15 So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains…. 21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be….
29 Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.
(Matthew 24:15,21,29-31 ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV)
The passage seems to say that the great tribulation will precede Christ’s second coming, and the book that I’ve been using as a guide in my posts on systematic theology, Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994), takes that view, which is called posttribulationism. However in “The Return of Christ: When and How – Part 2,” I observed that my church believes that Christ will come and take away Christians before the tribulation, a view that is called pretribulationism. Despite this, I’m going to base my consideration of the two views, which are the two most widely held views on the time of the great tribulation, on Grudem’s presentation (pages 1131-35).
Arguments for Pretribulationism
1. Since the great tribulation is a time of the outpouring of God’s wrath on the earth, it would not be appropriate for Christians to be on the earth at that time. Grudem responds to this argument by observing that much of the suffering is due to the increase in wickedness, persecution of the church, and opposition from Satan.
2. Revelation 3:10, “I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth,” seems to indicate that the church will be taken out of the world before the great tribulation. Grudem responds to this argument by observing that (1) the promise is made to a particular church, the one in Philadelphia, and need not apply to the whole church at some future time; (2) the “hour of trial” may refer to a time of great suffering and persecution that would come on the Roman Empire rather than to the great tribulation; and (3) “will keep you” could mean that Christians will be kept faithful or protected rather than that they will be taken out of the world.
Other Bible passages which some pretribulationists claim indicate that the church will not go through the great tribulation are:
– “[S]tay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place” (Luke 21:36)
– “Jesus … delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10)
– “God has not destined us for wrath” (1 Thessalonians 5:9)
3. If Christ returns after the great tribulation and defeats all his enemies, the question arises where the unbelievers will come from to populate the millennial kingdom. This question doesn’t arise for pretribulationists because they believe that large numbers of Jews will become Christians during the tribulation. Grudem responds to this argument by observing that Christ’s defeating all his enemies after the great tribulation doesn’t mean that he will annihilate all of them and thus that many of them may simply surrender without putting their faith in him and thus enter the millennium as unbelievers.
4. If Christ comes before the tribulation, he could come at any time, which is consistent with the many Bible passages which indicate that he could come at any time. Grudem responds to this argument by claiming that pretribulationism is not the only view that is consistent with those passages. See The Return of Christ: When and How – Part 2.
Grudem also observes that, although it isn’t an argument in favour of their view, pretribulationists view the tribulation to apply to Jewish converts in the tribulation rather than to the church. They think that the church will be taken up to heaven to be with Christ before the tribulation and Israel will constitute the people of God on the earth during the tribulation. Grudem responds by claiming that the New Testament doesn’t support such a distinction between Israel and the church, referring to his consideration of the relationship between them on pages 859-63 of his Systematic Theology. However dispensationalists argue otherwise; for example, J. Dwight Pentecost lists 24 distinctions between Israel and the church identified by Lewis Sperry Chafer in his Systematic Theology (Things To Come, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1958, pages 201-02).
An argument made by pretribulationists not noted by Grudem is that an interval is needed between Christ’s taking away the church before the tribulation and his coming to the earth with it after the tribulation. Henry Clarence Thissen observes:
It [the Scriptures] reveals that there are two things at least that must take place between these two events: the judgment of the believers and the marriage supper of the Lamb…. In addition to these events in heaven, there are also developments on earth in preparation for the kingdom. God will be preparing a company of redeemed to enter into the millennial kingdom. This will include believing Jew and Gentile alike” (Lectures in Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1979, page 375).
Arguments for Posttribulationism
1. The New Testament nowhere clearly says that the church will be taken out of the world before the tribulation. Moreover the only passage that explicitly speaks of the church’s being caught up, “[T]he Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (i Thessalonians 4:16-17) seems to describe something that is open and public.
“Moreover … public” implies that pretribulationists generally view the taking away of the church to be a secret event. If that were correct, then the statement would certainly make a good point, as does the first statement in the argument. However it doesn’t seem to be. For example, D. Edmond Hiebert says:
Some seem to think that the world will be unaware of the rapture of the church, that the saints will silently slip away and the world will hardly notice their absence. Others think that the rapture, described as a truly “noisy affair,” will be known to all, that the voice of the archangel and the sound of the trumpet will be heard by all. An intermediate position seems to be nearer the truth. The world will realize that something extraordinary and suoernatural has taken place, but it does not necessarily follow that they will understand the significance of the sound and will realize exactly what has taken place.” (The Thessalonian Epistles, Chicago: Moody Press, 1971, page 199).
2. The tribulation is clearly linked with the Lord’s return in Matthew 24:29-31 (quoted above).
3. The idea of two separate returns of Christ, once for his church before the tribulation and seven years later with his church to bring judgment, is nowhere explicitly taught anywhere in the New Testament.
Clearly there are good arguments for both pretribulationism and posttribulationism. Thus it would be wise to follow Stanley M. Horton’s advice:
[L]et us not allow differences of opinions with respect to the time of the Rapture separate believers…. A “crown of righteousness” is not limited to those who have right ideas about the Rapture, but is promised “to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8). The commendation that we all want to hear is “well done, good and faithful servant!” So let us all be about the Lord’s business and, at the same time, keep that longing for, that expectation of Christ’s coming, which might take place at any moment.” (Our Destiny, Springfield, Missouri: Gospel Publishing House, 1996, pages 133-34)