What is the rapture? Is it even in the bible? If so when does it happen? The Tribulation period is the last seven years before the messiah’s conquest of the earth, and during that time the Antichrist has power over part of the world. There are many different views on this but this is my attempt at making sense of it.
There is a diverse set of Christian Eschatological views including Amillennialism, Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, Historicism, Preterism, Futurism, Idealism, and others. This discussion will just focus on the rapture which is within the sphere of Premillennialism. The rabbit hole of all these things is beyond the scope of this article and my understanding at the moment of writing.
Some Christians don’t believe in the rapture or even a physical return of the Messiah. They usually fit into the category of Amillennialism. Amillennialists don’t believe in a physical return and reign of Christ for 1000 years on earth (Revelation 20:1-15). They believe that everything in the book of Revelation is metaphorical. Then there is premillennialism and postmillennialism. Premillennialism is a direct interpretation of Revelation, that Christ will return and reign for 1000 years on earth before judgment day and then judge the world and there will be a new creation for those with eternal life. Postmillennialism is relatively the same but Christ returns after the millennium and says that the millennium is a reference to an age where Christianity dominates the world and in the process, alleviates social problems. In this view, only when the church reaches perfection and impacts the world positively does Christ return.
The rapture is mainly focused on the Premillennialism framework. Some believe that it happens before the tribulation and others say afterward, while others say in the middle. The English word rapture is not in the bible but the concept of the rapture is. It is from the Latin word rapiemur which means to be “caught up”. The event is described in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18.
1 Thessalonians 4:1 (NLT) 13 And now, dear brothers and sisters, we want you to know what will happen to the believers who have died so you will not grieve like people who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died. 15 We tell you this directly from the Lord: We who are still living when the Lord returns will not meet him ahead of those who have died. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven with a commanding shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. First, the believers who have died will rise from their graves. 17 Then, together with them, we who are still alive and remain on the earth will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Then we will be with the Lord forever. 18 So encourage each other with these words.
As we can see there is a resurrection of the dead that happens right before the rapture in 1 Thess 4:13-18. There are 2 main resurrections, the resurrection of the righteous (Luke 14:14, 1 Cor 15:12-58, 1 Thess 4:13-18, Heb 11:32-35, Rev 20:4-6) and the resurrection of the wicked (Rev 20:4-6, Rev 20:11-15). Both are mentioned by Jesus in John 5:28-29. The chronological placement of Rev 20:4, and Rev 7:10-17 are where the debate between pre and post-occurs. Jesus talks about his return in Luke 17:26-37 and describes what sounds like the rapture. He describes various scenarios with two people and one of them disappearing unsuspectedly. He says just like in the days of Noah (Genesis 6-9) when the people who died in the flood were caught off guard by the rain, or like Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 when Lot was rescued and the rest perished. Jesus discusses the 2nd coming which is a different event in Luke 21:24-28. In Matt 24:15-51, Jesus describes them both.
All of Jesus’ teachings on the resurrections can be found in Luke 14:14 (the first resurrection), John 5:28-29, John 11:24-29, and [Matt 22:22-33, Mark 12:18-27, Luke 20:27-40]. Paul’s teachings on the new bodies can be found in 2 Rom 8:23, 2 Cor 5:1-10, and Phil 3:20-21 as well as the resurrection in 1 Thess 4:13-18, & 1 Cor 15:35-58.
Let’s examine pre-tribulation first. There are only two resurrections, so if the first resurrection (of the righteous) happens before the tribulation (pre-tribulation), then all the saints that died in the tribulation (Rev 7:14) missed the first resurrection, and can only experience the second resurrection (of the wicked). In this view, a pre-trib resurrection works best if no Christians die in the tribulation but we know that isn’t true according to Rev 7:14. In Rev 6:9-11, when the 5th seal is opened, the martyrs are crying out for justice, and God tells them to wait a little longer because there are more martyrs to be killed. This sounds like God is telling them to wait a little longer for the 1st resurrection/rapture because some more tribulation saints are going to die and he can’t do the 1st resurrection before they die. Based on this information, it seems a pre-trib rapture doesn’t work because all of the people who are supposed to be in the first resurrection/rapture have to be taken after the tribulation or during it because those martyred in the tribulation will miss the first resurrection which proceeds the rapture according to 1 Thess 4:13-18. Another possible scenario is that the events of Rev 6:9-11 and Rev 7:9-17, are actually before the “great tribulation” and the martyrs from Rev 7, were killed in a pre-great tribulation event, this would allow for all Christians (even the resurrected martyrs) to be completely removed from the earth by the start of the great tribulation, and anyone that becomes a Christian afterward would be preserved to the end, because again if they die during the tribulation they would have missed the 1st resurrection.
