Post-Trib, Pre-Wrath Rapture
[Reading time: 14 minutes] Many people believe Jesus’ return for the church will happen before the great tribulation occurs and is imminent; that is the pre-tribulation rapture perspective. This article examines scriptural evidence that it will happen before God’s wrath, but after the great tribulation.
What Jesus Said We’ll See
The disciples asked Jesus about the sign of his coming and of the end of the age (Matt. 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 (Matt. 24:8, described in 24:4-8):
- deception (v. 4);
- 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 verse 9 begins with the word, “Then”) 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:
- persecution and death, hated by all nations (v. 9);
- the “abomination that causes desolation” in the holy place (v. 15);
- people claiming 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 (Matt. 24:29, NIV). 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 great distress or tribulation, and after the cosmic event. Who are the “elect”? The New Testament refers to God choosing or electing Israel (Rom. 9:10-13; 11:25-29), yet Gentiles also are included among the elect (see Rom. 11:7; Titus 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.
Not an Imminent Return
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 could occur immediately, 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. It also says we groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons. Clearly, we can be eager and even groan for something to occur that we know isn’t imminent. Other passages simply state that we wait for Jesus to be revealed (1 Cor. 1:7; Phil. 3:20; Titus 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 (John 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 (Matt. 24:10, 12; 2 Thess. 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 doing something before the Lord removes us from the earth.
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 Day of the Lord
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 (for example, Ezek. 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 Thess. 2:1-4). It will come like a thief (1 Thess. 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; or an extended period. From the scriptures we examined above, the day of the Lord begins shortly before 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 the time of great distress, during which (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. That is, after the period of great distress, Jesus will gather the elect in the sky when he returns to assume complete control over world events, before God pours his wrath out on the earth.
Not God’s Wrath
A key to the traditional pre-tribulation rapture perspective is in Luke 21:23, “There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people.” This is part of Jesus’ description of the period of great distress or tribulation. Many church doctrines state this refers to God’s wrath against Israel for their long-term apostasy and crucifixion of the Messiah, Jesus. That’s an assumption, and I believe it’s an incorrect one; likely based on anti-Semitism.
The word, “wrath,” in Luke 21:23 is from a Greek word generally translated as “wrath” when translators believe it refers to God, and “anger” when they believe it refers to humans (see Eph. 4:31; Col. 3:8; 1 Tim. 2:8; James 1:19, 20). However, Luke 21:23 doesn’t specifically state this is from God, so translating it “wrath” is a doctrinal interpretation. Most Christians assume it’s God’s wrath because of how it’s translated.
Yes, the Jews demanded Pilate crucify Jesus and even stated his blood would be on them and their children (Matt. 7:23-25). But they experienced the results of that self-inflicted curse about 40 years later, when the Romans destroyed their capital city and dispersed the people throughout the world.
Is there anyone today who might want punishment, justice, retribution or vengeance against the Jews? Yes, primarily Satan, because they’re God’s people, and God promised to bless them. Satan wants to eliminate everyone and everything that represents God. He also motivates people to hate and oppose the Jews. Many people strongly oppose Israel for refusing to concede to international pressure to stop building settlements and allow a two-state solution. The U.S. has been Israel’s only ally to block UN Security Council resolutions forcing Israel to stop building settlements and withdraw to pre-1967 borders. The BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement is evidence of public outrage against Israel. So, there are many spiritual and human beings who want to destroy or severely punish Israel.
If Luke 21:22-23 represents God’s punishment and wrath against the Jews, then why would Jesus tell the Jews to evacuate Jerusalem and the surrounding area (Judea)? “Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city” (21:21). Would Jesus tell the Jews to escape the punishment if it were from God? Definitely not!
In the Old Testament, God identified himself as a jealous God, “punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exod. 20:5; also 34:7; Num. 14:18; Deut. 5:9). What happened to the Jews when they ignored their covenant with God? They were taken into bondage in foreign countries or their nation was occupied by invading armies. As mentioned earlier, after the Jews crucified the Messiah, Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem and scattered the people. The point is this: the Jews have already received judgment for ignoring their covenant with God and crucifying the Messiah.
The generations that committed those acts received God’s judgement. We don’t see statements in the New Testament about him punishing people for what their ancestors did; instead, each person is only accountable for what they do. To claim he will judge the nation again for acts committed 2000 years or 40-50 generations earlier, is a gross distortion of scripture and a slanderous accusation against God’s character.
The traditional perspective also equates the wrath in Luke 21:23 with the God’s wrath in Revelation, even claiming the great tribulation is part of the day of the Lord. If we examine the description of the great distress, we see the events occur in Israel and are directed at the Jews (Matt. 24:15-21; Luke 21:20-24). There’s no mention of these events occurring anywhere else in the world. However, the descriptions of the bowls of God’s wrath in Revelation use a different Greek word translated “wrath” (Rev. 15:1, 7; 16:1). Most important, the bowls of wrath afflict the ungodly everywhere on earth, without specifically mentioning Israel. Conclusion: The wrath against Israel during the period of great distress is not the same as the bowls of wrath in Revelation. This also means Christians may still be on earth during the time of great distress, but not later when God pours out the bowls of his wrath on the earth.
Not only does the New Testament not describe God venting his wrath against Israel, it states quite the opposite. His call on the Jews is irrevocable, which means he will never reject them, though they broke their covenant with him (Jer. 31:32; Ezek. 44:7; Hos. 6:7) and rejected Jesus as their Messiah (Rom. 11:28-29). Also, Hebrews 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. God has not rejected the Jews.
Not a “U-Turn”
Some who reject the post-tribulation, pre-wrath rapture perspective claim it means we’ll be caught up from the earth to meet Jesus in the air, then immediately return with him to reign; an alleged “U-turn.”
That won’t happen. We’ll be saved from God’s wrath (Rom. 5:9; 1 Thess. 5:9), from which we can infer Jesus will remove us from earth before the wrath begins. We’ll be rewarded in heaven at the resurrection (Luke 6:23; 14:13-14), so we’ll clearly go to heaven at the rapture, not just rise into the atmosphere and immediately return to earth.
Revelation 19 describes an important sequence of events. The beginning of the chapter describes a great multitude in heaven. Although it doesn’t specifically state the multitude includes the saints, we’ll clearly be there. The passage describes the “wedding of the Lamb” or “wedding supper of the Lamb” (19:4, 9). Whether you believe we’re the bride of Christ or “those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb,” we’ll clearly be there; in heaven.
The second half of Revelation 19 then describes Jesus seated on a white horse in heaven, accompanied by “the armies of heaven” as he returns to earth to “strike down the nations” (19:11, 14, 15). I believe we’ll be among the “armies of heaven” and we’ll follow Jesus back to earth, where he will single-handedly defeat the world’s armies gathered against him (19:15, 19, 21) and cause worldwide devastation, which completes God’s wrath (19:15; 16:15-21). After he has destroyed the world’s armies, one of his angels will seize Satan, bind him and lock him in the Abyss for 1000 years (20:1-3). During that millennium, we’ll reign with Christ on earth (20:6).
We won’t make a “U-turn” at the rapture and immediately return to earth with Jesus. Rather, we’ll be with him in heaven while the earth receives God’s wrath.
It’s widely believed the great tribulation is God’s wrath against Israel and, because the saints won’t experience God’s wrath, we’ll leave the earth before that period begins. However, this ignores New Testament teaching about God’s eternal love for his chosen people, the Jews, and 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-tribulation, pre-wrath rapture.