IBRI Research Report No. 8 (1981)
 

THE RAPTURE: Before or After the Tribulation?

Randall A. Grossman
Grace Bible Fellowship Church
Reading, Pennsylvania

Copyright © 1981 by Randall A. Grossman. All rights reserved.
 
 

ABSTRACT

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.

EDITOR'S NOTE

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. 

ISBN 0-944788-08-4



 

INTRODUCTION

A study in eschatology is a daring enterprise in our day. A huge volume of literature surrounds us, discussing not only the final trim, but also the superstructure of the building. A paper of this size necessarily requires 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 translation) of the Church before the Great Tribulation, somewhere within it, or afterwards?" This question assumes that the tribulation (1) is a recognizable period of time which is distinct from the general course of church history, and also that (2) it is yet future. Broader topics are only discussed in relation to this central question.
 

The paper begins with a very brief discussion of the Church and Israel. Many books trace the history of dispensationalism and its development of eschatology. This will not be repeated at all.1 It is the opinion 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 label them pre- or post-tribulational. As Walvoord notes, "They simply had not raised the questions involved in this controversy.2 The historical "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 somewhat or in some way consistent with It. Therefore, the remainder of the paper 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 doctrine of imminency, and (3) the chronological question. Following this discussion, a proposal will be set forth.
 

The endnotes in this paper are sometimes used to acknowledge a source, and at other times contain discussion indirectly related to the subject at hand.
 

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 prerequisite, of the pre-tribulational position. The vast majority of dispensationalists are pre-tribulational today, and indeed until quite recently it was considered 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 classic work The Rapture Question with a lengthy discussion of the meaning of the Church and the relationship of the Church and Israel during the tribulation. To Walvoord and most dispensationalists, the truth of their system is a major evidence for the truth of pretribulationalism. Therefore, we must briefly examine dispensationalism.
 

According to Charles Ryrie in Dispensationalism Today, the three distinctives of this system are (1) a total commitment to the "literal" method of Bible interpretation, (2) the glory of God as the unifying theme 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 considered here.
 

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 with 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 of the tribulation and afterwards. And (keeping in mind that this is not the 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 Age" then is seen as the time between Pentecost and the rapture.
 

Several lines of argument are put forth to support this. The first is the unique nature of the Church. Strong dispensationalists press the point that the Church is a unique people, completely unforeseen by Old Testament prophecy, and set apart by means of the "mysteries" revealed to the apostles. One of the key mysteries is that the Church is indwelt by Christ (Col 1:26-27). Walvoord contends that the Holy Spirit did not indwell Old Testament saints, and will not indwell be1ievers during the millennium.4 "Christ 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, in which he shows that the former saints experienced regeneration, indwelling, sealing, and filling.5 On the basis of Walvoord's teaching, many argue that the "restrainer" in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 is the indwelling 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 Christians according to the dispensationalist. However in the same verse that teaches 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 unisex?
 

This whole problem relates to an misunderstanding of "mystery." I believe it is best understood in connection with the concept of progressive revelation. 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 understanding 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 the measure of God's actions.
 

The unique nature of the Church cannot be used to support the dispensational model. In Romans 11, Paul speaks of the righteous figuratively as a tree in which branches are first broken off and then grafted on again. The figure strongly suggests a continuity spanning the time when mostly Jews believed (Old Testament period), the time of both Jews and Gentiles (Church Age), and the time when many Jews will return to the Lord (Tribulation Period). 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 Gentiles are put in, they are still Gentiles. But this is not true of the Church, 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 baptism of the Holy Spirit, and this seems to have been the new work at Pentecost . By baptism, different types of people -- ethnically, socially, and sexually -- were joined into one believing company. The Church was also empowered for the proclamation of the saving message at Pentecost, but even this is more a quantitative rather than a qualitative change from God's former dealings. In earlier times God empowered individuals for specific tasks; at Pentecost, He created a mighty army of powerful witnesses.7
 

To summarize, dispensationalism is based on a sharp distinction between the Church and Israel. The Church is a unique organism, the body of Christ, 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 rapture. The Church was born at Pentecost, and the Church will leave the earth at the rapture. Israel, on the other hand, has been rejected as a nation at the current time, but when the Church leaves, God will again deal with His people.
 

