A Closer Look at the Debate over the Timing of the Rapture and the Tribulation

A Closer Look at the Debate over the Timing of the Rapture and the Tribulation

Section 9: The End Times

Digging Deeper: A Closer Look at the Debate over the Timing of the Rapture and the Tribulation

What Is the Tribulation?

The Tribulation is typically thought of as a period of seven years of unprecedented trouble that happens just before Christ’s return. In large part the seven-year time frame comes from the prophecies recorded in the book Daniel. In Dan. 9 the angel Gabriel comes to Daniel and tells him:

Seventy ‘sevens’ are decreed for your people and your holy city… From the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One, the ruler comes, there will be seven ‘sevens’ and sixty-two ‘sevens’. After the sixty-two ‘sevens’, the Anointed One will be cut off and will have nothing. The people of the ruler who will come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. The end will come like a flood: War will continue until the end and the desolations have been decreed. He will confirm a covenant with may for one ‘seven’. In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on a wing of the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is decreed is poured out on him’ (Dan. 9:24-27).

The ‘sevens’ are often interpreted as seven-year time periods. Seventy ‘sevens’, therefore, would be the equivalent of 490 years. Daniel is told a number of significant events will happen during that time. The time period in question doesn’t start right away though. At the time Daniel was written, the Jewish people were in exile and the city of Jerusalem lay in ruins. According to Gabriel the 490 years would begin once the decree to rebuild Jerusalem was given.

Cyrus the Great issued a decree in 538 B.C. that allowed the Jewish people to return to their homeland. An actual decree giving them permission to rebuild the city wasn’t issued until 444 B.C.  though.[i] Why does that matter? Well, Gabriel says once the decree to rebuild the city is given there will be seven ‘sevens’ and sixty-two ‘sevens’ (or 483 years), then the Anointed One will come, be cut off, and have nothing.

Many interpret the Anointed One to be Jesus. The interesting thing is that, when you take into account the fact that the Jewish calendar year consisted of twelve thirty day months (i.e., 360 days instead of our 365 days), 483 years from the date of the decree to rebuild Jerusalem takes you to 33 AD – the year many biblical scholars say Jesus was crucified.[ii] 

Interesting…but what does it have to do with the Tribulation? So far, we’ve accounted for sixty-nine of the seventy ‘sevens’. What about the seventieth ‘seven’? Many theologians argue this is the period of the Tribulation. They point out the Anointed One is said to be cut off after the sixty-ninth ‘seven’, but not inthe seventieth.[iii] According to some scholars, this suggests there is an interval between the Anointed One being cut off and the beginning of the seventieth ‘seven’.[iv] This future seven year period is called the Tribulation, and the judgments that fall upon the earth in Revelation are thought to occur during this time period.

According to Daniel, at the start of tribulation period, a ruler – typically thought to be the Antichrist – will “confirm a covenant with many” (Daniel 9:27). Many theologians interpret this to mean the Antichrist will make a treaty with Israel that is intended to last for seven years. However, he will break the treaty halfway through it. A number of theologians believe the final three and a half years following the breaking of the treaty are when the worst judgments in Revelation happen. Some theologians, therefore, make a distinction between the Tribulation (the entire seven-year time period) and the Great Tribulation (the final three and a half years).

A Closer Look at the Pretribulation Rapture View

The Bible clearly says Jesus will return and believers will be caught up in the air with him and from that point on they will be with him forever (1 Thess. 4:16-17). This is what many refer to as the Rapture of the Church. The question is: when does this occur? As the name implies, the pretribulation view says the rapture will happen before the start of the Tribulation.

Why do pretribulationists believe the rapture will happen before the Tribulation? Well, for one they argue God has promised to spare the Church from the Tribulation. In Rev. 3:10, for example, Jesus tells the Philadelphian church it will be protected “from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth.” How will God save the Church from the trial that is about to come? By removing the Church from it.

Pretribulationists argue the removal of the Church prior to the Tribulation is in fact what paves the way for the Tribulation. In 2 Thess. 2:1`-4 Paul says:

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way.

According to Paul, someone is currently holding the man of lawlessness back and he cannot be revealed until the one holding him back is removed. Who is holding the man of lawlessness back? According to the pretribulationism, it’s the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit can’t be removed so long as the Church is here because all believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The man of lawlessness, therefore, can’t appear until Christ comes and takes the Church away. When that happens, the man of lawlessness (i.e., the Antichrist) will appear and the Tribulation will begin.

According to the pretribulationist, recognizing the Church will be taken to heaven prior to the start of the Tribulation helps us make sense of some of the biblical descriptions of the Millennial Kingdom that follows Christ’s return.

Although circumstances will be much different because Christ will reign on earth, apparently sin will still exist (Isa. 65:20).  In fact, there are people who are willing to rebel against Christ at the end of the 1000 years (Rev. 20:7-10).  There would be no way to account for the existence of sin in the Millennial Kingdom if the Rapture and the Second Coming happen at the same time.  The problem is raptured believers receive glorified bodies (1 Cor. 15:51-57).  This makes them incapable of sin (1 Cor. 15:53-54).  And unbelievers are sent away when Christ returns (Matt. 25:31-46). If that’s the case, there’s no one left in the Millennial Kingdom who would be capable of sin, let alone rebellion against Christ.

