Like many other evangelical Christians, I grew up in churches that taught a pretrib rapture. Some of us were vaguely aware there were other views, but everyone I knew held to and taught that the rapture would take place before the tribulation. The myriad books and tape sets about the end times all taught a pretrib rapture. After a few years of spiritual wandering I returned to my faith in Christ and to life in the church—a pretrib church. My initial ministry training was in this kind of setting, and so were my earliest teaching experiences. I confidently taught the pretrib rapture as the correct, biblical view.
But then I began to notice two troubling developments. The first was in my difficulty with teaching certain passages from a pretrib perspective. I felt more and more as if I was trying to force a square peg into a round hole. Too often I was taught to limit particular biblical instructions as being for the Jews only, when the text didn’t seem to indicate this at all. I felt the pressure to somehow explain why passages that didn’t seem to be speaking of the rapture really were, and passages that seemed to be speaking of the final return of Christ really weren’t. I wanted to trust all the pretrib books and tape sets, but I was having trouble seeing their claims clearly taught in Scripture.
About this time I was learning to access more advanced biblical commentaries, and I made an interesting observation. It was difficult to find current, scholarly commentaries from a pretrib point of view—and I’m talking about conservative, evangelical commentaries. There were plenty of amillennial commentaries and works from scholars who held a historic premillennial view (i.e. posttrib), but up-to-date pretrib commentaries had somehow become scarce. I discovered that most of my favorite scholars held a posttrib view of the rapture, and historic premillennialism appeared to be the standard view among premil scholars now, not the pretrib view.
How had this happened? Unbeknownst to most ordinary Christians who were reading the latest pretrib bestseller, a quiet exodus from the pretrib viewpoint was taking place. Beginning with highly-respected, New Testament theologian George E. Ladd in the 1950s, more and more premil scholars moved from a pretrib to a posttrib understanding of the return of Christ. And as the seminary and Bible college profs have gone, so have gone the pastors. Pretrib pastors are in the minority in evangelical churches now, and the minority is continuing to shrink. I was part of a denomination that insisted on the pretrib rapture, so I was shocked to discover how many well-respected pastors and leaders no longer held a pretrib view.
Thus began a time of intensive and exhaustive analysis of the differing views and the relevant biblical texts. It will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been reading this blog series that I, too, became convinced that the posttrib view was the more biblically sound one. Why?
The Scriptures never describe the rapture and the final return of Christ to earth as separate events taking place at different times.
We’ve looked at this already in our examination of the pretrib rapture, but this is an incredibly significant insight. One begins to suspect that if a Christian didn’t have any of the many pretrib books, tape sets or prophecy experts—but just relied on the clear teaching of Scripture—they would never come up with a separate rapture event seven years (or three-and-a-half years) before the return of Christ. And history confirms this because no one taught such a view throughout the history of the church until the 19th century. The burden of proof was shifting over to the pretrib view. If I was going to be teaching it, I needed to know why.
The foundational principles I was told supported a pretrib rapture weren’t actually supported by Scripture.
We’ve spent three weeks examining these principles (see the links below), and they are simply not borne out by a careful study of the biblical passages. This left me with no substantive reason for holding onto a pretrib view. And the scriptural patterns I did see, such as God’s protection of his people through the flood and through the plagues of Egypt, tended to support a posttrib understanding more than the pretrib view.
The posttrib view made much better sense of all the scriptural passages.
When I went back through all the prophecies regarding Christ’s second coming—now looking at them from a posttrib perspective—I had a dramatically different result. Scriptures that before were awkward and problematic now flowed together effortlessly. It was as if they had suddenly come into focus. I was fitting square pegs into square holes. Everything fit. I saw that the posttrib view is the natural reading of these biblical passages.
