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Yes, Christians Can Believe in a Pre-Tribulation Rapture

Sun, Aug. 03, 2014 Posted: 03:57 PM


In a recent Christianpost article, Dr. William Lane Craig made a number of comments concerning the upcoming Left Behind movie and its central theme of the rapture. Craig denied the Biblical concept of a pre-tribulation rapture (one that occurs before God’s wrath is poured out on the world in the End Times) as depicted in the movie and likened it to fiction along the same lines as Lord of the Rings.

Let me first say I have tremendous admiration and respect for Dr. Craig. He is truly one of the greatest defenders of the Christian faith today, has tirelessly and courageously debated (and defeated) the world’s top atheists and skeptics in very hostile environments, and has always done so in a respectful and gentlemanly manner. I have learned a great many things from his debates, books and articles, have supported his ministry financially, and encourage everyone reading these words to do likewise. We need more men like Dr. Craig today.

But that said, in the same way I respectfully disagree with his view on Molinism (I’m Reformed where God’s sovereignty/humankind’s free will is concerned) he and I also evidently part ways on End Times theology (eschatology). While Dr. Craig dismisses the idea of a pre-tribulation rapture, I’d like to briefly provide reasons why I believe it is reasonable to hold to an End Times view that includes it.

Not If But When

Let’s begin with the understanding that it is not if a rapture will occur that is being debated, but rather when.[1] The event is named from Paul’s use of the Greek term harpagesometha in 1 Thess. 4:17 ("caught up"; see uses elsewhere at Acts 8:39; 2 Cor. 12:2, 4; and Rev. 12:5), which is raptus in Latin. The three explicit passages found in Scripture about the rapture appear in 1 Thess. 4, John 14, and 1 Cor. 15.

Dr. Craig doesn’t seem to deny that the rapture will occur (e.g. the instant transformation of living believers; see his statements below), but he does disagree with a pre-tribulation rapture and in his Defender’s podcast describes Paul’s mention of it in 1 Thessalonians this way: “The interpretation is that this is describing this rapture in which the elect will be snatched out of the world, taken up into the clouds to be with Christ, and so will be with him forever. But is that in fact what this passage is describing? I don’t see any reason to think that what Paul here describes is a distinct event from the Second Coming of Christ.”[2]

But are there historical, Biblical, and theological reasons to think otherwise?

Early or Late Teaching?

Both in the article and in his Defender’s podcast, Dr. Craig repeats a common objection to a pre-tribulation rapture, which is that it is a late teaching and originated with individuals such as John Darby in the 1800’s. While it could be tempting to accuse Dr. Craig of committing either the chronological snobbery or genetic fallacy in this case, I think his position is more along the lines of an argument that says we should adhere to what the early church taught about the rapture event, which is a reasonable stance to assume.

Is there any early historical evidence for a pre-tribulation rapture?

Part of an ancient sermon from either Ephrem the Syrian or Pseudo-Ephraem reads: “All the saints and elect of God are gathered together before the tribulation, which is to come, and are taken to the Lord, in order that they may not see at any time the confusion which overwhelms the world because of our sins.” Depending on which historical position you hold on the writing, the concept of a pre-tribulation rapture can be dated to at least the 7th century if not the 300’s, both of which are long before Darby’s time.[3]

Others point to additional early references to a pre-tribulation rapture, such as a statement found in the Shepherd of Hermas: “Go therefore, and declare to the elect of the Lord His mighty works, and tell them that this beast is a type of the great tribulation which is to come. If therefore ye prepare yourselves beforehand, and repent (and turn) unto the Lord with your whole heart, ye shall be able to escape it, if your heart be made pure and without blemish, and if for the remaining days of your life ye serve the Lord blamelessly.”[4]

General Arguments for a Pre-Tribulation Rapture

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul describes the rapture this way: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:16–17). The pattern of the event is not hard to discern: Jesus appears, calls His people to Himself, the dead in Christ go to Him first, and then those Christians who are alive follow.

An interesting point to observe is that all believers meet Jesus in the air. Why not remain on earth if Jesus is returning once and for all?

Of this, Dr. Craig says in his Defender’s podcast: “What about the expression “meeting the Lord in the air?” The Greek word here is apantesis. In Greek literature this word is used to describe the going out of the people to meet a returning dignitary to his city and to welcome him back into the city. Apantesis is the going out and welcoming of this returning hero or figure to his rightful domain. This is what is described in 1 Thessalonians. Christ is returning and the elect will be transformed and rise, taken up to meet him and welcome him when he comes back.”[5]

Two points are worth noting. Believers do not simply go out to meet Jesus, but are instead strongly “snatched up”. Second, the explanation put forward does not address why all believers meet Christ in the air if the Lord’s intention is to return to the earth. On this point, Dr. Robert Thomas says, “A meeting in the air is pointless unless the saints continue on to heaven with the Lord who has come out to meet them (Milligan, p. 61). Tradition stemming from Jesus' parting instructions fixes the immediate destination following the meeting, as the Father's house, i.e., heaven (John 14:2, 3).”[6]

Further complicating the stance of not separating the rapture and second coming is the issue of what human beings populate Christ’s earthly millennial kingdom described in both the Old (Is. 4:1-3, 65:20-23; Jer. 23:3-6, 30:19-20) and New Testament (Rev. 20). Combining the rapture and second coming produces saints with glorified bodies who are unable to do such a thing and won’t rebel against Him (Rev 20.) whereas separating the events suffers from no such problem as human believers will be alive when Jesus returns and enter His millennial kingdom in that state.

