The return of Christ: Odds and ends

The number of the beast

Many years ago, I had a friend who was in a band. (Didn’t we all?) One of the songs he wrote was titled 665—The Neighbor of the Beast. If you were at all familiar with bands like Iron Maiden, you’ll appreciate the humor of this parody. Of course, if you peruse the titles of songs from many Christian albums, especially from the early Jesus music of the 70s, you’ll find surprisingly similar subject matter. What caused all of this fascination? The “number of the beast” comes from Revelation 13:17-18, which refers to:

. . . the name of the beast or the number representing his name. Wisdom is needed here. Let the one with understanding solve the meaning of the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. His number is 666.

Now, there are a number of questions concerning this passage:

What is the number?
The traditional reading is 666, but some early manuscripts record the number as 616. And there is still some question among scholars as to which reading is correct. If 616 is actually the number in the original manuscripts, there are a lot of highly speculative books and materials that will need to be withdrawn from publication!

What is the number supposed to mean?
According to the passage above, this number represents the name of the beast or Antichrist. How does it do that? In the first century, each of the letters in the Greek alphabet (as well as other alphabets) had a numeric value. It was common to total up the value of the letters in a person’s name. For instance, Jesus’ name in Greek apparently totals 888. This is the number of his name. The number 666 (or 616) is the combined numeric value of the letters in the Antichrist’s name.

So, what’s his name?
Unfortunately, this doesn’t work backwards. It’s not like a code; we can’t work back from the numbers to determine a specific name. Many potential names have been suggested over the years, from Nero to Ronald Wilson Reagan (get it? 6 letters in each name) to www (as in world-wide web). Each of these claims has problems, by the way. It’s interesting that some scholars prefer the number 616 because it works better with Nero’s name in Latin. Even if this number did point specifically to Nero, it’s very possible he was intended to be a type (or model) of the Antichrist to come. One thing we’re not told to do is somehow use this number to figure out ahead of time who the Antichrist will be.

The mark of the beast

The earlier part of the passage above tells us:

He required everyone—small and great, rich and poor, free and slave—to be given a mark on the right hand or on the forehead. And no one could buy or sell anything without that mark, which was either the name of the beast or the number representing his name.

Revelation 13:16-17

Again, we should break this down to a few observations:

This is a twisted attempt to mimic the seal God places on his people.
Remember passages such as Revelation 7:2-3:

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.”

Once again, we see Satan trying desperately to be like God.

How literal is this description?
Most of us have been drawn into discussions about a coming cashless society and whether this might prove to be the mark of the beast. But we need to slow down a bit. Remember when we study Revelation we need to assume each description is symbolic unless something in the text indicates it’s literal. (For more on this, see earlier posts here and here.) Does God literally place a seal on the physical foreheads of his servants? Or does this symbolize a spiritual identification of us as God’s, as if we are spiritually “branded” by God as his?

Is the mark of the beast a literal mark on a person’s physical hand or forehead? Or does it spiritually identify a person as belonging to the Antichrist (and therefore Satan)? And what about this issue of buying and selling? If this is symbolism, what does it symbolize? Is it possible this description is both literal and spiritual? These are not easy questions, and it would take an entire post (or more) to work through all of the possible interpretations. For now, we need to realize we won’t clearly understand what each element in Revelation means—at least not before these things occur. Yes, the ever-increasing push toward a cashless society is compelling and provocative. But we need to be careful not to assume too quickly what constitutes fulfillment of biblical prophecy.

The mark of the beast will accompany the worship of the Antichrist.
We will know the mark of the beast when we see it. We’ll have no doubt what it is because it will be an integral aspect of the worship of the Antichrist. Let’s zoom out again in our passage and see a bit more of the context:

And he [the second beast or false prophet] required all the earth and its people to worship the first beast [the Antichrist], whose fatal wound had been healed. He did astounding miracles, even making fire flash down to earth from the sky while everyone was watching. And with all the miracles he was allowed to perform on behalf of the first beast, he deceived all the people who belong to this world. He ordered the people to make a great statue of the first beast, who was fatally wounded and then came back to life. He was then permitted to give life to this statue so that it could speak. Then the statue of the beast commanded that anyone refusing to worship it must die. He required everyone—small and great, rich and poor, free and slave—to be given a mark on the right hand or on the forehead. And no one could buy or sell anything without that mark, which was either the name of the beast or the number representing his name.

Revelation 13:12-17

Anyone who takes this “mark” will understand they are identifying themselves as belonging to the Antichrist.

A note on the false prophet

Again, expanding our scope in Revelation 13, we see in verse 11 a description of this “second beast”:

He had two horns like those of a lamb, but he spoke with the voice of a dragon.

Who is the Lamb? In Revelation chapters 5-6 we see the Lamb is Christ himself. So this false prophet will appear to be like the lamb, or like Christ. He may even be a recognized religious figure. But his words will expose him as following the schemes of the devil.

What is Babylon in Revelation 17-18?

In chapter 17, we’re introduced to a woman who represents a city that represents a world power. (Confused yet?) In the next chapter, we see the ultimate fate of this woman/city/world power. It’s utterly devastated and destroyed. What or who is this describing?

The great prostitute.
Our first clue is the way she’s initially described:

“Come with me,” he said, “and I will show you the judgment that is going to come on the great prostitute, who rules over many waters. The kings of the world have committed adultery with her, and the people who belong to this world have been made drunk by the wine of her immorality.”

Revelation 17:1-2

In biblical prophecy, adultery speaks of unfaithfulness to God. But this woman isn’t just unfaithful to God; she has prostituted or sold herself in order to gain something for her unfaithfulness.

The woman wore purple and scarlet clothing and beautiful jewelry made of gold and precious gems and pearls. In her hand she held a gold goblet full of obscenities and the impurities of her immorality.

