[This is the eighth in a series of articles on biblical future prophecy. The material has been adapted from What the Bible Says About the Future (second edition) and The Olivet Discourse: A Reconstruction of the Text from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with Commentary, both by Sam A. Smith. To jump to the next article in this series tap or click here.]
The rapture refers to Christ’s return for his Church, when he will resurrect the dead in Christ and transform the bodies of living saints into their glorified form, instantly calling his Church out of this world and into Heaven; it is an event that is to be completely without warning or signs.[i] While the Bible does not state when the rapture will occur, it does indicate that it is imminent (i.e., that it could happen at any time), and that it will occur before the day of the LORD (the day of God’s wrath) begins.
Since the early 1900s the most popular viewpoint on the timing of the rapture has been “pretribulationism”—the view that the rapture must occur before the tribulation period begins. Prior to the popular revival of premillennialism in the late nineteenth century, most Christians believed that Christ would return and there would be a general judgment, with the righteous inheriting eternal life and the unrighteous inheriting eternal punishment; this is the view of both amillennialism and, with slight modification, postmillennialism. However, premillennialism with its face-value interpretation of future prophecy envisions a literal reign of Christ upon the earth in fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham and his descendants.
Two other views, partial rapturism, the view that only Christians who are watchful will be raptured, and midtribulationism, the view that places the rapture near the midpoint of the tribulation, were poorly supported and neither achieved the level of acceptance as pretribulationism. Prior to the 1990s, if one were dispensational, they probably subscribed to pretribulationism. Since the latter part of the twentieth century, pretribulationism has become almost a test of orthodoxy in some premillennial circles, and it is not uncommon to find it in the doctrinal statements of churches and Christian organizations. It wasn’t until the 1990s that pretribulationism faced its first major challenge from within. Marvin Rosenthal, a former International Director of The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, a conservative and pretribulational missionary organization, published The Prewrath Rapture of the Church.[ii] The view proposed by Rosenthal is that since divine wrath is limited to the latter portion of the tribulation, the Church need only be spared from that portion of the period. Thus according to Rosenthal, the rapture, which is not imminent from the present perspective, will occur approximately eighteen to twenty-four months prior to the second coming. Rosenthal’s book was widely read, and a some pretribulationists, as well as midtribulationists, gravitated toward this view (which is generally, but improperly, designated as the “pre-wrath view”). Although Rosenthal’s arguments do not hold up under scrutiny, the view appealed to many who had looked at rapture theology deeply enough to recognize that there were significant problems with pretribulationism’s principal arguments.[iii] It is unfortunate that Rosenthal’s view has come to be identified with the term “pre-wrath,” since both pretribulationism and mid-tribulationism are also pre-wrath views; they simply disagree on how much of the tribulation period is divine wrath. Because of the almost certain confusion that might otherwise result from the use of the term “pre-wrath,” I will refer to Rosenthal’s view as “Rosenthal’s pre-wrath view” to distinguish it from pre-wrath positions in general (i.e., any view that places the rapture prior to the beginning of the day of the LORD).
The Biblical Background of the Rapture
The study of the rapture is of great significance to Church-age believers; it represents the completion of salvation, the final and ultimate redemption, the sanctification of the body. Paul wrote in Romans:
For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it. (Rom. 8:22-25, NASB)
The final redemption of the body is the great hope shared by every believer. It is the teaching of the New Testament that for the Church-age believer, that hope will be realized in an instant, when Christ suddenly appears in the sky to resurrect the dead, and to transform the bodies of living saints into their glorified eternal form, as they are caught up in the air to be with Christ (1 Cor. 15:51-53; 1 Thess. 4:13-18).
Since the existence of the Church was not revealed in the Old Testament, and since the rapture pertains to the Church, there is no reference to the rapture in the Old Testament. Jesus was the first to mention this event (Mt. 24:36-51; Jn. 14:3), and it was he who revealed that his return would involve a dual appearing (Mt. 24:36-25:30), with the first of these appearings, the rapture, being imminent (Mt. 24:36-25:30).[iv] Paul extended the rapture theme, mentioning it in eight passages (Rom. 8:20-23; 1 Cor. 15:35-38; Eph. 1:13-14; Phil. 1:6,10; 3:10-11,20-21; 1 Thess. 1:9-10; 4:13-18; Tit. 2:11-14). From Paul’s statements we can gather the following facts concerning the rapture.