The most common pre-trib solution seems to be to separate the 1st resurrection from the rapture. That seems to conflict with 1 Thess 4:13-18 which says in verse 15 that “those who are still alive when the Lord comes, will not take precedence over those who have died”, meaning the 1st resurrection happens before the rapture happens. One solution to this is that the 1st resurrection is split into two parts, one before the tribulation that accompanies the rapture (1 Thess 4:13-18), and one afterward described in Rev 20. That would mean there are 3 resurrections, but according to even Jesus himself in John 5:28-29, there are only TWO. Unless the 1 Thess 4:13-18 resurrection is not the 1st resurrection, but rather an isolated resurrection. like the temporal mass Jerusalem resurrection that occurred with Jesus’ resurrection in Matt 27:51-53. Learn more about this here.
In this case, 1 Thess 4:13-18 is about, Christians (going back to the 1st century) that are resurrected, they and along with living believers are raptured before the tribulation. Then Revelation 20:4-6 resurrection would be the true 1st resurrection for all the righteous including old testament patriarchs and tribulation martyrs. A similar idea is that there are two raptures, each before and after the tribulation. One of them is the rapture of the church in 1 Thess 4:13-18 and the other is a rapture of the tribulation converts.
For post-tribulation rapture, the problem is that it conflicts with the timing of Rev 7:9-17 and the framework of 2 Cor 5:3. The Rev 7:9-17 the martyrs are clothed in white are the same ones from back in Rev 6:9-11. In Rev 6 when the fifth seal is broken they are asking God to avenge them, then in Rev 7 they are standing before God’s throne, but according to 2 Cor 5:3, no one goes to the kingdom as a bodiless soul, meaning people don’t go to the kingdom until they are given their new heavenly bodies at the first resurrection. God doesn’t judge even dead wicked people in hell they are resurrected (Rev 20:11-15). That is why there has to be a resurrection of everyone, we must have living bodies just to be judged. Eternal life starts with resurrection. Since the people in this scene have bodies they must have already been resurrected. Some may suggest that the Rev 7 scene is the paradise for the spirits of the righteous deceased awaiting the resurrection, but one would have to explain why they have bodies.
The rapture is immediately after a resurrection according to 1 Thess 4:13-18, so if this verse is describing the 1st resurrection then the rapture can’t occur post-tribulation because the events of Rev 7:9-17 have to happen beforehand since these martyrs have yet to be resurrected. However, if Rev 7:9-17 is actually describing events after the tribulation, then it all works. For post-trib, there is no need to separate the resurrection in 1 Thess 4:13-18 from the 1st resurrection in Rev 20:4-6 because it is all post-tribulation. Important questions for post-trib: If the rapture is post-tribulation then who are the “left behind”? Why is it significant that they are left behind if the tribulation is over? Since the millennial reign starts right after the tribulation, does being left behind doesn’t carry any weight?
