The Scriptures predict a period of tribulation which would come between the present age and the age to come. This period of intense sorrow will end with the second coming of Christ to the earth. But will it begin with His coming into the air and the rapture of the saved, or will it begin before He comes, and will the church pass through the tribulation?
It is the purpose of this chapter to examine the underlying reasons and assumptions of each view in order to give you a better basis for deciding which view you will take.
Some say that the church will pass through the tribulation and that the catching up of the redeemed will be immediately followed by their return with Christ. Other say that the church will pass through the first half of the period and that the rapture will take place in the middle of it. The partial-rapturists teach that the unspiritual part of the church will pass through the tribulation, but the mature and Spirit-filled will be caught up before tribulation. And some say that Jesus will come for the church before tribulation. Partial rapture concerns the extent of the rapture, while the other four views focus on the time of the rapture.
As noted in chapter three, the early church expected the premillennial coming of Christ. Was its teaching also pretribulational? In the testimony of the early church fathers, there is almost complete silence on the subject of the tribulation. They often speak of going through tribulations, but very seldom of a future period known as the great tribulation. This is probably because during the first centuries of the church, the church was passing through many persecutions and it did not concern itself with the future tribulation period.
2.1 Some Writings From the Early Church Fathers Support Pretribulational Rapture
However, there are two intimations of a belief in the pretribulational return of Christ:
- Hermas' writings; and
- Irenaeus' writings.
2.1.1 Hermas' writings (late 1st to early 2nd century)
There is an interesting paragraph in the Shepherd of Hermas that gives some information on the subject. Hermas writes that:
"He passed by a wild beast on the way, and that thereafter a maiden met him and saluted him, saying, 'Hail, O Man!' He returned her salutation, and said, 'Lady, hail!' Then she asked him, 'Has nothing crossed your path?' To this, Hermas replied, 'I was met by a beast of such a size that it could destroy peoples, but through the power of the Lord and His great mercy I escaped from it.' Then the maiden said, 'Well did you escape from it, because that you can be saved by no other than His great and glorious name ... You have escaped from great tribulation on account of your faith, and because you did not doubt in the presence of such a beast. Go, therefore, and tell the elect of the Lord His mighty deeds, and say to them this beast is a type of the great tribulation that is coming. If then ye prepare yourselves, and repent with all your heart, and turn to the Lord, it will be possible for you to escape it, if your heart be free and spotless, and ye spend the rest of your days in serving the Lord blamelessly'" (Hermas, Shepherd of Hermas, Book I, Vision IV, Chapter ii).
This seems to show that there was teaching that the church would escape the future great tribulation period.
2.1.2 Irenaeus' writings (late 2nd century)
Irenaeus also seems to hold that the church will be caught up during the tribulation, for he says:
"And therefore, when in the end the church shall be suddenly caught up from this, it is said, "There shall be tribulation such as has not been since the beginning, neither shall be. For this is the last contest of the righteous, in which, when they overcome, they are crowned with incorruption" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter xxix).
But, in another place, he also teaches that the church is present during the days of the Antichrist (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book V, Chapter xxvi, xxx). Thus, while the belief among the fathers concerning the tribulation is not clear, and there seems to be some confusion, there is at least intimation of it.
2.2 Early Church Fathers Believe in the Imminence of the Lord Jesus Christ's Return
It is clear that the early church fathers regarded the Lord Jesus Christ's coming as imminent. The Lord Jesus had taught the church to expect His return at any moment, and the church looked for Him to come in their day and taught His personal return as being imminent. The exception to this was the Alexandrian Fathers, who also rejected other fundamental doctrines.
The early church lived in the constant expectation of their Lord, and hence was not concerned with the possibility of a tribulation period in the future (see Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, I, 11). This may be the reason for the silence concerning the tribulation in the fathers.
2.3 St. Augustine (A.D. 354 - 430) to the Middle Ages
With the rise of Constantine and the state church and the influence of St. Augustine's eschatological position, the church turned to an allegorizing of the Scriptures concerning the Lord's return. And with the denial of a literal millennium, the tribulation was allegorized or ignored.
2.4 The Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, as we have seen, the eschatological interpretation gradually adopted was the so-called historical view, which places eschatological events within the history of the church. The leaders in the Middle Ages are silent concerning the pretribulational rapture.
