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Beam Me Up
Q. Does the Bible refer to when Christians will be raptured? Isn't it possible that we may be raptured milliseconds before the tribulation or a catastrophic event? I just can't see people disappearing like in the Left Behind series.
I can't see Christians disappearing like in the film Left Behind, either, although there is nothing in the Bible that says it cannot happen that way.
What is clear is that there are several scholarly interpretations of end-time events. So this article may be far more than you expected. But, for the sake of our general readers we thought a somewhat more thorough answer would be appreciated.
Sadly, each side of the scholarly debate concerning the rapture's timing tends to feel he or she is right and there are no other interpretations possible. We call each other "false prophets," false teachers," "liars," proponents of "false doctrines" and other such things.
But, that kind of intellectual arrogance is an error and should be set aside for more charitable tolerance of several interpretations. After all, this isn't a salvation-issue (a core belief on how one is saved) although sometimes Christians behave as if it were. It shouldn't be this way. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ and Jesus prayed we would love each other and act as one (John 17).
Interpreting the Plain Sense
In our case, the longer we live the more we observe how literally the Bible's prophecies have been and are being fulfilled. So we lean toward taking the Bible very seriously unless there is good reason not to.
Surprisingly, Christians should know there are at least 200 rhetorical devices in Scripture such as puns, similes, analogies and metaphors from A to Z (Missler 1999, 377).
So it pays for Christians to be careful how we interpret various passages and most of all, in how we treat each other. In our case we try to interpret from the plain sense of the bible text unless there are contrary indicators.
Let's categorize the beliefs of three primary groups concerning end times events:
Pretribulation believers include such great minds as John Walvoord, Dwight Pentecost, Charles Ryrie and Rene Pache. As a group they believe that Christians will not be subject to God's wrath (1 Thess 1:10) which is actually a judgment against national Israel.
Therefore, Christians will be raptured or evacuated from earth and given new, transformed bodies prior to the final week of years (seven years) according to passages in the book of Daniel.
Doctrine of Imminence
They make a clear distinction between the rapture and the second coming of the Lord. Their scriptural support for the rapture is found in John 14:1-14, 1 Cor 15:51-58 and 1 Thess 4:13-18. In support of the Lord's second coming they cite Zech 14, Matt 24:29-31, Mark 13:24-27, Luke 21: 25-27 and Rev 19 (House 1992, 129).
They feel that any other viewpoint destroys the doctrine of "imminency," or that Christ can return at any time. They feel that all Christians should be awaiting the Lord's return with great expectation.
Day of Devastation
They also believe in a literal Tribulation period as described in Revelation 6-18. This consists of natural disasters to extinction-level events unlike anything we have seen yet on our planet. It is far more devastating than great earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes that we see today.
It may be more accurate to envision catastrophic meteor strikes, a pole shift causing the earth to shift upon its axis (see Isaiah 24:19-20), global nuclear wars followed by nuclear winter and other cosmic events that will threaten the extinction of all life on planet earth.
There are those who believe there is no such thing as a "rapture" of believers as we have described above. Instead, they feel that Christians will be caught up to be with Christ at His second coming. Their belief is that the so-called rapture and the second coming of the Lord are one and the same event.
Distinctions between Rapture and Second Coming
In contrast, pre trib believers think there are clear distinctions between the rapture and the Lord's second coming.
For example, during the rapture Christ comes in the air (1 Thess 4:16-17).
In the second coming Christ comes to the earth (Zech 14:4).
At the rapture Christ comes for his saints (1 Thess 4:16-17).
At the second coming Christ comes with his saints (Jude 1:14&1 Thess 3:13).
At the rapture Christ gathers His own (1 Thess 4:16-17).
At the second coming angels gather the elect (Matt 24:31). (Hitchcock 2005, 80 and Benware 1995, 180).
Yet, post trib scholars feel these tiny distinctions are meaningless. A few end times scholars also think many of the passages we have "written off" as applying to Jews only actually do apply to the church since the Jewish disciples later became the early church.
Majority of Prophetic History Finished
According to post trib scholars most of the end-time events described by Christ have already occurred in history. These events include the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in A.D. 70. So, post trib scholars do not distinguish between end-times events in Luke chapter 21 and Matthew 24.
