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