I along with most other evangelicals believe Jesus is going to return one day and establish his Kingdom. Jesus himself promised his return (Matt. 24:30; 26:64; John 14:3). At Jesus’ ascension, two angels proclaimed, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). This hope is consistently witnessed to throughout the New Testament (e.g., Acts 3:19–2 1; Phil. 3:20–21; 1 Thess. 4:15–16; Titus 2:13).
But when we move beyond this basic hope and search for details, all sorts of controversy breaks out. The major debate among evangelicals concerns whether Christ will return before or after “the tribulation period.” Many believe this future period was prophesied by Jesus when he said:
For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. (Matt. 24:21–22)
The two major views are pre-tribulationism and post-tribulationism.
Pre-tribulationists have several core convictions. First, they have a two-stage understanding of Christ’s return. They believe that Christ will return to remove (or rapture) his church out of the world before the tribulation. He will then return with his saints to judge the world after the tribulation. In the first stage, Christ will not be seen by the world, though the world will of course notice the miraculous and instantaneous disappearance of every Christian. In the second stage, everyone will behold the Lord returning in glory.
Pre-tribulationists find support for their belief in a literal rapture, prior to the tribulation period, in the words of Paul:
For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thess. 4:16–17)
Pre-tribulationists emphasize the difference between passages they believe refer to the rapture (e.g., Matt. 24:40) and those that all agree refer to the final coming of Christ (Rev. 19). The rapture passages speak of a secret, instantaneous snatching-away of believers—one shall be “taken” and one “left behind”—while other passages speak of an event that everyone will see.
Second, pre-tribulationists point to passages in the Bible that they believe teach that believers will be kept from having to endure the wrath of God. For example, Paul states that Jesus will “[rescue] us from the wrath that is coming” (1 Thess. 1:10; see also 1 Thess. 5:9; Rev. 3:10). Since the tribulation period is a time when God’s wrath will be poured out in judgment on the wicked, they believe the rapture must take place before this time.
Finally, pre-tribulationists highlight the fact that many texts clearly state that Christ’s return could happen at any moment and that Christians are not to be caught off guard (e.g., Matt. 24:42–51; 25:1–30; 1 Cor. 1:7; Phil. 4:5; Titus 2:13). But if Christ will not return until after the tribulation period, as post-tribulationists maintain, how could his return be imminent or surprising? If the post-tribulationists are correct, we should not expect Christ to return until after the rather obvious events of Christ’s prophecy are fulfilled.
Post-tribulationists deny that there are two stages to Christ’s return. He will return once, after a final tribulation period, at which time he will set up his millennial kingdom. Post-tribulationists support their view with several lines of argument.
First, many passages of Scripture tell believers to expect persecution (e.g., Acts 14:22; Rom. 5:3; 1 Thess. 3:3). Jesus told his disciples, “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33). What is more, post-tribulationists emphasize the fact that Jesus explicitly prayed that his Father would not take his church out of the world. He asked that he protect them from the enemy in the midst of a hostile world (John 17:15). Indeed, according to post-tribulationists, Jesus explicitly taught that the church would endure the tribulation period, for he said, “at that time there will be great suffering….And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short” (Matt. 24:21–22). The elect are clearly present during the tribulation period.
Second, post-tribulationists argue that the passages cited in support of a pre-tribulation rapture do not teach what the pre-tribulationists suggest. For example, Paul’s teaching that the church will meet “the Lord in the air” (1 Thess. 4:17) does not mean that Christians will literally ascend into the clouds. The passage rather refers to the common ancient practice of people going outside the gates of their city to welcome home a victorious general with triumphant jubilation. The imagery of the Lord coming in clouds was frequently used to speak of the Lord coming in glory and power (e.g., Ps. 68:4; Jer. 4:13; Dan. 7:13). What is more, if the passage is taken literally, it can hardly refer to an unnoticed coming. Paul says the Lord will descend with “a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet” (1 Thess. 4:16). The images suggest that the return will be loud—like the call of a general returning home.
Finally, passages that speak of one being taken while another is left behind (e.g., Matt. 24:40) do not refer to a secret rapture. If read in context, post-tribulationists argue, the one taken is likened to those who were judged in Noah’s flood, not to one who is rescued from judgment (Matt. 24:38–39). Jesus is speaking about how suddenly people will disappear under persecution during the tribulation period, not how they will be raptured away from persecution before the rapture. Hence, post-tribulationists argue that Christ will return only once, and he will come after the world has gone through a final tribulation period.
There is third school of thought, however, which sees most, if not all, of the language about the “rapture” and “coming tribulation” as symbolic, apocalyptic language that was fulfilled in the first century. This view is called “preterism” (see What is the right way to interpret Revelation? for more information). Scholars such as N.T. Wright argue that for Jews of the first century, the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. was viewed as “the end of the world” as they knew it. All the apocalyptic imagery Jesus and other New Testament authors use about a coming tribulation can plausibly be seen as applying to this catastrophic event.
In this view, all the speculation about the order of events in “the last days” is a waste of time.
I’m not fully convinced of the full preterist position, though I find some of their arguments compelling (see “Books Defending Preterism” below ). Whether preterism is true or not, I am convinced the speculation about when and how world history will come to a close is a waste of time. I also worry about the escapist mindset behind much of the rapture theology being propounded today. We’re supposed to be bringing the Kingdom down to earth, not escaping earth to avoid hardships!
For me, it’s enough to know that Jesus will return someday and set up his Kingdom. When and how he does so is irrelevant. In the meantime, our job is to work to build his Kingdom by living the way he taught us to live. That’s a 24-7 job, leaving no time for crystal ball gazing into the future!
Further Reading on End Time Issues
- Brower, Kent E., and Mark W. Elliott, eds. Eschatology in Bible and Theology: Evangelical Essays at the Dawn of a New Millennium. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997.
- Erickson, Millard J. A Basic Guide to Eschatology: Making Sense of the Millennium. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.
- Ladd, George E. The Last Things. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.
- Reiter, Richard R., Paul D. Feinberg, Gleason L. Archer, and Douglas J. Moo. The Rapture: Pre-, Mid-, or Post-Tribulational? Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984.
Books defending Preterism
- D. Chilton, The Days of Vengeance (Dominion, 1987)
- D. Chilton, The Great Tribulation (Dominion, 1987)
- MacPherson, Dave. The Great Rapture Hoax. Fletcher, N.C.: New Puritan Library, 1983.
- J. Noe, Beyond The End Times (International Preterist Association, 1999).
- S. Russell, The Parousia (International Preterist Association, 2003 )