Yet, according to some scholars Luke 21 was written partially as a warning to early church Christians to get out of Jerusalem once they saw the city surrounded by armies. This already occurred in A.D. 70. Whereas, Matthew 24 is mostly a survival guide for those living in end-times Jerusalem between now and the tribulation period. (See Missler 2005, tape-set).
Abomination of Desolation
Post tribbers also think Daniel's description of the antichrist setting himself up as God in the holy temple already occurred, too (Dan 9:27).
Such an event happened under Antiochus IV Epiphanes between the years 168 to 167 B.C. Antiochus set up an altar to the god Zeus in the holy Jerusalem temple.
This event gave rise to the Maccabean Revolt long before the birth of Christ. Post trib scholars do not see this event occurring again in the future under an evil antichrist even though Jesus mentions a similar future event occurring in Matthew 24:15.
Be aware that not all Christians define the "abomination of desolation" mentioned by Jesus or Daniel in this way.
Post tribbers may dismiss as "allegory" many passages in the Bible that appear to them to be typical of first-century apocalyptic literature. This is partially due to the fact that the Dead Sea Scrolls also contain apocalyptic literature similar to the book of Revelation but outside of the biblical canon. Therefore, they tend toward spiritualizing scriptural passages found in the books of Revelation, Isaiah and Daniel.
But, please note that they must allegorize such apocalyptic verses because we have never undergone worldwide cataclysms such as those described in Revelation 6-18 or Isaiah chapters 24-27. The closest catastrophic event would be the worldwide biblical flood of Noah.
Israel is Finished
Post tribbers also do not treat modern day Israel as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy. They think the church has replaced ancient Israel in God's plan.
Note that they hold this view even though the bible discusses a future restoration of Israel in passages such as Jeremiah 16:14 and Ezekiel chapters 36 and 37.
Reformed churches such as the Lutheran, Episcopalian and Presbyterian denominations hold to these views. Scholarly believers in post tribulation doctrines include:
and Douglas Moo.
These are top-notch scholars and we give them our utmost respect even if we disagree on some things. Please understand that their views are far more detailed and involved than described in this short essay.
Finally, in another major group of end-times scholars there are those who think that Christians will possibly have to endure at least half of the seven-year tribulation period. This is because most - but not all - biblical scholars agree that the technical definition of God's Wrath is the last three and one half years of the tribulation period.
They divide the Tribulation into two periods of 1260 days each according to Daniel 9:27 and 12:7. Great mid trib thinkers include:
and G.H. Lang among others.
True "Wrath of God"
The Old Testament prophet, Daniel, describes a week of years yet to be fulfilled which will be intensified at the mid point of the seven year period (Dan 9:27).
Then, Jesus warns, too, that once we see the abomination of desolation (or antichrist declaring himself "God" in the holy temple in the middle of the seven year period)…
"then there will be great tribulation such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time…" (Matt 24:21).
Churches in Partial Trib
According to mid tribbers there is nothing in Scripture to indicate that believers cannot exist in the first half of that seven-year period described in the books of Daniel and Revelation.
In fact, it is the second half referenced as the "Great Tribulation" according to many passages. Jesus says that once the "abomination of desolation" is set up in the last days temple "then there will be a great tribulation (see above, Matthew 24:21, NASB).
Paul notes that once "the man of lawlessness is revealed…who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God" then the tribulation has begun (2 Thess 2:3-4).
But, also be aware that a few scholars interpret this same passage to mean the opposite due to its odd grammatical structure. In other words, the rapture "won't" occur until this happens! Go figure…
Fig Tree and Generations
A group of prophecy scholars falling somewhere within the pre trib and mid trib camps believe that the following phrase means Christians will be raptured within one generation of Israel's rebirth. Let's quickly look at this passage:
Jesus said, "Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near; so, you too, when you see all these things, recognize that He is near, right at the door. Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place" (Matthew 24:32-34, NASB).
But, such interpreters may be disappointed to learn that they may have been too quick to "hang their hats" on this passage. Many have made elaborate calculations from the rebirth of Israel in 1948, the recapturing of Jerusalem in 1967, and a generation meaning 40 or 52 or 70-80 years to the rapture which should occur on such and such a date.
Yet, other competent scholars point out that the "fig tree" may not refer to the nation of Israel as some think (Radmacher 2007, 1982). According to several language experts, the Greek word for "generation" can mean "race" or "family" as well(Ryrie 1996, 1561).
Missler notes that probably the most specific verse referring to "The Date" may be Luke 21:24,
…"Jerusalem will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled."
