IBRI Research Report No. 8 (1981)
THE RAPTURE: Before or After the Tribulation?
Randall A. Grossman
Grace Bible Fellowship Church
Copyright © 1981 by Randall A. Grossman. All
|When will the rapture occur relative to the Great Tribulation? A fresh study of the relationship of dispensationalism to the rapture question, the nature of the tribulation, the doctrine of imminency, the New Testament evidence of eschatological chronology, and a post-tribulational proposal. Includes a list of relevant Scripture texts.|
|Although the author is in agreement with the doctrinal statement of IBRI, it does not follow that all of the viewpoints espoused in this paper represent official positions of IBRI. Since one of the purposes of the IBRI report series is to serve as a preprint forum, it is possible that the author has revised some aspects of this work since it was first written.|
A study in eschatology is a daring enterprise in our day. A huge
of literature surrounds us, discussing not only the final trim, but
the superstructure of the building. A paper of this size necessarily
brief discussions and sometimes blunt conclusions. It is hoped that the
reader will be charitable when space forbids detailed argument.
The question considered in the paper is, "Is the rapture (or
of the Church before the Great Tribulation, somewhere within it, or
This question assumes that the tribulation (1) is a recognizable period
of time which is distinct from the general course of church history,
also that (2) it is yet future. Broader topics are only discussed in
to this central question.
The paper begins with a very brief discussion of the Church and
Many books trace the history of dispensationalism and its development
eschatology. This will not be repeated at all.1 It is the
of this writer that such research adds nothing whatever to the truth or
falsity of a particular point of doctrine. Likewise, although a review
of the early church fathers is informative, it is anachronistic to
them pre- or post-tribulational. As Walvoord notes, "They simply had
raised the questions involved in this controversy.2 The
"argument" will therefore be discarded. Dispensationalism will only be
considered in so far as it immediately relates to this study.
It is my conclusion that a great many issues and passages discussed
concerning the rapture are altogether inconclusive. Assuming the truth
of a particular viewpoint, one can find numerous Scriptures that are
or in some way consistent with It. Therefore, the remainder of the
will consist of a consideration of what I believe to be the key issues.
These are: (1) the nature and purpose of the tribulation, (2) the
of imminency, and (3) the chronological question. Following this
a proposal will be set forth.
The endnotes in this paper are sometimes used to acknowledge a
and at other times contain discussion indirectly related to the subject
THE CHURCH AND ISRAEL
Dispensationalism must be considered in any study of the rapture, as
it is the historical source, although not a necessary doctrinal
of the pre-tribulational position. The vast majority of
are pre-tribulational today, and indeed until quite recently it was
a necessary connection.3 Because of this close relationship,
most books defending pre-tribulationalism are mainly arguing the truth
of the dispensational system. Typically then, Walvoord begins his
work The Rapture Question with a lengthy discussion of the
of the Church and the relationship of the Church and Israel during the
tribulation. To Walvoord and most dispensationalists, the truth of
system is a major evidence for the truth of pretribulationalism.
we must briefly examine dispensationalism.
According to Charles Ryrie in Dispensationalism Today, the
distinctives of this system are (1) a total commitment to the "literal"
method of Bible interpretation, (2) the glory of God as the unifying
of all Scripture, and (3) the distinction between the Church and Israel
in God's dealing with the world. Of these three items, only the last is
a unique possession of dispensationalism. So only the last will be
It is contended by the dispensationalists that God has separate and
distinct programs for the physical nation of Israel and for the Church
in all ages. At Pentecost the Church was born, and God ceased dealing
Israel. Yet there will come a time when the Lord will again turn to His
people and bless them. Nearly all agree that this will be at the time
the tribulation and afterwards. And (keeping in mind that this is not
only evidence) it would then follow that before God turns again to His
people Israel, He will remove the Church at the rapture. The "Church
then is seen as the time between Pentecost and the rapture.
Several lines of argument are put forth to support this. The first
the unique nature of the Church. Strong dispensationalists press the
that the Church is a unique people, completely unforeseen by Old
prophecy, and set apart by means of the "mysteries" revealed to the
One of the key mysteries is that the Church is indwelt by Christ (Col
Walvoord contends that the Holy Spirit did not indwell Old Testament
and will not indwell be1ievers during the millennium.4
in you" is the unique possession of the Church. This whole position is
refuted by Leon Wood in The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament,
which he shows that the former saints experienced regeneration,
sealing, and filling.5 On the basis of Walvoord's teaching,
many argue that the "restrainer" in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 is the
Spirit. When the indwelt Church is removed (via the rapture), then the
Antichrist will appear. The restrainer may be the Holy Spirit, but the
passage does not thereby teach a pre-tribulational rapture.