- The spirits of Church age believers who die prior to the rapture will be reunited with their resurrection bodies (1 Thess. 4:14).
- The resurrected believers will rise first (1 Cor. 15:52-53; 1 Thess. 4:15‑16).
- Living believers will be “changed” (i.e., their bodies will be transformed into a glorified state suitable for eternity) and they will be caught up to meet Christ in the air (1 Cor. 15:52-53; 1 Thess. 4:17).
Paul also mentioned that the Church is not destined to experience the wrath of God at the day of the LORD (1 Thess. 1:1-10; 5:9, cf. Rom. 5:9).
James made reference to the rapture and associated it with personal accountability before Christ, possibly alluding to the judgment seat of Christ that follows the rapture (James 5:7-9). Peter equated the rapture with the completion of the believer’s salvation (1 Pt.1:3-5). John mentioned the rapture twice and alluded to the transformation of the bodies of believers at the appearance of Christ (1 Jn. 2:28; 3:2); he also indicated that the glorified bodies received by the saints would be like Christ’s glorified body (1 Jn. 3:2, cf. Phil. 3:2021). The only detailed prophetic descriptions of the rapture occur in three passages: Matthew 24:36-25:30, 1 Corinthians 15:51-53, and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. A number of observations flow these passages: 1. The future appearing of Christ has an imminent aspect (the rapture), and a non-imminent aspect (the second coming), cf. Mt. 24:29-25:30. 2. The precise time of the rapture is not known (Mt. 24:42-25:30). 3. Some details of the rapture were apparently a mystery until revealed through Paul (1 Cor. 15:51). 4. At the rapture, Christ will appear in the sky (1 Thess. 4:16). 5. Christ will be accompanied by the souls of the saints who have died, returning to be reunited with their resurrection body (1 Thess. 4:14). 6. The event is to be signaled by a shout from an archangel and a trumpet call (1 Cor. 15:52; 1 Thess. 4:16). 7. The dead in Christ will be resurrected, and then those who are alive will be changed (i.e., transformed into a glorified state), cf. 1 Thess. 4:15-17. 8. Christ will call believers, both the resurrected and the transformed, out of this world (1 Thess. 4:17). Note how the description of the rapture differs from that of the second coming. 9. Believers who live to the rapture will not pass through death (1 Cor. 15:51). 10. The entire event will happen almost instantly (1 Cor. 15:52). 11. The raptured saints will never be separated from Christ (1 Thess. 4:17).
Since the rapture pertains to the Church, it seems likely that the Old Testament saints, along with the tribulation saints that die before the tribulation period ends, will be raised after the second coming (Dan. 12:1-2; Rev. 20:4). In order to understand how the rapture is possible, we must grasp the unique nature of the Church and how God’s program for Israel and the Church are distinct.
The Unique Nature of the Church
It is God’s plan to consummate the salvation of those belonging to the Body of Christ (the Church) at the rapture, and it is the unique nature of the Church that makes the rapture both possible and necessary. Every saved person throughout history has a place in the plan of God, but not every saved person in history is part of the Church. I am not referring to the visible, organized church that includes both saved and lost, but to the invisible Body of Christ (Col. 1:18,24), i.e., those who are baptized into Christ by the Holy Spirit. The Church did not exist until the Holy Spirit began baptizing believers into the Body of Christ at Pentecost, A.D. 33 (Acts 1:5 cf. 1 Cor. 12:13). The following facts are essential in understanding who is part of the Church. 1. The Church is the Body of Christ (Col. 1:18,24), and Spirit baptism is the necessary operation of the Holy Spirit that makes one a member of the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). Since Spirit baptism began on the day of Pentecost (A.D. 33) that was the birth of the Church. 2. By their statements, it is possible to determine that the apostles recognized that Pentecost (A.D. 33) marked the beginning of the Church (Acts 11:15-16). 3. Jesus indicated the Church to be a future reality from the standpoint of his earthly ministry (cf. Mt. 16:18—note the future tense). 4. The nature of the Church age as parenthetical, distinct from God’s program for Israel, is reinforced by its complete absence from Old Testament prophecy, which explains God’s program for Israel in great detail. Note for example how the Church age is completely absent from the prophecy of Daniel’s seventy weeks (Dan. 9:24-27), falling entirely between the sixty-ninth and seventieth weeks. Likewise it is missing entirely from the descriptions of the first and second advents of Christ as described in Isaiah 61:1-3.