2.5 The Reformation Period
The Reformers returned to the doctrine of the second coming, but their emphasis was on the doctrine of Salvation rather than the development of the details of eschatology. Protestants tended to identify the Antichrist with papal Rome. The tribulation was already occurring, or would occur within the customary span of history. In this framework there was certainly no expectation of an imminent coming of Christ. Even Protestants who were premillennial tended to follow the historical mode of interpretation.
Some segments of the Reformation were premillennial in orientation, and they were all of the posttribulational variety. Some of these sects experienced real opposition and even persecution - much of it religious in source and nature - so it is not surprising that these sects expected the church to remain on earth during the great tribulation.
2.6 The Popularity And Predominance of Posttribulational Rapture in the Eighteenth Centuries
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a large number of significant Bible scholars in Great Britain and America were premillennialists, among them Isaac Newton, Charles Wesley and J.H. Raven. With the exception of the dispensationalist Plymouth Brethren, almost all were posttribulationists.
2.7 The Rise of Pretribulational Rapture in 1830
In 1830, a new school arose within the fold of premillennialism, pretribulational rapture was developed by John Nelson Darby (1800 - 1882), a leader of the Plymouth Brethren movement, as an important doctrine in eschatology. Darby taught that Christ will come to rapture the church before the tribulation and before He comes in glory to establish the millennial kingdom. Darbyism constituted the recovery of the Biblical doctrine of the glorious second coming of Christ.
2.8 The Rise of Partial Rapture in 1853
The partial rapture view originated with Robert Govett in 1853 in his book Entrance into the Kingdom: The Apocalypse Expounded by Scripture.
It was also taught by J.A. Seiss in his book The Apocalypse, New York: Cook, 1865 and G.H. Lang The Revelation of Jesus Christ, London: Paternoster, 1948. They taught that only those believers who are "watching" and "waiting" for the Lord's return will be found worthy to escape the terrors of the seven-year tribulation period by being taken in the rapture. However, this view is rarely accepted by Christians today.
2.9 The Revival of Pretribulational Rapture: 1878 - 1909
Interest in prophetic teaching and preaching was a major factor in the rise of the Bible Conference movement, in which ministers and laymen who accepted a set of commonly accepted beliefs gathered for fellowship. The best known conference was the Niagara Conference during the period 1878 to 1909. After it was discontinued, a new conference was established at Seacliff, Long Island, in 1901. It was at Seacliff that C.I. Scofield (1843 - 1921) conceived the idea of a reference Bible. The Scofield Reference Bible was widely distributed in conservative circles as it was the only Bible study aid possessed by many laymen. It was particularly effective in spreading dispensationalism and pretribulationism.
2.10 The Popularity And Predominance of Pretribulational Rapture: 1909 - 1952
Also effective in promoting pretribulationism was the Bible institute movement. As more and more seminaries of the major denominations turned toward a liberal theology, conservative churches increasingly looked to the Bible institutes for pastors, and these institutes were almost exclusively pretribulational. As a result this viewpoint was adopted by most conservative independent and Baptist churches, as well as by many other "free churches."
With the influence of dispensationalism spreading in conservative and fundamentalist circles, a virtual polarization occurred following World War 1: one must be either amillennial or pretribulational. To be a premillennialist - a real premillennialist - was to be pretribulational as well, in the minds of many dispensationalists.
While pretribulationism gained a broader base of popular support, it also received exegetical and theological development after 1930 from a new generation of scholars. They were trained in recently-established seminaries doctrinally committed to dispensationalism. For examples, Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Charles L. Feinberg, John F. Walvoord, J. Dwight Pentecost and Lewis Sperry Chafer.
2.11 The Rise of Midtribulational Rapture in 1941
A different view on the time of the rapture emerged in 1941 when Norman B. Harrison published the book, The End: Rethinking the Revelation. He believed the rapture of the church would occur midway through the seven-year period known as Daniel's seventieth week. As a result, the church will not be on earth when God pours out His wrath during the three and one-half years before Christ returns to earth. However, this view is rarely accepted by Christians today.
2.12 The Revival of Posttribulational Rapture in 1952
Immediately following World War II, however, a movement arose popularly known as new evangelicalism, challenging many features of the dispensationalist-fundamentalist alliance. In 1952 such men as Edward J. Carnell and George E. Ladd developed and expounded a posttribulational premillennialism. Crucial Questions About the Kingdom of God by Ladd in 1952 attempted to promote the posttribulational rapture view.
