Volume 2 - Issue 3

The ‘rapture question’

By Grant R. Osborne

There is now occurring, among a large segment of North American evangelicalism, an intensive debate over the ‘rapture question’, a discussion unknown to many in the rest of the world. The prominence of this debate in North America is a result of the strong entrenchment of premillennialism on this side of the ocean.1


Three eschatological schools are generally distinguished with regard to their views of the millennium, a thousand-year period prophesied In Revelation 20:4–10. Amillennialists believe there will be no millennium in a literal sense; rather, the prophetic passages are general, symbolic pictures of this present age and its spiritual state. Postmillennialists view the millennium as a period of peace which will precede the parousia and will result from the evangelization of the world. Both of these positions employ a figurative interpretation of the Apocalypse and related passages. Pre-millennialists, however, argue for a literal hermeneutic regarding prophecy. Of course, the ‘literal’ aspect is relative; not even the most ardent dispensationalist would argue for a literal seven-headed dragon in the end times (Rev. 12). Rather, they assert that biblical apocalyptic foreshadows literal, future events.2

Premillennialism differs not only in espousing a literal thousand-year reign of Christ following the parousia (hence the title ‘premillennial’; Christ will return before the millennium) but also in teaching a seven-year ‘tribulation’ period leading up to the millennium (taken from the seventieth week of Daniel, Dn. 9:24–27; cf. Mt. 24:15ff., Rev. 4–18). Advocates of this view believe that there will be a literal seven-year period at the end of the Church Age involving the rise of the ‘Antichrist’ (Dn. 7:25; 2 Thes. 2:3ff.; Rev. 13:5ff.) coming to power over the entire world; the ‘abomination of desolation’ (Dn. 9:27; Mt. 24:15) in the middle of the period, when he demands universal worship of himself; and the ‘Great Tribulation’ (Mt. 24:16ff.) in the last half of the period, when he persecutes the saints.

This movement was called ‘chiliasm’ in the early church,3 and disappeared after the work of Augustine and the rise of the historical interpretation of prophecy. It did not reappear until the early 1800’s in England, with the prophetic conference movement. Two main forms developed: (1) the classical chiliasm of the early church, associated with the return of Christ after the tribulation period; (2) the dispensational school, expounding the return of the Lord before the tribulation period. The latter view developed within the Plymouth Brethren movement in England and became connected with the writings of J. N. Darby (it was called ‘Darbyism’ for many years). It was Darby who popularized the position in North America; he made six trips there between 1859 and 1874. There it became extremely popular and carried the day in ‘grass-roots’ evangelicalism.4

We might distinguish three reasons why it became so strong in North America, even while it failed to generate strong support in England or the continent: (1) the prophetic conferences in North America became the major bastion of teaching in the increasingly bitter fundamentalist—liberal debates of 1880–1930. In these dispensationalism more and more carried the day. (2) The popularity of the Scofield Bible (1909) made it the Bible of the common man. It contained dispensational interpretations of passages in footnotes, and these came to be viewed as almost biblical in their authority in the eyes of many Christians. (3) The Bible institute movement of the mid-twentieth century was led almost entirely by men who considered dispensationalism to be essential to any true evangelical faith. As a result, hundreds of churches and small denominations were dominated by this view.

In the last twenty-five years, however, there has developed an increasing debate within premillennialism regarding the temporal connection between the return of Christ and the tribulation period. Three views have emerged: (1) the pretribulation view, teaching that there will be two returns, one before the tribulation to ‘rapture’5 the saints and the other after the tribulation to defeat the forces of Antichrist and establish the millennial reign; (2) the mid-tribulation position, which states that the ‘rapture’ will occur in the middle of the tribulation, in connection with the ‘abomination of desolation’; and (3) the post-tribulation position, which asserts that there is only one return of Christ and that the two aspects will occur simultaneously. It will be helpful to set out the biblical evidence that each position marshalls to support its view.

The pretribulation view

At the outset, it is crucial to understand the ‘dispensational principle’ (which ‘is determined more by ecclesiology than eschatology’6) which declares that Israel must be kept distinct from the church in God’s redemptive plan. Supporters of this position argue that the church is the ‘mystery’ revealed only at Pentecost7and that the Old Testament prophecies refer only to Israel and not to the Church. Therefore, Daniel 9:24–27 and Jeremiah 30:7, the two major prophecies connected with the tribulation, are said to show that the tribulation period is Jewish in character. Therefore, the first sixty-nine weeks in Daniel’s vision are Jewish, and the seventieth week must also be seen in this way.

The Church Age, which comes between the sixty-ninth and seventieth weeks, was not revealed to Israel. This is supported by the Jeremiah verse, which speaks of ‘the day of Jacob’s trouble’.

