Wrath or Rapture?

Is the rapture of the Church the next thing on the divine agenda? Could it not be possible that the Great Tribulation will intervene? Does it really matter? Some go so far as to suggest a kind of prophetic agnosticism, saying that good men have differed on the subject, so there is no way we can be sure. Scripture makes it clear that we are in the dark, but also that a light is shining, “a more sure word of prophecy” (2 Pet. 1:19). We can’t all be right now with our obviously different views, but some day, thank the Lord, we shall — when we see Him. Should we not just wait till then? I think not. Prophecy is not merely pre-history; it has its moral implications. What we think of the future will most certainly affect how we live in the present.

It might be helpful to begin with some clarifications. First, let it be stated that rapture is not only a biblical idea but a biblical word. The Greek word harpazo occurs thirteen times in the New Testament and is used to describe the catching up of Philip from the Negev (Acts 8:39) and of Paul into the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2-4). It is this word which appears in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 as “caught up.” The Latin translation uses the word rapturo from which our word rapture is anglicized.

Second, we note that much of the debate swirls around the word “the.” Those who believe in a pretribulation rapture are not attempting to hold a comfortable doctrine that avoids tribulation. Trouble is to be the lot of all who live godly in this present age, our Lord forewarned us. But will the Church pass through the Tribulation, that period called “tribulation — the great one”? Some solid reasons cause us to answer, “No.”

Third, let it be stated that we are left in no doubt how the prophetic scriptures are to be understood. We must simply ask how the prophecies which have already come to pass were fulfilled. The answer is: literally. How would it then follow that we are left to spiritualize the prophecies remaining to be fulfilled?

When one comes to the study of any portion of the Word of God, we bring with us certain presuppositions. This is necessary, or we would never accomplish anything. For example, we do not begin each study with the questions: Is there a God? Has this God revealed Himself? Is the Bible that revelation? There is a time for such questions, but surely not every time we open the Book.

One of the foundational issues which must be decided early in any serious study is the distinction between Israel and the Church. Has the Church replaced Israel or do they have distinctive origins, characters, and destinies? If God is finished with Israel, and she has no place in the momentous events of the last days, then we will come to the conclusion that the “elect” in Matthew 24 and the 144,000 of Revelation 7 are a spiritualized description of the Church. Yet the great covenant that God made with Abraham in Genesis 12 has never been revoked. The Lord Jesus Himself looked forward to the future of Israel when He said that the Holy City would be trodden down of the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles should be fulfilled.

It is not our purpose to draw the many distinctions between Israel and the Church,1 but such a study may well conclude with the observation that “the Church is not a sort of glorified Israel, but her direct contrast.”2 If Israel has no future, distinct from the Church, the Old Testament prophets will have a lot of explaining to do.

Let me suggest only three reasons why I believe the rapture is next on God’s timetable:

1. The Church must be removed so that Israel can be restored. If one takes such passages as Ezekiel 20 & 39 and Isaiah 66 in their plain and obvious sense, we must conclude that it is the divine purpose to return Israel not only to Jerusalem and Judea but to Jehovah. Yet as long as the Church is on the earth, all Jews who come to God become part of this mystery, the one Body. Israel, therefore, cannot be restored spiritually as a nation with her earthly hopes and promises as long as the Church, a heavenly people, is being constructed of both Jews and Gentiles who turn to the Lord. As well, there is the impossibility that the Lord would own two temples on earth at the same time. In the present age of grace, the Church is His habitation, an holy temple in the Lord. Yet we read that the “man of sin” will, in the midst of the Tribulation, sit “in the temple of God”(2 Thess. 2:4). The true restoration of Israel’s God-given religion can only come about when the Church is gone.

2. The character of the Great Tribulation excludes the Church as much as it includes Israel. It is called “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30:7). Specifically addressing Israel (v. 3), the Lord tells them of His purposes in returning them to the land and restoring them to Himself by correcting them (v. 11). See also Daniel 12:1 where those in that time of unprecedented trouble are referred to as Daniel’s people. While it is true that the Gentile nations are included in the judgment of those terrible days, none of the Tribulation passages in either the Old or New Testament ever mention the Church. In fact, the Church is not only not mentioned, but is given specific promises of deliverance (see 1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9; Rev. 3:10; 6:17).