Revelation 17:4

So her unfaithfulness has made her very wealthy and powerful, and given her an indulgent, decadent lifestyle. And not only has she given herself over to this obscene adultery against God, she’s drawn the rest of the world into this perversion.

The mother of all prostitutes.
The description continues:

A mysterious name was written on her forehead: “Babylon the Great, Mother of All Prostitutes and Obscenities in the World.” I could see that she was drunk—drunk with the blood of God’s holy people who were witnesses for Jesus.

                                                                    Revelation 17:5-6

In another place (1 John 4:2-3), John explains there is a spirit of antichrist that has always been present. This doesn’t mean there is no personal Antichrist who will rise up in the last days, only that he will embody a spirit or mentality that has always been around. In the same way, Babylon is the “mother” of all who share in this heart of spiritual prostitution and adultery against God.

Babylon was the site of the first organized, societal rebellion against God (Genesis 11:1-9). Many scholars trace the origins of paganism to ancient Babylon. (Much occult tradition echoes this.) This false, adulterous religion seduced the people to turn from faithfulness to the one, true God and give themselves over to adulterous worship of the sun and moon, and a pantheon of gods and goddesses. This ungodly perversion was carried into all cultures, and so Babylon truly is the mother of all spiritual prostitution and obscenity.

Associated with the Antichrist and his government.
In Revelation 17:15, we learn this prostitute rules over masses of people of every nation and language. But she doesn’t represent government itself. We’re told repeatedly in chapter 18 that the kings of the world commit adultery with the prostitute (and they mourn for her when she is destroyed). And in 17:3, we read:

There I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that had seven heads and ten horns, and blasphemies against God were written all over it.

We’ve seen this beast with its ten horns (i.e. kings or powers) before. So the women or prostitute isn’t the final one-world government, but she’s associated in some way with it. Is the woman driving the beast where she wants it go, or is he taking her where he wants? She does rule over masses of people. Possibly because of her power over these people, “The scarlet beast and his ten horns all hate the prostitute [Revelation 17:16].” So, they are associated, probably even cooperating, but the Antichrist hates the prostitute.

Who is the prostitute?
Here’s where we need to be careful and see the forest for the trees. Some think the prostitute will literally be a rebuilt Babylon. But Babylon here seems to symbolize the origin of this heart of spiritual adultery. 17:9 speaks of “seven hills where the woman rules,” and 17:18 says “this woman you saw in your vision represents the great city that rules over the kings of the world.” This seems to point to Rome. And, interestingly enough, Rome was sometimes called by the nickname Babylon.

But why was Rome called Babylon? Because she had followed in Babylon’s perverse ways of spiritual prostitution and persecution of God’s people to secure her wealth and power. The “spirit” of Rome was merely the current manifestation of this “spirit” of Babylon, this heart and mentality of unfaithfulness against God, embracing of his enemies, and hatred of his people. The political government of Rome worked together and cooperated with Roman paganism and false religion. The two served to consolidate each other’s power over the masses and helped each other become increasingly wealthy.

Many Bible teachers believe this prostitute, Babylon, represents all false religions and faiths (including corrupted forms of Christianity). Religion, as opposed to genuine faith in Christ, has prostituted itself and committed adultery with those who hold the power and wealth of the world. It has “deceived the nations with your sorceries” and slaughtered those who remain faithful to the true God (Revelation 18:23-24). But one day all this false religious perversion and obscenity will come crashing down.

Doomed to destruction.
Chapter 18 vividly describes the downfall of this seemingly great power. Her fall will be so sudden and so devastating it will shock the world and cause those who partnered in her adulteries to mourn for her. Apparently, God will allow the Antichrist to have a hand in the destruction of this long-standing false religious system (17:16-17). Remember he will “exalt himself and defy everything that people call god and every object of worship [2 Thessalonians 2:4].” It seems poetic justice for God to use a false christ to destroy the false religions of the world that put their faith in this satanic figure rather than the one true God. Of course, any success the Antichrist enjoys will be extremely short-lived.

It’s appropriate for us to close this section with the warning God gives to his people regarding this seductive adultery of false religion, this spirit of the age:

Come away from her, my people.
Do not take part in her sins,
or you will be punished with her.

Revelation 18:4

After Christ puts an end to this deception and perversion, he will establish his kingdom on earth. Ultimately, we see the new Jerusalem descending from heaven to earth (Revelation 21-22). Where Babylon represented spiritual prostitution against God, the new Jerusalem symbolizes the intimate union with God he has always planned for us: heaven on earth; God living among his people.

We end this series by remembering the most important truths concerning the return of Christ, on which we all agree:

Jesus is returning.

We must be ready.


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

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 [see above]

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

“. . . Hope you guess my name.”  **
I can recall, as a child, listening to adults seriously considering whether Henry Kissinger might be the Antichrist. (Some will be amused by that, others shocked.) In some circles, ‘guessing the Antichrist’ seemed almost like an evangelical pastime. In the past few years, I’ve heard people wonder out loud whether either George W. Bush or Barack Obama might be the Antichrist (depending on their politics). It’s probably too much to ask for us not to speculate regarding who may or may not be this malevolent, prophetic figure. But just what exactly is this Antichrist about whom everyone is so curious?

Many non-Christians are also intrigued by this mysterious character. This interest is likely due to The Omen and similar films and books, references in punk and heavy metal lyrics, and just general interest in prophecy and the end of the world. Unfortunately, this has created a lot of misinformation about this key, last days figure, and even Christians sometimes fail to distinguish the biblical from the merely sensational. What do we know from Scripture about this guy?

A leader rising from obscurity
The Antichrist will rise suddenly from the masses. He will most likely be involved in the leadership of an international coalition that in some way incorporates elements of the ancient Roman Empire. This connection with Rome could be geographical, but will likely be a “revival” of its cultural, legal and political heritage. This coalition will be (or is symbolized by) a confederacy of ten powers (Daniel 2:26-48, 7:15-28; Revelation 13:1-2). At some point in the Antichrist’s rise to power, three of these powers are subdued in some way (Daniel 7:24).

