Pre-tribulation Rapture. Is It a Problematic Doctrine?
Updated: Jul 5
Beliefs and concerns about the end-times often shape the behavior of the individual as well as the church body, herein referred to as the “church.” Avoiding speculation on the issues of eschatology places one at the mercy of the church and others to prescribe behavior that may or may not be accommodating. Christians believe in the return of Jesus Christ, that is dogma, something for which one would take a bullet. Not all churches agree on the doctrines of the future. Doctrine is not dogma, but all dogma is doctrine. How a church interprets the future helps determine the doctrine of their ministry.
Tribulation is a cause of great trouble and suffering. The Bible is replete with scriptures about Christian suffering in the past, present, and future. If a church interprets Matthew 24, Daniel 9, or Revelation 7 as the Great Tribulation of seven years, a futurist view, the ministry of that church will have a doctrine about whether Jesus returns before (pre-tribulation), during (mid-tribulation), sandwiched between Satan’s wrath and God’s wrath (pre-wrath), or afterwards (post-tribulation). If a church is convinced that Jesus will take believers to heaven before, during, or after tribulation, a church will have a doctrine on the rapture, the taking of believers to heaven. Preterism is the term used for the belief that all the prophecies about the tribulation and the second coming of Christ were fulfilled in the first century CE. These defined periods in which some believe God has divided into dispensations is referred to as dispensationalism. A few definitions may be helpful. Amillennialism—the belief that Christ will never again spend time on earth. Premillennialism—the belief that the second coming will come before the earthly rule of Christ, the millennium period. Postmillennialism—the belief that today’s continual preaching of the gospel is going to win the hearts and minds of people and be so successful that the whole world will be converted to Christianity in time for Christ’s return. At the end of the postmillennial, Christ comes a second time. Postmillennialism is an optimistic view. Pretribulationism—the belief that Christ will “snatch up” (rapture) the church before the suffering and troubles (tribulation). Posttribulationism—the belief that Christ will come after the tribulation. Dispensationalists have a doctrine of pre-tribulation that is not supported by Scripture. This research paper will argue that biblical Scripture does not support the doctrine of a pretribulation rapture.
Key Doctrinal Aspects
The rapture in church history is really a history of pretribulationism, and the topic of the rapture as presented by Kelly Baker should embarrass the average evangelical Christian. Baker presents “rapture ready” practices whereby adults and children jump into the air to make it easier for Jesus to pluck them up to heaven. The only Bible reference Baker provides is 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18, “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven . . . the dead in Christ will rise first . . . caught up together with them . . . meet the Lord in the air.” Baker offers an argument of literary theorist Elaine Scarry as saying that it is our imagination that generates a belief in an object that is not physically present and of such having no evidence of existence. Baker follows up with, “The Rapture emerges as a sustained imagining, a projected event that lacks presence.” Before its developed form as the pretribulation rapture, Michael J. Svigel writes that in the mid-nineteenth century it was called the “secret rapture.” To be caught up with the Lord could mean ascending to heaven with Christ or descending with him to earth (John 14:3).
According to Baker, most of the scholarship on the topic of rapture is rhetoric and fictional. Not surprisingly, in Geoffrey Butler’s review of Michael L. Brown and Craig S. Keener’s writing about the rapture, Butler notes it is not intended for the academic audience. Brown and Keener were pre-tribulationists and had strong ties to the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement, but after studying the Scriptures and church tradition, they both realized the novelty and fabrication of the doctrine. The allegation of fabrication is not new. Francis X. Gumerlock writes about an eleventh-century Bulgarian text titled Narration of Isaiah having similarities to modern pre-tribulationism. In the text, God lifts some Christians into the air, the earth burns for three years and then Christ comes to judge the living and the dead. Those who were lifted (raptured) apparently avoided persecution. Even earlier than the Bulgarian text, claims that Ephraem or Pseudo-Ephraem (Late 4th to early 7th century) taught an early rapture and related concepts are reported by David Malcolm Bennett.
