Part 1 – Will the Rapture Come Before the Tribulation?
I’ve never been one to think a lot about the end times. My grandfather, on the other hand–his thoughts on Christianity all seemed to focus on the last days, or what is often called “Bible prophecy.” To hear him talk, the Bible only consisted of three books: Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelation. These were just about the only Bible books I ever heard him mention, and he was constantly watching TV shows and reading books to try and decipher the Bible’s apocalyptic passages.
I’ve never been like that. For most of my life I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking or worrying about the end times.
However, the way the world has gone the last several years has gotten me to thinking more about it than I used to. Our times make me think maybe we’re getting closer to the end. And I’ve been thinking about the different views I hear about the last days. The study of the end times is sometimes called eschatology, from the Greek words “eschaton,” which means “end,” and “logos” which means “word.”
I grew up in a denomination that didn’t talk much about Jesus coming back. Honestly, I’m not sure whether they really believed it or not, even though every Sunday we said: “…From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead” when we recited the Apostle’s Creed–yet a lot of people may not even know what that means, since the language is archaic. In modern speech it would read “…from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.” That’s a reference to the second coming of Christ, talking about how he will come from heaven to judge the living and the dead.
But that’s about all that was ever said about it in the denomination I grew up in. Outside of church you rarely heard anyone mention a belief in the second coming, much less discuss it.
I heard about it from other places, though–through the contemporary Christian music I listened to as a teenager, as well as from my friends in our Bible Belt city who attended more conservative churches. And from Granddaddy. The view of eschatology I almost universally heard from all those sources was a premillennial, pre-tribulation-rapture view popularized in 1970s movies like “Thief In the Night,” books like Hal Lindsey’s “The Late Great Planet Earth,” and songs like Larry Norman’s “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” which included these lyrics:
A man and wife asleep in bed
She hears a noise and turns her head he’s gone
I wish we’d all been ready
Two men walking up a hill
One disappears and one’s left standing still
I wish we’d all been ready
There’s no time to change your mind
The Son has come and you’ve been left behind
This is the view I’ve heard most commonly throughout my life from those who cared about such matters at all. The premillennial, pre-tribulation rapture view of the end times can be summarized as follows:
In the last days a time of severe Tribulation will come on the earth, as told in Matthew 24:21-22 “For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.” However, pre-tribulation rapturists believe Jesus will come back before the Tribulation to take Christians away and spare them the suffering of those days. They believe the mention of the “elect” in Matthew 24:22 refers to believing Jews who will turn to Christ after they realize that all the Christians have been taken out of the world, proving Jesus is the Messiah after all. These Jewish believers then become the “tribulation saints” who are martyred for the cause of Christ as described in Revelation chapters 6 and 7. So according to this view, Jesus returns briefly just before the tribulation to whisk his people out of harm’s way, and then again for good at the end of the tribulation to set up his millennial kingdom, a 1000 year reign of peace.
Since I grew up in a church that never discussed the last days, the pre-tribulation rapture view was totally unfamiliar to me. When I began hearing about it from my grandfather, the Christian music I listened to, and from my friends who went to more conservative churches, it all sounded very foreign. I began reading the Bible for myself as a teenager, and I never found anything in it that seemed to support this view. So I was puzzled about it.
What I did find in the Bible, though, was Matthew chapter 24 and its parallel passages in Mark and Luke. The events described in these passages are sometimes referred to as Jesus’ “little apocalypse,” or more commonly as his “Mount of Olives discourse.” At any rate, they are Jesus’ own words about the end times, and to me they seem pretty straightforward:
Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. 2 But he answered them, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.”
3 As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” 4 And Jesus answered them, “Take heed that no one leads you astray. 5 For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: 8 all this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs.
9 “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. 10 And then many will fall away, and betray one another, and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because wickedness is multiplied, most men’s love will grow cold. 13 But he who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come.
15 “So when you see the desolating sacrilege spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains; 17 let him who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house; 18 and let him who is in the field not turn back to take his mantle. 19 And alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those days! 20 Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath. 21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. 22 And if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. 23 Then if any one says to you, ‘Lo, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25 Lo, I have told you beforehand.26 So, if they say to you, ‘Lo, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out; if they say, ‘Lo, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man. 28 Wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together.
