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The Rapture and the Tribulation

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Related articles

Views of the Millennium Rapture and tribulation

In some Christian circles a great interest is placed in the rapture, but many other Christians have never even heard of it. The purpose of this article is to attempt to define the meaning of this word by considering the places where the event is described in various places in the NT, with a particular focus on the passage in 1 Thessalonians chapter four. This will be followed by a consideration of what tribulation is, and the relation that the rapture has with it.

The word 'rapture'

The word 'rapture' is not found in any of the over twenty English versions of the Bible I have looked at, but is derived from the Latin 'rapiemur' used in the Vulgate Bible in 1 Thess 4:17 (“deinde nos qui vivimus qui relinquimur simul rapiemur cum illis in nubibus obviam Domino in aera et sic semper cum Domino erimus”). Most English translations of this verse either use 'caught up', or 'taken'. Wycliffe used the word 'snatched'; Tyndale, the KJV and the NIV versions use 'caught up'. The NRSV gives this translation: “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”. The Greek word in 1 Thess 4:17 is a future passive form of the verb 'harpazo'. In Strong’s concordance it is word number 726, and is given the meaning, 'to seize, catch (away or up), pluck, pull, or take (by force)'. This is the only place in the NT where this word is used to describe the event when the believers are caught up to meet the returning Lord Jesus, so this is a very important passage to consider carefully.

This verb is also used in a number of different places in the NT, and each time has the meaning 'to catch up' or 'to seize by force'. Some of these describe a miraculous event or spiritual experience: After baptising the Ethiopian eunuch, Philip was snatched away by the Spirit and found himself some distance away (Acts 8:39). Paul described a person (presumably himself) who had been caught up to the third heaven and caught up into Paradise (2 Cor 12:2,4). After his birth the male child (Jesus) was snatched away from the dragon and taken to God and his throne (Rev 12:5).

Other uses describe a more natural event: After feeding the five thousand, the people tried to take Jesus by force to make him king (Jn 6:15). The soldiers took Paul by force from the Jewish Sanhedrin (Acts 23:10), and Paul was seized in the temple (Acts 24:8). Jude urges his readers to save others by snatching them out of the fire (Jude 23). Jesus declared that the violent take the kingdom by force (Mt 11:12), and spoke of plundering (seizing) the property of the strong man (Mt 12:29). He also promised that no one can snatch his sheep out of his or his Father’s hand (Jn 10:28,29). In the parable of the sower the evil one snatches away the word sown on the path (Mt 13:19), and the wolf snatches and scatters the sheep (Jn 10:12).

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

In this passage, Paul is giving his response to a pressing pastoral issue in the church. The believers are worried about their loved-ones who have already died, wondering whether they will miss out on the second coming of Jesus. He refers to the dead, as “those who are asleep” (v13), because death is not the end for the believer. The purpose of Paul’s teaching in this passage is that they may not grieve like pagans, who do not have any hope (v13), because Jesus will bring them with him at his second coming (v14). Dead believers are already with Jesus, and will certainly not miss his second coming (v15), so there is no need for Christians to be concerned about them. This means we can have great hope and confidence for the future.

Paul then gives one of the fullest descriptions of the second coming that can be found in the NT. However, only a few details are actually given. His purpose is not to satisfy our curiosity by giving a detailed or ordered description of events of the end, but to give pastoral comfort to a real concern in the church. At his coming, Christ will descend from heaven, with a cry of command, the archangel’s call, and the sound of God’s trumpet (v16). This the triumphant return of the king, at which time the dead in Christ will rise first, so they will see him before those who are still on earth. This again answers the original concerns of his readers in Thessalonica. There is no need to be worried about them, as they will actually be in a better place than those are still here.

Those believers still alive on earth will then be caught up in the clouds, together with the dead in Christ, to meet the Lord in the air, with the result that we will be with the Lord forever (v17). This verse describes what is often called the rapture of the saints, as they are taken up to meet the returning Jesus, together with the saints who are already in glory.