Now our objection to this model is not that we insist that the Church and Israel are the same. But we do insist that the godly in all ages have enjoyed the blessing of the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost, God once again reached out to many nations, but He did not dissolve Israel. The fresh revelations, "the mysteries," applied to all believers (who were largely Jewish at that time). The predictions of a Jewish apostasy and eventual restoration are 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 believers. In the meantime, Gentiles make up the majority of the true company of believers.
 

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 strategy of blessing the Gentiles so that the Jews would be aroused with jealousy and return to God. This began to be worked out in the 9th century B.C. in the ministries of Elijah and Elisha (Luke 4:24-27). As the Northern Kingdom abandoned God, He turned and blessed Gentile individuals. In the next century Jonah was sent to the hated Assyrians to call them to repentance. Again this aroused jealousy on the part of the Jews. Then in the late eighth century, during the reign of wicked Ahaz, Isaiah prophesied of the days when God would ignore the "fertile field" (Israel) and cultivate the "forest" (Gentiles). These prophecies are recorded in Isaiah 28:17 and 32:15. Later in the book the Lord rebukes Israel, and turns to a peope who did not seek 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 11:11-14). 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 Gentiles has come in, then all Israel will be saved.
 

On the basis of this discussion, dispensationalism cannot be cited as 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 pre-tribulation rapture apart from the distinctives of dispensationalism? I believe that there are, and these will next be considered.
 

THE NATURE OF THE TRIBULATION

One of the main arguments set forth in favor of the pre-tribulational position is the nature and purpose of the Great Tribulation, This includes 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 ways. On the basis of passages which teach the continual trials of the Church, some post-tribulationists have insisted that the phrase is not a technical term, but merely refers to the general course of church history -- a constant trial for the Church. More recently there has been a recognition of the futuristic understanding -- that an unprecedented time of great tribulation is yet future. This writer is quite satisfied with the designation of Daniel's prophecy of the 70 weeks as relating to the Great Tribulation (Dan 9:24-27).8 Following this interpretation, there is a seven-year period of time yet future called the Tribulation. The period will commence with the "prince" making a firm covenant with Israel. This, of course, necessitates the reestablishment of an Israeli nation and also the reinstitution of temple worship at Jerusalem. Approximately halfway through this period of seven years, the prince (Dan 9:26), elsewhere called the "little horn," the "beast," and the "Antichrist" (Dan 7:8,21,24,25; Rev 13:1-10; 1 John 2:18), will break the treaty, cause the temple worship to cease (Dan 9:27) and turn on the nation of Israel. 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 9:27; 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 intensity 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 his armies and to institute His kingdom on earth (Isa 11:4; 2 Thess 2:8, Revelation 19).
 

The references to the tribulation are as follows: Daniel 9:27, 11:36-12:13, Matthew 24:15-28 and parallels, and Revelation 6-18. Walvoord also cites Deuteronomy 4:30-31 and Jeremiah 30:4-11, but Payne and many others believe there is complete fulfillment of these passages in the Babylonian exile and return in the 6th century BC.9 However, based only on the passages above and the seven-year model suggested, it is obvious that Israel 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. In the Olivet discourse Jesus mentions the "elect" in three places (Matt 24:22, 24, 31). Revelation speaks of "saints" on several occasions, clearly non-Jews (Rev 11:18; 13:7,10; 14:12; 16:6; 17:6; 18:24). Many books argue over the significance of these words, and the dispensationalists never tire of citing the absence of the word "church" in every tribulation passage. This to me is being letteristic and avoiding the issue. The point is that, although Israel is in center stage, other believers are present. They undergo severe 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 "wrath" and "tribulation." The Church is promised deliverance from wrath (Rom 5:9, 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 ways. Gundry attempts to move these sections of Revelation to the very last days of the tribulation.10 Ladd concedes that God is indeed executing wrath, but is simultaneously protecting His people.11 He cites the judgments in Egypt as a parallel (Exod 7-12).
 

I believe the truth is close to that proposed by Ladd. In 1 Thessalonians 2:16 Paul says that God has executed wrath on the Jews of his own generation, and yet the Church was obviously present. It is also interesting to note 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 technical phrase "Great Tribulation" is used only twice (Matt 24:21, Rev 7:14). The phrase suggests an extension of quantity but not quality. And again, no one can deny that believers will pass through the tribulation, and there is therefore no reason to exclude the Church per se.
 

