For years I’ve been fascinated by Pre-tribulationists: Christians who believe they will be raptured (taken bodily up to heaven) before the onset of the apocalyptic tribulation. It’s a belief that emerged only in the 19th century, but has been popularized by the Left Behind series to the extent of The DaVinci Code. There are technical problems with this view and the more general: early Christians not only expected to suffer the tribulation before they were raptured; they saw it as their holy mandate. Let’s examine. Paul is the place to start on the subject. His description of the rapture is justly famous, being the most detailed and earliest (50s AD) version preserved in the NT:
“For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore comfort one another with these words.” (I Thess 4:16-18) “We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.'” (I Cor 15:51-55)
Obviously neither of these passages says anything to the effect of “comforting one another because you won’t have to go through tribulation”. The passage of I Thess 4 simply advises comfort because believers can count on seeing their loved ones again. Paul was addressing a concern about the bodies of Christians who died before the second coming (his answer: they will be resurrected from their sleep-state). In the passage of I Cor 15, he was addressing an opposite concern, about the bodies of Christians who were still living (his answer: they won’t need to die first before being resurrected; their mortal bodies will be instantly clothed with immortality). Paul wasn’t implying anything at all about the time of the rapture, only about the logistics of dead and alive bodies. He provided a vivid description of the rapture in any case, which impacted the gospel writers and the author of Revelation. The image of Jesus descending in the clouds and harvesting the faithful is present in the Markan Apocalypse (early 70s AD), followed by Matthew (80s) and Luke (90s), and these writers clearly state that the rapture takes place after the tribulation.
“But in those days, after the tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels [with a loud trumpet call], and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.” (Mk 13:24-27/Mt 24:29-31; cf. Lk 21:25-27)
Astonishingly, today’s Pre-tribulationists fixate on the text which comes right after this:
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mk 13:32/Mt 24:36)
This, they say, proves that the rapture could happen “at any time now”. All it proves is that no one (not even Jesus, apparently) knows the exact day and hour when the rapture will take place. But whenever it happens, it obviously follows the tribulation! The Markan Apocalypse couldn’t be clearer: there will be a nasty tribulation, involving wars, famine, earthquakes, false Christs, false prophets, and people dying for their beliefs. After this period the sun and moon will darken. Then Jesus will come in the clouds to rapture the elect. If it’s so clear, then why is the doctrine of the pre-trib rapture so widely believed? An obvious (and perhaps flippant) answer is that modern evangelicals are self-entitled wimps and want to be saved by Jesus without having to bleed for it. But to be fair, there’s another reason. At least some of them are genuinely misreading their bibles. They confuse “tribulation” with “God’s wrath”. They rightly point out that NT texts (such as I Thess 5:9) assure faithful believers that they won’t have to suffer God’s wrath. But “God’s wrath” isn’t the same thing as “tribulation”. The book of Revelation makes clear that the Day of God’s wrath doesn’t come until the sixth seal is opened — which is the point in the Markan Apocalypse at which the sun and moon are darkened:
“When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath is come, and who is able to stand?'” (Rev 6:12-17)
This is the onset of God’s wrath, and it is from this point on that the elect will be spared the ugliness running over the earth. They will be raptured, as the Markan Apocalypse makes clear, and which Rev 7 implies. Then the seventh seal will be opened (Rev 8:1-6), segueing into the full-blown horrors of the seven trumpets (Rev 8:7-11:19) and seven bowls (Rev 16:1-21). The trumpets and bowls seem to describe the same supernatural events from different perspectives — God’s punishments that steamroll over humanity: fire and brimstone, the sea turning to blood, rivers becoming poison, locusts pouring out of smoking pits, etc. They are unlike the horrors loosed by the seven seals before the rapture (Rev 6:1-13), which are worldly and involve nothing supernatural at all: war, famine, death, martyrdom. Simply put, the tribulation (Rev 6:1-13; Mk 13:1-25/Mt 24:1-29/Lk 21:8-26) is not a period in which God is pouring out wrath to punish people. Tribulation is persecution (Mk 14:17/Mt 13:21) and suffering through tyranny and oppression. People don’t go through tribulation because they’re bad; they go through it