When Is It?
A look at why Evangelical Christians don’t all agree on the timing of the Rapture.
Christ’s premillennial Second Coming to Earth is evident even from a casual reading of the Scriptures. The Bible, taken at face value, clearly states the Messiah will return to establish His worldwide, earthly Kingdom, headquartered in Jerusalem (cf. Dan. 2; 7; Isa. 11; Zech. 14; Rev. 19—20).
To come to a different conclusion, we must purposely adopt a nonliteral understanding of God’s promises.
The timing of the Rapture of the church, however, is more complicated to determine. Genuine believers in Christ who take the Bible at face value still disagree on when it will occur. Therefore, it is imperative to study the Word carefully to see what the Lord has told us.
Premillennialists—those who believe Christ will return to Earth to reign for 1,000 literal years from David’s throne in Jerusalem—hold several views concerning the Rapture’s timing.
- Pretribulation (Pretrib) Rapture. Pretribulationists believe the Rapture will occur before the seven-year Tribulation.
- Posttribulation (Posttrib) Rapture. Posttribulationists believe Christ will rapture the church after the seven-year Tribulation.
- Midtribulation (Midtrib) Rapture. Midtribulationists teach the Rapture will take place halfway through the seven years of Tribulation.
- Prewrath Rapture. Proponents of this position, a modified midtribulational view, believe the Rapture will occur sometime during the last half of the Tribulation.
- Partial Rapture. Adherents of this view teach Christ will rapture so-called spiritual Christians before the Tribulation, but all others will go through it. This view focuses more on the qualifications of individual Christians to be raptured, rather than on the timing of the Rapture.
The pretrib and posttrib views are the most prominent among premillennialists. But if we carefully compare Scripture with Scripture, we see the church will be raptured before the Tribulation.
Defining the Day of the Lord
Perhaps the most crucial Bible passage on the Rapture is 1 Thessalonians 4:13—5:9. The text flows chronologically, following the outline of the entire book (cf. 1:9–10). Church Age believers will be “caught up” (raptured) in the air to meet Jesus (4:13–18). Chapter 5 presents the key for the event’s timing: Following the Rapture, the Day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night (v. 2).
The Day of the Lord will bring sudden, unexpected destruction and trouble on those who were not raptured: “For when they say, ‘Peace and safety!’ then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman” (v. 3). The words as labor pains upon a pregnant woman strongly illustrate the trouble people on Earth will face, and the words peace and safety reveal it will come suddenly and unexpectedly. Their hope and expectation of peace will be dashed to the ground.
The question then emerges, “To what does the ‘Day of the Lord’ refer?” Verse 9 reveals the significance of this query: “For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation [deliverance] through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This verse contains an exemption from wrath. The context indicates the apostle Paul was not talking about hell (eternal wrath) but, rather, the particular wrath called the “day of the Lord” (v. 2). And since it says God did not “appoint us” to wrath, the passage implies the church will be removed before the Day of the Lord wrath arrives.
If we study the phrase Day of the Lord throughout the Bible, we quickly realize it doesn’t mean the same thing everywhere. Generally, it refers to God’s judgment. It refers to historical events and future end-times events, and its context determines the correct time frame. So we must ask what it means in the particular context of 1 Thessalonians 5:2 and not in some other part of the Bible.
Each Rapture view defines the Day of the Lord differently. Sometimes adherents of the same view even differ among one another.
The posttrib view often defines the Day of the Lord as the brief period of God’s judgment associated with Christ’s Second Coming at the end of the Tribulation.1 The prewrath view says the Day of the Lord begins with the seventh seal sometime during the last half of the Tribulation (Rev. 8:1).2 The midtrib view usually delineates it as the last half of the seven years.3 Many proponents of the pretrib view define the Day of the Lord as the full seven years.
“Peace and Safety”
Which view has the best definition? The answer is found in the phrase peace and safety (1 Th. 5:3). If we assume the posttrib position, the Battle of Armageddon would precede the Rapture at the end of the Tribulation. That is not a time of “peace and safety.”
If we assume the prewrath position, the seal judgments would precede the Day of the Lord. These judgments include war (second seal; Rev. 6:4) and seriously unsafe conditions. So this view also fails to handle the “peace and safety” statement.
The midtrib view leads to a similar conclusion. Battles between the king of the north and king of the south occur immediately before the midpoint of the seven-year Tribulation (Dan. 11:40—12:1), making it difficult to harmonize these wars with people on Earth declaring “peace and safety.”
Only the pretrib view adequately accounts for the “peace and safety” reference. At the beginning of the seven-year Tribulation, the Antichrist will make a peace treaty with Israel (9:27). We can easily see why people would announce “peace and safety” and then receive the opposite of what they had expected—seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments.
The pretrib view best handles the “peace and safety” statement of 1 Thessalonians 5:3 by referring to all seven years as the Day of the Lord. This fact leads to the inevitable conclusion that the church is exempt from all seven years of the Tribulation. Hence, the Rapture described in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 is pretribulational.
A more thorough study of the Rapture’s timing includes fleshing out other passages, such as John 14:1–3; 1 Corinthians 15:51–52; and Revelation 3:10. Debate will continue, no doubt, among “premillennial cousins.” But a serious study of God’s Word on the issue will leave no one in darkness.
- Douglas Moo, “A Case for the Posttribulation Rapture,” Three Views on the Rapture, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 201–203.
- Robert Van Kampen, The Sign (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1992), 324.
- Gleason L. Archer, “The Case for the Mid-Seventieth-Week Rapture Position,” The Rapture: Pre-, Mid-, or Post-Tribulational? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1984), 139.