Review of Evidence for the Rapture: A Biblical Case for Pretribulationism

The book is a collection of essays by 10 distinguished theologians within the premillennial camp. These essays collectively make the biblical case that although the physical return of Christ at the beginning of the millennium is preceded by many signs and preconditions (such as the seven-year Tribulation), the return of Christ to rapture the saints is an imminent event that can happen at any moment. The rapture is when Christ returns in the clouds like a thief, and the saints, whether asleep in the Lord or still alive, are resurrected and/or transformed into eternal bodies like Christ’s immortal body and are caught up into the clouds to meet Christ. According to these theologians, the raptured saints then ascend to heaven while the seven-year Tribulation unfolds on the earth. Christ then returns to this earth with the raptured saints at the battle of Armageddon to put an end to Satan’s regime and to usher in his 1,000-year messianic kingdom. Since the rapture is separate from Christ’s physical return to this earth, these theologians claim that the rapture could at any moment. It could happen today.

“Proper Christian anticipation includes the imminent return of Christ. His coming will be sudden and unexpected, an any-moment possibility. This means that no divinely revealed prophecies remain to be fulfilled before that event” (Thomas, p. 31).

“The return of Christ could be at any moment; there are no signs or events that make it possible to predict when it will occur” (Kreider, p. 82).

“Since the rapture is a signless event, no predicted sign must first transpire before the rapture can occur” (Woods, p. 195).

“Paul believed the rapture was imminent (it could happen at any time). . . . In light of Paul’s belief and expectation, . . . it may be fairly concluded that in 1 Thessalonians Paul taught a pretribulation rapture of the church” (Zuber, p. 168).

“The English word imminence means an event that can occur at any time. . . . Therefore, if pretribulationism is the correct New Testament teaching, it must be demonstrated biblically that the rapture will occur without warning and without signs that necessarily indicate its nearness” (Thomas, p. 23).

These theologians agree that 1 Thessalonians 4—5 is the key text related to the any-moment rapture, and they each systematically work their way through numerous other Scriptures to reinforce their interpretation of Paul’s teachings. They are very confident of this doctrine, and they seem to be issuing a challenge to anyone who can find a single prophetic event in the Scriptures that must occur before Christ comes again to rapture the saints.

I am sure these authors would agree with the historical-grammatical method of interpretation, such that in order for the rapture to be an imminent event for Christians today, Paul would have first intended to have taught that it was an imminent event for the Thessalonians to whom the letter was originally addressed. My challenge to their doctrine is a prophecy that they did not analyze or wrestle with in their essays. This omission is surprising given that they explore a wide range of verses relevant to their thesis. This text, however, provides irrefutable evidence of an unfulfilled prophecy at the time Paul wrote his letters to the Thessalonians that would have to be fulfilled before Christ returned to rapture the Thessalonians. The prophecy is described in the gospel of John when Christ was about to ascend to heaven. Christ informed Peter and the other disciples that before he comes again, Peter would live to an old age and would die a martyr:

“‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go. (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God).’ . . . Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, . . . When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!’” (John 21:18–22).

Jesus taught that John could be alive when he comes again, not that he would be. But he informed the disciples that although Peter would live to be an old man, he would certainly die a martyr’s death before he returned. John might live to see the day, but Peter would certainly be among the saints who would be asleep when Christ returned.

Peter lived to an old age, and he was martyred as Jesus prophesied, sometime around AD 68–69 during the persecution initiated by Nero. But Paul wrote his first letter to the Thessalonians around AD 51, about seventeen years before Peter was killed. In fact, Peter was only middle-aged at that time. In other words, Peter was very much alive when Paul wrote this letter to the Thessalonians. If Christ had returned in AD 51 to rapture the Thessalonian saints, then Peter would have still been living and only middle-aged when he was raptured, and one would have to conclude that Jesus was a false prophet for predicting that Peter would be among the dead when he returned. Of course, Jesus was not a false prophet.

Furthermore, the biblical record indicates that Paul knew that Peter was alive and well when he wrote his first letter to the Thessalonians in AD 51, for they were having regular contact. They were together at the Jerusalem Council around AD 50 when it was decreed that Gentiles who believed in the Jewish Messiah did not have to observe the Mosaic law of the Jews. In his first letter to the Corinthians written around AD 54, Paul referenced Peter as being alive when he includes Peter as one of the names used by the divisive factions in the church (1 Cor. 3:22). A decade later, Peter referenced Paul as a living brother in his second letter (2 Peter 3:15–16), which was written while he was in Rome, sometime around AD 64–67. In short, Paul knew that Peter was alive and well when he wrote his first letter to the Thessalonians describing the rapture. Until Peter was killed seventeen years later in AD 68, there was no way Christ could return to rapture the Thessalonian Christians.

