Post-Trib, Pre-Wrath Rapture
Summary: The dominant belief about the timing of Jesus’ return for the church (the “rapture”) is that it will happen before the great tribulation occurs and is imminent. This article examines scriptural evidence that it will happen before God’s wrath but after the great tribulation.
(All scriptures are from “The Holy Bible, New International Version,” © 1984)
The disciples asked Jesus about the sign of his coming and of the end of the age (Mt 24:3). He spoke to them – and by extension to all who believe on him – using the word “you” repeatedly, which indicates his followers will experience what he described. Let’s consider some of his statements from the Gospel of Matthew.
First, he described what his followers will experience during a period he defined as the beginning of birth pains, suggesting increasing severity and frequency (Mt 24:8, described in 24:4-8):
- Watch out that no one deceives you (v 4)
- You will hear of wars and rumors of wars (v 6)
- Ethnic and national/geo-political conflicts (v 7)
- Famines and earthquakes (v 7)
After he defined the events of the beginning of birth pains, he described what his followers will experience during the next period. (Notice the word, “Then,” in verse 9) He called the next period the time of great distress (“great tribulation,” KJV), unequaled from the beginning of the world (24:21, described in 24:9-28). He said during this period his followers will experience the following:
- You will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, hated by all nations (v 9)
- You will see the “abomination that causes desolation” in the holy place (v 15)
- Don’t believe it when someone tells you the Christ is somewhere on earth (v 23, 26)
His use of the word, “you,” in these descriptions is strong evidence his followers will be on earth during the beginning of birth pains and the time of great distress. Notice that God cuts that time of distress short for the sake of the elect, clearly indicating the elect are on the earth and experiencing the severe distress (24:22).
He then said that “immediately after the distress of those days,” there will be a major cosmic event affecting the sun, moon, stars and heavenly bodies (24:29). Then, “at that time” he will appear in the sky with a loud trumpet call and gather the elect (24:30-31).
That is, the Lord will come for the elect after the time of great distress or tribulation. Who are the “elect”? Clearly, they’re believers in Jesus, but are they Jewish or Gentile believers? The New Testament refers to God choosing or electing Israel (Ro 9:10-13; 11:25-29), yet Gentiles also are included among the elect (see Ro 11:7; Tit 1:1, written to a Greek by Paul the apostle to the Gentiles; 1 Pet 1:1; 2:10, written to those who were not previously a people as the Jews were). So we have examples of both Jewish and Gentile believers referred to as the elect or chosen, which means a general reference to the elect includes both groups of believers.
Nowhere in Jesus’ explanation did he refer to a gathering of the elect or “rapture of the church” before any of these events, which would be a major omission if it were true, to say the least.
Imminent return is a key element of the pre-tribulation rapture belief and is used to disprove other theories, but does scripture support imminency of either the gathering of the saints or Jesus’ return? The word “imminent” applies to something that is about to occur, which means nothing else must happen first. Those who believe in imminency typically cite certain passages as proof which really don’t apply, when we examine them closely. Let’s consider several typically found in articles as proof of the imminency of the Lord’s return.
Romans 8:19-23 states that creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed, groaning as in pains of childbirth right up to the present time; we also groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons. Clearly, we can be eager and even groan for something to occur that won’t happen for a very long time. Other passages simply state that we wait for Jesus to be revealed (1 Co 1:7; Php 3:20; Tit 2:13) or for the Lord’s mercy (Jude 21). Again, there’s no requirement that what we wait for must be imminent.
Philippians 4:5 states the Lord is near, which means he’s close in time or place or relationship. The context of this statement addresses godly character and behavior, such as being gentle and not anxious, but presenting our requests to God with thanksgiving. In this context, the “nearness” clearly relates to his place or relationship, and has nothing to do with his return to earth; but even if it did, nearness in time isn’t the same as imminency.
1 Thessalonians 4:18 says we’re to encourage each other with words about how Jesus will return and that dead believers will rise to meet him before the living ones. This passage has nothing to do with how soon he’ll return or whether his return is imminent. 1 Thessalonians 5:6 simply states we’re to be alert and self-controlled, so the day of the Lord’s return won’t surprise us; again, nothing about how soon he’ll return.
Two passages in the Book of Revelation (1:3; 22:10) are cited because they state “the time is near.” Both passages refer to fulfillment of everything that’s in the book, not specifically to the time of the Lord’s return. Another passage cited in Revelation quotes Jesus as saying, “I am coming soon!” (22:12), but neither “soon” nor “near” means imminent. Also in Revelation (3:10), Jesus states he’ll keep the members of the Philadelphia church from the hour of trial, testing or trouble that’ll come upon the whole world. Jesus used the same word, “keep,” when he was on earth and asked for protection of his followers, specifically not their removal from the earth (Jn 17:15), so his statement in Revelation 3:10 doesn’t require the church be removed from the earth to be kept from the hour of trial.
