On what basis do pretribulationists argue that the Rapture of the Church and Christ’s visible return to earth are two distinct events, the one preceding the other by at least seven years?

The Rapture is Always Presented in Scripture as an Imminent Event

Pretribulationists argue, firstly, that in Scripture, the Rapture is always presented as an imminent event. This is not to be confused with the classic teaching of the imminence of Christ’s Second Coming, based on such statements as Matthew 24:36, 42, and 44.

According to the pretribulationist scheme of things, these sayings refer not to the Rapture, this already having taken place seven years earlier, but to Christ’s visible return to earth following the “tribulation”. Pretribulationists base their view of the Rapture as an imminent event on such passages as John 14:3, 1 Thessalonians 4-5, and 1 John 3:1-3:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. 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. You know the way to the place where I am going.” (Jn. 14:1-3)

Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words. (1 Thess. 4:13-18)

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure. (1 Jn. 3:1-3)

They argue, on the flimsy basis of the fact that no other events are mentioned as preceding the Rapture in these passages, that the Rapture is presented as an imminent event. But all these passages do is describe the Rapture. They neither support nor preclude the possibility of an imminent Rapture.

Indeed, there are a number passages of Scripture which show that before Jesus could return, a number of events had first to take place.

Walvoord, a pretribulationist, writes, concerning these:

The following arguments are usually included in the posttribulational statement: (1) the promise of Christ to Peter that he would die in old age (John 21:18-19); (2) various parables that teach a long interval between the time the Lord leaves and the time He returns (Matt. 25:14-30); (3) intimations that the program for the present age is extensive (Matt. 13:1-50); 28:19-20; Luke 19:11-27; Acts 1:5-8); (4) Paul’s long-distance plans for missionary journeys and his knowledge of his approaching death, a tacit denial that he believed in the imminent return of Christ; (5) the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem, preceding the Second Advent (Luke 21:20-24); (6) the specific signs of the Second Advent given to the disciples (Matt. 24:1-25:30). (p. 166, John F. Walvoord, The Rapture Question: Revised and Enlarged Edition, 1929)

I would add to these passages 2 Thessalonians 2:1-3, a passage that seems to have escaped the attention of all but one pretribulationist author.

In addition, according to their own understanding of the seven letters to the seven churches that are in Asia recorded in Revelation 2 and 3, at least the first six of the seven ages of the Church had first to elapse before Christ could return.

Deliverance from Wrath

Pretribulationists argue, secondly, that the Church has been promised deliverance from wrath, which, they say, is poured out during the Tribulation.

In his first letter the Thessalonians Paul enjoins his Thessalonian converts to “wait for [God’s] Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 10:1) It is argued that “the wrath to come” consists of the “judgments” which (they say) is described as being poured out on the inhabitants of the earth in chapters 6 to 19 of the book of Revelation.

Some posttribulationists counter this by saying that the wrath refers to the wrath of hell. This is not a particularly strong argument, because wrath is never once explicitly used in the New Testament with reference to hell. In several places in the book of Revelation, it is clearly used of the wrath which is poured out on the inhabitants of the earth in that period which the book of Revelation describes.

Another line of argument is that in every place where wrath is described as being poured out, it clearly concerns unbelievers alone, or that just as God protected the Israelites, who dwelt in Goshen, during all ten of the ten plagues of Egypt, believers will be similarly protected during the “tribulation”.

Neither of these arguments are necessary.

There are only two places in the Book of Revelation in which wrath is mentioned. The first of these is Revelation 6:15:

Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Rev. 6:15-17)

The second is Revelation 16:

Then I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, “Go, pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath on the earth.”

The first angel went and poured out his bowl on the land, and ugly and painful sores broke out on the people who had the mark of the beast and worshiped his image. The second angel poured out his bowl on the sea, and it turned into blood like that of a dead man, and every living thing in the sea died.

The third angel poured out his bowl on the rivers and springs of water, and they became blood. Then I heard the angel in charge of the waters say:

“You are just in these judgments,
you who are and who were, the Holy One,
because you have so judged;
for they have shed the blood of your saints and prophets,
and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve.”

And I heard the altar respond:

“Yes, Lord God Almighty,
true and just are your judgments.”

The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was given power to scorch people with fire. They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him.

The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was plunged into darkness. Men gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done.

The sixth angel poured out his bowl on the great river Euphrates, and its water was dried up to prepare the way for the kings from the East.

Then I saw three evil spirits that looked like frogs; they came out of the mouth of the dragon, out of the mouth of the beast and out of the mouth of the false prophet. They are spirits of demons performing miraculous signs, and they go out to the kings of the whole world, to gather them for the battle on the great day of God Almighty.

“Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed.”

Then they gathered the kings together to the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.

The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and out of the temple came a loud voice from the throne, saying, “It is done!” Then there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder and a severe earthquake. No earthquake like it has ever occurred since man has been on earth, so tremendous was the quake. The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed. God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury of his wrath. Every island fled away and the mountains could not be found. From the sky huge hailstones of about a hundred pounds each fell upon men. And they cursed God on account of the plague of hail, because the plague was so terrible.

The first of these passages describes events which take place at Christ’s visible return to earth following the Rapture. No time scale is assigned to the pouring out of the vials, or bowls, in the second of these two passages. If one posits, as I do, a relatively brief interval between the Rapture and Christ’s visible return to earth consisting of fifteen days, it is possible to assign the events described in this second passage to this fifteen-day period.

The Church does escape wrath, and it does so because it is raptured before the wrath is poured out. But it doesn’t follow from this that the Church is raptured seven years before Christ’s visible return to earth.

Kept from the Hour

In the letter to the church in Philadelphia which the glorified Christ commands the exiled John to take down on the prison-island of Patmos, Christ promsies them:

“Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth.” (Rev. 3:10)

It is argued that this promise, made in the context of the sixth of seven letters to the seven churches which are in Asia, is for all believers, not only those of the first century church in Philidelphia. It is further argued that the Greek preposition ek, which has been translated “from”, should be translated “out from”. Thus, all believers are promised that they will be “kept out of” the “tribulation” by being raptured before the “tribulation” gets underway.

Scholars learned in New Testament Greek on both sides of the debate have devoted many pages to the question of whether the words “keep out from” can be understood in this way. Having little knowledge of New Testament Greek, there is nothing that I can add to the debate, nor do I think it necessary.

In the first place, it is doubtful whether a promise made to a first century church in Asia Minor can be applied to the whole Church. Secondly, if the promises recorded in these seven letters can be applied to the whole Church, why not the warnings also?

Pretribulationists, in a departure from their Futurist interpretation of the Book of Revelation, have adopted the traditional historicist understanding of the seven letters to the seven churches which are in Asia as referring to the seven ages of the Church.

Let us for the sake of argument agree with pretribulationists that the seven letters to the seven churches which are in Asia describe seven ages of the Church, the first letter, that to the church in Ephesus, the apostolic Church, and so on down to the seventh, the church in Laodicea, which describes the Church of the present age. It is surely most odd that pretribulationist writers apply a promise to the sixth of these churches to the whole Church when they hold that it is the letter to the seventh of these churches, the church in Laodicea, which most resembles the Church today.

In order to get around this problem, pretribulationists make the sixth and the seventh age run concurrently!

Lastly, speaking of a period of time which is called “the time of Jacob’s trouble”, the LORD declares:

“Alas! For that day is great, so that none is like it: it is even the time of Jacob’s trouble; but he shall be saved out of it.” (Jer. 31:7)

We find here the same expression “out of ” which, in the context of Revelation 3:10, pretribulationists make so much of. Yet no pretribulationist argues that unbelieving Jews, to whom this passage refers, will be saved out of the tribulation by being raptured!

Daniel’s Seventieth Week if for the Jews Alone

Pretribulationists argue that the Rapture will take place before the “tribulation” on the basis of their view of Daniel’s seventieth week.

The angel Gabriel tells Daniel:

“Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end to sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most holy.”(Dan. 9:24)

They rightly understand these seventy weeks to refer to seventy weeks of years, not days, that is a total of 490 years (70 x 7 = 490).

From the words, “thy people”, they argue that these seventy weeks concern the Jews alone, with which contention it is impossible to disagree.

They then argue that the first 69 weeks, which are dealt with in verses 25 and 26, finish with Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, following which, he was indeed “cut off” (Dan. 9:26).

Initially dating the commandment of verse 25, which they identified that of one of Cyrus’s successors, to 445 BC, and interpreting the sevens to consist of seven years of 360 days each, Robert Anderson found that the first 69 sevens finished in April 32 AD. When it was found, on the basis of astronomical evidence, that Christ could not possibly have been crucified on a Friday in this year, the dates were shifted to 444 BC and 33 AD, which, on the understanding that Christ was born before 4B.C., would make him to be at least 36 at the time of his death.