However, if the Rapture and the Second Coming are separated by at least some period of time, the problem is solved.  The believers caught up in the rapture will have glorified bodies. Those believers who come to faith after the rapture during the Tribulation, however, won’t.  This means that those believers who survive the Tribulation and are present at the Second Coming will enter the Millennial Kingdom without their glorified bodies.  Although they are believers, having not yet been glorified, they are able to sin.  Furthermore, while it would be impossible for glorified believers to have children (Matt. 22:30), presumably those who come to faith during the Tribulation would still be capable of having children. This means there could be children born in the Millennial Kingdom who never genuinely accept Christ as Lord.  These children will then not only be capable of sin but also of rebellion against Christ. The existence of sin and rebellion in the Millennial Kingdom therefore points to the Rapture and the Second Coming as being distinct events that require an interval in time between them.  

A Closer Look at the Midtribulation Rapture View

Midtribulationists agree with pretribulationists that God has promised to spare the Church from the wrath he is going to pour out on the earth during the Tribulation. However, midtribulationists note that the Bible points to certain signs that must occur prior to his return. And at least one of those signs suggests the Church won’t be raptured until after the Tribulation begins. 2 Thess. 2:1-4 says:

As we noted above, pretribulationists use 2 Thess. 2:1-4 to argue that the rapture must happen before the tribulation begins. Midtribulationists, however, argue the same passage implies the coming of the Lord for the Church won’t happen until after the man of lawlessness is revealed. Apparently, the question had arisen within the Thessalonian church whether Christ could return at any moment to gather believers to himself. Midtribulationists argue Paul “responds with a firm negative. He says, No it is not now at hand, nor can it be until certain signs are first fulfilled, namely the outbreak of apostasy in the church and the rise of the Beast (‘the man of lawlessness).”[v] The man of lawlessness will also set himself up in the temple, proclaiming himself to be God. According to Daniel, this doesn’t happen until the midpoint of the Tribulation period (Dan. 9:24-27).

What about the promise to spare the Church from God’s wrath? If the Church will still be here during the Tribulation, doesn’t that mean we will have to endure God’s wrath as he pours it out upon the world? No. Revelation says God’s wrath does happen until after the seventh seal is open (Rev. 6:9-19). According to midtribulationism, this doesn’t happen until the second half of the Tribulation.

Placing the rapture in the middle of the seven-year period prophesied in Daniel thus allows for certain signs to occur by acknowledging the Church will be present during the start of the tribulation period, but it will be spared the wrath of the Great Tribulation that occurs during the last 3 1/2 years.

A Closer Look at the PostTribulation Rapture View

Posttribulationists agree with midtribulationists that the Bible specifies certain events that must happen before the rapture and that a proper interpretation of those events means the rapture will not occur before the start of the Tribulation. Posttribulationists, however, disagree with midtribulationists over the implications of God’s wrath being poured out during the Tribulation.

Both the pre- and mid- tribulation views emphasize that God has promised to spare the Church from God’s wrath. They argue in order to do that God has to come and take the Church out of the Tribulation. The postribulationist asks, “Why can’t God simply protect the Church from his wrath even while they’re living in the midst of the Tribulation?”

Postribulationists note there are clearly believers on earth during the Tribulation. Revelation, for example, notes a great multitude of believers that no one could count (Rev. 7:6). What happens to these believers? Do they suffer God’s wrath just like unbelievers? No. God finds a way to protect them from the judgments the fall upon the world. Thus, in Rev. 16, God orders that only those who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads are to be harmed by the demonic locusts unleashed in the fifth trumpet judgment. This is similar to what God did for Israel during the plagues in Egypt.

God knows how to bring judgment upon the world while sparing his people from that judgment, even as they are living in the midst of it. As a result, the mere fact that God has promised to spare true believers from his wrath doesn’t automatically mean he has to remove them from the earth prior to the Tribulation to accomplish that.

Rather than thinking of the rapture as Christ taking the Church away, posttribulationists argue we ought to think of the rapture as the Church going to meet Christ as a welcoming party to accompany him on his triumphant return. In 1 Thess. 4:16-17, for example, Paul says:

For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.

Postribulationists compare this to the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt. 25:1-13). When the bridegroom comes, they are told to go out and meet him. Notice, however, “the virgins do not go out to meet the bridegroom and then depart with him. Rather, they go out to meet him and then accompany him back to the wedding banquet.”[vi] In a similar way, according to posttributionists, the Church will go and meet Christ in the air and return with him “as part of his triumphant entourage.”[vii]

[i] John F. Walvoord, End Times: Understanding Today’s World Events in Biblical Prophecy, Word Publishing: Nashville (1998), 116.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid., 117.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Gleason L. Archer, Jr.,  “The Case for the Mid-Seventieth Week Rapture Position” in Three Views on the Rapture, ed. Stanley N. Gundry and Gleason L. Archer, Jr. Zondervan: Grand Rapids (1996), 126.

[vi] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, Second Edition, Grand Rapids: Baker Books (1998), 1229

[vii] Ibid.


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