Views on the Timing of the Rapture
While we will not go into a full discussion of the differences between dispensationalism and covenant theology here, however, it is important to know that one’s view with respect to dispensationalism and covenant theology will have a profound impact on their view of the rapture.[v] Unlike dispensationalists, covenantalists make no distinction between Israel and the Church, viewing all redeemed people as part of the same spiritual body. Since the Bible indicates that redeemed people will be present on earth throughout the tribulation, covenantal interpreters take that as evidence that the rapture does not occur until the second coming. Thus, all forms of covenant theology are posttribulational. Dispensationalists, who reject the covenantal inference that all redeemed people comprise the same spiritual body, do not view the presence of redeemed people in the tribulation as an indication of the presence of the Church, which they view as a distinct body of believers originating at Pentecost (A.D. 33) and extending to the rapture. Among dispensationalists the pretribulational view has been the dominant view of the rapture. However, there are other views associated with dispensationalism; they are: “midtribulationism,” which places the rapture at the midpoint of the tribulation; “Rosenthal’s pre-wrath view,” which places the rapture sometime in the second half of the tribulation; “partial rapturism,” which sees only those believers who are prepared as being raptured with the rest being left to go through part or all of the tribulation period; and “imminent pre-wrath rapturism” (the position proposed by the author), which views the rapture as imminent and possibly, but not necessarily, pretribulational.[vi]
If the Scripture teaches the imminency of the rapture (a point which I endeavored to demonstate in my book, The Olivet Discourse: A Reconstruction of the Text from Matthew, Mark and Luke, with Commentary, Biblical Reader Communications, 2010), then midtribulationism, Rosenthal’s pre-wrath view, and posttribulationism could not be correct, since those views are not compatible with an imminent rapture. Consequently, the question is whether the Bible does, in fact, teach the imminency of the rapture; and if so, whether imminency requires a pretribulational rapture. Here, we will focus on whether an imminent rapture must be pretribulational, and whether there are any other arguments that might require a pretribulational rapture. It should be stated at the outset that the issue is not whether the rapture could be pretribulational. Obviously, if the rapture is imminent, it could happen at any moment, and thus it could occur pretribulationally. The issue is whether it must occur pretribulationally, as is the central tenet of pretribulationism.
Does Proof of Imminency Prove Pretribulationism?
It has long been assumed, both by pretribulationists and by opponents of pretribulationism, that proof of the imminency of the rapture is tantamount to proof of pretribulationism. Consequently, pretribulationists have insisted that both the Scriptures and the beliefs of the early church support imminency, and opponents of pretribulationism have taken precisely the opposite position. So, the question is: Does imminency prove pretribulationism? In exploring this question, it would be helpful if we knew how pretribulationism came to be associated with imminency in the first place.
Prior to the emergence of the various alternate dispensational views in the 1900s, there were only two major views of the rapture among premillennialists: pretribulationism and posttribulationism. Of these two views, only pretribulationism is compatible with an imminent rapture, and it was assumed that if imminency were true, then pretribulationism must also be true.
