Will the rapture occur before, during, or after the tribulation? It is an important question. One’s answer determines his approach to biblical interpretation, which subsequently affects one’s theology and ministry practices. It influences what one believes about the New Testament church and the believer’s role in this life.
Since its founding in 1928, the Fundamental Evangelistic Association has held to the pretribulational rapture position. Through our years of publishing Foundation and Feature, we have tried to consistently articulate that belief and why we believe it.
A great number of believers do not think there will even be a rapture. Numerous others believe the rapture will take place during or after the tribulation. However, those who adhere to a mid- or post-tribulation rapture cannot explain the Scripture texts that deal with the rapture contextually, nor do they adequately explain why they believe a mid- or post-tribulation rapture is taught in those texts that they themselves use. These adherents often presuppose mid- or post-tribulationism to be true and then combine an array of texts that have similar phrases or terms from a wide variety of contexts upon which they base their assumptions, drawing conclusions based upon these similarities. They fail to interpret the Scriptures in their proper context.
There are a number of both implications and clear apostolic teachings that, when considered individually and studied corporately, indicate that the rapture must occur prior to the seven-year tribulation period. First, the focus of the tribulation provides the initial implication for a pretribulational position. We must consider both the people specified and the time indicated. In the ninth chapter of Daniel, Gabriel reveals to Daniel the purpose of a specified period of time that God decreed for the Israelites and the city of Jerusalem. They were given 490 years to accomplish six things (v. 24—“to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most holy”). During that time, the Messiah would come, but He would be killed after 483 years had passed. We know that this time period started with the decree by Artaxerxes in 444 BC (Neh. 2:4-8). It ran until the triumphal entry of the Lord Jesus Christ in AD 33 (Lk. 19:28-48, esp. v. 42). A few days later, Christ was crucified, as a substitute, just as Gabriel had revealed (Dan. 9:26). Thus, of those 490 years, seven remain to accomplish the tasks designated. Given the fact that the church was nowhere to be found during any part of the first 483 years (Eph. 3:4-5), it makes sense to conclude that neither will she be present on earth for any part of the remaining seven years. God will deal with Israel in a unique manner during the tribulation, not combining His two programs—one for Israel and the other for the church (Jer. 30:7 cf. Eph. 2:11-22; Acts 15:14). Thus, He will complete His program for Israel, the duration of which is to be 490 years. The purpose of God for the church revealed in Scripture will end prior to the tribulation (Rom. 11:25—“…until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.”), and He will then resume His agenda with His covenant nation, Israel, once again—initially in tribulation judgment and ultimately in kingdom blessing.
Second, the use of the terms church and Israel within the book of the Revelation additionally indicates that the church will not participate in the tribulation. Twenty-four verses throughout the book of Revelation refer to the church in the contemporary understanding (an assembly of believers in Christ called out from among both Jews and Gentiles, united in one body, the church—Eph. 1:22-23; 2:11-3:10, 21); Revelation 1-3 employs the usage of this term as well as Revelation 22:16-17. Two verses in Revelation 19 refer to the church at the marriage supper of the Lamb, which takes place in heaven (Rev. 19:7-8). Two other texts make reference to the church in the eternal state (Rev. 21:2, 9). However, Revelation 4-18 (which vividly describes the tribulation) contains no references to the church on earth during this time, which is exactly what we would expect if the church is not present on the earth. In contrast, however, Revelation 6-18 repeatedly mentions Israel, and the bulk of the information contained herein deals with events on earth and what happens with national Israel and the other nations.
