The Imminent Return of Christ and the Pre-Wrath Rapture
(December 1995 – Volume 2, Issue 2)
Many who have been influenced by the Bible school movement, Dallas Seminary, or the Scofield or Ryrie Study Bibles have unquestionably accepted the doctrine of the Pretribulational Rapture of the church. This is the view that our Savior will gather to Himself all church age saints before He brings great judgment upon the earth during the seven year period commonly called the Tribulation (but better named, Daniel’s 70th week). We have always been aware that there are other theories but for the most part we have given them little thought. For example, there is the Midtribulation Rapture view that teaches that the church must go through the first three and a half years of the 70th week before she is raptured. This would mean that the church would have to endure the first six seal judgments (Rev 6) before she is removed. The Posttribulation Rapture view is that the church must go through the entire 70th week, suffering all the judgments of the book of Revelation, and is raptured at the very end of that period. Then we must remember that some Christians don’t believe in a rapture at all. The Postmillennialist believes that the kingdom of God is now being expanded through the ministries of Christians. As a result, the world will eventually be Christianized and a long period of peace and prosperity (called the Millennium) will be experienced. At the end of this Millennium Christ will return. This view is currently gaining much popularity through the efforts of the Christian Reconstructionist, and will be the subject of a future newsletter. There is also the Amillennial view. This is the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, but is also held by many Reformed theologians and some Baptists (e.g. Augustus Strong). These believers teach that the kingdom of God is now present in the world through His Word, His Spirit, and His church. Until Christ returns good and evil will grow side by side. When Christ comes, He will usher believers into heaven, unbelievers into hell, and no Millennial kingdom will ever literally be on earth.
The newest entry into this field of study is known as the Pre-wrath Rapture theory. Espoused most clearly by Marvin Rosenthal, former director of Friends of Israel, this view teaches that the church must go through most of the 70th Week and will be raptured out toward the end of that week. Since Rosenthal is a former Pretribulationist and his views carry considerable weight with some, we want to quickly examine his theory. But before we do we need to point out why this discussion is so important.
With every theory mentioned above, with the exception of Pretribulationalism, there is one common thread: none believe in the imminent return of Christ (with the possible exception of some Amillennist). When we say imminent, we mean that Christ could come at any time. We don’t know when He is coming, it could be tomorrow or the next century, but nothing needs to happen before Christ returns. Pretribulationists therefore live with an expectancy. They believe that their Lord could come at any moment and they want to live in light of that belief. Every passage that speaks of Christ’s return in the New Testament is presented as a motivation towards godly living. In all of the other theories something must happen before Christ returns, thus imminency is destroyed. Why does this matter? Because it will make a difference in how you view life now and how you prepare for the future. For example, if you are a postmillennialist you believe that you must Christianize society before Christ will return. It is necessary then that you not only win the world for Christ but that you change the governmental and social systems to reflect God’s laws. Much of your efforts will be in moral and political reform. And from the looks of things, Christ’s return will be hundreds of years away. If you are a midtrib, posttrib, or pre-wrath adherent, you believe it is likely that you, as a Christian, will have to go through at least half of the 70th week. This will be a time of incredible judgment, persecution and martyrdom (see the 5th seal — Rev 6:9-11). If this is true believers, instead of looking for the blessed hope, had better prepare for survival. Courses on how to buy out-of-the-way property, storing food and water, hoarding gold, and learning how to live off the land should become part of our Sunday School curriculum. But if the Rapture is imminent and Pretribulational, we can be watching for and living in light of Christ’s return rather than preparing to dodge the Antichrist.
THE BIBLICAL CASE FOR IMMINENCY:
So the doctrine of imminency is attractive but is it Biblical? Marv Rosenthal says, “No!” To prove his point he has written, The Pre-wrath Rapture of the Church. This volume attempts to develop four basic theses:
1) The Rapture of the church will occur immediately prior to the beginning of the Day of the Lord.
2)The Day of the Lord commences sometime within the second half of the seventieth week.
3)The cosmic disturbances associated with the sixth seal will signal the approach of the Day of the Lord.
4)The Day of the Lord will begin with the opening of the seventh seal (Rev 8:1) (p60).
Everything in Rosenthal’s theory revolves around the timing of the Day of the Lord. If the church is raptured immediately prior to the Day of the Lord, then all we have to do is discover when the Day will occur and we will know when the Rapture will occur. Rosenthal argues at great length that the Day of the Lord begins with the opening of the seventh seal (Rev 8:1), which means that the church must endure the first six seals before she is raptured. Rosenthal believes that God’s wrath is not poured out on the earth until the seventh seal. The first six seals were judgment but not wrath, he says. Hence, the name “Pre-wrath Rapture.”
