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One of the most critical areas today in prophecy has to do with the understanding of tribulation. The New Testament speaks of "tribulation," also "great tribulation," and the debate hinges on whether the church (true believers) will or will not go through it. Robert P. Lightner speaks of "at least four different views of the church's relation to the tribulation: the church to be raptured before the tribulation begins, the church to go through the tribulation, the church to go through the first half of the tribulation, and the prewrath rapture of the church"* (only the first three have any major followings). How is it possible to decide among such varying viewpoints? Surely the issue is an important one, and interpretations vary a great deal on this. Let me make some suggestions to help.
First, some comments about the rapture of the church. The place in Scripture that most clearly teaches a rapture is 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17. The final words are: "The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel's call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall 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." "Caught up" in one early Latin translation is rapiemur, from which we derive the English word "rapture." So the rapture refers in this context to that moment when believers will be caught up, along with the dead in Christ, to a glorious meeting with the Lord in His triumphal descent. Paul also in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52 speaks of the same event, saying: "We shall not all sleep [i.e., die], but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet." However, the teaching here relates not so much to meeting the Lord as to the fact that our bodies (dead and alive) will be changed in this great future event.
Second, nothing is said in either passage directly about the relation of the rapture to tribulation. However, the implication in 1 Thessalonians 4 is that no tribulation follows the rapture. For rather than saying something like, "So shall we be delivered from tribulation," the text thereafter reads, "so shall we always be with the Lord." Thus it is hard to sustain from this passage a pretribulation rapture of the church (similarly from 1 Cor. 15), or, for that matter, a posttribulation rapture when no tribulation is mentioned before (note both passages carefully). "Pretrib" would seem—on the basis of 1 Thessalonians especially—to be ruled out; "posttrib" would have to be found elsewhere.
Third, we need also to examine the word "tribulation." In the Greek it is thlipsis, translated as "tribulation" or "affliction" (sometimes "distress"). Returning to 1 Thessalonians, we observe that Paul writes in chapter 3 that "we sent Timothy...to establish you, and to comfort you concerning your faith: That no man should be moved by these afflictions [the Greek word is a form of thlipsis, hence "tribulations"]: for you yourselves know we are appointed thereunto. For verily, when we were with you, we told you before that we should suffer tribulation; even as it came to pass, and ye know" (vv. 2-4 kjv). Since this chapter (3) precedes the next (4) on the rapture, and also declares that we are "appointed" to tribulation, even to "suffer" the same, it would seem apparent that tribulation precedes the rapture to come.
Let us also note some words of Jesus. In Matthew 24, Jesus tells His disciples, "They will deliver you up to tribulation [thlipsin], and put you to death" (v. 9); and this is said prior to the statement that "many will fall away...most men's love will grow cold...this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world" (vv. 10-14). Clearly tribulation here precedes the return of Christ and the rapture of the church. Another memorable statement of Jesus is found in John 16:33—"In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." Tribulation has been and will be the lot of all who truly follow Christ.
Some interpreters, however, argue that although all Christians go through some tribulation, there is yet a "great tribulation" to come that true believers will not have to endure. Let us examine the expression "great tribulation" which occurs first in Matthew 24:21—"Then there will be great tribulation [thlipsis megale], such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be." Here tribulation seems to refer to what will happen to the world at large (note the following verse—"if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened"). In any case, this "great tribulation" is also prior to the return of Christ and the rapture. For, further on, in Matthew 24, Jesus says, "Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light...and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven...and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call [recall 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians about the trumpet], and they will gather the elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (vv. 29-31). These last words clearly relate to the rapture (here depicted as the gathering of "the elect"), and unmistakably refer to an occurrence after "great tribulation." Surely there is no pretribulation rapture here.
The other place where the expression "great tribulation" is utilized is in Revelation, chapter 7. John, beholding "a great multitude" (v. 9) of white robed people praising God around His throne and before the Lamb, is told: "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (v. 14). But "out of" surely does not mean to be removed from; rather these believers have endured "the great tribulation" and have now come out of it, praising God and the Lamb. Here again "great tribulation" seems to refer to what happens upon the whole earth (see the opening words of Rev. 7) and the protection of believers, rather than their escape, during this time. Chapter 7 earlier describes the sealing of 144,000 "servants of our God" (vv. 3-4) before "the great tribulation" begins. These believers rather than escaping out of tribulation by way of rapture were sealed by God for their protection while going through it. Moreover, all of this happens prior to the return of Christ, which is not actually described until chapter 19.
I should add that many pretribulationists view the church as already having been raptured before any of the events, including tribulation in Revelation 6-19, occur. Some take the words addressed to John in Revelation 4:1—"Come up hither"—as referring to the rapture either actually or symbolically, and then add that since the word "church" does not appear until Revelation 22:16, the church, true believers, has been raptured or translated prior to the terrible events described in Revelation 6-19.** This, however, is a critical misinterpretation: the words to John in Revelation 4—"Come up hither"—have nothing to do either actually or symbolically with the rapture of the church; and, although the word "church" does not appear in these intervening chapters, believers are definitely on the earth. Many times, for example, the word "saints" occurs, along with such words as "Here is a call for the endurance of the saints" (14:12; cf. 13:10).
Based on the biblical testimony, there will not be a pretribulational rapture of the church (nor a midtribulational for that matter). This is very important to emphasize. For whether the tribulation is what all Christians are called upon to endure to the very end, or a great tribulation occurring worldwide, the Lord will see His people through whatever happens. There will be much persecution, to be sure, even martyrdom ahead (Jesus promised that), and many coming judgments on the world (from which true believers will be protected). Whichever way, there will be tribulation until the day Christ returns in glory.
I am afraid too many today are being lulled into thinking that when things get really bad, we as believers will be suddenly snatched out of it all ("the great snatch," the rapture is sometimes called). This is indeed poor preparation for what is yet to happen—and a serious misreading of the prophetic message. We will go through whatever tribulation may yet come, and in the midst of it and on the other side, give God all the glory!
This, I believe, is prophecy by the Book.
*The Last Days Handbook, 58-69.
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Content Copyright ©1996 by J. Rodman Williams, Ph.D.