On the other hand, if Paul had intended to teach that the rapture could occur at any moment with Peter still very much alive and only middle-aged, then he would have been a false teacher, for Christ clearly taught that Peter would be old and among the dead when he returned. Obviously, Paul was not a false teacher. Therefore, since Paul did not intend to teach that the rapture was an imminent event for the Thessalonian Christians to whom the letter was written, then, by extension, it was not intended to be understood as an imminent event by later generations who read his letter. The rapture would have to have been an imminent possibility for the Thessalonians in AD 51 in order for it to be interpreted as an imminent event for us today. Yet, these theologians boldly claim:

“His coming will be sudden and unexpected, an any-moment possibility. This means that no divinely revealed prophecies remain to be fulfilled before that event” (Thomas, p. 31).

“Since the rapture is a signless event, no predicted sign must first transpire before the rapture can occur” (Woods, p. 195).

The prophecy by Jesus of Peter’s death occurring before he returned, however, was a precondition and a divinely revealed prophecy that had to be fulfilled before Christ could come again to rapture the Thessalonians. If pretribulationism is true, then Paul was a false teacher. Based on this biblical data, pretribulationism is an obvious misinterpretation of Paul’s teachings and therefore not a viable biblical doctrine.

The authors of this book attempt to examine every reference to the rapture of the saints in the New Testament, but they have overlooked several references in Peter’s two letters. These citations have typically not been understood as referring to the rapture of the saints when Christ returns. But these passages expose a major flaw with premillennialism itself which claims that Christ returns to this earth with the raptured saints at the beginning of the millennium. Peter never gave up hope for the restoration of Israel in the messianic kingdom, for Jesus had affirmed that one day the Father would restore the nation of Israel (Acts 1:6–7). It should be noted, however, that the 1,000-year messianic kingdom is a temporal kingdom on this perishable earth. According to Revelation, the eternal kingdom does not begin until after the millennium, when this earth perishes or is purged by fire, and Christ creates the eternal new heavens and new earth for the immortal sons of God.

Christ was the first man to be raised into an eternal body and to ascend to his Father’s eternal kingdom. Peter taught that our hope for an eternal embodied life on an eternal new earth is founded on Christ’s resurrection and ascension to heaven. We hope for a raptured, eternal body like his resurrected and ascended body when he returns to rapture us and take us to heaven. Peter taught:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead [we hope for a resurrection and ascension of an immortal body like Christ’s resurrected body], to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time [on the last day]. . . . set your hope [for an eternal body in an eternal kingdom] fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ [the second coming]” (1 Peter 1:3–5, 13).

Peter may have looked forward to Christ’s earthly kingdom, but his first epistle focused on our eternal inheritance in the Father’s imperishable kingdom of heaven when Christ returns to rapture the saints. According to Peter, because we are born again as children of God by the grace of God, we have a “living hope” for

  • the “revelation of Jesus Christ” at his second coming,
  • the resurrection and/or rapture of an eternal body like Christ’s resurrected immortal body, and
  • the inheritance of the Father’s imperishable kingdom of heaven.

According to Peter, the destiny of the raptured saints is the Father’s eternal kingdom—not the Son’s temporal and perishable earthly kingdom during the millennium.

Most important, in his second letter, Peter links Christ’s return and the rapture of the saints to Judgment Day, when the Genesis creation is destroyed or purged by fire. This is the Omega, or last day of this Genesis creation, when the glorified saints inherit the imperishable new heavens and new earth. Peter taught:

“Scoffers will come in the last days . . . They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming?’ . . . But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved [the Omega], and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed [when the books are opened on Judgment Day]. . . . But according to his promise [of an eternal body in an eternal kingdom] we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:3–13).

If we combined these teachings in Peter’s two letters, they could be outlined as follows:

“The revelation of Jesus Christ” or “The promise of his coming . . . like a thief”
+ The “living hope” and “promise” of a raptured eternal body like Christ’s resurrected and ascended body
+ The end of this Genesis creation: “the heavens will pass away”
+ Judgment Day: “the works that are done on it will be exposed”
+ The scoffers face God’s wrath on Judgment Day
= The raptured saints inherit the Father’s imperishable “new heavens and a new earth”

Peter creates an inseparable link between the second coming, the rapture, Judgment Day, and the end of the world. Since the Genesis earth is destroyed when Christ returns to rapture the saints, then, obviously, he cannot return to this earth with the raptured saints at the beginning of the millennium if the earth no longer exists. In short, when Christ comes again and the earth is destroyed, the saints are raptured and taken to heaven—not to the restored earth for another thousand years.

