A QUICK SYNOPSIS OF PART I
As we stated in the first article, the pre-tribulation rapture theory says that Jesus will return not once but twice: first in a “secret rapture” for His church and then a second time as King of kings and Lord of lords. The secret rapture is to occur just prior to a time of great persecution and suffering called the Great Tribulation, and its purpose is to “rapture” believers away from the earth so they won’t have to suffer through the tribulation like the rest of the world will.
We saw that the pre-tribulation rapture theory is relatively new, though not as recent as some might think. Its origins go back to the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation that followed. The doctrine has its roots in Jesuit writings as early as the 17th century, developed to quash the Reformers’ ideas that the Catholic church was the Beast system of Revelation and the Papacy was its Antichrist.
Pre-tribulation rapture became part and parcel of a new doctrine that spread throughout the West, particularly in America in the 19th and 20th centuries, and, through seminaries and Bible colleges, found its way into evangelical and Pentecostal churches to the point of becoming the number one rapture belief in America.
So with that background in mind, let’s continue our study of this popular theory, beginning with the examination of scripture. We’ll begin with scriptures that proponents of the theory use to support it, then look at additional scriptures that refute it.
SEARCHING THE SCRIPTURES USED TO SUPPORT THE PRE-TRIBULATION RAPTURE THEORY
The pre-tribulation rapture theory is taught and preached in so many evangelical, charismatic, and non-denomination churches that you’d think it was a clear, undisputable teaching of the Bible. But when you read through Scripture, you find that’s not the case. Even Tim LaHaye, co-author of the famous “Left Behind” series states ironically, “No single verse specifically states ‘Christ will come before the Tribulation.’” The Rapture Ready website states, “The timing of the rapture is not known,” though the author proposes to use his “sound reasoning” to prove the reality of a pre-tribulation rapture.
The pre-tribulation rapture theory is taught and preached in so many evangelical, charismatic, and non-denomination churches that you’d think it was a clear, undisputable teaching of the Bible. But when you read through Scripture, you find that’s not the case.
Bertrand Russell offers some insight into what such “sound reasoning” may look like: “What a man believes upon grossly insufficient evidence is an index into his desires – desires of which he himself is often unconscious. … [If] he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained that way.”
My friends, let’s not succumb to human reasoning before we search the scriptures to see what they say on the subject.
According to Rapture Ready, a pre-tribulation promoting website, the three most commonly used scriptures to “prove” the pre-trib rapture theory are John 14:3, 1 Thes., 4:16-17, and 1 Cor. 15:52. I want to examine each of these carefully to see what they say and, more importantly, to see what they don’t say. I will ask the “how, when, and why” questions I used in the first article of the series: how Jesus will return, when Jesus will return, and why Jesus will return.
John 14:3 - “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.”
We learn three things from this passage: (1) Christ will come again, (2) He will receive us, and (3) we will be where He is. But the passage is silent on timing (when Christ will return), how He will receive us, and where He is when this happens. There is certainly nothing here that supports a pre-tribulation timing for a rapture or an event where believers meet Jesus in the air as pre-trib rapture proponents believe.
How: Jesus will “come again” and “receive us.” The passage doesn’t state whether this is in secret or something every eye will see.
When: Jesus returns after He has left and “prepared a place” for us. There is no mention of when in the Biblical timeline this will occur, other than after He has gone, i.e., after His ascension.
Why: Jesus returns so that we may be where He is, but the passage is silent on where that might be: in the clouds? In heaven? On the earth?
This passage gives us vital information, but there’s nothing in it to support the distinctive beliefs of the pre-tribulation rapture theory.
1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 - “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”
We get some more information from this passage. The Lord descends from heaven, believers (those who have died prior to this time and those alive at this time) are caught up “in the clouds” to meet the Lord “in the air,” and after that event will ever be with the Lord.
In other words, when the Lord descends from heaven, there will be a resurrection of deceased Christ-followers and a transformation of Christ-followers who are alive at that time. The remainder of the dead remain dead (unresurrected), and the remainder of those alive remain in physical bodies (untransformed), to be dealt with later.
