This is something of a response to a blog post I came across here, regarding belief in the pre-tribulation rapture. It’s entitled Eschatology 102: why I believe in the rapture, by Jesse Johnson, and is said by him to have been written to “explain why I believe in a rapture at all.” As I read, I felt inspired, for some reason, to write this response in order to examine the scripture passages which were presented to prove the pre-tribulation rapture. While I don’t believe those who adhere to belief in a pre-tribulation rapture are heretics or not brothers in Christ, the use of the scripture compelled me to, perhaps, offer a counter-viewpoint.
Our author states at the beginning that “the Bible does describe this event in at least three places,” each of which we’ll examine one at a time, starting with the first one (the quotes from the blog will be in purple):
In John 14:3, Jesus tells the discouraged disciples that he is going to leave them and return to his father. But he tells them that when arrives in glory he is not going to be idle. Instead, he is going to be busy preparing a place for believers to dwell. He says, “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am.” In this passage, Jesus describes an act of removing Christians from the earth, and taking them to heaven—or wherever it is that he is preparing a place for us.
The immediate problem here is that we forget Christ is not simply speaking to Christians of a certain generation, but to Christians in general – we know this because this entire address (from chapter thirteen up to the high priestly prayer) is being given specifically to the disciples. While I don’t deny that most in this chapter would be relevant to modern day Christians as well, there are many places in this section where it is quite clearly being addressed to and/or would be directly relevant to the disciples (cf. Jn 15:26-27; 16:2; 16:4b-7; 16:16; 16:22; 16:32). What this means is that, if Christ were speaking of a pre-tribulation rapture, it would have been completely irrelevant to the disciples, as none of them can experience the pre-tribulation rapture in the manner described.
Our author states here that this verse describes “an act of removing Christians from the earth.” He will go on to say, in the same article, that this speaks of “a physical removal of believers from the earth,” and “a time when believers will be physically removed from the planet, meet the Lord Jesus in the air, and be with him forever.” However, there is nothing here directly implying that this is Christ’s intent or meaning, nor is there anything implying that this will take place in the pre-tribulation period. This has to be read into the verse.
Most commentators throughout history have referred this to the general return of Christ and the coming day of judgment. In this sense, these passages would be relevant not only for the disciples, but all Christians who came after them. Christ is speaking of preparing “dwelling places” for us, and that a place will be prepared for all Christians (not just those in the pre-tribulation rapture), and when Christ returns it will be to unite all believers with Him, so that they would truly dwell with him. However, this does not require belief in the pre-tribulation rapture in order to be true. As was stated before, nothing about a tribulation is even mentioned here, only a fulfillment of Christ’s promise that the places reserved for believers would be granted to them after he returns.
In 1 Thessalonians 4:17, Paul uses very similar language. He explains that when the Lord comes in the air with the souls of those who have already died, he will raise their bodies from the earth. And: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” Both Paul and Jesus describe a physical removal of believers from the earth. And notably both say that their new home will be with the Lord, in glory, forever.
Certainly a physical removal of believers is described here. That it is involved in a pre-tribulation rapture, however, is not. One could very well interpret this section of scripture as the bringing up of the living and the dead (who are mentioned in vv. 13-15) at the end times, when Christ returns to judge the world.
First Corinthians 15:51-54 is the most detailed account of this rapture. Here, Paul describes it as happening in an instant, “in the twinkling of an eye” (v. 52). He says that the trumpet will sound (cf. 1 Thess 4:16), our physical bodies will be “raised” and “changed” (v. 52), and our mortal flesh will put on “immortality” (v. 54).
Our author is not incorrect in the description of what the verses say – the issue, however, is the claim that this describes a pre-tribulation rapture. The apostle Paul, in speaking generally of the resurrection, touches on the subject of flesh and blood in regards to the resurrection, saying in verse 50: “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” He goes on to say in verse 52: “the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Paul’s emphasis here is not on any rapture (nor does he even hint at a pre-tribulation rapture), but rather on the nature of our bodies and how they will be treated at the resurrection.
Our author continues his three main verses, going on to discuss the rapture a bit more in detail:
Other passages hint at the reality of the rapture. The day of the Lord is described as both a time of judgement on the earth and a time of rescue for believers. Revelation 3:10 pledges that believers who endure the trials of this age will be kept from the time of tribulation to come.
This is perhaps the first verse we have seen which might suggest the teaching of a pre-tribulation rapture within scripture. The issue, again, is in the context.