A point of conflict:
The phrase great “falling away” in 2 Thess 2:3 is translated from the Greek word apostasia (ἀποστασία) which is where we get our English word apostasy which means to become apostate or “rebel against”, or “walking away from” and ideology, usually in the context of (but not limited to) religion. Some teach that however, the word apostasy is a reference to the rapture itself since many believers will be “caught up” and taken “away from” the earth. This is based on how the word apostasia was translated in the pre-KJV English text. Various English translations were made before the KJV like the John Wycliffe bible, William Tyndale’s Bible, The Great Bible (of Henry VIII), The Geneva Bible (English refugees who fled to the Swiss), and The Bishop’s Bible (Queen Mary I), etc. They say some of these translations use the word “departure” and therefore are referring to the rapture. Departure and falling away are synonymous, so I don’t see much difference there, since both of them mean to leave. Essentially this leads to an interpretation dispute amongst believers on what apostasia means in the context. One group says this is referring to people leaving the church for sin and hedonism, and the others are suggesting this is the church leaving the earth. The former is more common as most people are expecting a falling away from the church to sin and hedonism in preparation for their deception by the antichrist. The question is FROM WHAT are the people falling away or departing from? How a person interprets WHAT the people are “departing or falling away” from, in 2 Thess 2:3 may determine if they are pre-tribulation or not. If the text itself settles which one was true, that can narrow things down.
Some questions are:
1) Can 1 Thess 4:13-18 be describing a set apart resurrection that is not the 1st resurrection?
2) Does the bible support 2 raptures, one before the tribulation and one during or after the tribulation that includes the 1st resurrection?
3) In 2 Thess 2:3, who is falling away, and from what are they departing?
4) Is Rev 7:9-17 a mid-tribulation event or post-tribulation event?
If the answer to all the above questions is No, then that just leaves a mid-tribulation rapture. If Rev 7:9-17 is during the tribulation, then neither pre nor post-trib can work because the first resurrection/rapture can’t happen before or after the events Rev 7:9-17. The people need to be resurrected with their new bodies to be in the Kingdom, and Christians can’t get killed after the 1st resurrection. In the mid-trib scenario, the 1st resurrection happens mid-way through the tribulation, allowing for it to be a one-time event that occurs after all tribulation saints are killed in the first half of the tribulation. Since the tribulation continues after that moment, it allows for tribulation saints to be in heaven with their new bodies surrounding the throne as described in Rev 7:9-17. This allows for consistency with the framework of 2 Cor 5:3 and 1 Thess 4:13-18, because the martyrs are in God’s presence with their new resurrected bodies, after being killed during the tribulation. This would mean, however, that people who get saved in the second half of the tribulation, would have to be preserved until the end without dying because the 1st resurrection has already happened.
In Matt 24:4-31 Jesus says there will be false prophets and messiahs as well as wars and natural disasters, but despite all of this the gospel will be preached all over the world. Then the lawless man from Daniel 9:27 (the antichrist) will come and make a 7-year peace treaty with Israel but break it halfway through the tribulation. He will persecute God’s people and they will flee from Israel. Then he will perform signs and wonders, deceiving even some of the elect. These events are also referenced in 2 Thess 2:9-11. Jesus then quotes Isa 13:10, Isa 34:4, and Joel 2:10 describing judgment day in verse 29 of Matt 24. Then in verses 30-31 he says, the Messiah will return and there will be mourning all over the earth at the site of Jesus, and all of God’s chosen ones will be gathered from all over and taken with him. He says there will be signs but no one will know the day or hour (v32-36). Then he says it will be like the days of Noah because the rapture will come before the unexpected judgment, and he describes the rapture in v39-41. Likewise, in Luke 17:22-37, Jesus said things will be “like the days of” Noah and Lot. Remember both Noah and Lot were rescued before judgment. Jesus even warns us not to be like Lot’s wife who turn back and was destroyed (Luk 17:32-33). The pre-trib philosophy is that Jesus would not let his bride suffer so and the righteous are rescued before judgment based on the fact that Noah and Lot were rescued. For pre-trib, Matt 24 is not chronological, Jesus simply saves the best news for last. In chronological reading, the rapture happens last and that is where post-trib stands.
It seems like the Antichrist is revealed before Jesus returns based on 2 Thess 2:3, so Jesus can’t come before the tribulation if he is supposed to come after the lawless one is revealed. The solution has been that the return of Christ is a separate event from the rapture of the church. Since the rapture event describes the saints as meeting Christ in the air in the twinkling of an eye, while in contrast, his return has him on the ground at the mount of olives (Zech 14:1-5). Also in Matt 24:21-31, Jesus said that there will be a tribulation before his return. Since his return is when the 1st resurrection happens, this event has to be after the tribulation starts, meaning his return is during it or afterward. This is not a problem if the pre-rapture resurrection is separate from the 1st resurrection. It also works if there are two raptures.
