberal theology. In response to this, conservative Bible schools and institutes were started. Such well-known schools as Dallas Theological Seminary originated this way. Because most of these Bible institutes were established by pretrib teachers, this view became the de facto belief of many churches and denominations for most of the 20th century. Until the past few decades, practically all Baptist, Pentecostal, independent Bible churches and Free churches were pretrib.
Today, the pretrib view is usually based on three foundational beliefs:
- In history, God always works exclusively with either the people of Israel or the church. During the tribulation period God is once again focused on Israel, so it doesn’t make sense for the church to be here.
- Because God’s anger is not intended for the church, the remaining Christians must be removed before God pours out his wrath on the earth during the tribulation.
- The return of Christ for his people is imminent, it can happen at any time. So the rapture must occur before the tribulation. If anything else is to occur before the rapture, then this aspect of Christ’s return is not imminent.
There are other supporting arguments and Scripture passages, of course, but these three beliefs are generally viewed as being the basis for the pretrib view.
Mid-tribulational (and other views)
While it’s become common to refer to this view as the midtrib view (meaning that it occurs in the midway point of the seven-year tribulation), this is a misnomer. People who hold this view believe that the ‘great tribulation’ spoken of in prophecy is actually only the final three-and-a-half year period. So this view is really a competing pretrib view—those who hold it believe Christ will come and rapture his church before the three-and-a-half year tribulation. Referring to the famous prophecy by Daniel that describes certain periods of seven years as ‘weeks,’ many of this view’s proponents prefer to call it the “middle of the week” view. However, for the sake of interaction with others they usually accept the midtrib label. (The “pre-wrath” view is another variation of the pretrib view, seeing the wrath as occurring late in the seven-year period, with the rapture consequently occurring late also.)
Beginning with Norman Harrison in 1941, some scholars began refining the traditional pretrib view, seeing the tribulation as lasting only three-and-a-half years. While midtrib teachers generally agree with much of the pretrib understanding of the end times, they emphasize certain passages in Scripture they feel bring the length of the tribulation into more clear focus. The midtrib view has been consistently held since the 1940s, but always by a minority of scholars and pastors.
We should remind ourselves that sincere, Christ-loving, Bible-honoring believers hold to each of these views. This doesn’t make all of the views right, but it does mean there’s no need for us to fight and divide over these issues. I’ve stood shoulder-to-shoulder in fellowship and leadership with Christians who held different views on the rapture and millennium. There’s no reason why we can’t vigorously—but graciously—discuss these views while remaining united in the harmony of the essential truths of the gospel and the loving bond of the Spirit. Next week, we’ll begin evaluating these competing views.
The return of Christ series:
Rapture 101 [see above]