Europe (and all of the Western World) still carries in its cultural DNA the enduring influences of the Roman Empire. At times, some leaders and nations have attempted to be intentional standard-bearers and preservers of the Roman legacy. Examples of this would include the Holy Roman Empire (of which my history prof was fond of saying it was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire) and even Germany’s Third Reich. Because of this historical connection of Europe with Rome—and because of the prophecies of a 10-nation coalition—the establishment of the European Common Market, and then expansion to 10 nations (gasp!), drew the attention of a lot of Christians.  Of course, this coalition continued to expand and develop into the current European Union, which has far more than 10 member states.

This doesn’t mean Europe is no longer of interest concerning these prophecies, but it does provide us with a valuable lesson. We shouldn’t be too quick to declare what current development does and does not fulfill specific end times prophecies. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of speculation now and then, but we must hold our speculations loosely. And we must never confuse our educated guesses with the clear teaching of Scripture.

Appearing as a great man of peace
Before this leader shows himself to be in opposition to Christ, he will present himself in place of Christ. Some believe it’s foretold in Scripture that he will arrange a treaty with Israel (and presumably her neighbors) that will allow the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem (Daniel 9:27). Is it a coincidence the very nations spoken of so prominently in end times prophecies are consistently at the heart of geopolitical conflict today? Imagine if a world leader was able to broker a seemingly real and lasting peace in the Middle East. Wouldn’t he be hailed as a hero . . . or more?

We’re told that Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), and it should come as no surprise his chosen servant will do the same thing. Rather than be viewed as a usurper of power who has evil intentions, this leader will be hailed as a great deliverer from war and oppression. Anyone who can remember the euphoric devotion felt by some toward Ronald Reagan in the 1980s or Barack Obama in 2008 can get a taste of the adoration people will have for this man. He’ll seem like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr and Ghandi all rolled up into one (with maybe a touch of Elvis or Michael Jackson). He’ll be the most charismatic person anyone has ever seen.

Bringing the world together
Today we deal with division among world religions, which often serves to exacerbate cultural conflicts. It’s fascinating though that most of the world religions are each anticipating a great, final deliverer. Many Jews still look for the Messiah. Both Sunni and Shiite Muslims are awaiting the Mahdi or 12th Imam. The Mahdi is to come before the Day of Judgment to redeem the world from oppression and injustice. Those who embrace him will be shown to be true Muslims.

Many different schools of Buddhism are waiting for the bodhisattva Maitreya, a final Buddha who will come, manifest perfect enlightenment and teach the world the true Dharma or teaching. All denominations of Christianity (along with loosely associated faiths such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism) are anticipating the return of Jesus. Even many occult groups and “New Age” teachers are expecting some kind of Messianic figure with a “Christ-consciousness” to lead us into a new age of enlightenment.

When this incredible, captivating man of peace and enlightenment comes on the world scene, he’s going to be hailed as a savior. He’ll inspire complete loyalty, even devotion. He’ll be seen as the answer to the world’s problems—political, social and spiritual—the great Christ-figure for whom everyone has been waiting. It will seem there’s finally a way to bring all the different world cultures and religions together in a common harmony and devotion. For those who have been saying all religions are different paths to the same truth, this great leader will be the ultimate confirmation. People will be saying, “If there was ever a Christ, it’s this man!” For many—who have refused to embrace the truth of Jesus Christ—there will be no defense against this overpowering delusion.

Declaring himself to be God
At the midway point of this 7-year period, the Antichrist enters the temple of God and declares himself to be God. This is what the Bible refers to as “the abomination of desolation.” (Scholars disagree as to whether this will occur in a literally reconstructed Temple in Jerusalem or if this symbolizes something else, possibly having to do with the church, which is now the temple of God.)

For that day will not come until there is a great rebellion against God and the man of lawlessness is revealed—the one who brings destruction. He will exalt himself and defy everything that people call god and every object of worship. He will even sit in the temple of God, claiming that he himself is God.

2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 (compare with Matthew 24:15; Daniel 9:27)

Notice this man doesn’t just declare himself to be above the God of the Bible. “He will exalt himself and defy everything that people call god and every object of worship [emphasis added].” This means he sets himself above Yahweh, Allah, Brahman, Krishna, whatever. For some, this will be enough to shock them out of their reverie. For others, it will only ensnare them even more into this satanic lie.

A cheap imitation
We need to remember that Satan doesn’t just want to oppose and defeat God; he wants to be God. He wants to rule over all and be worshiped and adored. He has no creative power within himself, so all he can do is copy and twist and pervert who God is and what God does. To be like God, Satan will devise his own version of the Trinity. He will put himself in the place of the Father. The Antichrist is not an actual incarnation of Satan (Satan can’t really emulate God), but he will serve in place of his “son.” And Revelation describes a False Prophet who will fill the role of the (un)Holy Spirit and direct the people to worship the Antichrist (Revelation 13:11-15).

Not only will Satan manufacture this unholy trinity, but he’ll apparently attempt to reproduce the resurrection. Revelation 13:3 describes the Antichrist suffering a fatal wound that is subsequently healed. This miraculous sign will be so publicized it will become a catalyst for greater devotion and worship of the Antichrist and even of Satan himself.

Openly opposing God and killing God’s people
After the Antichrist declares himself to be God, his mask of humble peace-seeking will be discarded and he will become increasingly arrogant, power-hungry and blasphemous. The other people who have resisted God and refused to embrace the truth will look on with glee as this satanic leader exerts more and more control. Because he will be viewed as a savior who is bringing all peoples and faiths together, anyone who resists his vision will be seen as stubbornly obstructing world peace and harmony. To those people whose consciences are turned upside down, it will seem right to hunt down and dispose of these hateful enemies of humanity. Thus will begin the worst period of persecution the world has ever witnessed.