29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken; 30 then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; 31 and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
32 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 34 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place. 35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
36 “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. 37 As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, 39 and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man. 40 Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left. 42 Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
45 “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing. 47 Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. 48 But if that wicked servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed,’ 49 and begins to beat his fellow servants, and eats and drinks with the drunken, 50 the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, 51 and will punish him, and put him with the hypocrites; there men will weep and gnash their teeth (Matthew 24:1-51).
In these verses Jesus gives a pretty clear description of what the last days will be like. They consist of a fairly straightforward sequence of events, which can be summarized as follows (with verse references in parentheses):
- First, there will be many false teachers who will claim to come in Jesus name or to be Jesus, but they will not really be from him, and will lead many astray (v. 4-5)
- Wars, ethnic tensions, and natural disasters will increase; yet this is only the beginning of the end (v. 6-8)
- Persecution of Christians will increase (v. 9)
- Many who have espoused the Christian faith will fall away (v. 10).
- False teachers will continue to increase (v. 11)
- Wickedness will be multiplied, causing the love of many to grow cold (v. 12)
- Other Christians will remain faithful to Christ and endure to the end, and through them the gospel will be preached throughout the entire world (v. 13-14)
- Once the gospel has been preached to all nations, the end will come, which will bring about a time of tribulation worse than the world has ever known (v. 14, 21)
- The tribulation will be sparked by a terrible abomination, the nature of which is not entirely explained, rather it seems to be referred to almost in code, the answer to which is contained in the Old Testament book of Daniel. The time surrounding the abomination will be so severe that it will require people to drop whatever they’re doing and flee to the mountains and presumably to remote places where they will have to hide out wherever they can find (v. 15-22)
- Meanwhile the false teachers, false Christs, and false prophets will continue to proliferate, deceiving everyone but the elect, the chosen followers of Christ. The deception will even be bolstered by great signs and wonders performed by these false teachers. There will be rumors flying that Jesus has returned, but we are warned not to listen to them, because Jesus’ return will be so obvious that rumors won’t be necessary (v. 23-28)
- [It’s worth mentioning here that 2 Thessalonians 2:3 warns against a great false prophet who will arise known as “the man of sin” or “man of lawlessness,” traditionally referred to as the Antichrist. More on this in an upcoming post.]
- At the end of the tribulation, signs will appear in the heavens as follows: “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken; then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn….” (v. 29-30)
- Then “they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (v. 30-31). This is the rapture, and as we see, it comes at the very end of the tribulation, not before.
(Note: In the passages from Mark and Luke which parallel this one, the order of some of the events is different, but all the same ingredients are there.)
This is why I don’t subscribe to the pre-tribulation rapture view. After studying the Bible for years, I’ve concluded that Jesus’ words in Matthew 24 and the parallel passages in Mark and Luke are our template for understanding the end times. Sound principles of Scriptural interpretation say that scripture interprets scripture, and that we should rely on the clearer passages to help us understand the more difficult ones. Jesus’ words on the last days are some of the clearest statements we have, along with the teachings of Paul, and so these can serve as our guide. All the other material in the Bible that pertains to the end times, such as Revelation and the books of Ezekiel and Daniel, should be understood through the lens of Jesus’ words, and not the other way around. Jesus’ words are the key.
And there is nothing in Jesus’ words, or anywhere else in the Bible for that matter, that shows a pre-trib rapture. The pre-tribulation rapture teaching is an invention of men. It didn’t come into existence until the 19th century and is a product of a Western mindset that wants to avoid pain and suffering. The reality is, as a friend of mine once pointed out, there has been more persecution of Christians in the last century than in all of prior church history combined. It would seem the tribulation has already begun for Christians in some parts of the world.
Those who believe in a pre-trib rapture claim that the word “elect” in Matthew 24:22 refers only to Jews who become Christians after the tribulation begins. Yet every other use of the word “elect” in the New Testament refers merely to Christians in general. There is nothing in the context of this verse that implies it should mean anything other than Christians as well.
The view I espouse is called a post-tribulation rapture view, and it seems to be gaining ground.
In my next post I’ll look at some key passages in Paul’s letters that also speak of the end times, to see how they fit in, and what they teach us about the last days.
What’s your view of the rapture and the tribulation? Do you think we’re in the last days?