The rapture of the saints before the tribulation is said to be prophesied In John 14:3, where Christ promises to take the Church to his Father’s house. It is revealed as a further ‘mystery’ In 1 Corinthians 15:51–52 and is fully explicated In 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18. There the saints meet Christ in the air and Christ is not seen as coming to earth.8 Therefore, this could not be the return of Christ after the tribulation period.

Another major argument is taken from passages teaching the imminence of the parousia. Here passages are noted exhorting the believer to ‘watch’ (Lk. 21:36, et al.) or ‘await eagerly’ (Lk. 12:36; Tit. 2:13; Rom. 8:23, 25, etc.) Jesus’ return. Of special importance are those describing the return as ‘at hand’ (Phil. 4:5; Jas. 5:8, 9; 1 Pet. 4:7). Scholars of this persuasion argue that these passages demand an ‘any-moment’ return which means there are no signs to be fulfilled. Therefore there could not be a seven-year tribulation period which must occur before the parousia.9

Finally, we might note passages indicating an escape from God’s wrath (Lk. 21:36; 1 Thes. 5:8; Rev. 3:10) which advocates of this school apply to the outpouring of God’s wrath in the tribulation period (Rev. 6:8, 17 et al.). They argue that the promise to keep the saints from the hour of testing (Rev. 3:10) means that they will be taken out of this world before God’s wrath ‘tries’ the world.10 Therefore the church cannot be on earth during this period.

The mid-tribulation view

This view has not had a great deal of literature written on its behalf.11 It is, however, gaining adherents and influence in the debate today. The key to this position is found in the Apocalypse and in the argument that the seals, trumpets and bowls must be interpreted according to successive sequence rather than repetitive cycles. That is, the future events pictured in those images are three separate occurrences; and so the images of the seals, trumpets and bowls do not refer to a single out-pouring of wrath but to three successive outpourings.

These scholars believe that the ‘rapture’ occurs In Revelation 11:15–19, at the seventh trumpet.12 The events of chapter 11 revolve around the two witnesses who for a time confound the forces of Antichrist, are finally killed and lie in state in Jerusalem, then are caught up to heaven. Mid-tribulationists identify this with the events of chapters 12 and 13 and with the abomination of desolation In Matthew 24:15 (Dn. 9:27). The great tribulation of Matthew 24:21, 22 is equated with the three and one half days of Revelation 11:10, 11; the orgy of rejoicing over the witnesses’ bodies will also involve an orgy of persecution against the church and will be ‘shortened for the elect’s sake’ (Mt. 24:22). Therefore the coming of Christ In Matthew 24:29–31 is equated with the events of Revelation 11 and the seventh trumpet is identified with the ‘last trumpet’ of 1 Corinthians 15:52. Eschatological symbols common to Revelation 11 and the other major passages on the parousia include the cloud, the great voice, the ascension, the trumpet, the kingdom received, the reward, the time of wrath and the temple in heaven.

Further evidence is taken from Daniel. Buswell states13 regarding the seventieth week of 9:24–27, that the first half is a time of truce, not of tribulation. Only the second half involves the outpouring of wrath. Then In 12:1–2, when Michael stands up and delivers the people (a prophecy of the rapture), ‘at that time’ refers to the abomination of desolation In 11:31 and 12:11. Therefore the rapture will take place in the middle of the tribulation period.

The post-tribulation view

This position argues that Scripture nowhere teaches two separate aspects to the return of Christ. In every passage there is only one return, and it includes both aspects, the return for the church (1 Thes. 4:13–18) and Jesus’ coming to defeat the forces of the Antichrist (1 Thes. 5:1–10). They point to the three terms used for the return—parousia or ‘coming’, epiphaneia or ‘manifestation’ and apocalypsis or ‘revelation’. Each is used of both aspects, so there is no terminological basis for separating the two.14

These people argue that imminence does not mean ‘any moment’ in Scripture. In an extensive discussion of the passages relating to imminence, R. H. Gundry15 asserts that they teach an expectation which includes a necessary delay before the parousia. During this time such signs as the evangelization of the whole world (Mt. 24:14), the great apostasy and the appearance of Antichrist (2 Thes. 2:3) must occur. This delay is pictured in many of the kingdom parables like the parables of the talents (Lk. 19:11–27)16 and the virgins (Mt. 25:1–13).

The Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24 is the major passage for this position. In verses 21, 22, ‘elect’ is said to refer to the church as well as Israel, since Jesus uses it in this way In Matthew 22:14. Moreover, throughout the New Testament the term is used for the church, so it is the church which will pass through the tribulation period. Then, in verses 29–31, the ‘elect’ are gathered together ‘after the tribulation’. The symbolism of the entire passage fits that of 1 Thessalonians 4 and must therefore speak of the rapture of the church.17

Finally, the first Thessalonian Epistle is used to prove a single, undivided return of the Lord. This school argues that the temporal element missing in 4:13–18 is found In 5:1–4. in the original, without chapter and verse distinctions, 5:1 follows directly after 4:18; and the conjunction ‘but’ in 5:1 indicates the transition from the persons included in the parousia to the time when it will come. Therefore 4:13–18 concerns the relation of the dead to the living at the parousia, while 5:1–4 tells when it will come.18

Two passages in 2 Thessalonians are also used. First, 1:7–10 indicates that the ‘rest’ of the believers will not occur until Christ’s return in vengeance and flaming fire. Second, 2:1–10 states that the Antichrist must be in power before the parousia can occur. Ladd asserts19 that the rapture and the revelation in judgment must have been considered as simultaneous or else Paul would have distinguished them between verses 1 and 3. Since they are not, the church must be meant to pass through the tribulation.


Christians have a tragic history of dividing over minor issues such as the mode of baptism or the type of church government. In fact, it must be admitted that a major impediment to world evangelization (Mt. 24:14) is the inability of Christians to work together because of these minute doctrinal differences. In North America, eschatology is one such issue, and the rapture debate is to many a crucial question in a sound evangelical theology.

A perusal of the evidence in this as in so many honest discussions must convince the reader that certainty in such an area is impossible.20 While evangelicals must take a strong stand on doctrines where Scripture is clear, we must learn tolerance regarding issues where God’s Word is not clear and differences are based on interpretation. While the balance is undoubtedly difficult to maintain, we must work at it. So long as we continue to labour in small, isolated groups, we will duplicate effort and waste our energy. May we all seek to eliminate judgmental narrowness and unite in true oneness of spirit (Phil. 2:1–4).

1 This does not imply that the majority of North American evangelicals are premillennialists. Rather it notes that the majority of premillennialists are found there. The actual statistics would probably indicate that the camps are fairly evenly divided.

2 For a deeper discussion of the differences, see O. T. Allis, Prophecy and the church (Philadelphia, 1955) for the amillennial position; L. Boettner, The Millennium (Philadelphia, 1957) for the postmillennial view; and G. E. Ladd, Crucial questions about the kingdom of God (Grand Rapids, 1952) for the premillennial side.

3 See the writings of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian et al., as discussed in G. E. Ladd, The blessed hope(Grand Rapids, 1956), pp. 19–31.

4 For a good description of this school, see C. C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism today (Chicago, 1965).

5 The term ‘rapture’, naturally, is not biblical as a technical term for the parousia. It began to be used in the prophetic conferences to express the joy of the Lord’s return for the Christian.

6 J. F. Walvoord, The rapture question (Grand Rapids, 1957), pp. 16–17.

7 Walvoord, pp. 22f., says that the first prophecy of the church was given by Christ (Mt. 16:18, et al.) and is not found in the Old Testament.

8 See W. Evans, The coming King (Chicago, 1923), p. 98. C. C. Ryrie, The basis of the premillennial faith(New York, 1953), p. 133, argues that there could be no ‘comfort’ (4:18) if the Thessalonian Christians knew they first had to pass through the tribulation period.

9 The word ‘parousia’ is used among premillennialists as an all-inclusive term for Christ’s return in general. This means that for the pretribulationist it can stand either (as here) for the rapture before or for the revelation after the tribulation; only the context will determine which aspect is in view.

10 Ryrie, p. 135; and Walvoord, pp. 84f., believe that the Holy Spirit will also depart at this time. They base this on 2 Thes. 2:6, 7, interpreting the ‘restrainer’ to be the Holy Spirit, whose influence is not present during the tribulation period.

11 The two major works are N. B. Harrison, The end (Minneapolis, 1941); and J. O. Buswell, A systematic theology of the Christian religion (2 vols.; Grand Rapids, 1962).

12 Pretribulationists believe that this occurs in Rev. 4:1, being pictured when John is called up into heaven. Post-tribulationists assert that there is only one return, and that the church is taken up in connection with the events of Rev. 19.

13 Buswell, II, pp. 375f.

14 For more extensive discussion, see Ladd, pp. 61–69.

15 R. H. Gundry, The church and the tribulation (Grand Rapids, 1973), pp. 29–43.

16 Note especially verse 11, ‘he proceeded to tell a parable … because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately’ (rsv).

17 See A. Reese, The approaching advent of Christ (London, n.d.), pp. 207, 208, as well as Ladd and Gundry.

18 See Gundry, pp. 105–108. Pretribulationists believe that 4:13–18 refers to the rapture before the tribulation and 5:1–10 relates to the revelation in judgment after the tribulation.

19 Ladd, pp. 73–75.

20 In fact, many readers, unable to accept a literal interpretation of prophecy, cannot identify with any of the above views.

Grant R. Osborne

Assistant Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, USA