(Read the entire series.)
This is the final part of this exploratory series on the rapture of the Church. Its main purpose has been to show that none of the competing positions on the “taking out” of the saints merits more than an “inference to the best explanation.” Within the Rules of Affinity this would be a C3. I have looked at posttribulationism and midtribulationism in the last post; here I shall look at the prewrath and pretribulational views.
This view is of very recent vintage, but for all that, it has articulated its position well and has won many advocates. In my opinion this position mounts some serious challenges for the other approaches. It deserves to be taken seriously.
The arguments in favor of prewrath rapturism are quite impressive taken as a whole. Examined individually less so. PreWrathers, as Postmils, have the psychological advantage of having the rapture and the Second Coming coincide. But the edge might seem to be lost by having the Lord zip back off to glory for the wrath to get meted out on the Earth. Although they explain the logic of the wrath (from the first trumpet, through the bowls of wrath and the Battle of Armageddon) coming on the earth-dwellers after the Second Coming/Rapture, the posttribulational option looks less complicated.
I do think they have an argument for claiming that the wrath of God is restricted to the end of the seven year period. Many pre-trib replies to this are not always satisfying. But it suffices me at least to read that the “horsemen” released in the first four seals come forth only after Christ opens each one. In Revelation 6:1-8 (the first four seals), the sequence is, the Lamb breaks the seal, then a living creature invites John to witness the result. We also see what appears to be Divine empowerment and permission in, for example, Revelation 6:2 (“a crown was given to him”), 6:4 (“it was granted to [him] to take peace from the earth,…and there was given to him a great sword”), and 6:6 where a voice (from the throne?) issues directions to the rider on the black horse. Even though the word “wrath” isn’t used until the end of the chapter (the sixth seal), certainly all this calamity wrought by the riders stems directly, not from the Antichrist, but from God Himself. Is that not God’s wrath? Yes, I know the wrath of 6:16-17 is connected with Christ specifically, but 14:19 with 19:15 with Isaiah 63:1-6 persuade me that the sixth seal is about the Second Advent.
Another attraction of PreWrath is the use of Matthew 24 (Mark 13), and Luke 21 alongside of 1 Thessalonians 4. Hart’s pretrib exegesis manages this, but the PreWrath view is more natural. Still, I can’t get over the fact that the Olivet Discourse is so Israel-directed (Pt. 8). And if that is so, then I think it is hard not to have both the Church and Israel raptured at the same time. PreWrath advocates may be just fine with that, but this underlines even more the conflation of Israel and the Church within the Tribulation. (Are they two distinct entities, or one—the Church?) I see Israel there clearly enough (Pt. 9), but not the Church (Pt. 10). Plus, as I pointed out, if Christians are in the Tribulation under Antichrist, then they will be tempted to take the mark and even worship the beast to save their lives (as Christians compromised during Diocletian’s persecution). That raises the specter of Christians losing their salvation according to Revelation 14:9-11.
It would be wrong to accuse the PreWrath position of merging Israel with the Church, since many would stop short of doing this. But mixing the two programs of God together in the Tribulation makes it hard to avoid making the two into one body of believers.
Their interpretation of 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3 seems plausible (Pt. 7). But this demands a more static and technical sense be given to the “Day of the Lord”; values which I have shown to run contrary to the biblical data on the varied usage of the phrase (Pts 6 & 7). In Part 6 we also saw that Armageddon and the final days of the Seventieth Week just prior to Christ’s return appear to be what is indicated by the “Day of the Lord” as used in Joel 3:14-16 (cf. Rev. 19:15).
Further, Daniel 12:1 with 12:6-7 measures the “Great Tribulation” coming upon Israel as “a time, times, and half a time,” or three and a half years. Since this period starts at the mid-point in the Seventieth Week (Pt. 5), and is terminated by the Second Coming (see Dan. 7:20-25).
For these and other reasons I think the PreWrath view is finally implausible, although it deserves a C3 as a solid attempt at the rapture question.
Well, I am a pretribulationist, and I think it has the most going for it and the fewest difficulties. Some of the difficulties are imposing. I’m thinking particularly about the problem of “split” Second Coming. The coming of 1 Thessalonians 4:15 is a parousia, referring to Christ’s presence, which fits Paul’s theme of comfort in the passage. In John 14:3 it is erchomai, His actual journey back to earth. Then again Titus 2:13 speaks of His epiphaneia or “glorious appearing.” The terms go together well enough and it is vain to lend them technical meanings, but the suspicion arises when pretribbers want to assign some of the mentions to the rapture and some others (e.g. Matt. 24:27, where two of the above terms are used by Jesus) to His posttribulational return.
Anyway, this aspect of my chosen position gives me certain unease, but I believe the pros far outweigh the cons. Before collecting the main reasons together I do want to say something about the term “secret rapture.” To me this way of speaking is plain daft, and I don’t know but that it is employed a great deal more by pretrib detractors than by its advocates. But the rapture is no more secretive if it is before the Tribulation than if it is half-way or prewrath or posttrib. One might point to the argument which I myself have used about knowing the “when” of the rapture if it is not pretribulational, but if that is all that the word “secret” means then it is plainly the wrong word. “Surprise” is much more suitable. So I wish those cultured despisers of pretribulationism would resist the urge to go for a cheap shot against it by recourse to some “secret rapture.”
In this series I have often fastened on the distinguishing of the Church from national Israel and its prophetic future (e.g. Pts. 4 & 6). I have noted that the rapture is for the Church, which will be completed before the program for Israel is “completed” (Pts. 7, 8 & 9). The Day of the Lord in 1 Thessalonians 5 is a time of wrath to which the Church is not vulnerable. The decidedly Jewish flavor of the Tribulation argues for a pretrib rapture, as does the notion of imminence (Pt. 8). Other problems associated with alternative positions seem more difficult to resolve theologically, since they impinge upon other important doctrines.
I have stressed that the doctrine of the catching away of the saints spoken of by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 and supported for better or worse by other passages can never be decided exegetically because of the spareness of the available materials. This opens the door to theological concerns, which must try to fit a rapture explanation into their systems. It is in large part because of this that there will never be agreement on the timing of the rapture. The best that can be hoped for, and the best that can be attempted, is a solid workable hypothesis—an “inference to the best explanation,” or a C3 in the Rules of Affinity.
Naturally, what data is admitted or omitted often depends upon the prior commitments of the interpreter: in this case, me. Therefore, although a person may have come to a pretty firm conclusion about the rapture, it is wise to keep in mind the defeasible character of the teaching and refrain from finger-pointing or “clubbish” mindsets on the rapture question.
I am sure that in this set of articles I have managed to annoy quite a few non-pretribulationists, irritate the more partisan fans of pretribulationism, and perhaps bore the undecided. Still, I truly hope that some people will appreciate what I have tried to put across. For all that, “if one is inclined to be contentious, [I] have no other practice.”
For those interested in a fruitful dialogue between representatives of the different positions, I direct them to the interchange at Lindsey Kennedy’s site. Although I am pretribulational, I thought PreWrath advocate Alan Kurschner did the best job of explaining his position. Most evangelical scholars today—at least those in the limelight—seem to espouse posttribulationism, so I don’t feel the need to link to any particular website. For those looking for a well articulated advocacy of pretribulationism I recommend Andy Woods’ series at Spirit &Truth. Here is a link to his articles.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.