Probably the key mystery is the composite nature of the Church. The
fact that Gentiles would have an equal standing with the Jews was a new
revelation (Eph 3:l-9). The Church has no Jew nor Gentile, but only
according to the dispensationalist. However in the same verse that
that there is no Jew nor Greek (Gal 3:28), the Scripture says "there is
no male or female." Are we thereby to understand that the church is
This whole problem relates to an misunderstanding of "mystery." I
it is best understood in connection with the concept of progressive
Truly that which is revealed was not known as such in former times, but
it may well have been true. The Old Testament believer had no
of the work of the Holy Spirit, but he experienced it. God can and does
do many things without our knowledge. Our understanding can hardly be
measure of God's actions.
The unique nature of the Church cannot be used to support the
model. In Romans 11, Paul speaks of the righteous figuratively as a
in which branches are first broken off and then grafted on again. The
strongly suggests a continuity spanning the time when mostly Jews
(Old Testament period), the time of both Jews and Gentiles (Church
and the time when many Jews will return to the Lord (Tribulation
Interestingly, Alva McClain, a dispensationalist, in his book on Romans
says (on the basis of horticultural facts):
... if in this olive tree Jews are put, they are still Jews. When
are put in, they are still Gentiles. But this is not true of the
for in the body of Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile...6
We have already seen the fallacy of quoting Galatians 3:28 to prove
the unique nature of the Church. Jesus Christ often predicted the
of the Holy Spirit, and this seems to have been the new work at
. By baptism, different types of people -- ethnically, socially, and
-- were joined into one believing company. The Church was also
for the proclamation of the saving message at Pentecost, but even this
is more a quantitative rather than a qualitative change from God's
dealings. In earlier times God empowered individuals for specific
at Pentecost, He created a mighty army of powerful witnesses.7
To summarize, dispensationalism is based on a sharp distinction
the Church and Israel. The Church is a unique organism, the body of
in which there is neither Jew nor Gentile. The Church alone is indwelt
by the Holy Spirit, and the Church alone is given the promise of the
The Church was born at Pentecost, and the Church will leave the earth
the rapture. Israel, on the other hand, has been rejected as a nation
the current time, but when the Church leaves, God will again deal with
Now our objection to this model is not that we insist that the
and Israel are the same. But we do insist that the godly in all ages
enjoyed the blessing of the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost, God once again
out to many nations, but He did not dissolve Israel. The fresh
"the mysteries," applied to all believers (who were largely Jewish at
time). The predictions of a Jewish apostasy and eventual restoration
simply historical, and not of a theological nature at all. At one time,
most believers were Jews. In some time to come, most Jews will be
In the meantime, Gentiles make up the majority of the true company of
As early as Moses' day, God had hinted at the fact that He would one
day bless the Gentiles (Deut 32:21). At that time God predicted a
of blessing the Gentiles so that the Jews would be aroused with
and return to God. This began to be worked out in the 9th
B.C. in the ministries of Elijah and Elisha (Luke 4:24-27). As the
Kingdom abandoned God, He turned and blessed Gentile individuals. In
next century Jonah was sent to the hated Assyrians to call them to
Again this aroused jealousy on the part of the Jews. Then in the late
century, during the reign of wicked Ahaz, Isaiah prophesied of the days
when God would ignore the "fertile field" (Israel) and cultivate the
(Gentiles). These prophecies are recorded in Isaiah 28:17 and 32:15.
in the book the Lord rebukes Israel, and turns to a peope who did not
Him (65:1-2). Paul understood this pattern in God's work during his day
and therefore tried to magnify his work among Gentiles (Romans
It can thus be well established that the so-called "Church Age" was not
a prophetic "blindspot" or unforeseen circumstance, but rather was the
logical progression of God's outworking plan. When the fulness of the
has come in, then all Israel will be saved.
On the basis of this discussion, dispensationalism cannot be cited
evidence for a pre-tribulation rapture. Since the two have so long been
wed, the question now is: Are there reasons to hold to a
rapture apart from the distinctives of dispensationalism? I believe
there are, and these will next be considered.
THE NATURE OF THE TRIBULATION
One of the main arguments set forth in favor of the
position is the nature and purpose of the Great Tribulation, This
a two-fold purpose: (1) it will be a time of God's dealing with Israel,
and (2) it will be a time of God's punishment of the unbelieving world.