A similar problem occurs with the sheep/goat judgment described by Jesus in Matthew 25. A combined rapture/second coming makes the division of the two groups and judgment either redundant or impossible (as all believers have already been separated in the rapture) whereas separating the two events does not.

Space prohibits from going into detail on other Biblical points that can support a pre-tribulation rapture, so let me note them in brief:

  • The Church is never mentioned as being on earth during the tribulation in Revelation. While some will say this is an argument from silence, it seems odd that the church is mentioned 19 times in chapters 1-3, never in 6-18, and then reappears after the second coming (chapter 19).
  • While Dr. Craig asserts that Revelation never mentions the rapture, a number of theologians point to Rev. 3:10, which describes an event that could very well be the rapture (things to note in the verse are (1) the kept “from” and not “through” phraseology; (2) that an “hour” describes a period of time believers are kept from something; (3) one should ask the question of when an entire period of testing has come upon the whole world as what the verse says will happen).
  • A number of theologians believe that Paul had taught the Thessalonians a pre-tribulation rapture and their incorrect angst of being in the tribulation period (which Paul corrects in his second letter to them) was due to their thought they had missed the rapture. Further, it is reasonable to believe that the removal of the restrainer mentioned in 2 Thess. 2:6-7 is the Church/Holy Spirit.
  • Paul makes the switch from 1 Thess. chapter 4 to 5 by using his well known transitional phrase "Now as to" (Greek: peri de). Paul uses this phrase often when he switches subjects (e.g. 1 Thess. 4:9), leading to the reasonable assumption that the rapture discussed in chapter 4 and the Day of the Lord covered in chapter 5 are different events.
  • The rapture is a sign-less and imminent event that cannot be discerned, whereas the second coming is preceded by many signs that are very observable.
  • The End Times Tribulation is described as not a time for the Church but instead is described by Jeremiah (Jer. 30:7) and Daniel (Dan. 9:24) as a time of Jacob’s trouble alone.
  • Some Biblical commentators believe Enoch (Genesis 5:22–24) who was taken before the Flood to be a type of the Church who will escape from God’s wrath, while Noah appears to be a type of the Israeli remnant who will be preserved through God’s wrath in the End Times.

Theological Arguments for a Pre-Tribulation Rapture

Speaking from a general theological perspective, there are at least two arguments that lend weight to a pre-tribulation rapture.

The first is that God does not judge the righteous with the wicked.[7] There should be no debate over whether the End Times events described in Jesus’ Olivet Discourse and the book of Revelation can be characterized as judgments from God.

But the Biblical pattern of God’s judgment has been one of not judging God’s chosen people with unbelievers. Abraham once remarked to God: “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen. 18:25).

On this point, John MacArthur says, “It is clear that there is no mention of judgment at all in the Rapture passages, whereas the others major on judgment. It is therefore necessary to conclude that the Rapture occurs at a time other than the judgment. It is best, then, to separate the two events.”[8]

The second reason is that Christ has already taken the wrath of God for believers.[9]

Revelation makes it clear that God’s wrath is being poured out on the world in the End Times (e.g. Rev. 15:1), but Christ took all of God’s wrath for believers previously on the cross and has already saved us from it as Paul says repetitively in 1 Thessalonians (1:10, 5:9). Dr. Craig asserts this salvation from God’s wrath is limited to the final judgment[10], but it is difficult to explain why God would have believers endure His End Times judgments over sin after they have been declared sinless, are reconciled to Him through the work of Jesus, and are no longer His enemies (Rom 5:10).

Conclusions

Do the above arguments definitively prove a pre-tribulation rapture? No. But neither can opponents of a pre-tribulation rapture positively prove their timing of the event either. My point in supplying the above arguments has not been to say that Dr. Craig’s rapture position is unreasonable. Rather, my objective has been to show that there is indeed warrant for believing in a pre-tribulation rapture and that such belief is not synonymous with belief in a Hobbit.

In the end, the timing of the rapture should certainly not be a divisive issue for the Church. Nearly all believers agree that Jesus will literally and physically return to the world that rejected Him 2,000 years ago, and I think we can all agree that such an event cannot come soon enough.



[1] The various positions as to when the rapture will occur include pre-tribulation, partial, mid-tribulation, pre-wrath, and post-tribulation.

[6] Robert L. Thomas, 1 Thessalonians in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Pradis electronic edition.

[7] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology, Volume Four (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2005), pg. 634.

[8] John MacArthur, MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 1 & 2 Thessalonians. Quickverse Edition, 2003.

[9] Geisler.

Robin Schumacher