It is very difficult, if not impossible, to justify the teaching of a secret rapture from this passage, as this appears to describe a very noisy public event, with a cry of command, the archangel’s call and the sound of God’s trumpet (v16). Calvin described it like this: "As a field marshal gathers his armies to battle by the sound of the trumpet, so Christ will summon all the dead with a voice that rings and resounds throughout the whole world" (Commentary on 1 Cor 15:52). It also gives no suggestion of a separation of the rapture from the second coming. In this passage both appear to take place at the same time. It is describing a single event.

The word used to meet the Lord in the air also has a very significant meaning. The Greek word is 'apantesis', which is the word used to describe a 'meeting', particularly for the arrival or visit of a dignitary, like the emperor, to a city. The citizens would go out of the city for a 'meeting' (apantesis) with the person, then ceremonially escort them back to the city. It is only used a small number of times in the NT. One time is when the believers in Rome went out of the city to the Three Taverns for a 'meeting' with Paul (Acts 28:15). They then escorted Paul, together with Luke and the other brothers, back into the city. The use of the word in 1 Thess 4 would give the picture of the Christian dead and living going to meet the Lord in the air as he appears, then to form a procession to escort him back to earth.

It is significant that this word is also used in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Mt 25:1ff). The ten virgins went for a meeting with the bridegroom (v1), and at midnight they were called to come out for a meeting with him (v6). The arrival of the bridegroom in the parable represents the second coming of Jesus, when the virgins, representing the believers, go out to meet him.

The conclusion of Paul’s teaching is that believers will always be with the Lord (v17), whether we die before the second coming, or if we are still alive on earth when he comes. There will be a reunion with those who have already died. Therefore he can end with an exhortation to encourage one another with these words (v18). Teaching on the second coming should always bring hope and encouragement to believers, rather than fear and confusion.

The Tribulation

In many popular books and films on end-times, there is an expectation that the believers will be 'raptured', taken up to heaven, before the tribulation, which is expected to last for seven years. This teaching is known as a 'pre-tribulation rapture', that the rapture comes before the tribulation. Before attempting to critique this teaching, it is necessary to determine what the New Testament says about tribulation, and what that word actually means. Then we can attempt to determine whether it describes a specific period of time in the future, or whether tribulation is something experienced by believers today.

The word 'tribulation' is a translation of the Greek word 'thlipsis'. In Strong’s Concordance it is word number 2347, and is given the meaning, 'pressure, affliction, anguish, burden, persecution, tribulation or trouble'. Webster’s dictionary gives a medical meaning, of compression, as in taking someone’s pulse, the constriction of vessels by an exterior cause. In the NT it is used over forty times, and is translated into English using one of the different words listed above. In these places it refers to persecution or suffering which is currently experienced by believers, rather than describing a particular period of suffering in the future. These are just a few of the many examples: In the parable of the sower, the seed that falls on the rocky ground represents those who receive the word with joy, but fall away when trouble or persecution (thlipsis) arises on account of the word (Mt 13:21). Paul told the believers in Galatia, “It is through many persecutions (thlipsis) that we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22), and warned the Thessalonians that they will suffer persecution (thlipsis) (1 Thess 3:4). Jesus also warned his disciples that in the world you face persecution (thlipsis) (Jn 16:33). Paul wrote that we boast in our sufferings (thipsis) (Rom 5:3). Each of these passages is describing a current experience, rather than a distinct future period of history.

Views of the rapture and tribulation

The three differing views of the timing of the rapture are mostly an issue within the pre-millennial, and particularly the dispensational view of end-times. This is whether the rapture comes before, during, or after the end of the seven year tribulation. It is not such an issue in other views of the millennium. For an explanation of the different views of the millennium, please look at the Millennium article.

The most common view is of a pre-tribulation rapture, that the believers will be secretly taken up to meet Jesus, together with those who have died in Christ, before a seven year period of tribulation. At the end of this period, they will return to earth with him at his second coming. This creates a two-stage second coming: once 'for his saints', and a second time 'with his saints'.

Others say that the rapture will take place half way through the seven year tribulation, making a mid-tribulation rapture. This view is again mostly held within the dispensational understanding of end-times. This again separates the rapture from the second coming, this time by three and a half years, rather than seven years.