I also asked about the ten horns on the fourth beast’s head and the little horn that came up afterward and destroyed three of the other horns. This horn had seemed greater than the others, and it had human eyes and a mouth that was boasting arrogantly. As I watched, this horn was waging war against God’s holy people and was defeating them . . .

“Its ten horns are ten kings who will rule that empire. Then another king will arise, different from the other ten, who will subdue three of them. He will defy the Most High and oppress the holy people of the Most High. He will try to change their sacred festivals and laws, and they will be placed under his control for a time, times, and half a time.”

Daniel 7:20-25

Then you will be arrested, persecuted, and killed. You will be hated all over the world because you are my followers. . . . For there will be greater anguish than at any time since the world began. And it will never be so great again. 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 24:9, 21-22

This man will come to do the work of Satan with counterfeit power and signs and miracles. He will use every kind of evil deception to fool those on their way to destruction, because they refuse to love and accept the truth that would save them.

2 Thessalonians 2:9-10

Then the beast was allowed to speak great blasphemies against God. And he was given authority to do whatever he wanted for 42 months. And he spoke terrible words of blasphemy against God, slandering his name and his dwelling—that is, those who dwell in heaven. And the beast was allowed to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. . . . This means that God’s holy people must endure persecution patiently and remain faithful.

Revelation 13:5-10

Doomed to failure
Just as with the plagues of Egypt, it will become more and more obvious the plagues poured out during the tribulation are from the hand of God. Instead of causing the Antichrist and his followers to repent, this knowledge will drive them to be even more blatant in their hostility and rebellion against God. Ultimately this will lead to open, attempted war with God—what we know as Armageddon—which will be swiftly and thoroughly crushed.

As I watched, this horn was waging war against God’s holy people and was defeating them, until the Ancient One—the Most High—came and judged in favor of his people. Then the time arrived for the holy people to take over the kingdom. . . .

“He will defy the Most High and oppress the holy people of the Most High. . . . But then the court will pass judgment, and all his power will be taken away and completely destroyed. Then the sovereignty, power, and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be given to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will last forever, and all rulers will serve and obey him.”

Daniel 7:21-27

Then the man of lawlessness will be revealed, but the Lord Jesus will kill him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by the splendor of his coming.

2 Thessalonians 2:8

And the demonic spirits gathered all the rulers and their armies to a place with the Hebrew name Armageddon.

Revelation 16:16

Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war. His eyes were like flames of fire, and on his head were many crowns. A name was written on him that no one understood except himself. He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God. The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress. On his robe at his thigh was written this title: King of all kings and Lord of all lords. . . .

Then I saw the beast and the kings of the world and their armies gathered together to fight against the one sitting on the horse and his army. And the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who did mighty miracles on behalf of the beast—miracles that deceived all who had accepted the mark of the beast and who worshiped his statue. Both the beast and his false prophet were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulphur. Their entire army was killed by the sharp sword that came from the mouth of the one riding the white horse.

Revelation 19:11-21

Then the devil, who had deceived them, was thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulphur, joining the beast and the false prophet. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

Revelation 20:10

But what about the mark of the beast? What is that? And what exactly is Babylon supposed to represent in Revelation? I’m going to wrap up this series next week by looking at some of these remaining questions.

**  [This song (Sympathy for the Devil) is not specifically about the Antichrist. But it does describe how Satan has been behind horrible acts of evil in history, and that certainly applies in this case.]

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

The posttrib rapture

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

“Pleased to meet you . . .” (Introducing the Antichrist) [see above]

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

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

The past few weeks, we’ve been exploring the return of Christ, particularly examining the views on the millennium and rapture that have sometimes divided Christians. In the next three weeks, we’ll wrap up this series by looking at some of the other end times elements that often pique our curiosity.

The tribulation

Especially in the books of Daniel and Revelation, we see emphasized a period of 7 years, which we usually refer to as “the tribulation.” This tribulational period immediately precedes Jesus’ return to earth.

If you’ve read many books or materials from pretrib teachers, you’ve probably seen very precise interpretations of what the vivid elements in the book of Revelation are supposed to describe. But, as we saw in our previous study Revelation: The story comes full circle, it’s a mistake to assume that the descriptions in Revelation should be taken literally, and it’s typically pretrib teachers who interpret Revelation in an overly literal manner. This explains why the people who try to date the return of Christ or tell us how the latest altercation in Iran or Iraq fits precisely into end times prophecy (and then have to later retract their claims!) are invariably pretrib teachers. Now, the best pretrib teachers don’t indulge in this kind of speculation, but—unfortunately—there are many more of their fellow pretribbers who over-compensate for these teachers’ restraint.

Apocalyptic = symbolism
As we saw in our previous study on Revelation, this book is an apocalyptic form of literature, which means we should expect it to be highly symbolic. And it doesn’t take us long to see this is just what we find in Revelation. We have lampstands that aren’t literal lampstands, and dragons that aren’t literal dragons, and stars that aren’t literal stars, and a seven-headed, ten-horned beast rising up out of the sea. Usually in our study of Scripture we assume the text is literal unless something indicates otherwise, but in Revelation we must assume these descriptions symbolize something else unless we see something in the text that convinces us we must take it literally.

This apocalyptic, symbolic nature of Revelation is the reason why most posttrib teachers are hesitant to take literally such things as the 144,000 (search out the immediate problem with the list of tribes in Rev. 7:4-8), the description of the bizarre locusts in Rev. 9:3-11, or even the two witnesses in Rev. 11:1-14. Of course I realize this isn’t nearly as fun as thinking we can figure out ahead of time exactly how each of these events will take place and what they’ll look like! And because of this caution we don’t have a flood of posttrib books the way we do pretrib materials. But I would argue this is a much more biblically sound and balanced approach, and it avoids the embarrassing, outlandish claims we’ve all too often witnessed.

