Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The last few weeks we’ve been examining the three main arguments used to teach a pretrib rapture, and we’ve found them to be unsupported by Scripture. But there are other claims one frequently hears in defense of a pretrib rapture. These ideas aren’t as foundational as the three we’ve already looked at but, since they’re so common, it’s good for us to examine them as well. Here are some of the additional claims I’ve heard the most:

“The church isn’t mentioned in most of the book of Revelation.”
In Revelation 1, we read John’s introduction to this book and his description of his initial vision and encounter of the resurrected Lord. In chapters 2 and 3, we have the letters to the 7 churches. But after this—Revelation chapters 4-22—we find no place where the word “church” is used. We often hear it claimed this is because the church is already gone. John doesn’t refer to the church because the church isn’t here. Is this a good interpretation of Scripture?

We do find many references in these chapters to God’s servants (who have his seal placed on them), the saints or God’s holy people, those who maintain their testimony of Jesus, “my people,” those who share in the first resurrection, etc. But we’re told that these all refer to either the people of Israel or to people who place their faith in Christ during the tribulation—not to “the church.” This seems like special pleading to me. It’s a convenient “fact” that can be used to protect this claim, but I’ve never heard any solid reason why these terms don’t refer to the church. We’re just supposed to accept that whoever these servants/saints/followers of Jesus are, they’re not part of the church.

But there are bigger problems for this argument. It actually claims too much. The section of Revelation from chapter 4 to chapter 22 includes visions of what will take place on the earth and what will take place in heaven. If—just because the word ‘church’ isn’t used—the church is absent from the earth, then it must be absent from heaven too! Not only that, but the last few chapters tell of the return of Christ, the resurrection, the millennium, and the new heaven and new earth—all with no mention of “the church.” Apparently the church is absent for all of this. Or maybe we’re relying too much on one single word used to describe God’s people when the Bible uses many. (We also should be aware that whenever John uses the word church in his other writings, he’s always referring to local congregations, not the universal body of all believers.)

This argument doesn’t prove to be very effective, but it does open up the pretrib view to a critique:

What about the “tribulation saints”? Why aren’t they protected from God’s wrath?

According to 1 Thessalonians 5:9, the wrath of God is not intended for those who are in Christ. This protection from God’s wrath is specifically tied to our salvation (also in Romans 3:25 and 5:9). Pretrib teachers agree that some will place their faith in Christ during the tribulation. So why aren’t they saved from God’s wrath? I see only three possibilities:

  1. These people experience a different salvation from all other believers in Christ. (I don’t know anyone who wants to accept this option.)
  2. These people are raptured as soon as they place their faith in Christ. (But then who are the martyrs who give their lives for Christ during the tribulation?)
  3. God passes over them during the tribulation, protecting and preserving them from his wrath. (Revelation actually bears this out. Of course, if this is how God faithfully protects them, why can’t he protect us through the tribulation in the same way?)

“The tribulation is called the ‘time of Jacob’s trouble’ indicating its focus on Israel.”
Jeremiah 30:7, from the traditional King James Version, reads:

Alas! for that day is great, so that none is like it:
it is even the time of Jacob’s trouble;
but he shall be saved out of it.

There are many other passages, in the Old and New Testaments, that stress what this period of time will mean for the people of Israel. It will be a time of unprecedented distress for them, but it will result in their salvation. But remember we’ve already shown that God works in the life of Israel and the church during the same periods of time. Most posttrib believers don’t have any problem with the idea that the tribulation has special significance for the people of Israel, only with the claim that this period of time is intended exclusively for them. Actually, even pretrib teachers accept that the tribulation will be a time of trouble that comes upon the whole earth and a time of unprecedented evangelism throughout the earth. If this is so, then it has meaning for more than just Israel.

“No one will know the day or the hour when Christ returns. If the rapture occurs at the end of the tribulation, we’ll know when to expect it.”
According to what most premillennial Christians believe, there will be a seven year period preceding Jesus’ return to earth. At the midpoint of these seven years, the Antichrist will enter the temple of God and declare himself to be God. (If this is all new to you, don’t worry. We’ll explore these ideas in a future study.) So the claim here is that if we know this happens 3-1/2 years into the tribulation, then all we’d have to do is count off another 3-1/2 years and . . . the rapture!