For instance, Matthew 24 is a familiar chapter describing events leading up to the return of Christ. It speaks of wars and rumors of wars; famines and earthquakes that are the beginnings of birth pains; great persecution, great apostasy, and also great evangelism; the abomination of desolation; false messiahs and false prophets performing great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even God’s own people. After seeing how this will all take place, we read this (beginning in verse 29, from the HCSB):
Immediately after the tribulation of those days:
The sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not shed its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the celestial powers will be shaken.
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the peoples of the earth will mourn; and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.
When teaching this chapter from a pretrib understanding, one struggles with the fact that the text certainly seems to be describing the rapture occurring after the tribulation. Pretrib teachers routinely have to explain why this passage doesn’t mean what it seems to mean. But if we set aside a pretrib presupposition, we can simply allow the text to speak for itself. (It’s also revealing that, in a private conversation with his disciples [v. 3], Jesus describes the abomination of desolation that takes place in the middle of the tribulation, and expects that it will be seen by his followers [“when you see . . .” v. 15].)
Here’s another passage that comes into much more clear focus when we take off our pretrib glasses:
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him: We ask you, brothers, not to be easily upset in mind or troubled, either by a spirit or by a message or by a letter as if from us, alleging that the Day of the Lord has come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way. For that day will not come unless the apostasy comes first and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he sits in God’s sanctuary, publicizing that he himself is God.
2 Thessalonians 2:1-4
This passage is talking about the ‘Day of the Lord.’ The Thessalonians were apparently worried this day had already taken place. Paul is encouraging them this day won’t occur until after a great apostasy or rebellion takes place, and not until after the Antichrist shows his true colors. And what happens on this Day of the Lord? “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him.” Notice the passage never distinguishes these as happening at different times, but combines them as part of the same event. This is the natural reading of the text, and any other understanding has to be imposed on it.
Even the most familiar rapture passage makes more sense when read from a posttrib perspective:
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore, encourage one another with these words.
1 Thessalonians 4:16-18
This is quite a description. The Lord is descending with a shout, with the archangel’s voice, and with the trumpet of God. This doesn’t exactly sound subtle! It doesn’t sound like merely a secret return for his people and then a quick return to heaven. It sounds like the final, cataclysmic return of Christ to earth. If we weren’t forcing this square peg into a round, pretrib hole, that’s the natural reading of the passage. And notice that we’re meeting him, he’s not meeting us. The nuance of the wording implies that he is continuing in his descent, that we are meeting him and accompanying him to earth, he’s not meeting us and accompanying us to heaven. And as we discovered previously, they were accustomed at that time to just such a welcome for returning, victorious kings. They would go out and meet the king, and then accompany him into the city.
With passage after passage, the posttrib understanding is like a square peg fitting naturally into a square hole, and the pretrib perspective is something that has to be forced into the text. Because there is nothing in Scripture that would cause us to distinguish the rapture from the return of Christ, the posttrib view takes the natural reading of the Bible and accepts the rapture as part of the same event.
What does it matter?
Some don’t hold to any particular view on the timing of the rapture. They have a pan-trib (or pan-mil) view: it will all pan out in the end. That’s probably better than being overly dogmatic and fighting over our rapture positions. But I do have a pastoral concern for believers who just assume the pretrib view.
If a Christian believes in a posttrib rapture and God actually raptures his people before the tribulation, this saint is just in for a great surprise. But if believers are expecting to be raptured out of here before the tribulation . . . and they’re not . . . this could be devastating to their faith. This is especially true if they’re not familiar with the historic premillennial (i.e. posttrib) view.
So if you’re reading this series, you believe in a pretrib rapture, and you’re not persuaded by these posts that the posttrib view is the more biblical one—that’s fine. Just please be aware there is another view that many pastors and scholars feel is more faithful to the scriptural witness. And if you start to see some of these end times prophecies being fulfilled and you’re still here(!), realize it doesn’t mean the Bible was wrong. It just means the pretrib teachers were wrong. If that’s the case, and these things are beginning to happen around you, just do what Jesus told us to do:
. . . stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is near!
The return of Christ series:
The posttrib rapture [see above]