Pre-Tribulation Before the Bulgarian Text
Bennett writes that Ephraem lived in Nisibis in Mesopotamia during the fourth century. Ephraem’s theology was not always precise, but Pseudo-Ephraem claimed Ephraem was “considered to be the greatest figure in the history of the Syrian church.” Details of Ephraem are provided here because the pre-tribulation doctrine may have been fueled, in part, by some of the successors of Ephraem, and the heated debate continues over the origin of certain dispensational ideas. Thomas D. Ice writes that “Byzantine scholar Paul Alexander clearly believed that Pseudo-Ephraem was teaching what we call today a pre-trib rapture.”
Ice clarified that because of the evidence of Pseudo-Ephraem sermons, people’s historical views must change if they are convinced that the pre-tribulation topic did not come into existence until after the 1800s and John Nelson Darby’s work. For obvious reasons, Ephraem’s sermons were never canonized. Ephraem did not believe in an earthly millennium nor was he concerned about end times. He spoke of the church and some of the saints being removed from earth before the tribulation. Yet Bennett writes that Ephraem’s sermons also regard the church being left on earth during the tribulation, his views of Jews were negative, and that the church had replaced Israel. It is clear from the sermon of Ephraem that Darby did not invent the pre-tribulation doctrine, but it is equally clear that the pre-tribulation doctrine is not supported by Scripture.
Persecution and the Antichrist
Adherents of pre-tribulation exaggerate avoidance of persecution. For Craig A. Blaising et al., the early rapture precedes the tribulation, the time of persecution and judgement. Pre-
Tribulationists are fueled to be rapture ready to avoid oppression. Evidence of oppression and the persecution of Christians today and throughout history is replete. The widespread persecution of believers across the globe should remind Christians who take Scripture seriously that the early Christians expected suffering. If there is a distinction between the persecution from the material world and the persecuting wrath of God, it is not immediately evident. Roy Zuck agrees with Blaising that the rapture is in 1 Thessalonians 5, “the day of the Lord,” where the deliverance of believers dodge the Antichrist, war, persecution, and the repugnance of despair. Blaising claims that, τηρέω, the verb in Revelation 3:10, means “kept away from,” not “kept through;” however, the phrase καγω σε τηρησω εκ της ωρας του πειρασμου (I also will keep you from the hour of trial) is more descriptive of this concept in avoiding persecution.
Alongside the doctrine of pre-tribulation lies the doctrine of the antichrist, relevant in this problematic pre-tribulation discussion simply because of the similar manner to which some religious groups and Christian churches have irresponsibly attached the “Antichrist” label or chastised one’s view of tribulation. For example, Florence Morgan Gillman writes that throughout history, the Antichrist label has been attached to the Native Americans in the 1800s, the Roman Catholics in the early 1900s, the Soviets in the middle 1900s, and Muslims in the late 1900s. The recipients of the Antichrist label continually change with history and events, but the goal of demonizing any counter-Christian group has not. The tribulationist is typically caught in a web of myriad definitions and is reminded that there will be no sign of a pre-tribulation and to focus on the sign of Christ’s return.
Christopher Hamilton writes that there is no rapture in philosophy. Initially, his use of the term “rapture” might seem benign and quite different from the North American dispensationalist use denoting the elect Christians being lifted to heaven. However, a parallel can be drawn quite easily and is most applicable in helping to reveal the problematic doctrine of pre-tribulation precisely because of the parallelism. The word can be rightly used without any dispensational connotations to refer to the catching-up in a pastoral manner. For example, Hamilton writes that philosophy deals with love with duty, obligations, and shuns sensuality. He says religion draws on the passions, disease and death, and ecstasy and pain. The Pre-Tribulation rapture rescues one from “sensuality and the body, longing and yearning, the grief of loss of things never had, or had only fleetingly.” In the words of literary theorist Elaine Scarry, it is our imagination that generates a belief in an object that is not physically present and of such having no evidence of existence.