Of course, it’s not quite so easy. Are we to use a modern calendar or a Jewish calendar in counting off these 3-1/2 years? Scholars disagree. The posttrib view isn’t that the rapture happens at the end of the tribulation, but after the tribulation. How much after? We can’t be sure. Most importantly, Jesus himself told us:

In fact, unless that time of calamity is shortened, not a single person will survive. But it will be shortened for the sake of God’s chosen ones.

Matthew 24:22

If this time of trouble is shortened, then there’s no way to know the day or the hour of his return. And don’t forget what we studied last week. The followers of Christ who are alive at that time are supposed to see the signs of his return (Matthew 24:32-33), and we won’t be surprised by his coming even though he’s coming like a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:4).

“The posttrib rapture idea is the ‘yo-yo theory.’ We go up and then turn around and come right back down!”
Since I was a kid, I’ve heard the posttrib view denigrated this way. But posttrib Christians don’t believe we’ll just ‘go up and then turn around and come right back down’ anymore than they believe the bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1-13 went out and then just turned around and came back inside. No, in both cases the idea is that we’re going to meet him. As Jesus descends, we join him and accompany him in his triumphal return to earth. (Of course, one could accuse the pretrib theory of making Jesus the yo-yo. He comes down, turns around and goes right back.)

“How can a posttrib rapture be a blessed hope?”
The term “blessed hope” has become a common one in discussions of the end times. It comes from the traditional reading of Titus 2:13 (quoted here from the NASB):

. . . as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of the great God and of our savior Jesus Christ . . .

The idea here is that a rapture that only occurs after a seven-year period of tribulation is hardly a ‘blessed hope.’ But this is a particularly modern and Western way of looking at tribulation. We conveniently forget that much of the New Testament was written to people who were already experiencing tribulation. And we forget that much of the church today is experiencing persecution and tribulation.

Do we really want to tell fellow believers who are suffering that the long-awaited end of their suffering is not a blessed hope? Doesn’t suffering only make them long all the more for Jesus to appear and put everything right? And do we really think we’re somehow better than these other Christians? too good to suffer for our faith? If not, wouldn’t our suffering cause this hope to be even more blessed to us?

Notice, in the scriptural passage, it’s not the rapture that’s our blessed hope, it’s the appearance of Christ. And Jesus himself told his followers:

So when all these things begin to happen, stand and look up, for your salvation is near!

Luke 21:28

Next week we’ll take a closer look at the posttrib rapture view.

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims [see above]

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing

By popular demand, this week I’m beginning a new series on the return of Christ. Lately, I’ve been receiving more questions on this topic than on any other, so we’re going to explore this a bit for the next few weeks. This kind of subject always makes me think of the old saying:

The main thing
is that the main thing
stays the main thing.

The study of the return of Jesus (and all the details that go along with it) is one very loaded topic. Christians have differing opinions on how this will all fit together, and we’re not shy about arguing for our favorite viewpoint. Sometimes these exchanges can get heated, and Christians have even cut off one another from fellowship because of different expectations concerning the end times. This is tragic. (If you haven’t yet read it, I would encourage you to take a look at Contentious Christians: How should we handle controversy?) Especially when we consider how much the early disciples missed—or plain got wrong—about the first coming of Christ, I think it’s a little silly for us to think we now suddenly have a crystal clear perception of Christ’s second coming!

Now, that’s not to say we can’t gain real insights from the Scriptures regarding the last days. Not only can we study and learn about the vital truth of Christ’s return, we have an obligation to do so. We don’t want to neglect the precious expectation of Jesus’ arrival, and all the Bible has to teach us about it. But there’s plenty of room for humility and caution in studying and discussing these issues. And I would challenge all of us that fighting and quarreling about the return of the Prince of Peace is not a sign of spiritual maturity! We can discuss our differing viewpoints—and do so vigorously—without becoming divisive or hostile.

This week, we’re going to introduce this subject and lay the foundation for our coming studies. It’s easy for us to get so caught up with all the myriad details and questions regarding the end times that we forget the two most important facts about the return of Christ. Here’s the first one:

Jesus is coming back!

Especially for those of us who have been believers for a long time, we’re so accustomed to the idea that Jesus is returning we forget how profound this is. We don’t worship a mere concept, and the gospel story to which we’re devoted is not just an inspiring fable. We worship God who came to us in the flesh, and who will one day return to us. We are part of a grand story that has a definite beginning, and also a definite conclusion.