In time, other theories emerged: midtribulationism (1941) and Rosenthal’s pre-wrath view (1990). Since both of these views are incompatible with imminency, the same line of argumentation was applied to them: pretribulationism must be the correct theory since it is the only theory compatible with imminency. Of course, this is a reductive fallacy, since it has not been established that pretribulationism is the only possible view compatible with imminency.[vii] What if pretribulationism isn’t the only possible rapture theory compatible with imminency? What if the rapture could be imminent, but not pretribulational? If so, although imminency would mean that the rapture could be pretribulational, it would not lead to the conclusion that it must be pretribulational. Imminency could not then serve as evidence of pretribulationism. Accordingly, it is critically important to know whether an imminent, non-pretribulational rapture is logically (as well as biblically) possible, for until we know that, we cannot answer the question of whether imminency proves pretribulationism.
Historically, students of rapture theology have assumed that belief in the imminency of the rapture is logically consistent only with pretribulationism.[viii] However, that is an error that has resulted from thinking of the rapture as an event in sequence with tribulation events. Let me explain: If we think of the rapture as an event in sequence with tribulation events, then unless the rapture occurs first (pretribulationally) it cannot be imminent from the present perspective since whatever tribulation event or events come first would have to precede the rapture. To illustrate the difference between that view of the rapture and what we might call a “random” view (for lack of a better term), let’s say we have fifty cards, and on each card we write the name of a tribulation event, and we sort the cards in the order in which the events will occur. If we then made another card representing the rapture and put it in the middle of the stack and began turning the cards over, one by one simulating the passage of each event, the rapture would not be imminent until the card immediately preceding it had been turned over. Applying this analogy, according to pretribulationism the rapture is the first event and it is therefore imminent; (unlike mid-tribulationism, Rosenthal pre-wrath rapturism, and posttribulationism, which do not place the rapture first). But, what if the sequential conception isn’t the only way to look at the relation between the rapture and the tribulation events? What if the rapture is random with respect to tribulation events (i.e., not part of the tribulation sequence). Now imagine the same stack of cards, but instead of sorting the rapture card with the stack of tribulation events (sequentially), suppose we set it off to the side, with the provision that it can be turned over (randomly) at any time, at least up to a certain point. Before we even turn the first card, the rapture is imminent because it could be turned over first. Of course, if the rapture card isn’t turned over first, it would still be imminent because it could be turned over next. Remember: the rapture card isn’t subject to the sequence of the stack of tribulation events.
Because thinking of the rapture in sequence with tribulation events has dominated rapture theology, most students of prophecy mistakenly assume that if the rapture is imminent, it must be the first event on the prophetic calendar (hence, pretribulational). Of course, scripture doesn’t specify the place in the stream of future prophetic events where the rapture occurs, other than that it must occur before the beginning of divine wrath at the day of the LORD, which only establishes the terminal point of the rapture window. Here is where we need to make a critical observation: If the timing of the rapture is not specified in scripture (and it is not), it is imminent—not because it’s the first event, but because the timing isn’t specified, leaving open the possibility that it could occur at any time. It is crucially important to understand that the random conception fits the same biblical data as does the sequential conception, and in fact, fits it better since the New Testament nowhere links the timing of the rapture to any tribulation event (at least prior to the day of the LORD). Of course the rapture must precede the day of the LORD, however, as we will see, the day of the LORD likely begins sometime in the second half of the tribulation period; thus, while the rapture is sequential to the day of the LORD, it is not necessarily sequential to the events in the first part of the tribulation period. This is a crucial distinction, since it means that a pretribulational rapture is a possibility, rather than a necessity as held in pretribulationism.[ix]
What About Other Pretribulational Arguments?
The argument from imminency was, historically, the primary argument for pretribulationism, albeit defective as shown above. However, in the early 1900s key pretribulationists re-characterized Matthew 24:45-25:30 as pertaining to the second coming rather than the rapture.[x] Since Matthew 24:36-25:30 is the only biblical passage that explicitly teaches the imminency of the rapture, and since earlier pretribulationists had already relegated 24:36-44 as being a description of the second coming, the re-characterization of the remainder of the passage (24:45-25:30) left pretribulationists with no explicit biblical support for their primary argument. (on this point see my book: The Olivet Discourse: A Reconstruction of the Text from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with Commentary, pp. 155-158). Because of this weakening of the biblical support for imminency, the wrath argument has taken on increased importance in the defense of pretribulationism.