F. J. Stitzinger offers probably the best overview of the rapture sequence, but it will be helpful to first understand the word parousia. According to Gerald B. Stanton, the Greek word παρουσια (parousia) refers to the time of arrival of the Messiah, being alongside or in the presence of the Messiah, and not exclusively, “the second coming.” Stitzinger thus looks backward to Christ’s first coming as being parousia followed by looking ahead to the future of pre-tribulation which begins the rapture and then the seven-year tribulation followed by Christ’s second coming (often expressed as parousia), and finishing with Armageddon and the one-thousand-year reign of Christ. During this time, the Millennium, Stitzinger is apparently interpreting Psalm 72 and Isaiah 2:2-4, 11:4-9, among others, as when Christ will be ruling as King. However, Psalm 72 is an idealization of Israelite kingship and corresponds to Psalms 2, 45, and 110, none of which are included in Stitzinger’s argument for Christ’s Millennial Kingship. The better verses referring to the millennial kingdom are Isaiah 11:6-9, Zechariah 14:9; Hebrews 2:5-10; Genesis 12:3; Hosea 3:5; Jeremiah 30:9; Exodus 34:24; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Deuteronomy 30:1-10, and Zephaniah 3:9.
Millard J. Erickson implies that pretribulationists believe in a third coming of Christ. He explains the rapture, in pretribulationism, takes place in two stages. The first is the rapture where the Lord comes for the saints, and at the end of the seven-year tribulation, “the Lord will return again” with the saints in something called the revelation. A second coming is supported by Scripture; a third coming is not, which is another reason to abandon a pre-tribulation doctrine.
According to Stitzinger, not much was written about the future millennium and a future rapture from the time of the Fall of Rome, around 476 AD, to the onset of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth-century. Aside from the aforementioned 4th to 7th century teachings of pre-tribulation, serious teachings of pre-tribulation began with the modern church period and rapidly spread after the works of J. N. Darby. The concept of pre-tribulationism waivered, and the subsequent millennial concepts of post-tribulationism, partial tribulationism, midtribulationalism and pre-wrath rapture have since entered the eschatological arena. Although there will be no sign of the rapture, there is certainty and sign that Christ will return. “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). Scriptures in the Gospels, Acts, the epistles, and the book of Revelation all declare that Jesus is coming again. With the onslaught of millennial concepts, perhaps what is needed in the problematic doctrine of pre-tribulation is application of the razor. In seemingly opposition to his own pre-tribulationist outlook, Stitzinger writes about the Ockham's Razor principle, from the great English scholastic, William of Ockham, 1280-1349. “In Ockham's development of a nominalistic pursuit of the real, he insisted upon using the razor to slash away at complex explanations of the hierarchy of being, of ideas and concepts, which sheer speculation had invented in the realist's pursuit of what is real.” Carving away the assorted terms to focus on the main point, that Christ is returning, will help clarify the problematic concept of the pre-tribulation.
A Good Sounding Doctrine
George A. Gunn identifies the only three passages in the New Testament detailing the rapture as John 14:1-3; 1 Corinthians 15:51-54; and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. However, a complete picture of the rapture requires the collective information of all three passages, a bit of “hop-scotch” in the words of Meinrad Scherer-Emunds. Laura Nasrallah counsels the pre-tribulationist to consider the politics of 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. The image is of the dead, buried outside the city walls, and the living as they emerge to meet a Roman emperor, a sort of imperial procession. When Roman legions returned from a military campaign, they would camp outside the city to enable the citizens to prepare to come out and greet and participate in the triumph of the conquering army. This seems to be the language Paul is using in 1 Thessalonians 4. Paul did not want the Thessalonian Christians, who were accused of sedition in Acts 17:6-9, to worry about the dead missing out in the triumphal return of Christ.
