Among premillennialists, there is another debate related to Christ’s second coming which focuses on the question of the rapture. This refers to the event predicted in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 when believers—both dead and living at the time— are “caught up . . . in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (v. 17). Premillennialists debate whether the rapture is a distinguishable phase of Christ’s second coming—and if it is, when it happens in relation to the great tribulation. The two most common views on the rapture today are the posttribulational and pretribulational views, but there are others as well.
The posttribulational view does not believe that the rapture is a distinguishable phase of Christ’s second coming. As a result, the church will suffer through the great tribulation, and then Christ will return. When He does, all believers will be resurrected, rise to meet Him in the clouds, and immediately return with Him to earth as He defeats the wicked and establishes His millennial kingdom. Posttribulationalists maintain that Scripture nowhere teaches that Christ will come in two phases but assumes a single event; the other views are built on unwarranted inferences from the text.
Pretribulationalism asserts that the rapture will occur before the great tribulation, and then Christ will return to earth after the great tribulation to set up His millennial kingdom. Hence, Christ comes in two phases: for His saints before the great tribulation (rapture), and with His saints after the great tribulation (return to earth). The pretribulational view is typically held by dispensationalists.
Pretribulationalists make several arguments to support this view, but we will only mention two here. The first pertains to the purpose of the great tribulation. Its purpose is not only to pour God’s wrath on the rebellious human world, but also to prepare Israel through trials to receive the Messiah (e.g., Dan. 9:24–27; Jer. 30:7; Rev. 7). The church has no role in either purpose. Indeed, Scripture teaches that while the church certainly should expect trials, she is exempt from the coming divine wrath related to the great tribulation (Rev. 3:10; 1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9). The second argument relates to a tension in Christ’s second coming. On the one hand, Scripture teaches the imminence of Christ’s return; He could come back at any time and so believers must be ready (e.g., James 5:7–9; 1 Thess. 1:10; Phil. 3:20–21; Titus 2:13; Rev. 22:20). On the other hand, Scripture indicates there will be signs before Christ’s return (Matt. 24). The pretribulational rapture handles this tension well: the rapture is imminent, but the signs pertain to Christ’s return to earth after the rapture and tribulation.
There have been other, less common views on the rapture. All share the pretribulational conviction that the rapture is a distinguishable phase of Christ’s second coming, but they differ from pretribulationalism and from one another on the timing of the rapture. Midtribulationalists maintain that the rapture occurs at the midway point of the great tribulation, which helps explain why Scripture mentions or alludes to this midway point several times (e.g., Dan. 7:25; 9:27; 12: 7, 11; Rev. 12:14). The prewrath rapture maintains that the rapture occurs three-quarters of the way through Daniel’s seventieth week. The third quarter of that seven year period is the great tribulation, and so the church will suffer through that. However, the last quarter of those seven-years will be the time of God’s wrath, and the church will be raptured before that (Rev. 3:10). The partial rapture view maintains that the rapture itself occurs in multiple phases throughout the great tribulation depending on whether the person is spiritually mature and thus prepared for Christ’s coming.
Our view on the rapture has an impact on our outlook. If the rapture is imminent, we should always be prepared for His coming and await it with joyful anticipation, for He could even come today. If the rapture awaits some or all of the great tribulation, we should expect the possibility of greater suffering before Christ returns to end it forever. Since hope is so important in the Christian life (Heb. 11:1; 1 Cor. 13:13; 15:58), this is not an insignificant consideration.
by J. Brian Tucker and David Finkbeiner
Theology can be intimidating, full of big words and lofty ideas. Yet theological terms aren’t just for professors to argue about in...
Sign up for learning delivered to your inbox weekly