Wishing doesn't make it so…
At any rate we used to think that believers had to be raptured before the entire final seven years described by Daniel. Now we're not so sure.
Numerous interpreters think the entire seven years and early judgments in Revelation chapter six are bad enough. Saved Christians shouldn't have to go through any of it. However, wishing doesn't make it so. Why should we escape what millions of persecuted Christians have faced for centuries?
Furthermore, the seal judgments of Revelation chapter six appear to be escalations of what our earth is experiencing now:
cold wars, active wars,
famines and deaths,
and terrible earthquakes.
We need to distinguish between these and extinction-level events described later such as nuclear winter, asteroids, the earth shifting on its axis and so forth.
Hence, we now believe it is possible that as disastrous events multiply on earth (just as we are witnessing today with earthquakes and hurricanes), church believers will come to expand their view of when a "rapture" could occur.
Trib Instantly after Pre Trib Times?
Think of it this way: the earth probably won't move from a "pre" tribulation period into "The Tribulation" overnight. Chances are good we will see signs multiplied until they crescendo into extinction-level events.
Jesus said, "When these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near" (Luke 21:28).
Escalation into Tribulation
What are these things Jesus references?
Persecution, murders and wars.
Strange signs in the sun, moon, and stars,
nations in turmoil,
roaring seas and strange tides (v. 25).
In Matthew chapter 24 we see a sun and moon darkened, and stars falling from the sky (asteroids or meteorites).
In Isaiah 24:19-20 we see the earth thrown off its axis.
These signs present escalated, disastrous events just as we witness from the descriptions in Revelation chapter six onward.
In fact, some mid tribbers even think that the last trumpet in 1 Cor 15:52, the trumpet in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 and the trumpet from Revelation 11:15 are from the same trumpet call. The church may live through most of this period prior to the trumpets.
Let's look at the trumpet calls:
…"We will not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we will be changed" (1 Cor 15:52). (rapture reference)
"For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the archangel's voice, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are still alive will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air…" (1 Thess 4:16-17). (rapture reference)
"The seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven saying: The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Messiah…" (Rev 11:15). (wrath has come)
Great Wrath Upon Mankind
In the last reference above, Revelation 11:15 then goes on to state that the "Wrath" of the Lord has now come upon the earth (v. 18). Note that Revelation chapter 11 is written well after a chronology of horrific events described in chapters six through ten.
Remember, these chapter six through eleven Revelation events include terrible famines, hyperinflation, wars, plagues and pandemics, brutal murders of believers, something like a nuclear winter (6:12), meteorite showers hitting the planet (6:13) and horrendous earthquakes that will move islands and continents (6:14). Chapters 8 and 9 describe the deadly scorching of at least one third of the earth and pollution of drinking water (8:7-11) among other judgments.
Days Cut Short
There doesn't seem to be a clean break between pre tribulation events and "The Tribulation" or wrath of God, although the last three and one-half years of the Tribulation will encompass disasters that threaten all biological life forms on the earth.
Jesus warned that "unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved…" (Matt 24:22).
This Church Makes God Puke!
We have heard pre trib believers defend their position by asking why God would put the church through such horrendous cataclysms? Why wouldn't God evacuate or "rapture" believers out of all of this? After all, Noah and his family were saved from the flood. Lot and his family were evacuated prior to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Their concern is understandable. They don't want themselves or their families to suffer such horrific events. They don't believe they should suffer through any tribulation. After all, they are saved by the blood of Jesus.
(Yes, we are saved by faith in the Lord. But, we are saved from eternal death and the Wrath of God - the last three and one-half years of the tribulation).
So at the same time we can't help but ask why God wouldn't put the church through some of it? As described in Scripture the complacent, rich end-times church, the "Laodicean church," makes God puke!
We know this is shocking. See for yourself:
…"I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot…So, because you are luke warm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of My mouth" (Rev 3:15-16, HCSB).
Warnings to Churches
Indeed, several letters to the seven churches in Revelation warn that if its members don't "get it together" the Lord may have to put them through the hour of testing:
…"I will cast her into a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of their deeds…" (2:22)…
"He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life…" (3:5).
"Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth" (3:10).
For Unbelievers Only?
Fundamentalists and some evangelicals think these particular Revelation passages about judgments and testing only apply to unbelievers in those churches.
