Last Days



When is the Rapture?


   Few doctrinal issues have the capacity to get Christian pulses racing like the question posed above.  Does Jesus return for the Church before the Great Tribulation or after it?

 It has become one of the burning issues in the modern Church and produced an ongoing debate that looks set to rage for long years yet. The question is grappled with in endless books, at seminars & conferences and on websites and blogs, with each opposing side certain it has the correct and only answer to the question.
 There are people on both sides of the “pre-trib/post-trib” debate whose positions are hugely entrenched and who will never shift. But I have observed that amongst those who have actually changed their position on the issue, the traffic is invariably one-way. I have read of and met many individuals who were once “pre-trib”,  but after careful study of the relevant passages of the Bible have shifted to the “post-trib” position. This is the journey I have undergone myself. However I cannot recall coming across so much as a single individual who has moved in the opposite direction from settled post-tribulationism to pre-tribulationism.  This appears to me to be very significant. The reason for it, I believe, is that the pre-tribulation theory is often not arrived at by careful study of scripture, but rather serves in many churches as a kind of “default setting” that operates until a serious and objective study of the evidence takes place.
 
 This should make us realize that for many of us, our thinking on many doctrinal subjects is derived, not from careful study of the Word of God, but is instead the result of  tradition that has been handed down to us by a previous generation whom we allowed to interpret scripture for us in a given area. The pre-tribulation rapture is a theory which is learned either from being brought up in a Christian family in which it was universally accepted, in which case we virtually imbibed it with our mother’s milk; or else for new converts it is sold to them by their Christian friends as part of their induction into church-life.

 This reminds us that we are all in one way or another, products of our traditions and that these traditions can often be far too powerful to ever completely break free of. All we can do is to at least be aware of the risk of our thinking having being contaminated by these traditions and guard against this to the greatest possible extent.   

 Unfortunately we have a tendency to do precisely the opposite. Usually we incline ourselves towards the writings of the men who think what we already think and never expose ourselves to the opposing arguments. When we do this we end up living in a sort of doctrinal echo-chamber where because we are hearing the same thing coming from all different directions we conclude that it is the sound of consensus. In reality it is simply the sound of the same opinion repeating itself over and over again, and because we like what it says we have never sought for any other.  This is not learning, it is merely the reinforcing of prejudices. Over time the notions picked up in this way tend to become mental strongholds which we can find impossible to break free from. 

A useful antidote to all of this is to ensure that we expose ourselves to the teachings of those scholars whom we disagree with and not just those who happen to tickle our ears!  Absorbing and understanding contrary arguments is a discipline that forces us to test the robustness of our own theories and is the key to gaining a true grasp of any doctrine. 

With these thoughts in mind let us look briefly at the primary scriptures dealing with the timing of the “rapture”.

 According to Pre-trib theory the Church (in Dispensational thought viewed as a primarily Gentile body distinct from national Israel) is in Heaven for the whole of the seven years of the Great Tribulation. This tribulation is seen as a vehicle to bring about Jewish repentance after the departure of the “Gentile Church” (we may wish to note in passing the fact that the tribulation period is most graphically described for us in the Book of Revelation- a book that is specifically written to seven Gentile churches!).

 We immediately encounter a major problem for this pre-tribulational removal idea in 2 Thess 1:6-10 where the apostle Paul (writing to a Gentile church in Thessalonica) states that when Christ returns to “take vengeance on those who know not God” (a reference to Armageddon) the Christian believers will be in “trouble” (thlipsis) and seeking “rest” or “relief”(v7) from their persecutions.  Thlipsis is the Greek word for tribulation or affliction, and Paul is making a word-play in v6 saying basically that “God will tribulate those who have tribulated you”. The “rest” from this tribulation is clearly shown to be the return of the Lord “in flaming fire” at Armageddon. 

 Our pre-tribulationist friends must therefore answer the question of how the Gentile Church can be in “trouble” at Armageddon and in need of “rest” from tribulation if it has been in Heaven for the past seven years!

Let us now look at another important Thessalonian passage in more detail.

 The term "rapture" is derived  from the Latin rendering of 1 Thess 4:17 where the Apostle Paul describes the believers as being "caught up" (the root Gk verb is "harpazo") to meet the Lord in the air.  This is an ordinary Greek word meaning to “snatch” or “take hold of violently” and is used in the New Testament in different contexts unconnected with eschatology (e.g. Jn 6:15; Acts 23:10). 

 Therefore we should note that there is nothing in this passage that demands belief in a specific event separate from the 2nd Coming.  Whilst the notion of the "catching up" of the Church is certainly scriptural enough, what is unbiblical is to insist that this is a separate and distinct event in its own right when the Bible never says that it is.  And yet how often do we hear believers today speak of "waiting for the rapture"? The Bible never encourages the use of this kind of terminology, but instead exhorts us to wait for the appearing of our God & Saviour Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13). I would maintain that from a biblical standpoint the rapturing of believers should be seen as a sideshow rather than as a main event.

 Paul is the apostle to whom we are indebted to for our understanding of this subject yet even he only refers to it twice in all of his letters (1 Cor 15 being the other reference besides 1 Thessalonians), and if we look at the context in each of these cases we shall see that what is primarily under discussion in  both of these passages is not the rapture at all!

  In the Thessalonian passage cited above, Paul’s purpose is to comfort the believers with regards to the passing away of their loved ones in Christ. He reminds them that these only "sleep" and that we ought not to sorrow as others do; for the day will come when we will meet them again. He then goes on to state that this reunion will take place as the Lord descends at His return (1 Thess  4:13-18).