The wrath argument states that since the Church is not to be the object of God’s wrath (1 Thess. 4:13-5:11, esp. 5:9-10), the rapture of the Church must occur before the manifestation of the divine wrath associated with the day of the LORD. Of course, in order for this argument to support pretribulationism the entire seven-year tribulation period must qualify as divine wrath. In other words, for the wrath argument to support pretribulationism the day of the LORD must begin at the beginning of the seven-year tribulation period. One approach in arguing that the entire tribulation period is divine wrath has been from the presumed unity of the period. Pretribulationists sometimes equate the tribulation period with the day of the LORD in order to establish that the entire tribulation is a time of divine wrath; but the basis for equating the two is the prior assumption that the tribulation is entirely a time of divine wrath—a circular argument. This is sometimes expressed as follows: Whenever the Old Testament discusses the coming day of the LORD, judgment is in view; thus the tribulation is a time of judgment. For an example of this approach, see J. Dwight Pentecost’s Things to Come, pages 230 and 233-237. Pentecost quotes twenty passages in an effort to prove that the tribulation is a time of judgment, but not one of those passages speaks to the extent of the divine wrath during the tribulation period. The fact that the tribulation includes divine wrath is beyond dispute. Pentecost’s evidence demonstrates only that divine wrath occurs sometime during the tribulation—a point upon which virtually all premillennialists agree. However, none of his arguments are useful in proving that the entire tribulation is divine wrath. In other words, the manifestation of divine wrath in the tribulation period and the extent of the tribulation period that can be characterized as divine wrath are distinct issues, and evidence that the tribulation includes divine wrath does not argue that the entire period is divine wrath. Pentecost further states that since the judgments associated with the second coming need to occur over a period of time, the entire tribulation period must be a time of judgment.[xi] Of course that is an incredible leap. Why would the judgments directly associated with the second coming need to extend over the entire tribulation period? Pentecost offers no justification. He also argues that if the day of the LORD did not begin until the second coming it would be preceded by signs and could not come as indicated in 1 Thessalonians 5:2 as “a thief in the night.”[xii] He overlooks the obvious flaw in this argument that if the day of the LORD were to begin on the heels of the rapture, then the rapture would serve as a sign.[xiii] Of course, the timing of the rapture cannot be used to determine the extent of divine wrath during the tribulation period, since one would have to know the extent of divine wrath to know the last point at which the rapture could occur—a circular problem. While the day of the LORD is undoubtedly a component of the tribulation period, there simply is no biblical or logical reason to assume that the entire seven-year period is to be divine wrath, or that the day of the LORD must begin at the time the tribulation period begins. We should also note that even within pretribulationism there has been considerable disagreement as to when the day of the LORD is to begin. C.I. Scofield held that the day of the LORD will begin at the second coming, after the judgments of Revelation 11-18 (i.e., after the seventh trumpet); and L. S. Chafer seems to have been in general agreement with that view.[xiv]
Another approach in equating the entirety of the tribulation period with the day of the LORD is to assert that the seals, trumpets, and bowls of Revelation 6-19 are all divine judgments, and therefore, since it is reasonable to expect that the first seal occurs early in the tribulation period, it follows that the entire seven-year tribulation period is a time of judgment. The difficulty with that line of reasoning is that there is no evidence that the seals represent divine wrath. Rather, the seals appear to be simply movements within the tribulation period. As noted, Scofield limited the apocalyptic judgments to the seventh trumpet, i.e., the bowls of wrath. It has been assumed by many that since the book of Revelation pictures Christ breaking the seven seals, that the seals must be divine judgments; however, that is merely an assumption. Certainly Christ breaking the seven seals in Revelation indicates God’s sovereignty over the tribulation events, nevertheless it does not follow that all of the seals represent divine wrath. Revelation doesn’t mention divine wrath until 6:15-17, which is after the events of the sixth seal have passed. And, there is a serious complication in viewing all of the seals as divine wrath. The fifth seal (Rev. 6:9-11 cf. Mt. 24:9, 15-22 and Dan. 7:25) includes the deaths of many faithful saints who maintain their testimony in the face of persecution and martyrdom. Pretribulationism has always been at a loss to explain how the persecution