The Biblical Necessity of the Pretribulation Rapture
By Jonathan C. Brentner
The events of 2020 have caused some dear saints to think that the tribulation has already started. Others wonder about the certainty of the pretribulation rapture as they watch violence, wickedness, and lawlessness overshadow our world.
My purpose in writing is to encourage believers to remain watchful as signs of the approaching tribulation multiply seemingly by the day. Despite what we see, we can know Jesus will come for us before the start of the seven-year tribulation. We can trust the words of Scripture as chaos becomes the norm rather than the exception in our world. Jesus is coming for His bride, the church, before the start of the tribulation.
A Bible prophecy teacher recently did an excellent job of providing sound biblical proof in support of the pretribulation rapture. I feel a desire to share a summary of why I remain confident of Jesus’ imminent appearing.
We can be certain of this because:
1. Premillennialism Is a Biblical Certainty
Premillennialism, which is foundational to a belief in the pretribulation rapture, is a biblical certainty. Those who deny the reality of a literal millennium with a restored Israel, the amillennialists, relegate the tribulation to allegory. If there is no literal tribulation, then determining the placement of the rapture in regard to it becomes a moot point. If the book of Revelation represents symbolism or past history as many claim, then there’s no wrath to miss with a pretribulation rapture.
With the premillennial understanding that the tribulation is literal, and it is, I will proceed to make a scriptural case for placing the rapture ahead of this coming time of wrath on the earth.
2. The Rapture Cannot Happen at the Same Time as the Second Coming
The biblical descriptions of the rapture and second coming contain many significant differences that make it impossible for one to reconcile the two into one event. They cannot happen at the same time. This is an essential first step in placing the rapture ahead of the tribulation.
The resurrection of those who have died in Christ confirms this distinction. The resurrection of the dead happens first in the event Paul describes in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 and 1 Corinthians 15:50-54. With the second coming, however, the resurrection of tribulation saints does not occur until after a lengthy sequence of events (see Rev. 19:11-20:4), it may not even occur until a day or two after Jesus’ return to earth.
This is just one of many distinguishing differences that exist in the passages describing the rapture versus those referring to the second coming. If the words of Scripture matter, and they do, we cannot combine these two events into one occurrence; it’s impossible.
3. The New Testament Sense of Imminency
The sense of imminency in the New Testament regarding Jesus’ appearing further establishes the rapture as a unique event. The apostles repeatedly described their readers as eagerly anticipating Jesus’ return for them (1 Cor. 1:7; Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Thess. 1:8-10; Titus 2:11-13; James 5:8; 1 Peter 1:13). New Testament saints watched for the rapture as though it could occur at any moment.
As for the second coming, Jesus told us that at least two major events would happen before it. In Matthew 24:15-29, He says that the defilement of the temple by the antichrist and the “great tribulation” that follows it will happen before He returns to earth. According to the Lord’s own words, significant events that have not yet happened must occur before the second coming.
Do you see how this expectation differs greatly from that of the New Testament saints who prayed for Jesus to return soon (Maranatha). In his early letters, Paul even expressed the anticipation he would be alive at the time of Jesus’ appearing.
Only a pretribulation rapture fits as the eager anticipation of Jesus’ appearing that we see throughout the New Testament. Such an expectation does not fit with the second coming because it cannot happen until after the antichrist defiles the temple in the middle of the tribulation followed by a time of intense tribulation on the earth.
4. The Expectation of the Thessalonians
The expectation of the Thessalonians supports the imminent appearing of Jesus as well as the placement of the rapture before the tribulation. The new converts in Thessalonica grieved when some of their members died. Paul’s response reveals the source of their unnecessary grief; they thought that the dead in Christ would miss out on the joy of the rapture.
How could they have thought this way apart from expecting Jesus’ appearing to happen at any moment? They, like the apostle Paul, believed Jesus could return for them in their lifetime. In order to have such an expectation, it’s necessary for the rapture to at least happen early in the tribulation if not before it.
5. The Surprise Beginning of the Day of the Lord
In 1 Thessalonians 5:2-3, Paul tells his readers that the start of the day of the Lord will surprise people on the earth “like a thief in the night” with its “sudden destruction” from which “they will not escape.” The day of Lord, a primarily Old Testament term, refers to an extended time of the Lord’s wrath on the earth leading up to and including Jesus’ return to the earth.
If the day of the Lord were to begin at any time after the seal judgments of Revelation 6 commence, this day could not catch anyone by surprise. No one will be saying “peace and security” (v. 3) after the pestilences, famines, pandemics, and wars of the seal judgments kill one-fourth of the earth’s population, perhaps more than two billion people.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:9, the apostles assures his readers, and us, that we will not experience this time of God’s judgment upon the earth known as the day of the Lord, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Since the seal judgments are a part of God’ wrath, the Lord must come for us before they begin.
If the rapture must happen before the seal judgments of Revelation 6, then it must certainly occur before the start of the tribulation.
6. The Panic of the Thessalonians
Did the Thessalonians understand Paul’s promise to mean they would miss all of the day of the Lord? Yes, their response to the errant message stating the day of the Lord had already begun confirms this; it caused so much fear that these new converts visibly shook with fear at the thought (2 Thess. 2:2).
Why would they panic at hearing such news if they expected to be on earth during the day of the Lord or even for a part of it? Their response to the false report tells us they regarded Paul’s promise in 1 Thessalonians 5:9 as one of deliverance from all of God’s wrath during the day of the Lord, which includes all of the tribulation.