The Great Tribulation has historically been understood in various
On the basis of passages which teach the continual trials of the
some post-tribulationists have insisted that the phrase is not a
term, but merely refers to the general course of church history -- a
trial for the Church. More recently there has been a recognition of the
futuristic understanding -- that an unprecedented time of great
is yet future. This writer is quite satisfied with the designation of
prophecy of the 70 weeks as relating to the Great Tribulation (Dan
Following this interpretation, there is a seven-year period of time yet
future called the Tribulation. The period will commence with the
making a firm covenant with Israel. This, of course, necessitates the
of an Israeli nation and also the reinstitution of temple worship at
Approximately halfway through this period of seven years, the prince
9:26), elsewhere called the "little horn," the "beast," and the
(Dan 7:8,21,24,25; Rev 13:1-10; 1 John 2:18), will break the treaty,
the temple worship to cease (Dan 9:27) and turn on the nation of
At that time, or not long afterwards, the prince will set up an idol in
the very temple of God, and the worst persecution will result (Dan
12:11-12, Matt 24:l5-28; 2 Thess 2:3-4). Throughout the seven years the
Lord will be pouring out judgments upon the world, increasing them in
and rapidity (Revelation 6-18). The great climax will be the return of
Jesus Christ with great power and glory to destroy the Antichrist and
armies and to institute His kingdom on earth (Isa 11:4; 2 Thess 2:8,
The references to the tribulation are as follows: Daniel 9:27,
Matthew 24:15-28 and parallels, and Revelation 6-18. Walvoord also
Deuteronomy 4:30-31 and Jeremiah 30:4-11, but Payne and many others
there is complete fulfillment of these passages in the Babylonian exile
and return in the 6th century BC.9 However, based only on
passages above and the seven-year model suggested, it is obvious that
as a nation is in the center stage. Dispensationalists, of course, make
much of this, and we must certainly agree that it is true. God will be
very much at work with national Israel during the tribulation. But the
question is: will there be others, non-Jews, in God's work?
All agree that there are Gentile believers during the tribulation.
the Olivet discourse Jesus mentions the "elect" in three places (Matt
24, 31). Revelation speaks of "saints" on several occasions, clearly
(Rev 11:18; 13:7,10; 14:12; 16:6; 17:6; 18:24). Many books argue over
significance of these words, and the dispensationalists never tire of
the absence of the word "church" in every tribulation passage. This to
me is being letteristic and avoiding the issue. The point is that,
Israel is in center stage, other believers are present. They undergo
persecution, yet some evidently survive. There is thus no reason per
se that these believers cannot be the Church.
In connection with this is an oft-repeated argument concerning
and "tribulation." The Church is promised deliverance from wrath (Rom
1 Thess 1:10, 5:9). In Revelation 6:16-17, 11:18 and 16:19, the events
of the tribulation are said to be expressions of God's wrath against an
unbelieving world. Thus -- the argument goes -- the Church must be gone
for the wrath to appear. Post-tribulationists answer this in various
Gundry attempts to move these sections of Revelation to the very last
of the tribulation.10 Ladd concedes that God is indeed
wrath, but is simultaneously protecting His people.11 He
the judgments in Egypt as a parallel (Exod 7-12).
I believe the truth is close to that proposed by Ladd. In 1
2:16 Paul says that God has executed wrath on the Jews of his own
and yet the Church was obviously present. It is also interesting to
that this period is called tribulation and great tribulation, the word
regularly used to imply testing of the Church (e.g., Acts 14:22). The
phrase "Great Tribulation" is used only twice (Matt 24:21, Rev 7:14).
phrase suggests an extension of quantity but not quality. And again, no
one can deny that believers will pass through the tribulation, and
is therefore no reason to exclude the Church per se.
One of the great characteristics of the tribulation period is that
will again deal with Israel. But there is no reason to deny that
of the Church will not also pass through it as a time of purification
refinement. God's wrath will indeed be poured out against an
world, and all agree that some "saints" will undergo great testing.
saints could be the Church. Therefore, the nature and purpose of the
cannot be a sufficient and decisive argument in the rapture issue.
It should also be pointed out here that the personal wishes of
of the question are beside the point. Post-tribulationists sometimes
the others of "rocking chair" eschatology. Pre-tribulationalism is said
to make soft Christians who are unable and unwilling to expect
Pre-tribulational believers bewail the morbid obsessions of the
position and are shocked at the attack on God's character. (How can you
accuse God of putting His children through all that?). The point, of
has nothing to do with our wishes. As Ladd himself says, "We all want
be pre-trlbulatlonal."12 But the question is: what do the
teach? Walvoord's point is well taken, though, that many
advocates downplay the severity of the tribulation.13
In summary, the revealed purposes of the tribulation, namely, God's
turning again to the Jews as a nation, and the execution of His wrath
the Christ-rejecting nations, is not completely incompatible with a
of the Church going through tribulation and refining fires, yet
by God's grace. The only basis for deciding the rapture issue on this
would be the strict application of the dispensational model, which we
previously examined and rejected as indecisive. To put it another way:
all could agree on the future seven-year tribulation, all could adopt
same general outline of events as revealed in the relevant texts, all
agree that national Israel is again in the spotlight, all could agree
the unprecedented horrors of' the period, and yet not on that basis
on the time of the rapture.