According to the sequence of events laid out in Revelation, this would put Christ’s second coming and the rapture of the saints after the millennium at the final resurrection on Judgment Day when this Genesis creation perishes and the sons of God inherit the imperishable kingdom of heaven. This is when the books are opened and the goats (unbelievers) are resurrected from hades, judged for their bad deeds, and sent to the lake of fire, and the sheep (believers) are raptured, rewarded for their good deeds, and inherit the Father’s imperishable kingdom of heaven or the new heavens and new earth. As Christ taught:

“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me [rewards and punishments on Judgment Day], to repay each one [the believer and unbeliever] for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end [of this creation]” (Rev. 22:12–13).

The second coming of Christ to rapture the saints and reward them with eternal embodied life on the eternal new earth is at the Omega of this creation—not at the beginning of the millennium.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul taught this same fundamental doctrine:

“But our citizenship is in heaven [the new heavens and new earth]. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ [his second coming], who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body [the rapture]” (Phil. 3:20–21 NIV).

Paul is certainly referring to the second coming of Christ from heaven:

  • “we eagerly await a Savior from there”

And like Peter, he is also referring to the rapture:

  • “will transform our lowly bodies” to be like Christ’s resurrected, glorified body

And like Peter, he also teaches that the destiny of the raptured saints when Christ returns is the imperishable kingdom of heaven, not the restored millennial earth:

  • “our citizenship in heaven”

This does not mean that there is no millennial reign of Christ over this earth before the eternal kingdom, as claimed by amillennialists. Premillennialists assume that the appearance of Christ on his white horse in the celestial realm at the battle of Armageddon is the second coming of Christ to this earth (Revelation 19 and 20). But nowhere does John describe Christ on his white horse leaving the celestial realm and descending to this earth to destroy the Antichrist. Rather, while remaining in the celestial realm, Christ merely says the word and the armies of the Antichrist are destroyed, and the Antichrist and false prophet are sent to the lake of fire. He then sends an angel to remove Satan from this world for the next one thousand years so his reign over this world can begin. A close reading of the text reveals that John is not depicting the second coming of Christ at the end of the Great Tribulation.

When being interrogated by the high priest, Jesus said that after his resurrection and ascension, “from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God [the Father]” (Luke 22:69). Jesus seems to be saying that after he ascends to heaven, his modus operandi in relation to this world will from then on be from his celestial throne in heaven. Therefore, to establish his messianic kingdom, Christ simply removes the curse from this earth, restores the earth to its Edenic condition, binds Satan, and then rules the world from his throne in heaven. As the human son of David, one would expect Christ to rule the world from this earth. But as the Son of God, one would expect Christ to rule this world from his throne in heaven.

Since the appearance of Christ on his white horse in the celestial realm is not the second coming of Christ, then the “first resurrection” cannot be the rapture of the saints, for the rapture is inseparably linked to his second coming. So what is the nature of this resurrection? The ante-Nicene millennialists, such as Justin, Irenaeus, and Lactantius, taught that the first resurrection will be of the natural bodies of the departed saints—natural bodies for a restored natural earth. They understood that the messianic kingdom is described by the prophets as an age of righteous humanity with men and women experiencing marriage and reproduction on a restored Edenic earth. Therefore, one would expect the first resurrection to be of the natural bodies of the departed men and women of God as described by Ezekiel 37, known as the valley of dry bones.

After Christ rules the restored earth from his throne in heaven for a thousand years, he returns on the last day of this Genesis creation (the Omega) to rapture the saints at the final resurrection and usher in his Father’s eternal kingdom of heaven for the glorified saints—an eternal body for an eternal kingdom. Since the transformed sons of God are destined for the Father’s imperishable kingdom of heaven when Christ returns, one would expect the final resurrection to be of the immortal, glorified body. This eschatology and view of God’s endgame is appropriately named “postrestorationalism”: Christ returns after a literal 1,000-year restoration of this Genesis creation. An online video series of lectures called “godsendgame” explores this eschatology.

The authors of the book made a concerted effort to make a biblical case for pretribulation-premillennialism. They fail to take into consideration, however, Jesus’s prophecy concerning Peter’s martyrdom. They also fail to consider Peter’s teachings that the rapture of the saints occurs at the end of the world when the glorified saints inherit the new heavens and new earth.

Reviewed by Gary S. Cangelosi