2.13 The Hot Debate Between the Posttribulationists and Pretribulationists: 1953 - 1976
The Basis of the Premillennial Faith by Charles Caldwell Ryrie in 1953 provided a pretribulational rapture counterpoint to Ladd's posttribulational rapture view. Through an inductive study of the terms Israel and church, Ryrie concluded that "the Church in its entirety is never designated Israel in Scripture." Also he believed that both natural Israel and spiritual Israel were contrasted with the church in the New Testament. This basic distinction substantiated dispensationalism and the pretribulational rapture view as the most consistent expressions of premillennialism.
In 1956 Ladd published his book, The Blessed Hope, in order to once again promote the posttribulational rapture view and also to challenge the pretribulational rapture view. In 1979 John F. Walvoord, president of Dallas Theological Seminary, published a revised edition of his book (Note: 1st Edition was published in 1957), The Rapture Question, in order to reply Ladd's arguments.
A survey in 1958 showed that 88% of pastors and teachers believed in the two-phase return of Christ. Recall that this would embrace the midtribulation view as well as pretribulational position.
In Dispensationalism Today (1965), Charles Caldwell Ryrie updated the debate about the rapture by highlighting the main features of dispensational premillennialism. He pointed to consistent literal interpretation, the literal fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, a clear distinction between Israel and the church, the pretribulational rapture, and the millennial kingdom as integral parts of the system.
In 1973 Robert H. Gundry, Professor of Religious Studies at Westmont College (California), published his book, The Church and the Tribulation. He argued that posttribulationism had a direct exegetical base of Scriptural statements on the return of Christ and the resurrection. On the other hand, he considered that pretribulationism rested on "insufficient evidence and faulty exegesis.
An early response to Gundry's challenge came from John A. Sproule, Chairman of the Department of New Testament and Greek at Grace Theological Seminary (Indiana). Sproule located Gundry's basic error in the premise that most of Christ's teaching, especially the Olivet Discourse, applied directly to the church. Gundry's posttribulational view resulted from his approach to the Olivet Discourse. ThereSproule critiqued Gundry's presuppositions, exegesis and logic. Sproule argued that God's wrath embraces the entire seven-year tribulation period and the true church has been promised exemption from that wrath, therefore pretribulationism must be the correct view.
In his book, The Blessed Hope and the Tribulation (1976), John F. Walvoord criticized that posttribulationists tend to spiritualize prophecy and make "improper use of the inductive method of logic" in exegesis and theology. Comparing it with pretribulationism, he pointed to unresolved posttribulational problems, such as: the silence of Scripture in areas critical to posttribulationism, contrasting details between the rapture and the second coming of Christ to earth, and inherent contradictions in interpretation. He summarized the advantages of pretribulationism as consistency in logic, in literal interpretation, and in looking moment-by-moment for the Lord's return.
2.14 The Rise of Pre-Wrath Rapture in 1990
In 1990 Marvin J. Rosenthal published his book The Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church. He placed the rapture of the church at the "Day of the Lord" which occurs after the man of lawlessness is revealed (2 Thessalonians 2:3) and after the tribulation of those days is interrupted and cut short by that "Day of the Lord" return of Jesus (Matthew 24:29).
Since the prewrath rapture view is newly announced in recent years, it is rarely accepted by Christians at the present moment.
2.15 Recent Development
Nowadays, most of the reputable Bible scholars are either posttribulationists or pretribulationists. The leading pretribulationists are as follows:
- J. Dwight Pentecost;
- John F. Walvoord;
- Charles L. Feinberg;
- Charles Caldwell Ryrie;
- Paul D. Feinberg;
- Robert L. Thomas;
- R.E. Harlow;
- John Phillips;
- William MacDonald; and
- William H. Baker.
The leading posttribulationists are as follows:
- George E. Ladd;
- Dave MacPherson;
- Robert H. Gundry;
- Douglas J. Moo; and
- Millard J. Erickson.
In addition, some of the world famous Bible Institutes support the dispensational pretribulational rapture view, for examples:
- Dallas Theological Seminary;
- Emmaus Bible College; and
- Moody Bible Institute.
Due to the leadership and influence of the aboved mentioned Bible scholars, at the present time, the two leading positions are:
- posttribulational rapture; and
- pretribulational rapture.