In the opinion of this writer, the entire pre-tribulational position
stands or falls on the correct understanding of imminency. If the major
tenet of dispensationalism -- the distinction of Israel and the Church
-- is laid to rest, then the necessity of the pre-tribulational rapture
on these grounds is removed. The nature of the tribulation, stripped of
the dispensational overtones, is also indecisive. But it is possible to
hold a pre-tribulational position on the basis of imminency alone, and
it is to this question we must now direct our attention.
It is interesting that even Walvoord, a dispensationalist, sees the
whole issue, at the root, as a question of imminency. Note, for
...the doctrine of imminency, which is the heart of
For the most part, scriptural evidence for imminency today is
to proof of the pre-tribulational viewpoint.15
For all practical purposes, abandonment of the pre-tribulational
of Christ is tantamount to abandonment of the hope of His imminent
Unquestionably, a Biblical view of imminency is the issue at stake.
The word "imminent" never appears in the Bible. The doctrine is
on several other words and passages.17 A dictionary
cited by Payne defines the word as "impending threateningly; hanging
one's head; ready to befall or overtake one; close at hand in its
coming on shortly."18
The full force of the argument can best be seen in J. Barton Payne.
After discussing at length the meaning of imminency, he proposes the
True uncertainty about the time of the Lord's appearing includes the
possibility that He could come now, and this is the sum and substance
the classical doctrine of imminence.19
It might not be for some time, but it might be tonight!20
The thrust of his position is that we cannot be certain that the
is still future, for on the basis of several "valid" passages, we are
to look for the Lord, not a complex of events or signs. These
include: Matthew 24:42-25:13 and parallels; Luke 12:36-40; Romans 8:19,
23, 25; 1 Corinthians 1:7; Philippians 3:20, 4:5; 1 Thessalonians
Titus 2:12-13; James 5:7-8; Jude 21; and Revelation 16:15. If these
have any real validity, says Payne, it must be possible for the
Lord to return at any moment -- even today. Thus it is seen, as in
own case, that it is possible to reject dispensationalism and yet hold
firmly to the pre-tribulational position. (Although Payne would label
view post-tribulational, since he sees the tribulation as fulfilled
This to me is the true point of tension and the true dividing line.
On the one hand we feel the force of imminency, as understood above,
on the other we see the real Scriptural possibility of a great trial
future. Payne's solution is to remove the latter as a recognizable
Others seek to understand imminency in a different way. Still others
the pre-tribulational position. There needs to be a tolerance and
displayed on all sides here, for the tension is real and biblical.
is pre-tribulational, but wrestles with the problem also:
Let us remain very sober on this point and let us be content with
general impression. God has not deemed it useful to give us more
information on the time of the rapture, probably for the following
He does not want us to sleep while being too certain of escaping all
judgments of the end. He certainly wants to encourage us to look toward
the future with joy through the promise of an assured deliverance. But
He reminds us also that judgment will begin at the house of God, and
this judgment can be formidable.21
Several books discuss the relevant Greek words.22 This
is too lengthy to include here, but the overall impression is very
As Payne notes, the words fall into two groups -- words of watching and
words of waiting. Payne concedes all that the post-tribulational
requires; namely, that the words suggest vigilance, readiness, and
without specific reference to time. Yet he insists that the object of
verbs is the lord Himself, and therefore imminency is sustained.
The argument, then, is this: if we are exhorted to be alert and
for the appearance of the Lord from heaven, then there can be no
events which are predicted and are of definite, testable fulfillment.
we are looking for the sign, not the Lord. Post-tribulationalists often
cite specific predictions such as Peter's martyrdom, the fall of
and Paul's revealed trip to Rome as evidence against imminence.
and others argue strenuously against these in various ways, but I do
believe that the issue lies here. Walvoord himself concedes "a few
which is all the post-tribulational position requires.23 But
even granting all this, it is possible to maintain that the rapture is
truly imminent from the close of the apostolic age onwards. All of the
regularly cited predictions were fulfilled by this time. So the answer
does not lie here.