Now, the main problem with this whole theory is that the Day of the Lord (and synonymous expressions such as, “the day,” “that day,” “the day of God”) do not always refer to the same thing. An examination of the OT Scriptures will reveal that there have already been several judgments from God that have been called the “day of the Lord.” Some examples are: when Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians (Amos 5:18-20); when Judah was destroyed by Babylon (Lam 2:21,22; Ezek 13:5); when Egypt was judged by Babylon (Ezek 30:1-10); and when Babylon fell (Isa 13:6ff). All of this shows that you cannot simply look up “the Day of the Lord” and claim that it always has the same meaning.
You run into the same problem concerning future “Days of the Lord.” From Isa 2:10-22, it would appear that the Day of the Lord is the sixth seal of Rev 6:12-17. Isa 34; Joel 3 and Zech 14 all speak of the Day of the Lord as happening at the return of Christ at the Battle of Armageddon. Yet I Thess 5:1-3 tells us that it will come when people are feeling safe and secure. It seems impossible that the world will be talking about peace and safety at the very moment that their armies are gathering for the greatest battle of all time. On top of all of this are the references to the Day of the Lord as a time of unparalleled blessing, i.e. the Millennium (Isa 3:17-21).
So what are we to make of all of this? Renald Showers, in his excellent book, Maranatha, argues well for a double sense of the future Day of the Lord. He believes that Scriptures often refer to the Day of the Lord in a broad sense. That is, the phrase depicts the events all the way from the opening of the first seal of Daniel’s 70th week through the closing of the Millennium. On the other hand, the expression is sometimes used in a narrow sense to describe the Day of the Lord’s coming at the battle of Armageddon (pp35ff). Only the study of individual passages can reveal which aspect of the Day of the Lord the author had in mind. However, the expression, “The Great and Terrible Day of the Lord” is always used to refer to the narrow sense (Joel 2:31; Mal 4:5). Therefore, a careful study of the Day of the Lord undermines Rosenthal’s Pre-wrath Rapture theory. In addition, there are other problems with Rosenthal’s views, some of which we will quickly mention:
1) Rosenthal believes that the first six seals in Rev 6 are not the wrath of God but rather the wickedness of mankind being poured out upon the earth. The church, which according to Rosenthal will still be on the earth, will have to endure this wickedness as well as direct persecution by sinful men (p105). He seems confused on several counts at this point. First, it is Christ who opens the seals, directly calling down these judgments upon the earth. Therefore the seven seals are all judgment directly from the hand of Christ. Secondly, he believes that to attribute the emergence of the Antichrist to God is preposterous (p142). Why, when God often uses evil beings and things for His purposes, including judgment? Finally, it is very difficult to believe that the cosmic disturbances of the 6th seal are the work of unregenerate mankind and not the wrath of God.
2) In order to prove that Christians will go through the Great Tribulation but not the wrath of God, Rosenthal forces two verses to mean what they surely do not mean. He takes Matt 24:21,22 to teach that God will shorten the Great Tribulation to less than 3 1/2 years in order to insert what Rosenthal believes to be the Day of the Lord (or the time of God’s wrath). To Rosenthal, not only is the first half of Daniel’s 70th Week not the wrath of God, but neither is the Great Tribulation. God’s wrath comes after the Great Tribulation, but it must come before the end of the 70th week. The only way to accomplish this feat is to shorten the Great Tribulation, something not taught in the Scriptures. But this verse simply means that God had foreordained that the Great Tribulation would have a time limit. Rosenthal also says that Rev 6:17 means that God’s wrath, following the 6th seal, had not yet come. His case is based upon the aorist tense of the verb “has come.” Since the aorist does not ordinarily indicate time, Rosenthal says this could be translated “is coming.” While that is a possible translation, why didn’t John use the future tense if that is what he wanted to convey?
3) He interprets the “apostasy” of II Thess 2:3 as the falling away of the Jews from God as they follow the Antichrist. This is at best conjecture and is held by few Bible students. However, it is necessary for Rosenthal’s theory since the church must still be on the earth during the Tribulation.
4) Rosenthal interprets the “restrainer” of II Thess 2:6,7 as the angel, Michael. This is based on the thought that when Michael, Israel’s angel, steps aside he will allow the Antichrist to set himself up as god, as well as persecute the Jews. The view of most Pretribs is that this is the Spirit indwelt church that has been raptured.