Some say that the rapture will not take place until the end of the tribulation, making a post-tribulation rapture, happening at the same time as the second coming of Christ. This view would particularly be held by those believing the historic pre-millennial view, and by a minority who support the dispensational view.

The a-millennial view would also say that tribulation is a present experience throughout the span of church history, from the first century until the second coming, and that the taking of the saints will take place at the same time as the second coming of Christ.

History of the pre-tribulation rapture

The origins of the teaching of a pre-tribulation rapture are rather interesting, and should caution us from believing this viewpoint. This view had not been taught until early 1830, when it was started by a teenager called Margaret MacDonald, who was a member of the Catholic Apostolic Church, led by Edward Irving in Scotland. She claimed to have had a revelation in a vision of a secret rapture which would take place before the coming of the man of lawlessness (2 Thess 2:3-10). As far as we know, this was the first time in church history there was any suggestion of a separation of the coming of Jesus for his saints (the rapture), from his second coming, when every eye will see him. The view soon became widespread within the Catholic Apostolic Church. John Nelson Darby of the Brethren visited the MacDonald family later in 1830, and soon started teaching that there will be a two-stage second coming. The pre-tribulation rapture became a central aspect of his dispensational teaching. His views were made popular, particularly in the USA, through the footnotes in the Scofield Reference Bible, and continue to be widely taught in popular books on end-time prophecy.

Danger of the pre-tribulation rapture teaching

The belief that believers will be taken up to heaven before the tribulation can have the effect of leaving Christians unprepared for persecution, believing that before times get really bad they will be taken up to heaven. At no time did Jesus or any the NT writers say that we will not experience tribulation (thlipsis), in fact they stated the complete opposite. Many of the books in the NT, including Revelation, were written to encourage believers to be strong and to persevere in a period of persecution, and so that they will know that even if they are martyred they will be with the Lord forever in glory. Persecution (or tribulation) has certainly been the experience of multitudes of Christians through the centuries, from the first century to modern times.

Related articles

Views of the Millennium Rapture and tribulation

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Why These 66 Books?
Books in the Hebrew Scriptures
Quotations in NT From OT
OT Passages Quoted in NT
History of the English Bible
Twelve Books of the Apocrypha
The Pseudepigrapha - False Writings
Lost Books Referenced in OT

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

OT 1: Creation and Patriarchs
OT 2: Exodus and Wilderness
OT 3: Conquest and Monarchy
OT 4: Divided kingdom and Exile
OT 5: Return from Exile
OT 6: 400 Silent Years

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

NT 1: Life and Ministry of Jesus
NT 2: Birth of the Church
NT 3: Paul's Missionary Journeys
NT 4: Paul's Imprisonment
NT 5: John and Later NT

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Genesis Exodus Leviticus
Numbers Deuteronomy

Joshua Judges Ruth
1 & 2 Samuel 1 & 2 Kings Chronicles
Ezra & Nehemiah Esther

Job Psalms Proverbs

Isaiah Jeremiah Lamentations
Ezekiel Daniel

Hosea Joel Amos
Obadiah Jonah Micah
Nahum Habakkuk Zephaniah
Haggai Zechariah Malachi

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Matthew's Gospel Mark's Gospel Luke's Gospel
John's Gospel

Book of Acts

Romans 1 Corinthians 2 Corinthians
Galatians Ephesians Philippians
Colossians 1 & 2 Thessalonians 1 Timothy
2 Timothy Titus Philemon

Hebrews James 1 Peter
2 Peter 1 John 2 & 3 John


Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

Canaanite Religion
Israel's Enemies During the Conquest
Syria / Aram
The Assyrian Empire
Babylon and its History
The Persian Empire
The Greek Empire
The 400 Silent Years
The Ptolemies and Seleucids
Antiochus IV - Epiphanes

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

OT People Confirmed by Archaeology
The Jewish Calendar
The Importance of Paradox
Talent Converter (weights)
Cubit Converter (lengths)
OT People Search
Ephah Converter (volumes)
Holy War in the Ancient World
The Holy Spirit in the OT
Types of Jesus in the OT