and death of these saints could be attributed directly to an act of divine justice. If all the seals represent divine wrath, then the fifth seal must be divine wrath also; yet Revelation pictures the major event during the time of the fifth seal as an evil to be punished by a future, but soon, outpouring of divine wrath (6:11 cf. 8:1‑6). The fact that the martyrs are pictured in Heaven under the altar making lamentation to God (6:9-11) and asking for justice in avenging their blood is indicative that the deaths of these saints can in no way be attributable to God’s justice in the execution of divine wrath. In answer to the prayers of these saints for justice and vengeance, God responds that they should wait for their petition to be answered (6:11); and the events of the seventh seal (the sequence of trumpet and bowl judgments) are plainly indicated to be, at least in part, in response to the prayers of the saints from under the altar (8:1-6 cf. 16:4-7 and 19:2). Interestingly, these are the only components of the tribulation that are specifically designated as divine wrath (Rev. 15:1; 16:1). Thus, it is not without significance that the first mention of divine wrath in Revelation occurs after the breaking of the sixth seal, just prior to the breaking of the seventh seal (6:17). Given these observations, it is difficult to sustain the case that all of the seals represent divine wrath. Of course if God’s wrath has not commenced by the close of the fifth seal, at most only the last two seals could include divine wrath. Since wrath is not mentioned until after the time of the sixth seal is past (6:17), and since there is a momentous transition between the sixth and seventh seals (8:1), the case could be made that the likely point for divine wrath to begin (i.e., the beginning of the day of the LORD) is with the opening of the seventh seal, though it is not necessary to argue that point in order to see the problem with pretribulationism’s use of the wrath argument. There simply is no biblical or theological evidence that the tribulation is coextensive with the day of the LORD. While we know that the day of the LORD must fall sometime within Daniel’s 70th week, since the first 69 weeks of the prophecy are past, and both the 70th week and the wrath associated with the day of the LORD terminate at the second coming, there is simply no good argument demonstrating that the entire tribulation period represents divine wrath.[xv] Thus, the wrath argument fails to prove pretribulationism, though it does require the rapture to occur before the day of the LORD begins.
2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 – Another Major Problem With the Wrath Argument
Having noted the inability to prove the claim that the entire tribulation is divine wrath, we now turn our attention to 2 Thessalonians 2:1-9, which poses a serious obstacle to pretribulationism’s wrath argument in that it asserts that the day of the LORD will not begin until sometime in the second half of the tribulation, after the apostasy associated with the revealing of the Antichrist in the temple at the midpoint of the tribulation period. If it can be demonstrated that the day of the LORD does not begin until sometime in the second half of the tribulation period, then pretribulationism’s claim that the entire tribulation is divine wrath is not only unproven, but disproven. Paul states in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12:
(1) Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, (2) that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. (3) Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, (4) who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God. (5) Do you not remember that while I was still with you, I was telling you these things? (6) And you know what restrains him now, so that in his time he will be revealed. (7) For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way. (8) Then that lawless one will be revealed whom the Lord will slay with the breath of His mouth and bring to an end by the appearance of His coming; (9) that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, (10) and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. (11) For this reason God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, (12) in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth, but took pleasure in wickedness. (NASB)