Revelation 3:1-13 is a section of the letters from Christ to the various churches in Asia Minor, and is the one specifically addressed to Philadelphia (now Alasehir in modern day Turkey). Let’s review the context of the verse quickly:
“I know your deeds. Behold, I have put before you an open door which no one can shut, because you have a little power, and have kept My word, and have not denied My name. Behold, I will cause those of the synagogue of Satan, who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie – I will make them come and bow down at your feet, and make them know that I have loved you. Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. I am coming quickly; hold fast what you have, so that no one will take your crown. He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God and My new name.” [Revelation 3:8-12]
Let us now speak about a few realities concerning this passage:
1) This passage is directed specifically to the church in Philadelphia – the “you” throughout the verses. Now, while I would agree with those in the spiritual camp (who believe the letters to the churches in Revelation provide timeless lessons for churches throughout history), we have to also remember to whom these passages are written and the historical context. Otherwise, we become like those who abuse Revelation 3:20, applying it to unbelievers asking them to convert, when in actuality it is addressed to believers telling them to repent. Certainly, many who interpret Revelation from a futurist mindset recognize that these letters are addressed to specific churches in a specific context, hence why some argue that these letters are written to future churches in those cities, rather than churches that existed in that time period.
2) On this note, Christ is dealing with specific issues pertaining to this church. These Christians had been harassed by the local Jewish population (as Christians were well into the second century AD) whom Christ referred to as “the synagogue of Satan” (v. 9). These Jews had, through whatever means, attempted to compel the Christians in Philadelphia to disobey God’s word and deny Christ’s name (v. 8). The faithful in Philadelphia were experiencing temptation to deny God’s word and to fall out of faith, and yet, as we shall see, they had resisted this and remained faithful.
3) Christ states that, because the believers in Philadelphia have “kept the word of [His] perseverance” (meaning the perseverance of believers; Re 13:10), he will also keep them from “the hour of testing” which is “about to come upon the whole world” to “test those who dwell on the earth” (v. 10). Note very importantly: this promise is directly tied to the perseverance of the believers in Philadelphia; because they have kept the perseverance of faith, God will keep them from the “hour of testing” about to come upon the world. In fact, a grammatical play on words is being used here with τηρέω, or “to keep”: because the believers in Philadelphia kept (ἐτήρησας) the faith, Christ will have them kept (τηρήσω) from the “hour of testing.” Again, there is an obvious tie between the believers in Philadelphia and the hour of testing, not a future generation completely unrelated to the specific church addressed here.
No doubt many will harp on the use of the words “whole world” and “earth” in verse 10. However, we must understand that when scripture often speaks of “whole world” or “earth,” we must not immediately apply it to our modern day context of “the literal entire world.” Those who would contend this must go to Luke 2:1 and ask themselves what the evangelist meant when he wrote “all the world” was to be taxed. Are we to assume that Caesar Augustus sent Roman tax collectors to ancient China? That he sent Roman tax collectors across the seas and taxed the Native Americans? That Roman ships visited each of the Pacific islands, taxing the Samoans and Hawaiians? Obviously not. The context here, most likely, refers most likely to the “whole world” of the Roman Empire, or that region of the world. This makes much more sense in the context of the audience, as we know this letter is addressed to the church in Philadelphia, and is they who are going to be spared from the “hour of testing” about to fall on the “whole world.”
It must also be noted that there are two examples of begging the question in this use of Revelation 3:10:
1) While “keeping” is mentioned in the verse, it is not explicitly stated what the “keeping” entails, let alone is there anything to make us assume that it involves a rapture that will bring all believers from the earth to heaven. Many believe that this “keeping” to simply mean God’s granting strength to believers and preventing the “hour of testing” from being as bad upon them as it will be for unbelievers or false Christians. This would certainly fit with the context of the passage, in which Christ tells them that he has “put before [the Philadelphia believers] an open door which no one can shut” (v. 8), referring to a secured eternal salvation (cf. Re 21:25).
2) While an “hour of testing” is mentioned, it is never directly tied to the tribulation (which John mentions as a present reality for himself and his contemporary Christians; Re 1:9). In the immediate context, given that perseverance of faith is being discussed and the next verse has Christ commanding them to “hold fast” so that “no one will take your crown” (that is, the crown of life; Re 4:10), it is a testing of faith and repentance. Some will no doubt argue that those who believe in the pre-tribulation rapture do believe that the tribulation will be a test of faith and repentance for those on the earth, however we must remember that it has been established this is addressed to the church in Philadelphia, not a future, pre-tribulation generation.
Our author continues:
First Thessalonians 5:9 says that despite the coming judgment in the Day of the Lord, that believers will be spared that wrath.
Let us review the context of the verse quickly:
For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. For those who sleep do their sleeping at night, and those who get drunk get drunk at night. But since we are of the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him. [1 Thessalonians 5:2-10]
While it is true that the verse says believers will be spared from wrath, it is not the wrath of the tribulation. The apostle Paul does speak on the day of the Lord, and describes it as coming “like a thief in the night,” and hence commands that believers to be “sober,” rather than living sinfully and as if they were unconverted, that is, those who live in darkness. Paul then explains why we should live soberly: because God has not destined us for wrath, but “for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him” (vv. 9-10). In other words, this is speaking of the wrath of God’s judgment. This verse is not speaking of believers being carried up in a pre-tribulation rapture to be spared from a coming tribulation upon the earth.