While none of these passages supports imminency for either the gathering of the saints or the Lord’s return, there are several passages that clearly show these events aren’t imminent because other events must happen first. For example, three passages indicate that many will abandon or turn away from the faith, fall away, or their agape/love will grow cold (Mt 24:10, 12; 2 Th 2:1-3; 1 Tim 4:1). These can only refer to believers because only those who originally were true to the faith can abandon, turn or fall away from it. Also, only believers have biblical agape/love, so only theirs can grow cold. These all refer to believers on earth before the saints are removed.
Finally, Revelation 20:4-6 describes people who were beheaded for their testimony, or for not worshiping the beast or taking its mark. The passage states twice these people are included in the first resurrection: “This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection.” Obviously, “first” means no other precedes it, and the first resurrection clearly happens after the time of the beast – the beginning of birth pains and the time of great distress or tribulation. There will be no resurrection before the first one, such as a pre-tribulation gathering of the saints.
The phrase, “day of the Lord,” appears in both the Old and New Testaments. Sometimes in the Old Testament it applies to local events, such as a national invasion by an enemy (e.g., Eze 30:1-5), but for us the most important use is in end-times prophecies. Let’s consider several uses of the phrase in the context of the end times, in the order in which they appear in scripture, not in chronological order.
The day of the Lord follows a worldwide revival and a major cosmic event (Joel 2:28-31; quoted in Acts 2:17-21). The day of the Lord includes God’s wrath, burning anger and destruction; a cosmic event, terror on earth and the punishment of evil (Isa 13:6-13). It includes Jesus’ defeat of the world’s armies in defense of Jerusalem, accompanied by all the holy ones (Joel 3:12-16; Zech 14:1-5). It includes Jesus gathering the elect and it won’t come until the rebellion occurs, the man of lawlessness is revealed and he proclaims himself to be God in God’s temple (2 Th 2:1-4). It will come like a thief (1 Th 5:2; 2 Pet 3:10), the same analogy Jesus used for his coming (Rev 3:3; 16:15). It includes the destruction of the current heavens and earth (2 Pet 3:10), which occurs at the end of Jesus’ millennial reign (Rev 20:6-7, 11).
The words translated “day” in these verses in the Old Testament and the New have similar meanings: the period of daylight (12 hours); a full day (24 hours); a year; a (person’s) time; a lifetime; an extended period. From the scriptures we examined above, the day of the Lord begins when Jesus returns for the elect and concludes at the end of his millennial reign, at least 1000 years later.
In summary, the day of the Lord occurs after (1) the man of lawlessness (the Antichrist) reveals himself, which he does during the time of great distress or tribulation, (2) a worldwide revival occurs and (3) a major cosmic event occurs. During the day of the Lord, Jesus appears in the sky and gathers the elect from the earth, God pours out his wrath on unrepentant mankind, then Jesus returns with the elect to rule for 1000 years.
Examine the description of the great distress or tribulation and you’ll see the events occur in Israel and are directed at the Jews (Mt 24:15-21). Yes, this is wrath, but Satan’s wrath against God’s people, seeking to subjugate or destroy them. God’s wrath, which occurs afterward during the day of the Lord, clearly is against the ungodly worldwide (Rev 16:1-21).
God doesn’t vent his wrath on Israel. This is an anti-Semitic view held by early church fathers claiming the great tribulation is God’s anger against the Jews for crucifying Jesus, and possibly a reflection of their own hatred of the Jews. Yes, the Jews demanded that Pilate crucify Jesus and even stated his blood would be on them and their children (Mt 7:23-25), but their descendants have been experiencing the results of that self-inflicted curse for 2000 years. That is not God’s wrath.
Not only does the New Testament not describe God venting his wrath against Israel, we see quite the opposite. His call on the Jews is irrevocable, which means he will never reject them, though they initially rejected Jesus (Rom 11:28-29). Also, the Book of Hebrews, written after Jesus’ crucifixion, clearly states God “will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Heb 8:8). It couldn’t be any clearer.
It’s widely believed that the great tribulation is God’s wrath against Israel and, because the saints won’t experience God’s wrath, they’ll be removed from the earth before that period begins. However, this ignores New Testament teaching about God’s eternal love for his chosen people, the Jews, and grossly distorts scripture related to the end times.
Jesus said his followers will experience specific events during the beginning of birth pains and the time of great distress or tribulation. Scripture clearly shows he will gather the elect during the day of the Lord, which follows those periods, but before God pours his wrath out on unrepentant mankind. So, the “rapture” occurs after the time of great distress but before God’s wrath; that is, the Bible describes a post-trib, pre-wrath rapture.