The first thing we need to understand is the difference between the Rapture and the Second Coming of Christ. When Christ returns before the Tribulation, He will come to gather the saints, both the living and the dead, and they will join Him in the clouds. All believers will be taken to be with Christ in His Father's house in heaven. However, when Christ returns at the end of the Tribulation, He will come with all power and glory to bind Satan and defeat the wicked nations of the earth, the Antichrist, and the False Prophet. Most importantly, when Christ returns following the Tribulation, the Saints will already be with Him!
Let's look at the difference in Scripture. First Thessalonians 4:16–18 says, "For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words." Notice that in this verse believers will be caught up in the air and will be taken to be "with" Christ in His Father's house. Now, consider Matthew 24:30–31 which reads, "At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other." In this verse, when Christ returns to judge the nations after the Tribulation, believers are gathered from one end of the heavens to the other. In other words, when Christ returns to defeat Satan, the Church will already be in heaven.
Another example can be found in John 14:1–4. Here, Jesus comforts believers by telling them, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am." Once again, Jesus promises to return and take believers to be with Him in heaven. However, in Revelation we read about a very different event at the Tribulation's end.
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations (Revelation 19:11–15).
In these verses, as Christ returns at the end of the Tribulation to defeat the Antichrist and his followers, the Saints return with Him. They are not being gathered to Him and taken into heaven, as with the Rapture passages. Proponents of the Post-Tribulation view will argue that the Church still could have been caught up in the air after the Tribulation, and just prior to Christ's return, only to turn around and come right back down for the final battle between good and evil. However, we've already seen that the saints are gathered from the corners of heaven, and not from the earth below, before the glorious appearing of Christ.
Chapter 19 of John's Revelation provides even further proof that we are indeed in heaven before the glorious appearing. At the beginning of chapter 19, you'll find a description of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Verse seven says that the Bride of Christ (the Church) has made herself ready, and we read of great rejoicing and preparation in heaven for the glorious appearing. If the marriage supper of the Lamb happens before the glorious appearing, then the Church must be present in heaven. What is a marriage supper without the bride?!
We're also told in Revelation 19:8 that believers are made ready for the marriage supper by their righteous acts. Since it is the judgment seat of Christ where these righteous acts (or lack thereof, as the case may be) are judged, the judgment of believers must also take place after the Rapture, while the Church is in heaven. This is further demonstrated in Ephesians 5:27, which describes the Bride of Christ (the Church) being presented to the bridegroom at the marriage supper of the Lamb without stain or wrinkle, or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. Since believers will only exist in this state after the bema seat judgment (the final judgment for believers), when the Church has been cleansed and made whole, we must conclude that the final judgment for believers takes place in heaven before the marriage supper of the Lamb. As we learned earlier, the marriage supper comes before Christ returns to defeat the Antichrist and issue final judgment on those who followed him during the Tribulation. Believers can't be on earth with those who are suffering through the Tribulation and the rule of the Antichrist, and be in heaven being judged for their works by Christ at the same time. The fact is, they were raptured seven years earlier and have been resting in the rooms Jesus went to prepare for them, when they are gathered together for these final events before the glorious appearing of Christ.
As these verses show, Christ gathers His Church to be with Him in heaven before the tribulation begins, and those same believers return with Him for the final battle at the end of the Antichrist's seven-year reign. But we need not depend only on these verses for scriptural proof.
Now that we understand the difference between the Rapture and the glorious appearing, let's look deeper into what Scripture has to say about the timing of the Rapture. There are three main views on the Rapture's timing. There are other less widely held views, but they are so lacking in scriptural support as to be not worth mentioning here.
One Rapture theory, the Mid-Tribulation view, holds that believers will be raptured at the midpoint of the tribulation, exactly 31⁄2 years before Christ's glorious appearing. The Post-Tribulation view, on the other hand, sees believers going through the entire Tribulation period on earth, and only when God's judgment on the nations is over, will they meet the Lord in the air at His glorious appearing. They will then turn around and follow Christ right back down for the final battle of Armageddon. There are some slight variations in those beliefs, but that's the gist of it. As you will see, the Pre-Tribulation view is the only view that allows for an imminent, unexpected return of Christ, both of which Scripture tells us are necessary characteristics of the Rapture.