What will happen during the tribulation?
It’s not uncommon for people (even non-Christians) to think of this 7-year tribulational period as a virtual hell on earth. But as we learned in the post on Revelation, this isn’t the case. Actually the first part of this time will be relatively peaceful for many, and the only possible indication we’re in this final period will be uniquely new developments in the Middle East. (More on this next week.)

There are a few things that we know will occur during the last part of this tribulation before Christ returns:

Great persecution will take place against both Jews and followers of Christ.

Then you will be arrested, persecuted, and killed. You will be hated all over the world because you are my followers.

Matthew 24:9

When the dragon realized that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. . . . And the dragon was angry at the woman and declared war against the rest of her children—all who keep God’s commandments and maintain their testimony for Jesus.

Revelation 12:13-17

This means that God’s holy people must endure persecution patiently, obeying his commands and maintaining their faith in Jesus.

Revelation 14:12

Large numbers of people who have claimed to be followers of Christ will turn away from the true faith.

And many will turn away from me and betray and hate each other. And many false prophets will appear and will deceive many people. Sin will be rampant everywhere, and the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

Matthew 24:10-13

Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from the true faith; they will follow deceptive spirits and teachings that come from demons.

1 Timothy 4:1

All of the world will be reached with the gospel.

And the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the world, so that all nations will hear it; and then the end will come.

Matthew 24:14

After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a great roar,

“Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne
and from the Lamb!”

Revelation 7:9-10

God will pour out plagues on the earth.
Just as with the plagues God poured out on Egypt, at first these plagues will be mostly disruptions and inconveniences. But near the end of the tribulation, these plagues will begin to build in intensity as a woman experiencing the pains of childbirth. The stage is then set for the final, crashing crescendo of the return of Christ that occurs after the tribulation.

The first plagues are described as testing the inhabitants of the world. What Scripture refers to as “the wrath of God” against those who are openly rebelling against him only occurs at the very end. As we saw a few weeks ago (Removed or protected?), these plagues from God will not touch or harm those people who belong to him. As with the judgment of Egypt, because we place our faith in the sacrificial Lamb (Jesus), God will protect and pass over us.

We also find other details about the tribulation in biblical prophecy, with some passages referring to a rebellion against God led by someone most of us have heard of: the “Antichrist.” Who is this guy? What can we know about him? We’ll explore this next week.

Related post:

Revelation: The story comes full circle

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

The posttrib rapture

Locusts and dragons and beasts, oh my! (Or the great tribulation) [see above]

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

The return of Christ: Odds and ends

The posttrib rapture

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!

Luke 21:28

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

The posttrib rapture [see above]

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

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

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

The last few weeks we’ve been talking about the rapture. After a brief introduction, we began by focusing on this question: Does the Bible teach that the rapture is a distinct event, separate from the final return of Christ to earth? We can consolidate all the views into two groups, depending on how they would answer this question. If we determine the answer is no, then the posttrib view is the biblical one. Those who hold to all the other views (pretrib, midtrib, pre-wrath, etc.) would answer this question yes. Because the pretrib teachers were the first to suggest the rapture is a distinct event happening years before the return of Jesus—and because all other views except the posttrib view are variations of the pretrib view—we’ve been examining the pretrib view first.

We’ve found that no scriptural passage clearly teaches the rapture as a separate event before the return of Christ. The pretrib rapture view is based on other biblical claims that are said to make the pretrib rapture necessary. A few weeks ago, we examined the claim that God always works exclusively with either Israel or the church, never both at the same time. We found this idea to be unscriptural. Last week, we explored the most common supporting claim of the pretrib view, the truth that believers in Christ are not subject to the pouring out of God’s wrath. But the biblical pattern shows that God doesn’t remove his people before testing and judging a rebellious people; he protects and passes over them during the judgment. We found no scriptural reason to assume God would remove his people from the earth before testing and judging a rebellious world.

This week, we’re going to look at the second most commonly used argument in favor of a pretrib rapture: the claim that the rapture is imminent. When pretrib teachers use the word ‘imminent,’ they mean it in the sense the rapture can happen at any time, there is nothing that must occur prior to the rapture. Their argument is that if the rapture happens after the tribulation, then there are things that must take place before the rapture can occur. But (they claim) the Bible presents the rapture as something that can happen at any time, thus there can be nothing that has to occur first. So the rapture must take place before the tribulation. The question we have to look at then this week is:

Does the Bible teach that the rapture can happen at any time?

What scriptural passages is this view based on? [When discussing this topic, it’s helpful to see the precise wording in these passages so, unless otherwise indicated, I’m quoting here from the NET, a more formal translation than the NLT.]

Therefore stay alert, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have been alert and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

Matthew 24:42-44

. . . then the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not foresee . . .

Matthew 24:50

Therefore stay alert, because you do not know the day or the hour.

Matthew 25:13

(We could also list parallel passages from Mark and Luke, but they say essentially the same thing.)

Now, if we look carefully at these verses, we see a familiar problem for the pretrib view. These passages are wonderful reminders that we don’t know exactly when Jesus is returning and so we must stay alert—but they don’t say anything about what will or will not happen before he returns. We simply can’t use these Scriptures to teach that the return of Christ for his people must be an “any-time” event and that nothing has to happen first. These verses don’t tell us that. Just because we don’t know precisely when something is going to happen doesn’t mean there are no other events leading up to this happening. In fact, in the same instructions to his disciples we quote from above, Jesus said this (after describing what would happen at the time of the end):

Learn this parable from the fig tree: Whenever its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also you, when you see all these things, know that he is near, right at the door.

Matthew 24:32-33

Jesus himself described the signs that would indicate his return was getting near, and these are signs his followers will see. This means Jesus won’t return for his people until after these signs occur.