Concerning Daniel’s 70th week, the NIV has Gabriel say:

“He will confirm a covenant with many for one ‘seven’. In the middle of the ‘seven’ he will put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on a wing of the temple he will set up an abomination that causes desolation, until the end that is descreed is poured out on him.” (Dan. 9:27, NIV)

Because nothing of the nature of what is described in this verse took place in a seven-year period immediately following Christ’s triumphal entry, pretribulationists argue that these words refer to the final seven years immediately preceding Christ’s visible return to earth. In defiance of a natural understanding of the text, which is that the “he” of this passage refers to “the Anointed One, the ruler”, they say that the “he” of this verse must be the “prince that shall come” of verse 26. This they say, is not Titus, who did not fulfil the words of verse 27, but the future Antichrist, who will make a treaty with the Jews for a sven-year period, enabling them to rebuild the temple on Temple Mount, and bringing peace to the Middle East. In the middle of this seven-year period, however, he will go back on his word, putting a end to the sacrifice and offering which will have been resumed in the rebuilt temple, and set up an abomination of desolation in the temple precincts.

They therefore place a hiatus, or gap, between Daniel’s 69th and 70th weeks – a gap which hitherto has lasted nearly two thousand years.

If this final seven-year period is for Jews only, there is no further further need for the Church to be on earth at this point and into this alleged gap, they place the entire Church age, the Church being, they say, a “mystery” unknown to the Old Testament prophets.

Is such an understanding of Daniel 9 tenable?

American theologian, J. Barton Payne, and British medical missionary, Robert Gurney, who accept the received chronology of the Persian kings, date the commandment of verse 25, which they identify with an earlier decree of Artaxerxes, to 538 BC. Counting off 69 sevens of solar years from this date, they arrive at the date AD 26, a possible date of Christ’s baptism according to one way of dating the reign of Roman emperors (Lk. 3:1). Taking this to be the true terminus ad quem of verse 25, they make the final seven begin with Christ’s baptism in the river Jordan. If we follow the translation given in the Authorised Version, verse 27 can be understood to mean that Christ confirmed the covenant of grace with the Jews alone for one week: and in the midst of the week he caused the sacrifice and the oblation of the Old Testament dispensation to cease by the supreme sacrifice of himself upon the cross, of which the sacrifice and oblation of the Old Testament dispensation were but types. Daniel’s final, and seventieth, week came to a close three and a half years after the crucifixion, when the disciples ceased to preach the Gospel to the Jews alone, and began to preach the Gospel also to the Gentiles.

What of the second half of verse 27 which, as translated in the NIV cannot possibly refer to Christ? A footnote in the NIV gives an alternative possible translation:

“And one who causes desolation will come upon the pinnacle of the abominable temple, until the end that is decreed is poured out on the desolated city.”

This clearly refer to Titus, the Roman general whose people did indeed “destroy the city and the sanctuary” in accordance with Gabriel’s words in AD 70. Reading the translation given in the main body of the text of the NIV, however, one could be forgiven for thinking that the only possible interpretation of this verse was that of the dispensationalists.

Martin Anstey, who was followed in this by Philip Mauro and, more recently, by the American evangelist, Ralph Woodrow, took another approach to the problem. They rejected the received chronology of Ptolemy, who lived in the fourth century AD, and who based his chronology on guesswork and various floating traditions. Identifying the commandment of verse 25 with the decree of Cyrus, and identifying the terminus ad quem of that verse with Christ’s baptism, which they also dated to AD 26, they counted backwards and arrived at 538 as the true date of the decree of Cyrus, the commandment of verse 25.

Daniel’s final, and seventieth, week has been fulfilled in its entirety, and there is no call, therefore, for placing a gap between Daniel’s 69th and 70th weeks. To do so is, says Ralph Woodrow, rather like being told that there are 70 miles between Los Angeles and Chicago, only to find, after drving the first 69 miles, that a gap of 2,000 miles has been placed between the 69th and 70th miles!

As to the Church being a “mystery” not foretold by the Old Testament prophets, a careful reading of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians will show that the “mystery” to which Paul refers, and “which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the spirit”, is “that the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel” (Eph. 5, 6). The dispensationalist teaching on the relationship between believing Old Testament Jews and the largely Gentile New Testament Church as being two separate bodies is in direct conflict with a correct understanding of this verse and of Jesus’s statement that believing Jews of the Old Testament and both Jewish and Gentile believers of the New Testament dispensation form one “fold” (Jn. 10:16), and Paul’s statement that they form one “olive tree” (Rom. 11:16-24).

It will be seen that the entire pretribulationist scheme of that final period of human history immediately preceding Christ’s Second Coming as being a seven-year countdown beginning with the signing of a treaty with Israel is based on a misunderstanding of Daniel’s 70th, and final, week.


1 Response to “3. The Case for Pretribulationism Examined”

  1. 1 Stephen Amy February 16, 2008 at 3:12 pm

    I agree. Read my support for this at my web site. Stephen.

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