As we examine the timing of the Rapture, you might be surprised to learn that there are actually several verses in the Bible that tell us in no uncertain terms that Christians will not suffer through the Tribulation. So how can anyone believe in a Mid- or Post-Tribulation Rapture if this is true? To that, I can only say, people see what they want to see sometimes. Perhaps guilt over how they've lived their lives causes them to feel they deserve to be judged along with the wicked. Perhaps, as with the Catholic belief in purgatory, they feel they should have to take part in Christ's sacrifice by suffering for some of their sins, even though the Bible tells us we are saved by grace and not by anything we can do. Whatever their reasons, they must ignore a great deal of Scripture to believe that we won't be kept from the wrath of the Tribulation. Take, for example, these words from Paul:
But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him (1 Thessalonians 5:4–10).
It can't get any more straightforward than that. Followers of Christ are not destined to suffer God's wrath, but to live with the Lord. As we learned earlier in verses 16 through 18, the dead in Christ, along with those who are still alive, will be caught up in the air to be with the Lord in heaven. Verses 9 and 10 reveal the timing of this event. We will be raptured before God pours out his judgment on the nations during the Tribulation.
God felt it was so important for us to know this fact, so that we would not fear His judgment on the world, that He repeated this assurance several times in Scripture. Romans 5:9 says, "Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him!" Paul also said in 1 Thessalonians 1:10 "to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead — Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath."
As further evidence of this precious truth, numerous verses indicate the absence of the Church during the Tribulation. For example, 2 Thessalonians 2, verses 3 and 6 through 7, say that the Holy Spirit won't be present on earth during the Tribulation. However, Jesus told us in John 14:16–17, when He promised to send us a counselor and comforter to be with us in His absence, that the Holy Spirit would dwell within the hearts of believers forever. If the Church were on earth during the Tribulation, then it couldn't be said that the Holy Spirit had been taken out of the way. We can reason from this, then, that the Church, along with the Holy Spirit, is removed before the Tribulation begins.
Paul issued a warning to believers in his second letter to the church of the Thessalonians. He said, "Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. Don't let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction" (2 Thessalonians 2:1–3). The word rebellion in this verse comes from the Greek noun apostasia, and it is used only twice in the New Testament. One of those instances is found in Acts 21:21 where, speaking of Paul, it says "you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from (apostasia) Moses." Apostasia is a Greek compound of apo, which means "from," and istemi, which means "stand." One of its meanings in the Greek Lexicon is "departure, or disappearance." Interestingly, it is this definition that was used in the first seven English translations of the Bible. In fact, Jerome's A.D. 400 Latin translation of the Bible known as the Vulgate renders apostasia with the word discessio, meaning "departure." It wasn't until the King James Version of the Bible was written that translators began using the new rendering of "falling away." The earlier translations support the notion that this verse is referring to a Pre-Tribulation Rapture.
We've established that the Holy Spirit will be "taken out of the way" during the Tribulation, allowing the Antichrist to deceive the masses without opposition or any resistance that might serve to restrain him in his pursuit of global rule. In Isaiah, chapter 26, we find yet further evidence that believers were taken out of the way before the Tribulation began.
But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead. Go, my people, enter your rooms and shut the doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until his wrath has passed by. See, the Lord is coming out of his dwelling to punish the people of the earth for their sins. The earth will disclose the blood shed upon her; she will conceal her slain no longer (Isaiah 26:19–21).
It is mind-boggling, really, that anyone could read these verses and not take from it an assurance that God will Rapture His Church before He pours out His wrath and judgment on the world. Remember, Jesus told His followers that after His Resurrection He would be going to prepare a place for us. He promised to return at some later time and take us to be with Him, where we will dwell within the many rooms of His Father's house. These verses from Isaiah tell us that believers will be hidden in these rooms, while God punishes the earth's inhabitants for their sinful, rebellious ways.