Of more noble character than the Thessalonians were the Bereans (Acts 17:11). They examined the Scripture to see if what Paul told them is true. Today’s Christians are wise to do the same and reject the pre-tribulationist view. For example, according to John Shorey, John Darby peddled such a convincing doctrine, a good sounding doctrine, that the church switched from a mid-tribulation view to a pre-tribulation view. If contemporary Christians read and study the history of the pre-tribulation doctrine for the rapture, they will see it cloaked in “confusion and disagreement.” Although it is evident the subject of the rapture has been evolving at least since the 4th century, it is not ironic to read Boyd Luter comment that much of the subject concerning the rapture, especially that of pre-tribulation, has changed in the last twenty-five years. Clearly the pre-tribulation is an unstable doctrine also unsupported by Scripture.
John Shorey posited for a mid-tribulation view, but he made a good point that a good sounding doctrine does not make for a right doctrine. A professor of Shorey’s told him that the rapture doctrine is popular in America. Just as with Blaising, Shorey also reminds today’s Christians that in many parts of the world, Christians still suffer from hunger, martyrdom, and persecution daily. The emphasis should not be on pre-tribulation, but rather the tribulation of yesterday’s, the tribulation of the tomorrows, and of the tribulation to come. The Bible makes it clear that believers can and will face tribulation.
Along with the continual debate about millennialism and pre-tribulationism, there is the debate as to the true originators of the dispensation and the pre-tribulation doctrines. Never mind Ephraim, Mark Patterson is convinced that it is Edward Irving and not John Nelson Darby who deserves a greater claim to be the father of modern dispensationalism. Patterson questions Darby’s writing style and Ernest Sandeen commented that Darby “left a massive set of Collected Writings which are almost uniformly unintelligible.” Patterson writes that Edward Irving (1792-1834) was a high church Scot, initially systematic and orthodox, and later a Romantic millennial. Irving was eventually accused of heresy. It is the rapture and the doctrine of pre-tribulation for which Patterson brings Irving to center stage. Despite all the doubt surrounding the doctrine of pre-tribulation and lack of Scriptural evidence, Patterson contends that the theological reasoning for pre-tribulation is worth doing even if one views the doctrine as “dubious or spurious.”
Ockham's Razor Principle
John C. Peckham does not share Patterson’s conviction about Edward Irving and his followers bringing the doctrine of the pre-tribulation to the modern era. Peckham acknowledges Darby as the earliest proponent and seems to hinge his decision on Darby’s view of Revelation 12:5. Peckham considers Darby’s view of the catching up of the male child as the body of Christ as one having a significantly strong exegetical foundation. It is interesting that Peckham, a proponent of pre-tribulation, discloses how Darby moved from a “secret rapture” to a more “pre-seven-year tribulation perspective.”
Proponents of Darby’s exegetical argument subsequently abandoned his exegetical argument, the argument that popularized pretribulation, and opted for what they considered as corroborative evidence that ultimately left Darby’s exegetical argument exposed to exegetical criticism. It appears that the abandonment of the original pretribulation exegetical argument gave birth to the concepts mentioned earlier such as the millennial concepts of post-tribulationism, partial tribulationism, midtribulationalism, pre-wrath, and even partial. Those opposed to a pretribulation rapture might deduce that the Ockham's Razor principle, the razor needed to slash away these concepts, has been unemployed (see note 1). There is much to be said for “All ready, but not yet.” Christians can be ready for the time that is not yet. There is no uncertainty about the end, “for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:44). Matthew 24 reveals details about the Second Coming. In the words of Louis Berkhof, “The Bible intimates that the measure of surprise at the second coming of Christ will be in an inverse ratio to the measure of their watchfulness.”
There is uncertainty is about the end times and what happens when Christ returns. Uncertainty is further exacerbated with the pre-tribulation doctrine. Questions about the rapture and tribulation seem to be the most popular, unanswered questions. Since pre-tribulation is not supported by Scripture, it is doctrine and not dogma. If one cannot take a bullet for pre-tribulation or any other doctrine, convincing others towards a specific doctrine without the dogmatic inspiration of Scripture will extend uncertainty, as is evident with the topic of pre-tribulation.