 The 15th chapter of 1st Corinthians is, of course, the classic chapter on the Resurrection. Here Paul's emphasis is on the requirement of the dead in Christ to receive glorified bodies in order to enter the Kingdom of God, hence the necessity of the resurrection from the dead.   He then goes on to reveal that the generation of believers alive at Christ’s coming would share this bodily translation without the need to undergo death (1 Cor 15:50-53) .  

 Hopefully we can see that in both of what we call the "rapture passages" the primary question Paul was actually addressing was, "what happens to the dead in Christ?". The apostle is speaking primarily about the Resurrection and in each case he only mentions the translation of the current generation of living believers almost in passing. This is consistent with the Bible's usual focus on the Resurrection as being of primary importance. In comparison  the removing of the living Church, when viewed scripturally, is little more than a "mopping-up" operation in comparison to the grand event of the Resurrection of all believers.  In essence I think it is more in keeping with the scriptural emphases to view this translation of living believers as a sub-event within the Second Coming and not as a major event in its own right.   

Once we have removed from our traditional thinking the idea that “the rapture” needs to be a separate event & are free of the mental stronghold that this has created we can now hope to see precisely where the matter fits in the eschatalogical timetable- not as a distinct event but as a sub-event within the Lord’s return.  

 Another piece of tradition that badly needs to be overthrown is our habitual use of the term “rapture” which I believe is unhelpful in answering the question before us. This Latin term obviously does not occur in our English Bibles but even the Latin Vulgate sheds no light on the issue at hand since the passage from where the term is derived (1 Thess 4:17) does not actually address the issue of timing. So to ask, “when does the "rapture" take place?” is to pose the question in such a way that the Bible will yield no obvious answer, hence the confusion on this subject today. 

 What we need is a different question employing different terminology to help us out. If we ask the right question using the right terminology then the answer will suddenly leap off the page!

So what then is the right question?

 Paul in his epistles to the Thessalonians is clearly drawing upon the Olivet Discourse (Mt ch 24-25).   The Thessalonian literature comes very early in the Pauline Corpus and we can be certain that neither Matthew’s Gospel nor any of the other gospels existed at the time of Paul’s writing to this infant church. Nevertheless it is unquestionable that Jesus’ teachings already circulated as oral tradition, being verbally passed on from church to church not least by Paul himself.  The Olivet Discourse in this oral form would certainly have been the core end time teaching of the early Christians since it was the Lord’s own direct addressing of the subject of His return. Hence the content of that discourse would certainly have been familiar to Paul’s readers in Thessalonica. This is important as it is in dovetailing Paul’s writings with the Olivet that we gain a clear  understanding of this doctrine.

 It is important to note therefore that in both 2 Thess 2:1 and in Mt 24:31 we encounter the same Greek expression episunagoges, that is “gathering together”.  I would suggest that it is this term “gathering together” that we ought to be looking for rather than the term “the rapture” if we want an answer to our question for with this term the scriptures actually do provide the timing!  

Paul advises us that this “gathering together” will only take place after certain events have elapsed, namely the falling away and the revealing of the man of sin (2 Thess 2:1-4). This is a clear reference to Jesus’s Olivet teaching on “the abomination of desolation” in Mt 24:15.  Hence we can see that the “gathering together” is not an imminent event that we ought today to be expecting on a daily basis. Quite simply the conditions are not yet in place for it to occur. Jesus Himself had said that “the end is not yet” (Mt 24:6) and would not become “imminent” until the time of “the abomination 

 In the Olivet Discourse Christ Himself precisely pins down the timing of this “gathering together”.  He advises us that “immediately after the tribulation” (Mt 24:29) there will be a dramatic series of astronomical phenomena which presage His appearance and that thenHe will send His  angels... and they will  gather together (episunagousin) His elect from the four winds”.  This is unquestionably the event to which Paul alludes in his teaching. And as this gathering together is explicitly stated to be immediately after the tribulation then our question is surely answered. The scriptures here manifestly  reveal the “rapture” or “gathering together” to be a post-tribulational event.

 Olivet verses such as,” But of that day and hour no one knows” (24:36) and “watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming” (24:42) which are often used to justify an imminent pre-tribulational rapture must be seen as firmly rooted in the context of His post-tribulational return since this is the only return He has made any reference to in the whole of the discourse. Attempts to use these warnings to prove an earlier “at any moment” event must be considered spurious as it defies every rule of accepted biblical hermeneutics to try and associate these verses with an “event” that is not mentioned or even hinted at anywhere in the text.

Let us say in conclusion that the Olivet Discourse and Paul’s allusions to it in his Thessalonian letters constitute the core New Testament teachings on this important subject. This makes them the primary source materials for the understanding of the doctrine and all other end time passages/parables etc must be interpreted in the light of these two clear passages. And those passages unquestionably identify a post-tribulational gathering together of the saints.  

 We ought not to be waiting for a “rapture”, nor even indeed the “gathering together”.

 Instead we await “the appearing of the glory of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).  At which time we “will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess 4:17).

This is our Blessed Hope!  


                                         Other Last Days Studies
 

The Olivet Discourse Pt 1 (link)

 

The Olivet Discourse Pt 2 (link)

 

                                The Book of Revelation

Part 1: Overview (link)

Part 2: Seven Letters for Seven Churches (link)