Throughout history, we’ve been heading inexorably toward this final culmination when Jesus returns and brings everything to beautiful, perfect completion and harmony. Not only we, but all creation is anticipating being finally free from everything that binds us:

For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us.

Romans 8:19-23

Do we experience the sweetness of God’s Spirit in this lifetime? Absolutely! But do we also suffer and struggle? Yes, we do. Jesus himself told us, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows [John 16:33].” But when we face our own personal pains, or when we’re overcome by the injustices and horrors of this life, we can know it won’t always be this way. This life is not meandering aimlessly through time. It’s going somewhere, and so are we. To those who one day will see things especially terrifying, Jesus says (in Luke 21:28), “So when all these things begin to happen, stand and look up, for your salvation is near!”

This is why we refer to Christ’s return as our blessed hope. And ‘hope’ in the Bible isn’t just a fond desire (as in “Oh, I hope Jesus comes back someday”); it’s a confident anticipation of what we know will come. As sure as we know the sun will come up in the morning, even when the night seems so long, in the same way we know that one day the time will be now, and Jesus will be here.

We’re supposed to be ready!

If you study every place where Jesus teaches about his return, you’ll see him repeatedly emphasize two main points: (1) I’m coming back, so (2) You be ready. How are we supposed to be ready? Why, by knowing exactly how Israel fits into prophecy, who the 144,000 are, and what the mark of the beast looks like . . . right? No, I don’t think this is quite what Jesus had in mind when he told us to be ready. We can lose the forest for the trees. Sometimes the more we’re focused on the minute details of Christ’s return, the less we’re actually ready for him to come back.

Now, don’t be discouraged. We will delve into some of the intriguing questions tied to Jesus’ return. Next week, we’ll look at three main viewpoints that Christians have historically held regarding the return of Christ. (And some of you will be surprised by what those three viewpoints are.) But for now, I want you to imagine a scenario. Let’s say you’re a business owner. You have to go away on an important business trip, so you leave your crew with these instructions: “I’ve laid out training programs for each of you, and given you each your specific areas of responsibility. You have plenty to do, so keep working on your assignments until I get back, and then I’ll evaluate everything.”

What are you going to find when you come back? It could go either way, right? As soon as the boss is gone, the people might decide to enjoy unrestrained freedom. Do whatever they feel like. Why not? The boss won’t be back for a long time! Let’s have some fun! We can do our work later. And so you walk in to find pizza boxes scattered everywhere, music blaring, a keg right in the middle of your office, and your employees seeing who can jump from one desk to the next without spilling their drink. They’re all having a great time . . . but nobody’s doing what you asked them to do.

Or you could return to a group of people focused on doing their jobs. Sure, they have some fun now and then, and take a coffee break when they need it. They laugh easily, and even enjoy working together. But their main focus is on the mission you gave them. They’re determined to fulfill their purpose, to be who they were hired to be. As a returning business owner, which group would you want to find?

Now let’s look at it from our perspective. Remember when you were old enough for your parents to leave you at home unattended? (I know it may be harder for some us to think back that far!) Sometimes it felt as if they were going to be out all night. But then, inevitably, you’d see the headlights turning into the driveway. The moment of truth! How did we feel? It all depended on what was going on, right? We could casually greet our parents as they walked in, or we could frantically try to clean up in 30 seconds what took us hours to destroy. Going back to our work scenario, which group of employees do we want to be?

Watch out! Don’t let your hearts be dulled by carousing and drunkenness, and by the worries of this life. Don’t let that day catch you unaware, like a trap. For that day will come upon everyone living on the earth.

Luke 21:34-35

There’s a story you may have heard about Francis of Assisi. He was said to be planting a tree one day, and someone asked him, “If you knew the Lord was returning today, what would you do?” Francis stopped, thought about it, and replied, “I’d finish planting this tree.” His life was in such balance that, at that moment, he was doing just what he should be doing.

I don’t know if this story is authentic or not, but it gives us a challenging picture. Our lives should be so well-ordered that if we suddenly learn Jesus is returning today, we won’t have to desperately try to accomplish what we should have been doing all along. Because we’re already busy doing what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re focused on the mission, keeping the main thing the main thing, being who Jesus called us to be. We’re prepared for the very moment everything in our lives has been anticipating: the return of our Lord.

The return of Christ series:

The return of Christ: Keeping the main thing the main thing [see above]

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Assorted claims

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation)

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist)

The return of Christ: Odds and ends