One of the great characteristics of the tribulation period is that God will again deal with Israel. But there is no reason to deny that survivors of the Church will not also pass through it as a time of purification and refinement. God's wrath will indeed be poured out against an unbelieving world, and all agree that some "saints" will undergo great testing. These saints could be the Church. Therefore, the nature and purpose of the tribulation cannot be a sufficient and decisive argument in the rapture issue.
 

It should also be pointed out here that the personal wishes of students of the question are beside the point. Post-tribulationists sometimes accuse the others of "rocking chair" eschatology. Pre-tribulationalism is said to make soft Christians who are unable and unwilling to expect tribulation. Pre-tribulational believers bewail the morbid obsessions of the post-tribulational 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 course, has nothing to do with our wishes. As Ladd himself says, "We all want to be pre-trlbulatlonal."12 But the question is: what do the Scriptures teach? Walvoord's point is well taken, though, that many pont-tribulational 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 on the Christ-rejecting nations, is not completely incompatible with a remnant of the Church going through tribulation and refining fires, yet overcoming by God's grace. The only basis for deciding the rapture issue on this test would be the strict application of the dispensational model, which we have previously examined and rejected as indecisive. To put it another way: all could agree on the future seven-year tribulation, all could adopt the same general outline of events as revealed in the relevant texts, all could agree that national Israel is again in the spotlight, all could agree on the unprecedented horrors of' the period, and yet not on that basis agree on the time of the rapture.
 

IMMINENCY

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 example:
 

...the doctrine of imminency, which is the heart of pre-tribulationalism...14
 

For the most part, scriptural evidence for imminency today is equivalent to proof of the pre-tribulational viewpoint.15
 

For all practical purposes, abandonment of the pre-tribulational return of Christ is tantamount to abandonment of the hope of His imminent return.16
 

Unquestionably, a Biblical view of imminency is the issue at stake.
 

The word "imminent" never appears in the Bible. The doctrine is based on several other words and passages.17 A dictionary definition cited by Payne defines the word as "impending threateningly; hanging over one's head; ready to befall or overtake one; close at hand in its incidence; 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 "classical" interpretation:
 

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 of 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 tribulation is still future, for on the basis of several "valid" passages, we are instructed to look for the Lord, not a complex of events or signs. These passages 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 1:9-10; Titus 2:12-13; James 5:7-8; Jude 21; and Revelation 16:15. If these passages 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 Payne's own case, that it is possible to reject dispensationalism and yet hold firmly to the pre-tribulational position. (Although Payne would label his view post-tribulational, since he sees the tribulation as fulfilled during church history.)
 

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, yet on the other we see the real Scriptural possibility of a great trial yet future. Payne's solution is to remove the latter as a recognizable event. Others seek to understand imminency in a different way. Still others conclude the pre-tribulational position. There needs to be a tolerance and graciousness displayed on all sides here, for the tension is real and biblical. Pache is pre-tribulational, but wrestles with the problem also:
 

Let us remain very sober on this point and let us be content with the general impression. God has not deemed it useful to give us more precise information on the time of the rapture, probably for the following reason: He does not want us to sleep while being too certain of escaping all the 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 that this judgment can be formidable.21
 

Several books discuss the relevant Greek words.22 This information is too lengthy to include here, but the overall impression is very helpful. As Payne notes, the words fall into two groups -- words of watching and words of waiting. Payne concedes all that the post-tribulational position requires; namely, that the words suggest vigilance, readiness, and expectation, without specific reference to time. Yet he insists that the object of these verbs is the lord Himself, and therefore imminency is sustained.
 

The argument, then, is this: if we are exhorted to be alert and waiting for the appearance of the Lord from heaven, then there can be no intervening events which are predicted and are of definite, testable fulfillment. Otherwise we are looking for the sign, not the Lord. Post-tribulationalists often cite specific predictions such as Peter's martyrdom, the fall of Jerusalem, and Paul's revealed trip to Rome as evidence against imminence. Walvoord and others argue strenuously against these in various ways, but I do not believe that the issue lies here. Walvoord himself concedes "a few years," 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) and 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 who are not prepared and therefore are surprised. The suddenness of His coming is experienced by those who are unprepared. The implication is that those who are busy about the Lord's work might be somewhat surprised at the precise moment (Matt 25:5-6) but are nevertheless prepared. Thus imminence might better be understood not in temporal terms but in terms of morality. The emphasis is not on the absolute revelation of the moment (although no man will know the day nor the hour) but on the moral conditions of those who experience it. The day will only come as a thief on those who are not ready for it. Even in the dictionary definition, the threatening, foreboding nature of the event is strong. This understanding of imminence is supported by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:2-11: "But you brethren, are not in darkness, 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 would be necessary in the post-tribulational position (with a future period of Great Tribulation). It is contended that one fails to look for the Lord Himself, but seeks after signs -- most notably, the appearance of Antichrist. Thus it is said to be impossible to truly look for the Lord. But an illustration might be helpful at this point.
 