But just like the previous passage (John 14:3), we are not told when this will happen (except the allusion to “the trump of God,” which could refer to trumpets in Revelation) or where the Lord will be after this event happens. Again, we are left without any evidence of a pre-tribulation rapture.
How: The Lord descends from heaven, accompanied by a shout, the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God. While short on specifics, the wording does not imply a “secret” rapture.
When: The time is unstated, but it is evident that there are believers who are alive when this happens. We might infer than the timing is either during or after the tribulation, because the believers who are alive are said to “remain,” as if the majority of believers have died during persecution and suffering.
Why: So that believers (dead and alive) at the time of the Lord’s return will ever be with Him. This is an echo of Jesus’ words in John 14:3 but doesn’t supply anything further.
1 Corinthians 15:52 - “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
One really needs to read the entire 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians to get the full context, but nothing elsewhere in the chapter supports a pre-tribulation rapture theory, either.
How: 1 Cor 15 is all about resurrection, but there is nothing specifically stated about Christ’s return anywhere in the chapter. However, His return can be inferred from the similarity of this passage to that in 1 Thes. 4:16-17. And just like 1 Thes. 4:16-17, a sounding trumpet implies a very public event, not a “secret rapture.”
When: The phrase “for the trumpet shall sound” implies this event happens at the return of Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords, which again corresponds to 1 Thes. 4:16-17. But we can glean a bit more information on timing from the rest of chapter 15, especially verses 23-24. Christ is resurrected first and is called the “first fruits.” Then we who are Christ’s at His coming (that is, the event described in v. 52) are resurrected. And after that “comes the end.” The end of what? The end of this present evil age.
Why: Surprisingly 1 Cor. 15 doesn’t tell us “why!” It only states the reality of resurrection as a reliable fact. But verse 58 gives us a clue, in that we aren’t to be sitting around on our backsides waiting to be “raptured” off to heaven. Rather, we are to be “steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.”
THE ATTRACTIVENESS OF THE PRE-TRIBULATION RAPTURE THEORY
With so little scriptural support, why then are so many people drawn to the pretrib theory? And why is it preached so often and as if it were clearly stated in the Bible? I think we can answer those two questions.
I don’t think any of us are looking forward to our eventual physical death or to the suffering that Christians will have to endure in the run-up to the tribulation and going through the tribulation. Oh, how much better it would be for Jesus to come, snatch me away from this evil world, and take me to heaven forever! I’ve certainly had that thought. Maybe you have, too.
But that’s not Christianity; that’s Gnosticism, which sadly has been infiltrating churches and Christian belief. (That’s a subject for another article). The lot of the believer is, frankly, to suffer. Suffer with Christ. Being a Christian is costly, and Jesus urges us to count that cost (Luke 14:25-34). He tells us we must lose our lives for His sake, to deny ourselves and to take up our own crosses daily as we follow Him (Matt. 16:24-25).
The thought of being secretly raptured off to a “safe space” in heaven wouldn’t have occurred to Christ followers in New Testament times. That’s a more recent phenomenon which has culminated in safe spaces on college campuses and elsewhere...
The thought of being secretly raptured off to a “safe space” in heaven wouldn’t have occurred to Christ followers in New Testament times. (That’s a more recent phenomenon which has culminated in safe spaces on college campuses and elsewhere for people who can’t bear hearing a thought contrary to what they believe, much less suffer any persecution or tribulation.) No, early followers of Christ knew they would be persecuted: Jesus told them! (John 15:20, Matt. 5:11-12).
Finally, when scripture mentions the Lord’s return, it frequently mentions tribulation at the same time. For example,
“For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. […] Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:” (Matt. 24:27,29, emphasis added)
“But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, And the stars of heaven shall fall, and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And then shall he send his angels, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven.” (Mark 13:24-27, emphasis added)
The order is clear from the second passage: tribulation, then the return of Christ, then the gathering of the elect.