precisely because they’re uncompromising in their faith; they endure it as a test of their faith. The New Testament is replete with this idea. Acts says that Christians “must” enter the kingdom of God through tribulation (Acts 14:22), and Paul even tells his converts to “rejoice” in their tribulation and sufferings (II Cor 7:4). In other words, modern Pre-tribulationists are about as far from the mindset of the New Testament as you can possibly get. The early Christians didn’t count on escaping tribulation, whether through rapture or not. For them, suffering persecution was a badge of honor — no less than the cross of Christ. Even when demoralized, they found it within themselves to persevere. This isn’t to say that traditional Post-tribulationists are without fault. Many of them fall into the same trap of confusing the tribulation with God’s wrath, and as a result put the rapture at the end of the seven-year period of Rev 6-16. The rapture comes after the tribulation but prior to God’s wrath. The best timeline I’ve come across is this one produced by Pastor Steven Anderson of Faithful Word Baptist Church:
Anderson is a controversial figure for some of his extreme fundamentalist views, but he does get some things right, and this is one of them. Contrary to popular belief, the tribulation is not the seven-year period depicted in Rev 6-16. It’s the some-odd 3 ½ year period depicted in Rev 6 (and repeated from a different angle in Rev 13). The outpouring of God’s wrath is the next 3 ½ year period depicted in Rev 8-11 (and repeated in Rev 16). The elect suffer through the first, and are raptured by Christ away from the second. At the end of this collective 7-year period, Christ descends again, but leaves the clouds this time and comes to earth with the saints he raptured 3 ½ years ago; the Battle of Armageddon takes place; and then he reigns on earth for 1000 years. Getting a handle on this chronology helps see the pattern. As Anderson outlines it, there is a critical break at Rev 12 which starts the timeline over again, so that the sequence of tribulation, rapture, wrath depicted in Rev 6-11 is retold in Rev 13-16. Chapter 12 goes back even further to Mary and the birth of Jesus (12:1-6), and then describes the war in heaven which results in the devil being cast down to earth (Rev 12:7-9). It is his wrath (Rev 12:12) — not God’s — that is about to spill out, as he persecutes God’s elect and tries to destroy them. This is how the tribulation (Rev 13) unfolds. Not with the supernatural events of fire and brimstone, or rivers of poison, or locusts smoking out of pits. But by wars, natural disasters, famine, and martyrdom — just as in Rev 6:1-11 and Mark’s Apocalypse. The anti-Christ emerges and is given worldly power. Back in Rev 6, he was symbolized by the white horse (a mockery, or “fake Christ”, of the warrior-Jesus to come in Rev 19:11). In Rev 13, he is symbolized by the beast who rises from the sea. The result is the same: he makes war on the saints to overcome them (Rev 13:7). Everyone worships him except believers (13:7-8), and those who don’t worship him are unable to buy or sell anything (13:16-17). Those who defy him are beheaded (see Rev 20:4). His number is 666 (13:18). [Historically, the anti-Christ was the incarnation of Nero Caesar, who persecuted ancient Christians; the numerical equivalents of the letters in his name added up to 666.] The tribulation of Rev 13 mirrors Rev 6, just as the implied rapture of Rev 14 mirrors Rev 7, and just as God’s wrath of Rev 16 mirrors Rev 8-11. The “tribulation, rapture, wrath” sequence is implied throughout other parts of the NT. As I already mentioned, I Thess 5:9 states that believers won’t be subject to God’s wrath, while II Thess 2:1-3 insists that the Day of Christ (the rapture) cannot come until there is a falling away (apostasy) and the man of sin (anti-Christ) revealed. Taken together, these align pretty closely with the schemes of the Markan Apocalypse and Revelation. The NT authors were by no means on the same page with all their beliefs. But many of them shared some common convictions, and a post-tribulation rapture was one of them. The NT expects faithful Christians to be tribulated — persecuted, oppressed, robbed, starved, slaughtered — and have their faith put to the test in horrendous ways. The rapture was never understood to avoid this. It was the reward that came after. My point is not to stir up apocalyptic fervor. But if you happen to be a pre-millenial Christian with literal convictions about the end times, then I would insist that a post-trib/pre-wrath rapture is the only sensible option for you; the pre-trib rapture is no more credible than the claims of The DaVinci Code. The more significant point is the early Christian commitment to suffering for the cause of Christ. The apostles were a lot like their savior: they were ready for martyrdom, and didn’t expect God to bail their asses out to avoid tribulation.