Okay folks, this is going to be a post that may alienate me from some of my Christian friends, but it is a subject that has been heavy on my heart for the past couple of weeks and so I feel compelled to write about it. Besides, I would rather speak the truth and be reviled than repeat a lie and be loved. So here goes…
One of the most looked for and talked about events in New Testament prophecy is when Christ returns to Earth and gathers His believers to him. There have been many books written on the subject, countless sermons preached about it and even a number of films based on it. It is a subject that has been discussed and prayed for over the last 2,000 years. Yet, it is an event that seems to be largely misunderstood, and least when it comes to the timing of it. So we will look at the two major positions on the subject (there are others that are of negligible importance and we’ll skip those for the sake of brevity – I get long-winded enough on my own, thank you!) and then I will weigh in with my opinion and express my fears concerning one of those theories. I will leave to you, dear reader, to make up your own mind as to which position you will take.
I do want to take a moment to say that I consider this subject to be of secondary importance overall, and if it weren’t for the serious reservations I have about one of these positions I would not write about it at all. The really important thing is that Jesus Christ is the son of God sent into the world to pay the price of our sins, and what matters the most is whether or not we believe that and live accordingly. But with so many people in Christianity, at least here in the U.S., being focused on the timing of this wonderful event nearly to the point of obsession, I feel that it needs to be addressed. Those of you out there who do not consider yourself Christians are welcome to skip this post if you please, but I hope that you don’t.
Here’s the basic scenario: seven years of intense tribulation, during which the ruthless dictator know as the Anti-Christ will be revealed, are followed by the return of Christ in power and glory to claim His throne on Earth and start a thousand-year rule, followed by a brief rebellion led by Satan, followed by the Great Resurrection when all of humanity will be raised to face their final judgement. At some point around the time of Christ’s return He has promised that those who have kept faith with Him shall be either raised from the dead or changed into Immortal beings. There are two primary Scriptures that describe this. The first is Luke 21:27-28: “At that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with great power and glory. When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Also in Matthew 24:30-31: “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” So Christ returns in power and glory and gathers His believers to himself before He descends to earth.
Now this is where the doctrine of that gathering, known for well over a century as “the Rapture”, diverges into two schools of thought regarding the timing of that blessed event.
The first one, which has the much longer history, is that the gathering of Christ’s believers will occur after the nightmare of the seven years of tribulation and before the Lord actually sets foot on the earth. This is what the early church believed and what was believed by Christians who gave thought to such things for over 1800 years and which is still believed correct by many today. This is the position held by a number of churches and teachers, and the position that I hold. The second position concerning the timing states that Christ will swoop in and gather His believers at the beginning of the tribulation, keep them with him in heaven for seven years, and then bring them back to Earth with Him when He comes to claim His throne. A great many Christians believe in this scenario, particularly among the Evangelical movement in America, and are counting on it to deliver them from the turmoil and bloodshed of the tribulation.
Let’s look at the second scenario first, which historically is the younger of the two positions. The idea that Christ would come down and catch up his church first arose in the 1830s, based on a book written by John Nelson Darby in 1827. The idea slowly gained ground throughout the 1800s and was included in the Schofield Reference Bible, first published in 1909, and continued its slow growth among American Christians until John Walvoord, a theologian at Dallas Theological Seminary, published his book The Rapture Question in 1957. Then in the early 1970s the idea took off when Hal Lindsey published his famous book The Late, Great Planet Earth, where he studied and expounded upon the prophecies concerning the end times (remember, in the early 70s we were deep in the Cold War and the threat of global extinction was taken very seriously). Since then there have been many theologians, pastors and writers who have espoused a pre-tribulation Rapture.
This scenario is built upon primarily two Scriptures, 1st Corinthians 15:51-52 and 1st Thessalonians 4:14-17. In 1st Corinthians 15, Paul wrote: “Listen, I will tell you a mystery. We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” Then in 1st Thessalonians he stated: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” Pre-tribulationists also refer to 1st Thessalonians 5:9: “For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ”.
Those Christians who adhere to a post-tribulational view of this gathering refer to the same verses from the Bible, as they show beyond a doubt that when Christ returns He will gather his believers, both dead and alive, to Him upon his return to this pitiable planet. But they take the words of the Lord and Paul at face value. As shown in the Scriptures from Matthew and Luke, this gathering will occur when Christ is descending to the earth in power and glory, visible to everyone – “all the nations of the earth will mourn”. This is not something that happens in secret. And in 1st Corinthians 15 Paul even states the time of this gathering – “at the last trumpet”, not at the time of one of the other trumpets described as being blown throughout the book of the Revelation, but at the last one. So the post-tribulational view is built upon the fact that Jesus and Paul knew what they were talking about.
(Okay, I know that in a previous post I said that I try to avoid lengthy quotes from the Bible, but on this particular subject I felt that it was important to give the Scriptural basis for these teachings.)
Now I will start doing a bit of opining, so forgive me, dear reader. For starters, I tend to be rather 1st century in my beliefs regarding God and Christ, so perhaps I am naturally inclined toward the position held by the early church, but I figure that they were quite a lot closer to the source than anyone today and therefore they have a clearer picture of what Jesus and Paul taught than those of us two millenia later. Besides, much of what Christianity practices and believes today is built upon 2,000 years of other people’s commentary and interpretation of the Scriptures just as Judaism in the time of Christ was largely based on rabbinical commentary over the previous 1,000 years, and we saw what the Lord thought of that. Secondly, the fact that Christ clearly said that the gathering would happen when He was coming in power and glory, plus Paul’s statement that it would occur at the last trumpet, pretty much says it all as far as when it would happen. Next, it seems just a bit presumptuous to assume that Christ would whisk His believers away so that they didn’t have to endure the kind of suffering and persecution that nearly every other generation of Christian has had to endure (especially during the time of the Romans and their barbarian successors); after all, it is through suffering and persecutions that the impurities in the church are burned away just as gold must pass through fire to remove the dross. And finally, I see a great danger in counting so much on being taken away before the tribulation because if you believe strongly that you will not be here when the Anti-Christ begins his reign of terror, then you are more likely to not recognize that person for who he is and will fall into his trap. I am convinced that since he will proclaim himself as being Christ he will be someone who claims to be a Christian, and Christians who aren’t supposed to be here at that time are likely to become his followers; but the Anti-Christ is a subject that belongs in a different post at another time.
So I believe in a gathering of believers at the end of the horrors of the tribulation. Do I like thinking about what will have to be endured before I am safe with the Lord? Of course not. Do I wish to be put in a concentration camp or killed for refusing to bow down to the great dictator to come? No, but I would do so willingly for I would know that my sufferings would be on behalf of Him who suffered so much on my behalf. I would rather be wrong on this issue and be prepared for the worst than believe in a false hope and be deceived, for when the Beast comes he will be a great deceiver, to the point where Paul warned that he could even deceive the elect, meaning Christians. But I also learned long ago to let the Word of God speak for itself, and this is what it says to me. Even in my view we as Christians will still be kept from the hour of wrath, one because we have salvation through Christ, and second because God can rain a whole lot of judgement down on this earth during the time that we are joining with the Lord in the clouds.
I hope that this post hasn’t been too tedious or odious to you, dear reader, but these things need to be said. I look forward to any comments or questions and will answer all to the best of my meager ability.
Peace and love to you all!