But, do they? Think about it. These letters were written to early Christian churches. Our Lord's letters to those early churches likely apply to us, too. A few scholars believe these seven churches even represent churches throughout the ages - a summary of church history.
So it may be that Christians could undergo some disciplinary action on earth while still entering heaven at life's end. Why not? The Apostle Paul notes that some Christians are turned over to Satan (1 Cor 5:5) and others have died because they haven't judged themselves correctly (1 Cor 11:30).
Parallel Rapture Events May Be Devastating
While the Left Behind series has Christians disappearing during peaceful times, the "real" Left Behind circumstances may be shockingly brutal. It may be that earth's residents will not even care who has disappeared or who has been raptured because they will be too busy trying to just survive.
It is helpful to remember that after the 2004 tsunami it took many months to sort out who was missing, who had died and who had survived. In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake of 2010 it is taking a long time to find the number of those lost or killed.
We can easily imagine that in the aftermath of an EMP attack it would be difficult to receive any news by radio, telephone or television. All power would be down and survivors would be preoccupied with obtaining water, food and medical attention.
While citizens might be able to gather local intelligence after an EMP attack, their ability to hear international news would be limited.
But, should a worldwide nuclear exchange occur at the same time as the rapture then people will be trying to protect themselves in underground shelters from the dangers of intense radiation. They won't be running around with news cameras filming who has died or disappeared and who hasn't.
Between Birth Pangs and Four Horses
As it stands today we need to consider the possibility that we are living somewhere between the birth pangs mentioned by Jesus in the books of Matthew and Luke, and the four horses and Seven Seals judgments of war, hyperinflation, famines, killer pandemics and great earthquakes of Revelation 6 through 8:6.
Aware of Signs of the Times
No one knows the day nor the hour of Jesus' return (Matthew 24:36, Mark 13:32). Not you…not me…nor any biblical scholar. But, we are advised to be aware of the signs of His coming. Jesus was frustrated with the Pharisees and Sadducees when he replied,
"When it is evening, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.' And in the morning, 'There will be a storm today, for the sky is red and threatening.' Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times?" (Matthew 16:2-3).
We know that people will "faint from fear and expectation of the things that are coming on the world, because the celestial powers will be shaken" (Luke 21:25-26). The church may or may not be around at this time.
The Master's Delay
One thing we can know with some certainty is that the Lord's return for His church will probably be delayed a long time. Jesus will probably rapture the church and return to earth a second time long after most Christians think he should.
Parables of Delay
We know this because of several parables Jesus told. Although we can't build theology around parables, they are stories illustrating and explaining previous truths.
We have the story of the wicked servant who …"says in his heart, 'My master is delaying his coming'"…(Matthew 24:48). We can also look at the story of the Ten Virgins: "But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept" (Matt 25:5).
Waiting for Unbelievers to Repent
From verses such as these we can assume that the Lord will give the maximum time possible to convert unbelievers.
Peter tells us that the "Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Pet 3:9, NKJV).
From chapter three we know that the Lord's delay will be so long that even brothers and sisters in Christ and scoffers will mock us saying, "Where is the promise of His coming?" (v.3).
Training for Reigning
But, all Christians, no matter who you are or what you believe about the rapture, can look forward to Jesus' sure return and the glorious transformed bodies we will receive that will make us fit to survive and flourish in outer space (the new heavens) and in the New Jerusalem.
Whatever we undergo here, whatever trials we must endure, it is all for our "Training for Reigning" with the King of Kings forever and ever.
Maranatha (Come quickly, Lord)
Benware, Paul N. 1995. Understanding end times prophecy. Chicago: Moody Press.
Hitchcock, Mark. 2005. Could the rapture happen today? Sisters, OR: Multnomah.
House, Wayne H. 1992. Charts of Christian theology&doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
Missler, Chuck. 1999. Cosmic codes. Tape cassettes. Coeur d'Alene, ID: Koinonia House.
—- 2005. This generation? Tape cassettes. Coeur d'Alene, ID: Koinonia House.
Authors Valorie Emilio holds an MA in history from UCLA focusing upon Christian origins. Ken received his MA in Biblical Studies from Louisiana Baptist University and a V.O.M. Certificate in Persecuted Church Ministries from Oklahoma Wesleyan University. They both believe there is no room for arrogance in the church and we should make the most of our days because time is short (Eph 5:15, Jas 4:14).
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