Many pretrib supporters refer to 1 Thessalonians 5:2 that says “the day of the Lord will come in the same way as a thief in the night,” and that sudden destruction will come upon those not expecting it. But they forget the same chapter tells us:

But you aren’t in the dark about these things, dear brothers and sisters, and you won’t be surprised when the day of the Lord comes like a thief.

1 Thessalonians 5:4, NLT

In the same way, some quote James 5:7-9 that tells us to be patient and take courage because the coming of the Lord is near, and the Judge is standing at the door. Of course, this passage also describes the kind of patience we are to have:

Think of how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the ground and is patient for it until it receives the early and late rains.

This doesn’t seem to be saying that nothing has to happen before the return of Christ any more than it’s saying that nothing has to happen before a harvest comes. Some also refer to passages that instruct us to “wait for” or “look for” the return of Christ or even “eagerly anticipate” it. But these also don’t mean the rapture is an any-time event or that nothing must take place before it occurs. These passages are all beautiful and encouraging, but they don’t justify the assumptions of the pretrib teachers.

More timing problems
Jesus taught that his people would see signs leading up to his return, as we read in the passage above. The signs to which he referred include such events as the ‘abomination of desolation’ (when the Antichrist enters the Temple and declares himself to be God) and the terrible, awesome signs in the heavens that occur immediately before Christ descends to earth. Apparently, Jesus was not expecting his people to be removed from earth before these things happen.

But Jesus also prophesied other things that were still to take place before he returned for his people: Peter would live to an old age and then be led to his death (John 21:18-19), Jerusalem would be destroyed (e.g. Matthew 24:1-2), the gospel would be proclaimed in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and throughout the world (Acts 1:8; Matthew 24:14), Paul would proclaim the gospel in Rome (Acts 23:11, 27:24). All of these things had to occur before Christ returned for his people.

As the axiom goes, “The Bible can never mean what it never meant.” Whatever these words of Jesus (or Paul, or James) meant to the people to whom they originally spoke or wrote, that’s what they mean to us today as well. The statements about not knowing when he would return and for his people to be ready couldn’t mean that his return for them was imminent because there were still events that had to take place before Jesus’ return. Jesus wasn’t teaching his return could occur at any time and that there were no events that must happen first. And if these instructions didn’t teach an imminent rapture to them, then they don’t to us either.

There is no place in Scripture where we’re told that Christ’s return for his people can occur at any time and that no other events need to happen first.

We’ve examined the three foundational claims that are supposed to teach a pretrib rapture, and we’ve found they can’t be supported biblically. Next week, we’ll look at the rest of the assorted arguments used to suggest a pretrib rapture. (If you have an argument in favor of a pretrib rapture and you’d like me to include it, please let me know.)

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? [see above]

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

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

When the conversation turns to different views of the rapture, some people frankly admit, “I just don’t want to be here for all that terrible stuff!” Now, some of this stems from a perception 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 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 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 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 flood
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.'”

Exodus 8:21-23

“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.

Exodus 9:2-6

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.

Exodus 9:23-26

. . . 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.

Exodus 10:22-23

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.

Exodus 12:12-13

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.

Revelation 7:2-3

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.

Revelation 9:3-4

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.

Revelation 14:9-10

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.

Revelation 16:2

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.

Revelation 18:4

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 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 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!

Luke 21:28

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:

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? [see above]

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

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Last week, we introduced the different views Christians hold regarding the rapture of the church. (If you aren’t familiar with these views, you might want to read this post first.) It may seem like we have a lot of work ahead of us to try to sift through all of these views. But if we ask the right questions first, we begin to see an important, clarifying distinction right away.

The pretrib, midtrib, and even pre-wrath views are all variations of the same basic viewpoint. While they may differ on the length of the tribulation, they all agree the rapture is an event that is distinct from the final return of Christ. Whether it’s seven years earlier, three-and-a-half years, or mere months or weeks, all of these views claim that Christ will first return for his church, and then later return with his church. Of course, those who hold the posttrib view would demur. This is the fundamental difference that separates the differing views of the rapture. So we’re going to spend the next few weeks answering this question:

Does the Bible teach that the rapture of the church and the final return of Christ are two separate events?

As we discussed last week, we find no pretrib view of the rapture in the first 18 centuries of the history of the church. Until 1830, nobody saw in Scripture the idea that the rapture will occur at a separate time before the return of Christ. This doesn’t mean we should simply dismiss the idea, but it does mean we should examine it very carefully before jettisoning the historical view of the church.

The primary question for us should always be: What does Scripture teach? And here we face a challenge to the pretrib view: There’s no passage of Scripture that describes the rapture as occurring at a different time than the return of Christ. We just don’t get this idea from a clear, unambiguous biblical reference. Instead, the case for the pretrib rapture is said to be built on other biblical truths that lead necessarily to the pretrib rapture of the church. Last week, we listed the three biblical truths that pretrib teachers claim point to a pretrib rapture. This week we’re going to examine the first of these claims:

Pretrib Claim 1
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.

If you’ve attended pretrib Bible studies on the end times and the rapture, you’ve probably heard this idea emphasized as a sound principle for interpreting Scripture. Pretrib teachers see the church age as a kind of parenthesis or interruption in God’s working with his chosen people, Israel. When the church was established at Pentecost, God temporarily ceased working with Israel and devoted his attention to the church. But they believe that God will finish his work with the church at the rapture, and then once again focus his efforts on the people of Israel. Does Scripture bear this out?

The fulfillment of prophecy concerning Israel
We should first note that it’s not only pretrib believers who are anticipating God’s fulfillment of all the prophecies concerning Israel. We’ll look at some of these prophecies in greater detail in a future post, but most premil Christians—including pretrib and posttrib believers—expect God to keep all the promises he made specifically to the people of Israel. How he’ll do that and what that means for us today are questions for another study. But, even though they’re a little more cautious about speculating which current event matches which biblical prophecy, most posttrib pastors and teachers agree that God is not done with his chosen people, Israel.