ARGUMENTS FOR THE PRETRIBULATIONAL RAPTURE
ARGUMENTS FROM CONTRASTS
One of the strongest arguments for the Pretribulational Rapture view is that of the contrasts between the Rapture and the Second Coming. A careful study of these two great events demonstrate that they cannot be the same. John Walvoord in The Rapture Question points out the following contrasts (Walvoord’s thoughts are found throughout this section):
1) At the time of the Rapture the saints meet Christ in the air, while at the Second Coming Christ returns to the Mount of Olives to meet the saints on earth (I Thes. 4:13-18; Zech. 14:4,5).
2) At the Rapture living saints are translated, while no saints are translated in connection with the Second Coming of Christ to the earth (I Thes. 4:16,17; Matt. 25:31ff).
3) At the Rapture the world is unjudged and continues in sin, while at the Second Coming the world is judged and righteousness is established (I Thes. 4:13-18; Matt. 25:31ff).
4) The Rapture is pictured as a deliverance before the day of wrath, while the Second Coming is followed by the deliverance of those who have believed in Christ during the Tribulation (I Thes. 5:9; Rev. 19:11ff).
5) The Rapture is described as imminent, while the Second Coming is preceded by signs (Matt. 24:3ff).
6) At the Rapture Satan is not bound, while at the Second Coming Satan is bound and cast into the abyss (Rev. 20:1-3).
ARGUMENTS FROM THE NATURE OF THE TRIBULATION
All other schools of eschatology misunderstand the nature and the purpose of the 70th week of Daniel, commonly called the Tribulation:
1) Pretribulationist properly interpret the Tribulation as a time of judgment, preparation, and restoration for Israel. It is not the purpose of the Tribulation to prepare the church for glory. The Tribulation has nothing to do with the church (Jere. 30:7).
2) None of the New Testament passages on the Tribulation mention the church (See Matt 24:15-31; I Thess 1:9-10; 5:4-9; Rev 4-19).
3) Pretribulationalism distinguishes clearly between Israel and the church and their respective programs.
ARGUMENTS FROM THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH
1) The Rapture of the church is never mentioned in any passage dealing with the Second Coming of Christ after the Tribulation.
2) The church is not appointed to wrath (I Thess 1:9,10; 5:9). Therefore, The church cannot enter “the great day of the wrath” (Rev 6:17).
3) The church will not be overtaken by the Day of the Lord (I Thess 5:1-9) which includes the Tribulation. This passage describes the Day of the Lord coming upon the unbeliever, resulting in destruction, at a time when they are living in peace and safety. Such a scenario could only take place at the beginning of the Tribulation. and it is from this very destruction that the church is spared (5:9).
4) It is characteristic of divine dealing to deliver believers before a divine judgment is inflicted upon the world as illustrated in the deliverance of Noah, Lot, Rahab, etc. (II Pet 2:6-9).
5) The Pretribulational view does not confuse general terms like “elect” and “saints” which apply to the saved of all ages with specific terms like “church” and those “in Christ” which refer to believers of this age only.
ARGUMENT FROM THE DOCTRINE OF IMMINENCY
Only the Pretribulational interpretation views the coming of Christ as imminent. Yet, the fact that the Rapture is imminent is evidenced in the following ways:
1) The exhortation to be comforted by the coming of the Lord (I Thess 4:18) is significant only if His return is imminent.
2) The exhortation to look for the “glorious appearing” of Christ (Titus 2:13) loses its significance if the Tribulation must intervene first. Believers in that case should be looking for signs.
3) The exhortation to purify ourselves in view of the Lord’s return has most significance if His coming is imminent (I John 3:2,3).
4) The church is uniformly exhorted to look for the coming of the Lord, while believers in the Tribulation are directed to look for signs.
Other evidences for the Pretribulational Rapture could be presented, but we would recommend that a study of John 14:1-3; I Cor 15:50-58 and I Thess 4:13-18 be made by those who long for His coming.
For Further Study For any who desire to study this issue in more detail we might suggest that you start with John Walvoord’s older work, The Rapture Question. Then read Showers book Maranatha. There is also an organization founded recently by a virtual who’s who of supporters of the Pretribulational Rapture view. It is called the Pre-Trib Research Center and is dedicated to the study, proclamation, teaching and defending of the Pretribulational Rapture and related end-time prophecy. If you want to receive their newsletter and be informed about their conferences and books, write to Rev. Thomas Ice, Pre-Trib Research Center, 370 L’Enfant Promenade, S.W., Suite 801, Washington, D.C. 20024.