If Christians believe the kingdom of God can only be built by God, it prevents them from engaging in radical political ideologies and utopian behavior that will ultimately result in violence and oppression. Those Christians may just sit around and wait until the dispensations of God are administered. On the other hand, if Christians believe in working to further the kingdom of God, they will be active in efforts such as evangelization, social reform, and conservation. Those Christians will not be sitting around waiting to be “snatched up” or raptured but they will be ready.
There is tension between the pre-tribulationist and those who do not believe in the pre-tribulation rapture. Liturgical churches with a cyclic pattern typically do not share the tension generated by the expectation of a sudden rapture and the Second Coming and may want for “going somewhere”— Mass, Holy Land, or adoration, perhaps. The tension of the “all ready, but not yet” mindset helps solve the problem of Scripture not supporting a pre-tribulation rapture.
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Bennett, David Malcolm. "Raptured or Not Raptured?: That is the Question." The Evangelical Quarterly 80, no. 2 (2008): 143-61.
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Brindle, Wayne A. "Biblical Evidence for the Imminence of the Rapture." Bibliotheca Sacra 158, no. 630 (2001): 138-51.
Butler, Geoffrey. "Not Afraid of the Antichrist: Why We Don't Believe in a Pre-Tribulation Rapture." Evangelical Review of Theology 44, no. 4 (2020): 379-81.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.
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Gunn, George A. "Jesus and The Rapture John 14." In Evidence for the Rapture: A Biblical Case for Pretribulationism, by John Hart. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2015.
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Hart, John. Evidence for the Rapture: A Biblical Case for Pretribulation. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2015.
Ice, Thomas D. "The Rapture in Pseudo-Ephraem." Article Archives (Scholars Crossing), no. 32 (2009).
Latham, Jacob A. "An Ideal-Type Between the Republic and Memories of the the Republic." In Performance, Memory, and Processions in Ancient Rome: The Pompa Circensis from the Late Republic to Late Antiquity, by Jacob A. Latham, 17-102. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Luter, Boyd. "Three Views on the Rapture: Pretribulation, Prewrath, or Posttribulation." Criswell Theological Review 9, no. 2 (2012): 99-102.
Mollett, Margaret. "'Taken to the Lord': Did Pseudo-Ephraem Really Teach the Rapture?" Journal of Early Christian History 6, no. 1 (2016): 59-77.
Nasrallah, Laura S. "Empire and Apocalypse in Thessaloniki: Interpreting the Early Christian Rotunda." Journal of Early Christian Studies 13 (2005): 465-508.
Patterson, Mark, and Andrew Walker. "Our Unspeakable Comfort: Irving, Albury, and Origins of the Pretribulation Rapture." Fides et Historia 31, no. 1 (1999): 66-81.
Peckham, John C. "What Child is This?: Darby's Early Exegetical Argument for the Pretribulation Rapture of the Church." Trinity Journal 21, no. 2 (2014): 225-51.
Sandeen, Ernest. The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
Scherer-Emunds, Meinrad. "In Case of Rapture, Don't Get Fooled." U. S. Catholic 74, no. 12 (2009): 23.
Shorey, John. Window of the Lord's Return: Are We the Tribulation Generation? New York, NY: Higher Life Publishing, 2013.
Stanton, Gerald B. Kept From the Hour. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1956.
Stitzinger, J. F. "The Rapture in Twenty Centuries of Biblical Interpretation." Master's Seminary Journal 13, no. 2 (2002): 149-71.
Svigel, Michael J. "'What Child is This?': Darby's Early Exegetical Argument for the Pretribulation Rapture of the Church." Trinity Journal 35, no. 2 (2014): 225-51.
Zuck, Roy B. "Three Views on the Rapture: Pretribulation, Prewrath, or Posttribulation." Bibliotheca Sacra 169, no. 675 (July 2012).