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Are chapters 1-11 of Genesis historical?
Chronology of the Flood
Genealogies of the Patriarchs
Table of the Nations (Gen 10)
Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9)

Authorship of the Pentateuch
Chronology of the Wilderness Years
Names of God in the OT
Covenants in the OT
The Ten Commandments
The Tabernacle and its Theology
Sacrifices and Offerings
The Jewish Festivals
Balaam and Balak
Highlights from Deuteronomy
Overview of Deuteronomy

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Dates of the Kings of Judah and Israel
King Solomon
The Kings of Israel
King Jeroboam I of Israel
The Syro-Ephraimite War (735 BC)
Sennacherib's Invasion of Judah (701 BC)
King Josiah of Judah
Differences Between Kings and Chronicles
Chronology of the post-exilic period

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

Prophets and the Future
The Call of Jeremiah (Jer 1)
The Fall of Satan? (Is 14, Ezek 28)
Daniel Commentary (10 pages)
Isaiah Commentary (13 pages)
Formation of the Book of Jeremiah

Daniel's Seventy Weeks (Dan 9:24-27)

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

NT People Confirmed by Archaeology
The Kingdom of God / Heaven
Parousia (Coming of Christ)
The Importance of Paradox

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Unique Passages in the Synoptic Gospels
The SynopticProblem
Genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1)
Birth Narratives of Jesus
Understanding the Parables
Peter's Confession and the Transfiguration
Was John the Baptist Elijah?
The Triumphal Entry
The Olivet Discourse (Mark 13)
Important themes in John's Gospel
John's Gospel Prologue (John 1)
Jesus Fulfilling Jewish Festivals
Reclining at Table at the Last Supper
The Holy Spirit as the Paraclete

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey. More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Apostolic Messages in the Book of Acts
Paul and His Apostleship
Collection for the Saints
The Church Described as a Temple
Church as the Body of Christ
Jesus as the Last Adam
Food Offered to Idols
Paul's Teaching on Headcoverings
Who are the Fallen Angels
The Meaning of Redemption
What is the Church?
Paul and the Greek Games

Romans Commentary (7 pages)

1 Corinthians Commentary (7 pages)

Galatians Commentary (3 pages)

Philemon Commentary (1 page)

Hebrews Commentary (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Introduction to the Book of Revelation
Characters Introduced in the Book
Structure of Revelation
List of Allusions to OT
The Description of Jesus as the Lamb
Virtual Seven Churches of Revelation
The Nero Redivius Myth
The Millennium (1000 years)
The Rapture and the Tribulation
Different Approaches to Revelation
Predicted Dates of the Second Coming

Revelation Commentary (10 pages)

How to do Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

How to Study the Bible Inductively
I. The Inductive Study Method
II. Observation Questions
III. Interpretation Questions
IV. Structure of Books
V. Determining the Historical background
VI. Identifying Figures of Speech
VII. Personal Application
VIII. Text Layout

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

How to Understand OT Narratives
How to Understand OT Law
Hebrew Poetry
OT Wisdom Literature
Understanding the OT Prophets
The Four Gospels
The Parables of Jesus
The Book of Acts
How to Understand the NT Letters
Studying End Times (Eschatology)
The Book of Revelation

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Search for Geographical Locations
Major Archaeological Sites in Israel
Archaeological Sites in Assyria, Babylon and Persia
Virtual Paul's Missionary Journeys
Virtual Seven Churches of Revelation
Photos of the City of Corinth
Photos of the City of Ephesus

Biblical Archaeology in Museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also page of photographs from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem of important artifacts.

Search Museums for Biblical Archaeology
Israel Museum Photos

Difficult Theological and Ethical Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

Christian Ethics
Never Heard the Gospel
Is there Ever a Just War?
Why Does God Allow Suffering
Handling Disappointment

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

What is Preaching?
I. Two Approaches to Preaching
II. Study a Passage for Preaching
III. Creating a Message Outline
IV. Making Preaching Relevant
V. Presentation and Public Speaking
VI. Preaching Feedback and Critique
Leading a Small Group Bible Study

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.

Teaching on SBS Book Topics for SBS