In this passage Paul stated that the day of the LORD will not begin until after “the apostasy” (v. 3, ἡ ἀποστασία)—not just any apostasy, but “the apostasy” (the one prophetically anticipated) that occurs in connection with the revealing of the man of lawlessness (καὶ, “and” is used here ascensively, meaning “even,” or “indeed”). Note how much attention Paul devotes to the description of the revealing of the Man of Lawlessness (vv.3‑9). Why? Because the revealing of the Man of Lawlessness distinguishes this particular apostasy from all others. Some pretribulationists have interpreted “the falling away,” i.e., the apostasy, as a veiled reference to the rapture, and the revealing of the Man of Lawlessness as the appearing of the Antichrist at the beginning of the tribulation period. However, given Paul’s statement as we have it, it is apparent that he intended his readers to understand the revealing of the Man of Lawlessness as his revealing in accordance with his true character as Antichrist, when he seats himself in the temple of God (v.4). How do we know this? 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 comprises one sentence in the original, and it is apparent that the falling away and the “revealing” are thus related components of the same description, which is further developed in verses 5‑9. This is a specific apostasy, the one in connection with Antichrist’s revealing (v.4), when he takes his seat in the temple purveying himself to be God with satanic power displayed in signs and wonders deceiving those who have rejected the truth, i.e., the non-elect (vv.5-9). We know from Daniel 9:27 that this event marks the midpoint of the tribulation period. There is a parallel to this description in Matthew 24:4‑25 in which Jesus stated that the abomination in the temple (v.15) will be accompanied by persecution and apostasy (vv.10, 15-22), spiritual deception of the non-elect (vv.11, 24‑28), lawlessness (v.12), and deceptive signs and wonders (v.24). It is thus apparent that Paul had Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in mind when he penned 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, since he mentioned five of the six major aspects associated with the midpoint of the tribulation as outlined in Matthew 24:9-24.[xvi] The five matching characteristics in these two passages are listed together nowhere else in the New Testament. Assuming a chronology of Matthew 24:4-31 in which verses 4-8 refer to the first half of the tribulation, and verses 9-14 refer to the second half, with verses 15-31 being a recursion back to the midpoint expanding on the second half, the actual order of these events is: 1. the revealing of the Antichrist in the temple; 2. the great persecution, martyrdom and apostasy; 3. lawlessness; 4. deceiving signs and miracles; and, 5. the deception of the non-elect. It is important to note that due to the recursive structure of Matthew 24:15-31, the apostasy mentioned in 24:10 actually occurs after the revelation of the Antichrist in the temple mentioned in 24:15.[xvii] The apostasy most likely occurs in connection with the great persecution that follows the Antichrist’s revealing (cf. vv.16-22). Unless one is willing to argue that Paul’s description of the Man of Lawlessness in the temple and the related spiritual deception, lawlessness, and deceiving miracles described in verses 3-9 have no direct connection to the apostasy described within the same sentence, it should be apparent that the apostasy referred to by Paul is the apostasy that will take place shortly after the midpoint of the tribulation.[xviii] Since it is apparent that both Jesus and Paul described the same set of events, and since these events, in both places, are unquestionably associated with the revealing of the Antichrist at the midpoint of the tribulation period, it is evident that Paul taught that the day of the LORD would not arrive until sometime in the second half of the tribulation period, after the apostasy associated with the revelation of the Antichrist in the temple. That being the case, while there is overlap between the seven-year period of tribulation and the day of the LORD, they are not co-extensive as required by the pretribulational version of the wrath argument.
While the New Testament does indicate that the rapture is imminent (Mt. 24:36-25:30), and that it must precede the beginning of the day of the LORD (1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9-10 cf. 4:13-5:8), it does not indicate that the rapture must occur pretribulationally. We previously ruled out midtribulationism, Rosenthal’s pre-wrath view, and posttribulationism on the grounds that they are incompatible with the imminency of the rapture; and we have also ruled out pretribulationism on the grounds that it is neither required by imminency nor supported by the wrath argument. Thus, with respect to the timing of the rapture all we can say with certainty is that it is imminent, perhaps, but not necessarily, pretribulational, and that it will occur prior to the beginning of the day of the LORD. Any view of the timing of the rapture that exceeds the bounds of these statements should be viewed with caution.
[i] The principal passages describing the rapture are: Matthew 24:36-25:30; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52; and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. [The Matthew passage is disputed by many modern pretribulationists.]
[ii] Marvin Rosenthal, The Pre-wrath Rapture of the Church, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1990.
[iii] For an examination of Rosenthal’s arguments see: What the Bible Says About the Future, Second edition, Chapter 8: “The Rapture of the Church,” pp.175-212, by the author.
[iv] See The Olivet Discourse: A Reconstruction of the Text from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, by the author, beginning at 24:36.