When a woman becomes pregnant, she and her husband begin to look forward to the birth of the child. They think about names, they buy various necessities, 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 probably even prepared for (by breathing exercises, etc.). Yet the mother does not live for nine months under the shadow of that short period of suffering. 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 manner. The post-tribulationalist can legitimately say that he is looklng forward to the return of his Lord, even though he also expects certain events beforehand. He looks forward to the event of Christ's return, yet that never implies that the absolute first event in the sequence is His appearance. Consequently, I believe that most of the verses regularly cited to prove imminence simply do not address the point of intervening events. They constltute an argument from silence (e.g., John l4:1-3).
 

Certainly after an interval of nearly 2000 years, the few short years surrounding the return of Christ can be considered in the Scriptures as one main event, although in fact it comprises several interrelated ones. Consequently, we see in the Scriptures many exhortations to watch for His coming, and also some clearly revealed events leading up to it (the birth pangs, to use our illustration). We can look forward to the former, even 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 the tribulation as yet future. However, if we define imminence more as an exhortation to vigilance and a solemn warning to the unprepared, then it is compatible with a post-tribulation rapture.
 

CHRONOLOGY

In a sense, nothing which we have discussed thus far is decisive in answering our question. Each consideration has been seen to be compatible with either the pre- or post-tribulational position. However, after the removal of the dispensational backdrop, the other two major arguments in favor of pre-tribulationalism -- the nature of the tribulation and, especially, imminence -- have been shown to be indecisive. Now we turn to the question most closely related to our original thesis, the question of the order of events.
 

George Ladd makes an imortant observation at the outset of his study:
 

For the most part, the Word of God is not explicit about the order of 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 passages 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 information 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 Matthew 24. The rest of the letters, if they relate at all to sequence, are derived from this source.25 The book of Revelation is also largely confirmatory 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 holy place. It will be an unmistakable sign, and will be the signal for immediate flight. The passage continues, describing the events of "great tribulation" (v 21). In verse 29, these sequential words appear, "immediately after the tribulation of those days." The verse then describes various astronomical signs, culminating in "the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with 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." It is difficult to understand how this could be interpreted as not being a rapture, yet some do. It is contended that the words "resurrection" and "translation" or equivalent expressions do not appear. I think that is simply avoiding the issue. The similarity of the trumpet blast (1 Thess 4:16, 1 Cor 15:52) and the gathering (2 Thess 2:1) are more than coincidence. The sequence in Matthew 24 is first the unmistakable revelation of Antichrist, great persecution, astronomical signs, then the return of Christ including 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. Interestingly, Waterman makes the application of Granville Sharp's Rule in this verse, and thus equates "the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" and "our gathering to Him."26 This would be very much in favor of the post-tribulational position, making the two events one.
 

Paul is seeking to re-instruct a group of believers who have been misled, who think they have missed the day of the Lord. He reminds them of facts 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 apostasy (apostasia) and then the man of lawlessness, i.e., the Antichrist.27 Jesus Christ will destroy him at His coming (v 8).28 Waternan notes the simIlarity of Matthew 24:10-11 to the apostasy in 2 Thessalonians 2:3, the appearance of Antichrist as such in Matthew 24:15 and 2 Thessalonlans 2:3-8, and the Lord's parousia in Matthew 24:30 and 2 Thessalonians 2:8. The sequence in both passages is identical.
 

Although the rapture is not mentioned as such, this sequence would further be supported by 1 Corinthians 15:23-24 and Revelation 20:4-5. At the rapture, 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 resurrection at the time of Christ's coming, which is consistent with the post-tribulational position. If there is a resurrection of saints before this (and Revelation 20:5 does call this the first resurrection!) the Scripture is silent 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 the primary two texts, Matthew 24 and 2 Thessalonians 2, agree on the sequence 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 pre-trlbulational position to produce evidence for another, previous rapture, Of course it 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 precede the coming, especially the revelation of Antichrist. lt would be foolish for Jesus on the Mount of Olives and for Paul in his second letter to the 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 inferential at best. The nature and purpose of the tribulation is an important issue, but it can never require the pre-tribulational position. The doctrine of 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 absolute way. And finally, on the issue of chronology, the primary texts suggest a post-tribulation rapture and resurrection; these require a strong rebuttal if this position is to be abandoned. Although I do not consider the pre-tribulational position an impossible contradiction or anything of that sort, nevertheless I think that the best evidence we can gather from the Scriptures points to a post-tribulation rapture.
 