Another part of the debate then is whether or not the tribulation Jesus mentions in Matt 24:21 and 29 is the “great tribulation” of Revelation, or just the beginning of the time building up to the great tribulation starting from the persecution of the Jews by the Romans after they destroyed the temple in the 1st century, all the way into the future when this all comes to an end. In verse Matt 24:34 he says, “This generation shall not pass, till all these things are fulfilled”. Some have different ways of defining “this generation”. Some say “this generation”, is referring to the generation of Jesus himself, that witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD by the Romans. While that is certainly true for some of the things Jesus mentioned like the destruction of the Temple, Jesus also talks about future resurrection and judgment.
Preterists take this interpretation to mean that all events of the book of Revelation already happened in the 1st century. They say that Nero was the Antichrist, and the resurrection and rapture are just metaphors and allegories. That seems theologically inconsistent with the expected literal resurrection of the dead that Jesus himself, the apostles, and even the Pharisees supported in opposition to Sadducees who believe that there is no literal resurrection. In addition, Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 is responding to false teaching by some 1st-century preachers that resurrection is not literal. In 1 Cor 15:12-23, Paul says if the resurrection is not literal then Christ never rose from the dead, and Christianity itself is a farce. Furthermore, he says because Christ literally rose from the dead then we too will literally rise from the dead when he returns. More on Preterism here.
The alternate view is that “this generation” is simply referring to the last generation, as in the generation that is around when the antichrist appears and Christ returns. In Luke’s version of Jesus’ teachings on eschatology, Jesus said there would be an “age of the Gentiles” after the destruction of Israel by the Romans in Luke 21:24. Many interpret this to be from the time of 70 AD when Jerusalem was destroyed up until the recent years (the restoration of Israel in 1948).
A very complex topic and the goal here was to lay out the different options with some if/else statement constructors to narrow down what the conditions are necessary for each view to be true so that readers can take the time to study for themselves rather than being lured down a divisive rabbit hole that causes more disharmony in the body of Christ. At the end of the day, if the rapture happens pre-trib, then a mid or post-trib believer will simply be pleasantly surprised, if it happens mid or posts then pre-trib people can trust that God will take care of them either preserving them until the end, or resurrecting them if they die. Anyone who believes in Jesus and is saved (Rom 10:8-10) has met the conditional requirements for eternal life according to John 3:16-21.
Jesus’ speaking on the subject:
Matt 24:42 “So you, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know what day your Lord is coming. 43 Understand this: If a homeowner knew exactly when a burglar was coming, he would keep watch and not permit his house to be broken into. 44 You also must be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when least expected. 45 “A faithful, sensible servant is one to whom the master can give the responsibility of managing his other household servants and feeding them. 46 If the master returns and finds that the servant has done a good job, there will be a reward. 47 I tell you the truth, the master will put that servant in charge of all he owns. 48 But what if the servant is evil and thinks, ‘My master won’t be back for a while,’ 49 and he begins beating the other servants, partying, and getting drunk? 50 The master will return unannounced and unexpected, 51 and he will cut the servant to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Jesus’ main point was to be ready, not to fight over when the master returns. We are supposed to be doing the assignment the master gives each of us. Some believers will be too busy doing the work to care about the return and will be rewarded for their diligence, some will be slacking off and doing foolish sinful things and will be punished. There is a third group that will be sitting around waiting for his return, trying to predict the rapture. Jesus said no one except the Father knows the time of his return (Matt 24:36). Their actual job is teaching people about Jesus, and based on what Jesus says in Matt 25:24-27 in the parable of the servants, they will be treated like the foolish servants for doing nothing. Sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair with a shotgun waiting for Jesus to come back while complaining about sinners is NOT the great commission.
Apostasy – apostasia (ἀποστασία).