The key teaching on imminence is given by the Lord Jesus himself in
the Olivet discourse (Matt 24:36-25:13; Mark 13:32-37; Luke 21:34-36)
on an earlier occasion (Luke 12:35-48). The emphasis on being prepared
and ready for His coming is strong. There is no mention of intervening
events at all. This is in favor of absolute imminence. However, in each
passage, Jesus contrasts the one who is ready and waiting with those
are not prepared and therefore are surprised. The suddenness of His
is experienced by those who are unprepared. The implication is that
who are busy about the Lord's work might be somewhat surprised at the
moment (Matt 25:5-6) but are nevertheless prepared. Thus imminence
better be understood not in temporal terms but in terms of morality.
emphasis is not on the absolute revelation of the moment (although no
will know the day nor the hour) but on the moral conditions of those
experience it. The day will only come as a thief on those who are not
for it. Even in the dictionary definition, the threatening, foreboding
nature of the event is strong. This understanding of imminence is
by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:2-11: "But you brethren, are not in
that the day should overtake you like a thief, for you are all sons of
light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness, so then let
us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober."
Let us consider then the question of intervening events, such as
be necessary in the post-tribulational position (with a future period
Great Tribulation). It is contended that one fails to look for the Lord
Himself, but seeks after signs -- most notably, the appearance of
Thus it is said to be impossible to truly look for the Lord. But an
might be helpful at this point.
When a woman becomes pregnant, she and her husband begin to look
to the birth of the child. They think about names, they buy various
they prepare the nursery, and look forward expectantly to the birth of
the child. She also carefully watches her health and diet in the light
of the baby's birth. Now every birth is accompanied by labor, a time of
great suffering for the mother. This is also thought about, and
even prepared for (by breathing exercises, etc.). Yet the mother does
live for nine months under the shadow of that short period of
Rather she looks forward longingly for the newborn baby. Nevertheless,
the birth event includes the suffering of labor.
I think it is entirely possible to understand imminence in this
The post-tribulationalist can legitimately say that he is looklng
to the return of his Lord, even though he also expects certain events
He looks forward to the event of Christ's return, yet that never
that the absolute first event in the sequence is His appearance.
I believe that most of the verses regularly cited to prove imminence
do not address the point of intervening events. They constltute an
from silence (e.g., John l4:1-3).
Certainly after an interval of nearly 2000 years, the few short
surrounding the return of Christ can be considered in the Scriptures as
one main event, although in fact it comprises several interrelated
Consequently, we see in the Scriptures many exhortations to watch for
coming, and also some clearly revealed events leading up to it (the
pangs, to use our illustration). We can look forward to the former,
while expecting the latter.
To summarize, imminence can be understood in two ways. To understand
it absolutely is to require a pre-tribulation rapture, if we consider
tribulation as yet future. However, if we define imminence more as an
to vigilance and a solemn warning to the unprepared, then it is
with a post-tribulation rapture.
In a sense, nothing which we have discussed thus far is decisive in
answering our question. Each consideration has been seen to be
with either the pre- or post-tribulational position. However, after the
removal of the dispensational backdrop, the other two major arguments
favor of pre-tribulationalism -- the nature of the tribulation and,
imminence -- have been shown to be indecisive. Now we turn to the
most closely related to our original thesis, the question of the order
George Ladd makes an imortant observation at the outset of his
For the most part, the Word of God is not explicit about the order
events... Our problems arise when we begin to ask questions which were
not in the minds of the authors.24
Having said this, however, we consider the two passages in scripture
which do give us sornething of a sequence of end-time events. These
are Matthew 24 and 2 Thessalonians 2.
With reference to this precise question, I have approached Scripture
in the following manner: the Old Testament gives us no definite
on the question (with the possible exception of Isa. 26:19-20). The New
Testament teaching is built on the Olivet discourse as contained in
24. The rest of the letters, if they relate at all to sequence, are
from this source.25 The book of Revelation is also largely
in nature and is consistent with the teaching of Christ at Olivet.
In Matthew 24:15 Jesus gives the first definite sign relating to His
return. It is the appearance of the abomination of desolation in the
place. It will be an unmistakable sign, and will be the signal for
flight. The passage continues, describing the events of "great
(v 21). In verse 29, these sequential words appear, "immediately after
the tribulation of those days." The verse then describes various
signs, culminating in "the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky
power and great glory" (v 30). Verse 31 reads, "And He will send forth
His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together (episunaxousin)
His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other."
is difficult to understand how this could be interpreted as not
being a rapture, yet some do. It is contended that the words
and "translation" or equivalent expressions do not appear. I think that
is simply avoiding the issue. The similarity of the trumpet blast (1
4:16, 1 Cor 15:52) and the gathering (2 Thess 2:1) are more than
The sequence in Matthew 24 is first the unmistakable revelation of
great persecution, astronomical signs, then the return of Christ
a rapture of the elect.
In 2 Thessalonians 2, the order is the same. In verse one, the word
"gathering" (episunagwges) relates back to Matthew 24:31.