But that’s not how it’s preached, is it? Sadly, many of our churches want to make the gospel more “attractive” and more “palatable” to the unbeliever, as if the true message of the gospel is somehow deficient in that way. So the Christian walk is depicted as a carefree, unchallenging, and untroubled life with Jesus.
The evangelicals say, “Accept Christ!” and then occupy yourself with Bible study and witnessing and such until you’re either raptured away in this life or die and go to heaven.
The charismatics say, “Receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit, as evidenced by speaking in tongues and other signs,” because that’s the true mark of a “true” Christian who will be raptured away to heaven.
The prosperity preachers say, “Jesus will bless you and give you a successful career, a fat bank account, a beautiful wife or handsome husband, heal you of every disease, and keep all manner of suffering far from you.” Oh, and if that’s not happening, the problem is with you! You need to pray more, study more”… or send more money to the preacher!
But Jesus says…
“Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:34-36)
Who are you going to believe?
WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?
I hope by reading this article you have been able to re-examine what you have been taught about the Lord’s return and what you believe about what you’ve been taught. At this point you may be asking, “What difference does it make? I’ve accepted Jesus as my Savior, and I know my eternal destiny is secure. So if I have the rapture doctrine wrong, does it really matter? Is it really an issue of salvation?”
Well, in one way it doesn’t matter, and in another way, it matters a lot.
Having an erroneous or partial view of the rapture or any other doctrine doesn’t affect what you’re saved from, but it can have a huge effect on what you’re saved for.
Most of us received Jesus as our Savior without any knowledge of rapture, His return, tribulation, or how any of it would play out. We were saved by grace through faith, and even that faith isn’t of ourselves but is God’s loving gift to us. (Eph 2:8) Praise Him for that! Amen?
So with Jesus as our Savior, we are saved from the consequences of our own sin and falling short of the incredible glory of God (Rom. 3:23, 6:23).
But that’s not the end of the story that the Bible teaches, though sadly, it’s the end of the story that many churches preach, because we’re not just saved from something, we’re also saved for something. The passage in Ephesians goes on to say:
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10)
We are saved to be doing something, those good works that God has chosen as our path forward “that we should walk in them.” And as we’ve seen, that God-ordained path forward will often involve denial, laying down our desires, persecution, suffering, and perhaps giving up our physical lives.
The most dangerous consequence of believing in the pre-tribulation rapture theory is that we think that God’s path for us should avoid persecution and tribulation of any kind, especially in the end times and the onset of the Great Tribulation. And that belief can cause us to stop following Jesus if He ever leads us into the storm.
Let me close with the reminder that whatever your belief in a rapture may be – and believe me, I’ve seen many! – that no matter the details of that belief, Christ is coming again! (John 14:3). But at the same time, let this article be a warning that the effects of placing our trust in a pre-tribulation rapture can be devastating.
While researching this article, I came across stories of people who had totally lost their faith and turned their backs on God when persecution came before the rapture. One of those was of a man in Russia in 1917 when the Bolsheviks seized power. The man went to his pastor, angrily threw down his Bible, and shouted, “You lied to us! You said we would be raptured away first.” He walked out of the church, never to return.
The Dutch heroine Corrie ten Boom declared in a 1974 article that when communism took over in China, “millions of Christians were tortured to death” who had previously been assured, “Don’t worry, before the tribulation comes you will be raptured.”
From a Chinese priest: “We have failed. We should have made the people strong for persecution rather than telling them Jesus would come first. Tell the people how to be strong in times of persecution, how to stand when the tribulation comes – to stand and not faint.”
Those are wise words. We at Salt Radio Ministries pray that articles such as this one are doing what that Chinese priest suggests: to help us all be strong in times of persecution, to stand and not faint.
Let us pray fervently and look for that blessed hope and His glorious appearing. (Titus 2:13). But while doing so, let us also take a sober look at what scripture teaches that the Christian life will include: suffering, persecution, and tribulation. And in the midst of that, may we be as the Apostle Paul commands: steadfast, unmovable, and always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that our labor is not in vain in the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58).