A PROPOSAL

Jesus gives us the primary teaching on His return in the Olivet discourse. The teaching is recorded in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21.29 Jesus' words are occasioned by the questions of his disciples. They want to know when the Temple will be destroyed as He predicted (Matt 24:2) and 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 the first century destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (70 AD). Nothing in these verses is inconsistent with this interpretation. In fact, the proliferation of false prophets and Messiahs was probably greater at that time than in any subsequent century. Jesus is predicting very real trials, and exhorts 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 Matthew 24:14. The gospel must first be preached to all nations. There is an indefinite 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, Mark 16:15-16, Luke 24:46-49 and John 20:21). Indeed in Acts 1:6, when the disciples again press this question, Jesus simply points them to their duty (vv 7-8). 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 Antichrist. How long will the tribulation last?
 

I have already stated that I accept the seven year tribulation of Danlel 9:27. This period is begun by the signing of a treaty between the Antichrist and Israel. (And even this is preceded by the regathering of national Israel 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 setting up of the abominable idol -- perhaps a statue of Antichrist in the temple. 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 some 45 days after the idol is set up.31 This would limit the period 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 take place, yet the actual events of the return begin when the idol is set up.
 

The teaching next predicts that "immediately after the tribulation of those days" will be the return of Christ, accompanied by astronomical signs 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 various pre-tribulation evidences. My conviction is that all the important concepts and New Testament references to the rapture can be harmonized with this interpretation.
 

Jesus predicts two great events in the Olivet discourse. The first is 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 inevitable second event (the return of Christ). Just as a tree in bud tells you that 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 things?" Verse 34 says that "all these things" are events which will take place in Jesus' own generation.32 He states it In the most emphatic terms. To summarize, Jesus predicts that the first great prediction, the prophecy of Jerusalem's destruction, will be the necessary precondition to the second prediction, His own return. He also makes it clear that this 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 God alone will judge -- the seven year tribulation period will begin. Antichrist will make a treaty with national Israel. Midway through the seven years, the treaty will be broken and Antichrist will turn on the Jews. Throughout this period the believers may be suffering great persecution, but as God pours out His wrath they will be shielded. When the complete proclamation is made, Antichrist will set up the idol in the temple and the final sequence 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 people and judge His enemies. At the rapture Jesus will raise the dead believers and transform the living saints as they are all caught up to be with the Lord forever.
 

This proposal might be called a "generation imminence" approach. Every generation since Christ has ascended, including His own, could be the last generation. Jesus could come soon. If we are alert and spiritually prepared we will see certain signs of His approach. But if we forget Him 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 Saviour, 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 saving message of Jesus Christ.
 

LIST OF RELEVANT SCRIPTURE TEXTS


Primary Texts:

Daniel 9:24-27

Daniel 12:10-13

Matthew 24:1-25:13

Mark 13

Luke 12:35-48

Luke 21

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
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Secondary Texts:

Isaiah 24-27

Daniel 11:36-12:1

Luke 17:20-37

John 14:1-3

Romans 5:9

Philippians 3:20-21

Colossians 3:4

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

Titus 2:11-13

James 5:7-9

Revelation 4-20

 

REFERENCE NOTES

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 context of Jesus' condemnation of the Pharisaic approach and its impending doom points to the first century judgment at the hands of Rome -- within Jesus' own generation. Although the Olivet discourse is a unit, it must be considered in the broader context. The disciples' question was brought forth by Jesus' prediction of judgment (24:2), which in turn was occasioned by the denunciation of contemporary Judaism in chapter 23.
 

BIBLIOGRAPHY
 

BOOKS:

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 Rapids: Zondervan, 1976.
 

PERIODICALS:

Waterman, G. Henry. "The Sources of Paul's Teaching on the Second Coming of Christ in 1 and 2 Thessalonians," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 18:2 (Spring, 1'975), pp 105-114.
 

UNPUBLlSHED MATERIALS:

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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