Two peoples of God?
The early pretrib teachers believed that Israel and the church are completely separate and distinct—not only now, but for eternity. They believed we would eternally constitute two different peoples of God: Israel and the church.  This claim isn’t as common now, but we do still encounter it from time to time. What is the relationship between Israel and the church? Does God distinguish between his people, either in eternity or the current age? Let’s see what Jesus had to say to the Jewish people of his day:

I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.

John 10:16

Who are the “other sheep” Jesus was describing to his fellow Jews? These are the Gentiles who would someday place their faith in him. Together with the Jewish followers of Christ they would be one flock with one shepherd. Compare this to what Paul wrote:

For Christ himself has brought peace to us.  He united Jews and Gentiles into one people when, in his own body on the cross, he broke down the wall of hostility that separated us. He did this by ending the system of law with its commandments and regulations. He made peace between Jews and Gentiles by creating in himself one new people from the two groups. Together as one body, Christ reconciled both groups to God by means of his death on the cross, and our hostility toward each other was put to death. He brought this Good News of peace to you Gentiles who were far away from him, and peace to the Jews who were near. Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us.

Ephesians 2:14-18

This reminds us of what Paul said in Romans 11:17:

But some of these branches from Abraham’s tree—some of the people of Israel—have been broken off. And you Gentiles, who were branches from a wild olive tree, have been grafted in.

He explained that God’s chosen people of Israel were like a cultivated olive tree, and the Gentile believers were like wild olive branches graciously, but unnaturally, grafted into the cultivated tree. We need to understand it was God’s will for the people of Israel to naturally progress from the Old Covenant into the New. God always intended for the church—the New Covenant people of God—to be the ultimate destination and home for his chosen nation, Israel. (Don’t forget that the original church was thoroughly Jewish.)

Yes, God is not finished with the ethnic people of Israel and, in the very end, he will fulfill his promises to them. But his plan for them is to bring them into New Covenant relationship with him, into the church, the body of Christ, so there will be one flock and one Shepherd. In one sense, the people of Israel are to come into the church; in another sense, we Gentiles have become part of the existing covenant people of God. This is why Ephesians 2:11-22 tells us:

Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. . . . In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far way from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ. . . .

So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family. . . . Through him you Gentiles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit.

It’s wonderful that God will bring the remaining Jews into the New Covenant people of God, the church. (We’ll talk much more about this in a future study.) But it’s even more amazing he expanded his covenant people to include more than his chosen people of Israel, but to incorporate anyone who would believe in Christ. Yes, we should rejoice in the future hope for Israel; but, no, we should not seek to divide or separate Israel and the church into different peoples of God. He is making the two one. And what God has joined together, let no one separate.

A problem of timing
Another problem with this idea of God always working exclusively with either Israel or the church is it just doesn’t fit history. Most pretrib teachers would agree God dramatically established the New Covenant church at Pentecost. Most also agree that God judged unbelieving Israel through the destruction of Jerusalem. But Pentecost occurred sometime around 30 AD, and Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD. So some 40 years after the birth of the church age, God was still dealing with the people of Israel.

It gets worse. The events in the Middle East over the last 70 years certainly seem to reveal the powerful hand of God behind the scenes of history. I don’t know any pretrib pastor or teacher who would deny this. History has witnessed an ethnic people wander without a homeland for almost two millennia, maintain their distinct identity and culture, then return to and reclaim their ancient homeland, and even resurrect their ancient tongue as their everyday language. This is historically unprecedented! To see this as simply a natural occurrence and not involving strong divine providence strains credulity. Most pretrib teachers would not only agree, they share an excitement in watching developments unfold in the Middle East.

The problem for them is that this powerful, historical testimony to God working once again in the national affairs of Israel is happening before the rapture. These events are occurring during what is supposed to be the church age, when God only works with the church, not Israel. So this claim that God works exclusively with either Israel or the church simply doesn’t fit what God is actually doing in history.

Where is it written?
Of course, the biggest problem with this idea is we don’t see this principle expressed anyplace in Scripture. There’s no passage that explains to us how God only works with Israel or the church, not both during the same period of time. The next time you hear someone teach this, I suggest asking them, “Exactly where is this principle taught in Scripture?”

So this first supporting principle for the pretrib view hasn’t fared so well under closer examination. But more emphasis is usually placed today on the other two supporting claims. We’ll examine the second principle next week.

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 [see above]

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

Rapture 101

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

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

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium

Rapture 101 [see above]

Examining the pretrib rapture: Israel and the church

Examining the pretrib rapture: Removed or protected?

Examining the pretrib rapture: Is the rapture imminent?

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

More on the millennium

Last week we looked at the three main viewpoints Christians hold concerning the return of Christ. This week we’re going to spend a little more time comparing and evaluating these beliefs. To make our discussion a bit easier, I’m going to abbreviate the names of these views to: premil, postmil, and amil. (If you don’t know what we’re talking about, it might be helpful to read last week’s post: Millennial match-up.)

Converting the world?
So how do we begin sorting out these views? Well, probably the most distinctive belief is the postmil view that the world will become more and more Christianized until it’s all essentially part of the Kingdom of God. Both premils and amils disagree with this. Do we see anything like this in Scripture?

It’s interesting that in books and articles presenting different views on Christ’s return, postmils rarely attempt to make a vigorous case from Scripture for their viewpoint. Instead, they usually appeal to a general optimism found in the Bible regarding Christ’s ultimate victory and the redemption of all creation. A big problem for them is that there are many passages that aren’t so optimistic about spiritual conditions before the return of Jesus:

Then you will be arrested, persecuted, and killed. You will be hated all over the world because you are my followers. And many will turn away from me and betray and hate each other. And many false prophets will appear and will deceive many people. Sin will be rampant everywhere, and the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, so that all the nations will hear it; and then the end will come.

Matthew 24:9-14

You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly.