 In all fairness, Kelly Baker’s personal position on the rapture is unclear. It is not my intension to cast dispersions on her or anyone else. We are each accountable for our interpretations.  Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced employ the New Kings James Version (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1982).  Kelly J. Baker, “Getting Rapture Ready: The Materiality of the Rapture in North America,” Studies in World Christianity 17, no. 2 (2011): 104.  Michael J. Svigel, “What Child Is This?: Darby’s Early Exegetical Argument for the Pretribulation Rapture of the Church,” Trinity Journal 35 (2): 225.  Baker, “Getting Rapture Ready,” 101.  Geoffrey Butler, “Not Afraid of the Antichrist: Why We Don’t Believe in a Pre-Tribulation Rapture,” Evangelical Review of Theology 44, no. 4 (2020): 379.  Francis X. Gumerlock, “The Rapture in an Eleventh-Century Text,” Bibliotheca Sacra 176, no. 701 (January 2019): 81.  David Malcolm Bennett, “Raptured or Not Raptured?: That is the Question,” The Evangelical Quarterly 80 (2): 143.  Thomas D. Ice, “The Rapture in Pseudo-Ephraem,” Article Archives, 2  Ibid., 4.  Ice, “The Rapture in Pseudo-Ephraem,” 1.  Bennett, “Raptured or Not Raptured? 155.  Ibid., 155.  Craig A. Blaising, and Douglas J. Moo, Three Views on the Rapture: Pretribulation, Prewrath, or Posttribulation. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2018), 33.  Roy B. Zuck,” Three Views on the Rapture: Pretribulation, Prewrath, or Posttribulation,” Bibliotheca Sacra 169, no. 675 (July 2012): 373.  The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1990), 859.  Florence Morgan Gillman, et al., 1-2 Thessalonians (Collegeville, PA: Liturgical Press, 2016), 157.  Christopher Hamilton, “Philosophy and Religion, Hope and Rapture,” European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 11 (30: 117.  Gerald B. Stanton, Kept From the Hour (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1956), 20.  F. J. Stitzinger, “The Rapture in Twenty Centuries of Biblical Interpretation,” Master’s Seminary Journal 13 (2): 152.  Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology 3rd. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013), 1093.  Stitzinger, “The Rapture in Twenty Centuries,” 149.  Ibid., 151.  George A. Gunn as quoted in John Hart, Evidence for the Rapture: A Biblical Case for Pretribulationism (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2015), 35.  Meinrad Scherer-Emunds, “In Case of Rapture, Don’t Get Fooled,” U.S. Catholic 74 (12): 23.  Laura S Nasrallah, “Empire and Apocalypse in Thessaloniki: Interpreting the Early Christian Rotunda,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 13 (2005): 500.  Jacob A Latham, “An Ideal-Type Between the Republic and Memories of the Republic.” In Performance, Memory, and Processions in Ancient Rome: The Pompa Circensis from the Late Republic to Late Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 98.  John Shorey, Window of the Lord’s Return: Are We the Tribulation Generation? (New York, NY: Higher Life Publishing, 2013), 11.  Shorey, Window of the Lord’s Return, 11.  Boyd Luter, “Three Views on the Rapture: Pretribulation Prewrath, or Posttribulation,” Criswell Theological Review 9 (2): 100.  Mark Patterson and Andrew Walker, “Our Unspeakable Comfort: Irving, Albury, and Origins of the Pretribulation Rapture,” Fides et Historia 31 (1): 66.  Ernest Sandeen The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800-1930 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 31.  Patterson and Walker, “Our Unspeakable Comfort,” 67.  John C. Peckham, “What Child is This?: Darby’s Early Exegetical Argument for the Pretribulation Rapture of the Church,” Trinity Journal 21 (2): 226.  Ibid., 226.  Peckham, “What Child is This?” 227.  Erickson, Christian Theology, 1092.