Waterman makes the application of Granville Sharp's Rule in this verse,
and thus equates "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" and "our
to Him."26 This would be very much in favor of the
position, making the two events one.
Paul is seeking to re-instruct a group of believers who have been
who think they have missed the day of the Lord. He reminds them of
he had taught them previously "by the word of the Lord" (1 Thess 4:15).
Before the day of the Lord is ushered in, first there must be the
(apostasia) and then the man of lawlessness, i.e., the
Jesus Christ will destroy him at His coming (v 8).28
notes the simIlarity of Matthew 24:10-11 to the apostasy in 2
2:3, the appearance of Antichrist as such in Matthew 24:15 and 2
2:3-8, and the Lord's parousia in Matthew 24:30 and 2
2:8. The sequence in both passages is identical.
Although the rapture is not mentioned as such, this sequence would
be supported by 1 Corinthians 15:23-24 and Revelation 20:4-5. At the
the Lord will resurrect the saints who have died (1 Thess 4:15-16) and
will also transform the bodies of living believers into immortal bodies
(1 Cor. 15:51-53). Both the above cited passages speak of a
at the time of Christ's coming, which is consistent with the
position. If there is a resurrection of saints before this (and
20:5 does call this the first resurrection!) the Scripture is
on the point in both 1 Corinthians 15:23-24 and Revelation 20:4-5.
In attempting to draw some conclusions on chronology, we see that
primary two texts, Matthew 24 and 2 Thessalonians 2, agree on the
of apostasy, Atichrist, and the return of Christ, including a rapture.
The very least we can say is that the burden of proof lies with the
position to produce evidence for another, previous rapture, Of course
is also noteworthy that neither Jesus nor Paul responds to the question
about "signs" of His coming by simply responding, "There are no signs.
You will be raptured." No, both speak of definite events which will
the coming, especially the revelation of Antichrist. lt would be
for Jesus on the Mount of Olives and for Paul in his second letter to
Thessalonlans to carefully predict and warn of these things if in fact
no contemporary believers would or could see them.
The two strongest arguments for the pre-tribulational position are
at best. The nature and purpose of the tribulation is an important
but it can never require the pre-tribulational position. The doctrine
imminence is only conclusive if a particular definition is given to it.
But we have seen that the word can be understood in a less than
way. And finally, on the issue of chronology, the primary texts suggest
a post-tribulation rapture and resurrection; these require a strong
if this position is to be abandoned. Although I do not consider the
position an impossible contradiction or anything of that sort,
I think that the best evidence we can gather from the Scriptures points
to a post-tribulation rapture.
Jesus gives us the primary teaching on His return in the Olivet
The teaching is recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21.29
Jesus' words are occasioned by the questions of his disciples. They
to know when the Temple will be destroyed as He predicted (Matt 24:2)
what the signs of His coming will be. In their minds they had no way of
knowing that these were separate events. They probably expected it all
to be one great cluster of events. At any rate, Jesus addresses Himself
to both these events -- the fall of Jerusalem and His own coming.
In Matthew 24:4-13, Mark 13:5-l3 and Luke 21:8-19, Jesus predicts
first century destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (70 AD). Nothing
these verses is inconsistent with this interpretation. In fact, the
of false prophets and Messiahs was probably greater at that time than
any subsequent century. Jesus is predicting very real trials, and
His hearers to persevere.30 The section is climaxed in Luke
21:20-24, when the actual siege of Jerusalem is described.
Is this also the time of Christ's return? Jesus addresses this in
24:14. The gospel must first be preached to all nations. There is an
time period between the two great predictions, which in a very real way
is affected by our obedience to the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20,
16:15-16, Luke 24:46-49 and John 20:21). Indeed in Acts 1:6, when the
again press this question, Jesus simply points them to their duty (vv
If and when they fulfill it, the end will come.
Beginning in Matthew 24:15 and Mark 13:14, the tribulation period is
described. This clearly predicts the setting up of the idol by
How long will the tribulation last?
I have already stated that I accept the seven year tribulation of
9:27. This period is begun by the signing of a treaty between the
and Israel. (And even this is preceded by the regathering of national
and the reinstitution of temple worship in Jerusalem.) Approximately in
the middle of the seven years, the Antichrist will cause the sacrifices
to cease. This is usually understood to be the same event as the
up of the abominable idol -- perhaps a statue of Antichrist in the
But this is not necessarily so. Herman J. Eckelmann has suggested that,
according to Daniel 12:11, there may be almost 3½ years between
the two events (the sacrifices ceasing and the setting up of the idol).
Then, according to Daniel 12:12, the return of Christ might be only
45 days after the idol is set up.31 This would limit the
of the Great Tribulation to a few weeks.