Third, the promises of God to keep the church from the coming wrath of the tribulation (1 Thess. 1:10; 4:13-5:10; Rev. 3:10) further bolster the pretribulational position. The context of 1 Thessalonians 1:10 and the order of events outlined in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:10 indicate the apostle Paul’s divinely inspired belief that the rapture will precede the tribulation period, for he describes what will happen to those believers who have already died when the Lord comes and what will be experienced by those who are “alive and remain until the coming of the Lord” (4:15). Both the living and those whose bodies have died will be “caught up” to “meet the Lord in the air” (v. 17). It is after explaining this comforting “hope” that Paul then describes the coming “day of the Lord” (1 Thess. 5:1-9). The specific order of events is intentional and important: The apostle first explains the rapture and then discusses the tribulation. Neither the mid- nor post-tribulational view satisfactorily accounts for Paul’s teaching here. For example, if either of them were true, then Paul should be encouraging these believers in Thessalonica to “rejoice” because their loved ones who have preceded them in death will miss out on the tribulation (or part of it). Additionally, if believers will be enduring the tribulation in part or in whole, Paul logically should be spending time here in this context to prepare them, and us for that matter, but he does not do that. Instead he assures them (and us) that no church age believer needs to worry about suffering through this horrible period because the rapture will remove all church age believers before the tribulation begins. We have “the word of the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:15) on the matter.
As for the passage in Revelation 3:10, some assert that the phrase “keep thee from” means to “keep out from within,” or in other words, “protection in the midst of.” That is one possible interpretation; however, it is also possible to simply read it to mean that the church is kept from the period entirely because it has been removed prior to the beginning of these events. In fact, John reveals that believers will be kept from “the hour” itself, not merely the events that transpire on earth during the hour. Further, if believers are “kept through” the tribulation, protected from God’s wrath during part of the time or in its entirety, what would even be the purpose for the rapture during the tribulation? Why not simply continue His protection throughout the period? This is not at all a questioning of God’s ability to preserve His people but rather the method of interpretation used by those who pose this argument.
Fourth, the apostolic teaching of the imminency of the return of Christ for His saints strongly indicates the rapture will occur prior to the tribulation. The Bible contains no prophesied events that must transpire prior to the Lord’s return at the rapture. In fact, we are specifically instructed to look for and eagerly anticipate the return of Christ (Phil. 3:20-21; Titus 2:13; Jas. 5:7-9), not to watch for signs that the time might be near (e.g. Israel regathered in her homeland, Russia or China building up military forces. Those might be harbingers, foreshadowings of things to come during the tribulation, but they in no way indicate anything about the nearness of the rapture. In fact, such events or trends can only be determined as harbingers “after the fact,” after the tribulation begins). The Lord’s return at the rapture is the next prophesied event. It could happen at any moment. The exact, specific timing of it is not predicted, for its imminency is incredible incentive for serving the Lord every moment of our lives (1 Jn. 2:28). He might appear for us before we take our next breath!
Fifth, the initial inhabitants who populate the millennial kingdom provide one final implication for a pretribulational rapture. These are mortals, both Jew and Gentile (Matt. 24:36-44; 25:31-46), who have survived the tribulation period, who were regenerated during that terrible time. Initially, they will be the means by which the earth’s population increases throughout the kingdom age. If believers are “raptured” at the end of the tribulation, their bodies changed into glorified bodies (1 Cor. 15:51), who are the ones who enter the kingdom to propagate the human race? In fact, if a post-tribulational rapture occurs, it renders propagating the human race impossible during the kingdom. Obviously, a great multitude born during the kingdom age will turn in faith to the Lord for salvation. Sadly, however, we read that by the end of the 1000 years, many others who are born during this time, “whose number is as the sand of the sea,” gather in rebellion against the Lord; Satan is released to lead them in the futile battle of “Gog and Magog,” and they are defeated by fire coming “down from God out of heaven” (Rev. 20:8-9). The question is, who are these humans who rebel one final time? They are humans born during the kingdom, who never receive Christ, who are never saved, who comply outwardly for a time but, given the chance to rebel at last, they take it and are defeated. If post-tribulationism is true, this text makes no sense. No plausible explanation is possible if the rapture occurs at the end of the tribulation.
Thus, we conclude that the rapture must be prior to the terrible tribulation about to befall the earth for its continued rejection of Christ as both the only Savior and King of Kings. Both mid- and post-tribulationalism greatly underestimate the horror of that final seven-year period, just before the millennial kingdom comes. With much rejoicing and great relief, when these implications are analyzed and when the texts that actually deal with the topic of the rapture are explained, one can have the confidence that God will indeed deliver us “from the wrath to come.” — Pastor Gary Freel