Perhaps, some say, we shall be delivered from the wrath as Israel was delivered from the plagues in Egypt, not by being physically removed but by being supernaturally preserved. Yet the promise of Revelation 3:10 is that we will be kept from (ek, out of) not only the trial of that hour, but from the “hour of trial” itself. And if kept out of somehow means kept in, of one thing we ought to be clear: the Tribulation saints are not kept from the troubles; many are slaughtered for their fidelity (Rev. 6:10-11; Mt. 24:22)!

Also, when we look for the Church on earth between Revelation 3 and 19, she is not to be found. Walvoord concludes: “How strange it would be in such a tremendous movement of events as will take place in the Tribulation time that no mention of the Church as such would appear if, as a matter of fact, the Church is actually in the period and enduring its trials.”4 And that’s not the only silence! If the Church is to pass through this time of wrath, why are the epistles silent on how to act under such conditions? Why are we repeatedly told instead to watch for our Saviour?

If such evidences leave you unconvinced, surely you must agree that it will not be the Church that goes through the Tribulation but only an infinitessimal part. And why? Is it that the believers in the last days are more carnal than at any other time and must be purged by this? Why, then, would the Lord tell the elect how to flee from it (Mt. 24:16-21)? If it is an honor to suffer this for Him, why would they seek an escape? Sadly, apostate Christendom will pass through this time on earth. Will a handful of saints from the Church be there too? Or is His coming for us imminent?

3. The imminency of Christ’s return, the certain hope of the early Church, could not survive the Great Tribulation. You cannot have it both ways. Either His coming is next, or the time of great trouble. Some, who seek to discredit the pretribulation view, tell us it is a novel idea invented by J. N. Darby or “borrowed” from a teenage Scottish mystic! While it is true one would be hard pressed to prove pretribulationism from the early fathers (or post-tribulationism, for that matter), one would also be hard pressed not to find the imminency of the Lord’s return in the early writings of the Church.5 This same view is also seen in the writings of the Reformers.6 And what of the New Testament? Were not the Thessalonian believers waiting for His Son from heaven (1 Thess. 1:10)? And even though Paul was ready to labor and ready to die, he included himself in the “we which are alive and remain” category at the time of His coming as opposed to “them which are asleep” (1 Thess. 4:15). 7

If our Lord’s coming might be, as far as we know, at any moment, if we are to be “like unto men that wait for their lord” (Lk. 12:36), then we shall anticipate with joy the shout, the voice, and the trump. Ah, say some, the last trump of 1 Corinthians 15 is the seventh trumpet of Revelation 11. If so, we must await the painful passage of Jacob’s trouble before we see our Lord. There are, however, two serious flaws in the argument. First, the Church’s trumpet summons is treated as a factual account, as real as the shout and the voice. But surely the seals and bowls and trumpets of outpoured wrath are not to be taken as actual; John was seeing in figure what eventually would come to pass. And even if the seventh trumpet of Revelation 11 is literal, it is not the last trumpet. At the coming of Christ to earth to establish His millennial kingdom, Matthew 24:31 tells us that a trumpet blast will gather His elect. As Walvoord notes: “There is no necessity of relating a trump for the Church with trumpets of judgment upon the unsaved. Each trumpet must be related to its own order. Any child in school knows that the last bell for one hour may be followed by a first bell for the next hour.”8

With whatever measure of light we peer through the darkness for the Daystar, can we not take the simple, sweet, and stimulating words of our Saviour as the blessed Book concludes: “Surely I come quickly,” and respond with highly-beating hearts: “Even so, come (quickly), Lord Jesus.”

FOOTNOTES:

1. J.D.Pentecost, in his book, Things to Come, pp. 201-202, lists 24 such distinctions.
2. A.Van Ryn, “Prophecy to Profit,” Light & Liberty, May 1966, p. 105
3. J.Walvoord, in his book, The Rapture Question, pp. 191-199, cites 50 arguments for pretribulationism, some stronger than others.
4. Ibid., p. 65
5. H.C.Thiessen, Will the Church Pass Through the Tribulation? p. 15
6. L.S.Chafer, Systematic Theology, IV, pp. 278-279
7. C.F.Hogg & W.E.Vine, Touching the Coming of the Lord, pp.164-167, for a fuller treatment of imminency.
8. Walvoord, Op. cit., p. 185