In any case, in the Olivet discourse the first unmistakable sign of
the tribulation and Christ's return is the setting up of the idol. This
could be as short a time as 45 days. All of the previous events must
place, yet the actual events of the return begin when the idol is set
The teaching next predicts that "immediately after the tribulation
those days" will be the return of Christ, accompanied by astronomical
and the rapture (Matt 24:31, Mark 13:27, Luke 21:28). The rapture is after
the tribulation. I believe the evidence for chronology outweighs the
pre-tribulation evidences. My conviction is that all the important
and New Testament references to the rapture can be harmonized with this
Jesus predicts two great events in the Olivet discourse. The first
the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD; the second is the return of Christ. One
of the main evidences for this interpretation is the parable of the fig
tree (Matt 24:32-36, Mark 13:28-32, Luke 21:29-33).
In Matthew 24:32 Jesus states a brief parable. The parable simply is that when you see a tree in bud, you know summer is on the way. The meaning is that the appearance of the first is inevitably followed by the second. In verse 33 He applies it. He says that when you see "all these
things" (i.e., the first event, the "budding") then you expect the
second event (the return of Christ). Just as a tree in bud tells you
summer is at hand, just so, when "all these things" happen, then Jesus
is near, right at the door. Now the question is: what are "all these
Verse 34 says that "all these things" are events which will take place
in Jesus' own generation.32 He states it In the most
terms. To summarize, Jesus predicts that the first great prediction,
prophecy of Jerusalem's destruction, will be the necessary precondition
to the second prediction, His own return. He also makes it clear that
first prediction will be fulfilled in His own generation.
History has, of course, proved that Jesus was correct. Within a generation of His words (AD 30?) Jerusalem was attacked and destroyed by Rome (AD 70). Some of His own contemporaries lived to see these evil days. And according to Jesus' words (v 33), from that point on He is standing at the door, ready to return. It is important to note that His return was possible in His own generation, and every subsequent one. The time between the predictions of 70 AD and the setting up of the idol, leading to His glorious return, is indefinite. Jesus is at the door, ready to set off the final sequence of events. But that second prediction will not be fulfilled until
the gospel is fully preached (Matt 24:14). Our present behavior does
affect world history, and we literally can "usher in the kingdom" by a
zealous witness for Christ.
As the time draws near to the completion of the proclamation -- as
alone will judge -- the seven year tribulation period will begin.
will make a treaty with national Israel. Midway through the seven
the treaty will be broken and Antichrist will turn on the Jews.
this period the believers may be suffering great persecution, but as
pours out His wrath they will be shielded. When the complete
is made, Antichrist will set up the idol in the temple and the final
of events will be set in motion. At the very height of the great revolt
against God, Jesus Christ will return on the clouds to rescue His
and judge His enemies. At the rapture Jesus will raise the dead
and transform the living saints as they are all caught up to be with
This proposal might be called a "generation imminence" approach.
generation since Christ has ascended, including His own, could
the last generation. Jesus could come soon. If we are alert and
prepared we will see certain signs of His approach. But if we forget
and fall asleep, it may overtake us as a thief. Simeon and Anna looked
forward (prosdechomai) to the consolation of Israel (Luke 2:25,
38) and were not disappointed, So too we can look for (prosdechomai)
"the blessed hope and appearing of the glory of our great God and
Christ Jesus" (Tit 2:13). In the meantime, we are to live in the light
of that return, consecrating our entire being to the spread of the
message of Jesus Christ.
LIST OF RELEVANT SCRIPTURE TEXTS
1 Corinthians 15:20-28
1 Corinthians 15:50-58
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
2 Thessalonians 2:1-15
1 Thessalonians 1:9-10
1 Thessalonians 2:14-16, 19
1 Thessalonians 3:11-13
1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
2 Thessalonians 1:5-10
1. Relevant material may be found in Payne, The Imminent Appearing of Jesus Christ, pp 11-42; Ladd, The Blessed Hope, pp 35-60; Walvoord, The Rapture Question, pp 49-58.
2. Walvoord, The Rapture Question, p 156.
3. Robert Gundry in his work The Church and the Tribulation makes an attempt to defend post-tribulationalism while holding on to his strict dispensationalism. My opinion is that he fails on both counts. You cannot serve two masters. Consequently Walvoord takes him to task in a revised edition of The Rapture Question and in The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation.
4. Walvoord, Rapture Question, pp 31-32.
5. Wood, The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, pp 146-47.
6. McClain, Romans: the Gospel of God's Grace, p 201.
7. Wood, HS in OT, pp 72-75.
8. Unpublished paper by Robert J. Dunzweiler.
9. Payne, Imminent Appearing, p 115.
10. Gundry, Church and Tribulation, pp 44-63, 74-77.
11. Ladd, Blessed Hope, pp 71-77.
12. Ibid., p 11.
13. Walvoord, Rapture Question, p 58.
14. Ibid., p 53.
15. Ibid., p 73.
16. Ibid., p 75.
17. This is not necessarily a strike against imminence. The word "trinity" never appears in the Bible either, yet all true Christians affirm the doctrine.
