Eschatology, Part 5: Rapture and Tribulation

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Part five of the study on eschatology (study of end times). This entry looks at the rapture and the Great Tribulation. What are they? When will they happen?

Rapture

The term “rapture” comes from the Latin rapio, meaning “to seize, snatch, carry away.” It is the term used to describe the time when believers will be quickly taken by Christ to meet him in the air. Numerous songs have been written about this one event, including the famous “Midnight Cry,” made popular by musical group Gold City and used in the motion picture Left Behind.

Version from Left Behind
Version by Gold City

Two major debates exist regarding the rapture: first, whether it is literal or figurative and second, when it will occur. Regarding the actuality of the rapture, some believe that it is a figurative event, a view often held by amillennialists. However, many believe that the event is literal, especially premillennialists.

The debate often revolves around Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica. In it he writes,

16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.
– 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 (NASB)

Other verses related to the debate over whether the rapture is literal or figurative come from the Synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke):

30 And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF THE SKY with power and great glory. 31 And He will send forth His angels with A GREAT TRUMPET and THEY WILL GATHER TOGETHER His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.
– Matthew 24:30-31 (NASB)

26 Then they will see THE SON OF MAN COMING IN CLOUDS with great power and glory. 27 And then He will send forth the angels, and will gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest end of the earth to the farthest end of heaven.
– Mark 13:26-27 (NASB)

34 I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other will be left. 35 There will be two women grinding at the same place; one will be taken and the other will be left. 36 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other will be left.”
– Luke 17:34-36 (NASB)

In a previous article, I provided reasons why Scripture teaches at literal rapture rather than figurative.

The second debated issue is the timing of the rapture. This debate assumes a literal rapture since those who believe it is figurative often say it occurs at the moment of salvation. For those who believe in a literal rapture, it is debated whether it will occur before, during, or after the tribulation. These views are known as pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation, and post-tribulation.

Pre-tribulation theology teaches that the rapture occurs before the Great Tribulation (discussed below). Mid-tribulation theology teaches that it occurs halfway through the tribulation. Post-tribulation theology places the rapture at the end of the tribulation. There are numerous arguments for and against each of these views. In a previous article, I argued that the precise timing of the rapture is unknown to us, for we only know that it is yet to occur.

The final question regarding the rapture, which garners little debate, is who will be raptured. Scripture teaches that it is the believers who experience the rapture, not the unsaved.

Tribulation

Earlier in this series, I stated that that the term “tribulation” refers to (1) a time of suffering and persecution experienced by the believer and (2) the “Great Tribulation” that some say will occur just before the Second Coming during which believers undergo a time of extreme persecution. When this term is used in relationship to eschatology, including in this article, it generally refers to the latter.

The tribulation, like the rapture, is debated in regards to its actuality and its timing. Regarding its actuality, theologians argue that the tribulation refers to either (1) the persecution experienced by the Early Church, (2) a time just before the Second Coming when the church will experience persecution similar in intensity to that of the Early Church, (3) both one and two, or (4) the persecution experienced by the Church from its birth in Acts 2 until the Second Coming. Those who accept a figurative tribulation often accept view four; those adhering to a literal tribulation generally accept one of the first three.

Greater debate exists regarding the timing of the tribulation. Those who see it as figurative say it lasts as long as the Church exists, ending with the Second Coming. Those who accept a literal tribulation often accept one of the following views:

  • A seven year period just before the Second Coming
  • A three-and-a-half year period preceding the Second Coming
  • An unknown length of time just prior to the Second Coming
  • The time of extreme persecution experienced by the Early Church

The passage most often debated comes from the Olivet Discourse in Matthew, specifically Matthew 24:3-39. Others include numerous passages in Mark, Luke, John, 2 Thessalonians, 2 Peter, and Revelation.

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