[v] For a discussion of the differences between dispensationalism and covenant theology see: What the Bible Says About the Future, Second edition, Chapter 3: “How Systems of Belief Affect Our View of Future Prophecy,” pp. 41-54 by the author; and, There Really is a Difference! A Comparison of Covenant and Dispensational Theology, by Renald Showers.
[vi] For information on the imminent pre-wrath rapture position see: Toward a Biblical View of the Rapture, by the author (Biblical Reader Communications, 2011). The imminent pre-wrath position was first proposed by the author in 2003 in: The Imminient Pre-wrath Rapture of the Church (an e-book now out of publication, but most of the information can be found in Toward a Biblical View of the Rapture).
[vii] To illustrate this logic, it’s like saying that since Christmas occurs in a month ending in “r” it must be in November, since January, February, March, April, May, June, July, and August do not end in “r.” What’s wrong with this logic? Obviously we didn’t exhaust all the possibilities, because September, October, and December also end in “r.” If all we knew about the timing of Christmas was that it occurs in a month ending in “r,” we would have to conclude that while it might occur in November, it could just as well occur in September, October, or December.
[viii] For a discussion of the imminency of the rapture see the footnote beginning on page 155 of The Olivet Discourse, by the author; also see the discussion of 24:36-25:30 in the commentary section of the same volume.
[ix] Pretribulationists might argue that all of this is a moot point since the rapture is the only prophesied event prior to the beginning of the day of the LORD. However, such a statement assumes the day of the LORD begins immediately at the inception of the tribulation period—an assumption for which there is no proof; indeed the weight of evidence argues strongly to the contrary (see the discussion of 2 Thessalonians 2:3-11 that follows).
[x] This re-characterization originated in the early 1900s and can be detected in the writings of Henry C. Thiessen and Lewis Sperry Chafer; it is quite prominent in the rapture theology of John F. Walvoord, and latent in the writing of J. Dwight Pentecost. The reasons for the re-characterization of Matthew 24:45-25:30 as describing the second coming rather than the rapture are discussed at length in The Olivet Discourse, by the author; see footnote 12 beginning on p.155.
[xi] Pentecost, Things to Come, p.230.
[xii] Pentecost, p.230.
[xiii] Note that in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 Paul did not say the day of the LORD will take believers by surprise, only that it will take the unbelieving world by surprise, and that would be true regardless of the point at which it begins, because the unredeemed are in spiritual darkness (v.4).
[xiv] See the footnote on page 1349 in the original Scofield Reference Bible. (That footnote was subsequently changed in The New Scofield Reference Bible, p.1363.) Also see: Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. IV, pp.11, 383, 398; and vol. VII, p.110.
[xv] The tribulation period and the day of the LORD are co-terminal, but not necessarily coextensive.
[xvi] Although it is likely that the gospels were written after 2 Thessalonians, undoubtedly accounts of Christ’s Olivet Discourse circulated early in the churches at Jerusalem and Antioch, and it is not likely that Paul would have been unfamiliar with this important material.
[xvii] See the discussion of the chronology of Matthew 24 on page 104, and also on page 245ff in The Olivet Discourse, by the author.
[xviii] Some pretribulationists regard the apostasy in verse 3 as either a veiled reference to a pretribulational rapture, or an apostasy, or general state of apostasy occurring during the Church age prior to a pretribulational rapture of the Church. Both of these explanations fail to account for the structure of Paul’s passage in 2 Thessalonians 2, and its connection to Jesus’ parallel description in the Olivet Discourse.
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(Adapted from: What the Bible Says About the Future, 2011, by Sam A. Smith. To download the abridged PDF e-book click or tap here, for the print edition, click or tap here. The Olivet Discourse: A Reconstruction of the Text from Matthew, Mark, and Luke, 2009, by Sam A. Smith. To download the abridged PDF e-book click or tap here, for the print edition, click or tap here. Also, for a more complete discussion of the Rapture see: A Biblical View of the Rapture, by Sam A. Smith, 2011. To download the PDF e-book click or tap here, for the print edition, click or tap here.)
Unless otherwise indicated all scripture is taken from the New International Version of the Bible.