2 Timothy 3:1-5

This doesn’t sound much like the Kingdom of God on earth! No wonder Jesus asked, “But when the Son of Man returns, how many will he find on the earth who have faith [Luke 18:8]?” Of course, just because most Christians reject this postmil viewpoint doesn’t mean we don’t seek to be salt and light in the world around us and to do everything we can to be a positive influence in our society. We want the world to be as affected by Christ, through his church, as possible. But we can’t expect to completely transform the world when Scripture hasn’t given us this charge. And we need to beware the real danger of seeking to establish the Kingdom through our own human efforts. This can all too easily lead to abuses of power and ungodly, coercive methods.

What kind of resurrections?
So what about the differences between the premil and amil views? The main distinction hinges on the interpretation of this Scripture:

They all came to life again, and they reigned with Christ for a thousand years. This is the first resurrection. (The rest of the dead did not come back to life until the thousand years had ended.) Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. For them the second death holds no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.

Revelation 20:4-6

The natural way to read this is to see both resurrections as essentially the same thing, only one resurrection is before the thousand years and one is after. The passage seems to be describing physical resurrection from the dead. First those who are in Christ are resurrected at his return to be with him, and then those who have rejected Christ are resurrected to stand before God in judgment.

If we read the passage this way, it leads naturally to a premil understanding of the return of Christ. The first resurrection is of Christ’s followers who have died and occurs when he returns; the second resurrection (of those who did not follow Christ) is after the intervening millennial period. This interpretation presents a problem for those who hold to an amil view because it includes a thousand year period between the return of Christ and the final resurrection and judgment. This is what we call the millennium—which is precisely what amils do not believe in.

So how do amil believers interpret this passage? Generally, they understand the first resurrection to be a spiritual resurrection and the second one, after the thousand years, to be a physical resurrection. (Remember they see this thousand years as being symbolic of the current age between Christ’s first coming and his second coming, not a future period of time after Christ’s return.) They believe the first resurrection equals salvation, which is occurring now, and the second is the physical resurrection from the dead that will occur when Jesus returns.

The problem is this interpretation has to be read into the Scripture. There’s just nothing here to indicate that the second resurrection is a completely different kind than the first. The same wording is used for both, and they are specifically connected in the passage as first resurrection and subsequent resurrection. What in the text indicates any difference between these resurrections?

We’re told that some “came to life again” before the thousand years, and the “rest of the dead did not come back to life until the thousand years were ended.” It’s hard to see how we’re supposed to understand these dead as being dead in different ways and then coming back to life in different ways. Again, what in the text would indicate such a difference? Instead, by numbering them (“first resurrection”) the passage points to them being the same thing, only occurring at different times. Henry Alford famously protested this manufacturing of differences with no textual basis. If we can just decide that, in the same passage, the first resurrection (dead coming to life) means something different than the second resurrection (dead coming to life), then “there is an end of all significance in language, and Scripture is wiped out as a definite testimony to anything.”

(A related issue is the question of Satan. According to Revelation 20:1-3, Satan is bound and locked away during the thousand years. If the thousand years is a metaphor for the current period of time between Christ’s first coming and his second, can we really say Satan has been bound and imprisoned this whole time? If so, how can he be “prowl[ing] around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour [1 Peter 5:8]”?)

How does God keep his promises?
Another issue that sometimes divides premils and amils is how we view the fulfillment of certain Old Testament prophecies.  Amils see the promises God made to Israel as all being fulfilled in the church. Premils see some Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in the church but not all. They would distinguish between promises made to God’s people and promises made specifically to the ethnic people of Israel. Many of the prophecies regarding God’s people in general have indeed been fulfilled in the church. (I’ll write more on this in the future and give examples.) But there are many prophecies made specifically to the nation of Israel that still await fulfillment.

Premils anticipate that God will someday finish his work with the people of Israel and fulfill all of the Old Testament prophecies regarding them as an ethnic people. Some of these prophecies may be fulfilled in an expanded way, but not in such a way as to fail to fulfill the original prophecy. As Darrell Bock has said, God can give more than he promised, but he won’t give less. Amils tend to deny any special significance to the literal people of Israel in the context of Christ’s return, which is ironic considering everything that’s happened in the Middle East the past 65 years.

Why a millennium?
Sometimes critics of the premil view ask, “Why do we need a millennium?”  This period of time seems like an unnecessary pause between the return of Christ and the final judgment and eternal state. The implication seems to be that a millennium doesn’t really accomplish anything important. Is this true? Scripture doesn’t describe the purpose of the millennium, so answering this challenge requires us to do a little biblically-informed speculating.

According to the premil view, when Christ returns he will establish his Kingdom (or his rule) throughout the earth. He will enact universal justice and bestow peace and harmony to all. This will be a time of healing and renewal for human society (and for the earth itself). There will still be nations, and people will still work, marry and have children. But it will be life the way it could have been all along if we had only done things God’s way instead of ours. The millennium seems to be a beautiful time of demonstrating God’s wisdom to us, to the angels and whoever else is watching. Jesus will step in before we destroy ourselves and show us all the way it was supposed to be.

There’s an old MTV commercial warning viewers about the dangers of drugs. We see a hand holding an egg. “This is your brain,” the voiceover tells us. Then we see the egg being fried in a pan. “This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” It was very simply done, and very effective. Toward the end of the millennium, Satan will be released and allowed to sway some people to revolt against the Kingdom of God (Revelation 20:7-10). This rebellion will be swiftly crushed. but it will provide one last lesson. “Here is my way for you to live. And here is life in opposition to me. Any questions?”

Whole books have been written on these different views of the millennium and Christ’s return. I’ve tried to cover the basics, and to explain why I hold a premillennial view. If you want to do more studying, I’d be happy to recommend books from all the respective viewpoints. Next week, we’ll begin discussing the rapture.

The return of Christ series:

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

Millennial match-up

More on the millennium [see above]

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