The panic of the Thessalonians confirms they expected to miss all of the tribulation. They expected the rapture to happen first.
7. The “Departure” of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 Denotes the Rapture
In 2 Thessalonians 2:3 Paul wrote, “Let no one deceive you in any way. For that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.” The Greek word apostasia, here translated “rebellion,” literally means departure. The context alone determines whether it refers to a physical parting, such as the rapture, or a spiritual apostasy, which is common understanding for 2 Thessalonians 2:3.
The context supports the idea of a physical departure over that of leaving the faith. The definite article in the Greek tells us that apostle has a definite event in mind, one that the Thessalonians would recognize without further explanation. We have no evidence that Paul talked to the Thessalonians about a future apostasy of the church. He did not write about the church’s departure from the faith in the last days until much later in his ministry when he wrote 1 and 2 Timothy.
On the other hand, both his books to the Thessalonians refer often to the rapture; that’s a departure they would have readily recognized apart from a word of clarification.
Cyprian, who lived AD 200-258, referred to the rapture as a “departure.” In his book Treatises of Cyprian, he wrote, “Do you not give God thanks, do you not congratulate yourself, that by an early departure you are taken away, and delivered from the shipwrecks and disasters that are imminent?” This leader in the early church confirms both the imminency of Jesus’ appearing and he uses the word “departure” to describe the rapture.
If the departure of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 denotes the rapture, and the evidence strongly suggest that it does, then the rapture must happen before the start of the tribulation.
8. The Unveiling of the Antichrist to the World
In Paul’s response to the fright of the Thessalonians saints, Paul tells them that the day of the Lord has not yet come because the Restrainer continues to hold back the unveiling of the antichrist (2 Thess. 2:3-8). If the Restrainer is the Holy Spirit, and this interpretation fits best with the context, this confirms that the church cannot be on earth when the antichrist steps to the forefront among the world’s leaders.
9. Jesus’ Promise to the Church at Philadelphia
We have additional verification of the pretribulation rapture in Jesus’ promise to the church at Philadelphia, “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth” (Rev. 3:10). This “hour of trial” does not refer to a time of persecution that would come upon a particular church or even all believers, but rather points to a time of suffering that will impact all the people of the world, which fits with tribulation John describes in Revelation 6-18.
The fact that this testing is specifically for “those who dwell on the earth” (Rev. 3:10) further confirms its reference to the judgments on earth known as the tribulation. John uses this phrase eight other times in the book of Revelation (6:10; 8:13; 11:10; 13:8 12, 14; 14:6; and 17:8). In each instance it either refers to either people impacted by the tribulation or those refusing to repent of their sins during this time.
Jesus’ words that immediately follow this promise indicate how he will keep us out of it, “I am coming quickly” (Rev. 3:11). Since neither the “hour of trial” and Jesus’ return have occurred, both must remain future. The rapture must occur before this future time of wrath begins.
10. The Church Is in Heaven Before the Tribulation Begins
If we are not on earth during the tribulation or the “hour of trial,” we must be in heaven with Jesus. We see a clear indication of this with the twenty-four elders who appear in heaven seated on thrones (Rev. 4-5). John’s description of them fits with promises made to New Testament saints rather than angels. The term elder denotes an aging process, that eliminates any identification of them as angels.
If these elders represent the church, and no other identification fits with John’s description of them, this places all believers in heaven before the seal judgments of Revelation 6 begin.
11. Galilean Wedding Traditions
A Bible prophecy teacher recently did a wonderful job of describing how the Jewish wedding customs of the first century AD confirm a pretribulation rapture. Recent archeological findings, as dramatized in the movie Before the wrath, show how the Galilean wedding traditions provide further validation of a pretribulation rapture.
These traditions also help us understand the joy we will experience when Jesus comes to takes us to His Father’s house in heaven (John 14:2-3). The rapture may seem like a frightening event until we understand it represents Jesus coming for His beloved bride. It’s all a part His love story for us, the redeemed.
I believe these customs help us understand the grief of the Thessalonians that Paul addressed in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. If Paul, while in Thessalonica, had described the rapture in terms of a Jewish wedding based upon Jesus’ words in the Upper Room, it explains why they looked forward to it with such eager anticipation (1:8-10). It may also help us understand their grief when some of their members died since only living people celebrate weddings. The Thessalonians did not doubt the future resurrection of their departed loved ones, they thought they would miss the joy of Jesus returning for His bride.
In response to their sorrow, the apostle emphasized the primary place of the “dead in Christ” at the time of the rapture, which at this early time in the life of the church may have been new revelation (see v. 15).
12. The Testimony of Church History
Church history does not prove any doctrinal belief, only Scripture can do that.
However, history negates the often-repeated argument that no one believed in a pretribulation rapture until the mid to late 1800’s. Testimony from the early church confirms that several church fathers separated the rapture from the second coming with an unspecified period of tribulation in-between the two events.
John Darby was not first person to assert a belief in the pretribulation rapture. Ephraim the Syrian, who lived during the fourth century AD, preached a sermon in which he proclaimed a clear and unmistakable belief in a pretribulation rapture.
God Has Not Destined Us for Wrath
Jesus is coming for His church, for us, before the start of the day of the Lord; that is the promise of 1 Thessalonians 5:9, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This wrath belongs to the day of Lord under whose timeframe belongs the entire coming seven-year tribulation.
The church cannot be on the earth during the seal judgments that result in the deaths of one-fourth of the world’s population at the time. This is the wrath of which the Lord, through the apostle Paul, promises us we will miss.
Jesus is coming for us before the start of the seven-year tribulation.