18. Payne, Imminent Appearing, p 85.
19. Ibid., p 98.
20. Ibid., p 102.
21. Pache, The Return of Jesus Christ, pp 124-25.
22. Ladd, Blessed Hope, pp 105-119; Gundry, Church and Tribulation, pp 30-37; Payne, Imminent Appearing, pp 86-88.
23. Walvoord, Rapture Question, p 167.
24. Ladd, Blessed Hope, p 13.
25. G. Henry Waterman of Wheaton College made a comparison of Paul's teaching in the Thessalonian letters to the Olivet discourse (ETS Journal, Spring, 1975). In this article he records 24 different similarities of thought and expression. Waterman's thesis is that, based on the words "This we say to you by the word of the Lord" (1 Thess 4:15), Paul's teaching can be traced to the Olivet discourse, and the Matthew account of it (or its forerunner) in particular.
26. Ibid., p 112.
27. E. Schuyler English is credited with a unique interpretation of apostasia. The verb means "depart" and is commonly used in this general way. The noun form thus means "departure" and is usually used as a departure from loyalty or, in religious terminology, apostasy. English has suggested that the noun be tgranslated as "departure," with a reference to the pre-tribulation rapture. This is challenged by many scholars, as there is no other known case of the noun being used in such a literal fashion.
28. Earlier pre-tribulationalists attempted to make clear distinctions between the words parousia, apokalupsis, and epiphaneia. The "coming" of the Lord was something different than His "appearance," etc. Ladd, Blessed Hope, pp 61-70, and others have shown the invalidity of this approach. The words are used interchangeably.
29. Robert J. Dunzweiler, "An Outline Harmony of the Olivet Discourse," is used throughout this proposal.
30. The Greek telos is used without the article in this section. The "end" in view is the end of the disciples' testing. With the article, telos is used strictly to refer to the end of the age and the return of Christ.
31. Herman J. Eckelmann, "When is the Resurrection of the Just?" pp 9-10.
32. Note the close parallel between 24:34 and 23:36. The entire
of Jesus' condemnation of the Pharisaic approach and its impending doom
points to the first century judgment at the hands of Rome -- within
own generation. Although the Olivet discourse is a unit, it must be
in the broader context. The disciples' question was brought forth by
prediction of judgment (24:2), which in turn was occasioned by the
of contemporary Judaism in chapter 23.
Allis, Oswald T. Prophecy and the Church. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing Co., 1978.
Cohen, Gary G. Understanding Revelation. Chicago: Moody Press, 1968.
Erickson, Millard J. Contemporary Options in Eschatology. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977.
Frost, Henry W. The Second Coming of Christ. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1934.
Gundry, Robert H. The Church and the Tribulation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973.
Ladd, George Eldon. The Blessed Hope. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956.
Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle. New York: Macmillan, 1956.
Lewis, C. S. The World's Last Night and Other Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1952.
Lindsey, Hal. The Late Great Planet Earth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970.
Lindsey, Hal. There's a New World Coming. Santa Ana, California: Vision House Publishers, 1973.
McClain, Alva J. Romans: The Gospel of God's Grace. Chicago: Moody Press, 1973.
Pache, Rene. The Return of Jesus Christ. Trans. William S. LaSor. Chicago: Moody Press, 1955.
Payne, J. Barton. Biblical Prophecy for Today. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978.
Payne, J. Barton. The Imminent Appearing of Christ. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962.
Ryrie, Charles C. Dispensationalism Today. Chicago: Moody Press, 1965.
Ryrie, Charles C. The Bible and Tomorrow's News. SR Publications, Inc., 1973.
Stanton, Gerald B. Kept From the Hour. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1956.
Walvoord, John F. The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976.
Walvoord, John F., The Rapture Question. Revised and Enlarged Edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979.
Wood, Leon J. The Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. Grand
Waterman, G. Henry. "The Sources of Paul's Teaching on the Second
of Christ in 1 and 2 Thessalonians," Journal of the Evangelical
Society, 18:2 (Spring, 1'975), pp 105-114.
Broach, Terry. "The Doctrine of Imminency." Term paper at Biblical Theological Seminary.
Dunzweiler, Robert J. "An Outline Harmony of the Olivet Discourse."
Dunzweiler, Robert J. "Daniel's Seventy Weeks."
Eckelmann, Herman J. "When is the Resurrection of the Just?"
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