Pre-trib vs post-trib? It’s a slightly old fashioned argument which doesn’t get discussed much these days, at least not in the circles I move in. This debate was a liberating one for me where I first learned to really evaluate what the scriptures teach for myself and stopped just assuming that what I had always been taught was right. I write this series on eschatology simply so I can have something to point people to for those who from time to time bring the issue up. For those who question whether the issue matters at all, I refer them to my post “Why you shouldn’t be a pan-millenialist”.
The Burden of Proof
I come to the subject via a consideration of the burden of proof. Everybody agrees that Christ is returning at the end of time, unless maybe you’re a preterist, but that’s a subject for another day! The complication is that pre-tribulationists believe that Christ is returning twice, once before the tribulation period, and then again after the tribulation at the end. No one disagrees with the coming after the tribulation. The only question is whether there is any evidence for the coming before the tribulation. So, in my view, the burden of proof is on the pre-tribulationist to demonstrate why a second second coming is required. Often they will appeal to verses which they suggest may apply to a pre-tribulation rapture. But verses which show that such a rapture as a possible interpretation is not enough. They need to show that such verses cannot refer to the post-tribulation rapture, because having only one return of Christ is the simpler and more straightforward position. My approach then in this post will be to simply go through the top ten arguments used by pre-tribulationists and show that a post-tribulation interpretation is still possible, if not preferable, and thus there is simply no need to complicate our eschatology with another return of Christ besides the one we all agree on. It is up to the pre-tribulationist to show that the post-tribulation position is insufficient and there must be another return of Christ before the tribulation.
Argument 1: The 70 Weeks Prophecy- Daniel 9.
I refer to this argument only because it seems that many people think this is an important passage in the debate. However, it doesn’t necessarily even relate to the pre-tribulation debate. That is, a post-tribulationist may interpret the prophecy of the seventy weeks exactly as does a pre-tribulationist in terms of how the seventy weeks play out. A post-tribulationist may believe that the sixty ninth week refers to the death of Christ, and there has been a parenthesis in the present age, which corresponds to the period of “blindness” of Israel referred to in Romans 11. At some point however, the 70th week will resume when God turns his attention to Israel again, coinciding with a renewal amongst the Jewish people to faith in Christ. The pre-tribulationist asserts that this 70th week is initiated by the rapture of the church. However, clearly Daniel 9 has nothing to say about any such rapture. At the end of the day, to make any strong argument from such an obscure prophecy is to build a house with shaky foundations. As will be seen, it is a pattern of many pre-tribulationist arguments to base a lot of confidence in passages which are at best obscure in their interpretation.
Argument 2: Watch and Be Ready- Matthew 24.
One of the most common arguments for the pre-tribulation rapture is the argument from imminence. The Lord’s return is said to be able to happen “at any moment”- that is, imminently, and if the Lord’s return must be preceded by the tribulation, then this could not be the case. However, what is the evidence that the Lord’s return is indeed imminent? The answer given is that we are told in a number of ways to look for the Lord’s return- to watch, wait, hope and look for it. The clearest example of this is in Matthew 24:42- “Therefore, keep watch, for you do not know on what day your Lord will come”.
There is a simple response to this which removes the force of this argument entirely. That is, there are numerous passages which clearly use the concept of “looking for” and “waiting” for the Lord’s return after the tribulation. Therefore, it cannot be argued that such language must be imply an imminent rapture, for clearly at least some passages do not. If some cases do not, why must any passage? In fact the verse quoted above, although it sounds so imminent, in fact is clearly made in reference to the Lord’s return after the tribulation. Other examples include 2 Peter 3:10-13 and Revelation 16:15. The fact that such a concept does not imply imminence in relation to the Lord’s return may be seen in James 5:7-8 where our waiting for the Lord’s return is compared to a farmer’s waiting for harvest time and rain. Clearly one can be looking for something and waiting for something that is not imminent- such as looking forward to school holidays or waiting for a baby to be born (an image of the end times which is in fact used in Mark 13:8). In both of these cases, something bad has to happen before the event we are looking for occurs, as in the case of the tribulation which must precede the Lord’s return.
Argument 3: The Nations that Remain- Matthew 25.
The passage concluding the Olivet discourse concerning the sheep and the goats has a very unique interpretation from pre-tribulationists, and it is claimed by some that the details given in it deny the possibility of the rapture being at the end of the tribulation. The pre-tribulationist suggests that this is a description of a judgement that occurs at the Lord’s second coming but before the Millenium commences. It is asserted that the post-tribulationist here has a problem. Here the entire world’s population is divided into 2 companies; the sheep and the goats. The pre-tribulationist’s poser for the post-tribulationist is this: if all of earth is divided into two companies at the Lord’s second coming, being either raptured and glorified (the sheep) or cast into eternal fire (the goats), then who are the unglorified humans who we read about existing on earth during the Millennium? Where did they come from? Clearly from neither of the above two companies.
The pre-tribulationist schedule solves the problem perfectly, it is claimed, whereas the post-tribulationist theory has no answer for this question. The pre-tribulationist has a rapture and glorification of one people of God (the church) seven years before the second coming of Christ to earth. Thus there are seven years for the non-church Gentile people of God during the tribulation to grow in number. These will be gathered at the “Judgement of the Nations” as the above event is described, and will be the “sheep” who are commended for their treatment of their Jewish brethren, continuing on after the judgement in their nonglorified bodies on earth during the Millenium.
The crucial point in this particular argument by the pre-tribulationist is what happens to unbelievers at the Lord’s coming. The pre-tribulationist claims that all unbelievers are sent to Hell, whereas all believers (according to post-tribulationism) are glorified, and so there are no natural humans left to repopulate the earth during the Millennium. However, there is abundant evidence in both the Old and New Testaments that in fact not all unbelievers will have vanished from the face of the earth at the beginning of the Millennium (eg Micah 4:3, Zech 14:16-18, Rev 19:15). When this point is understood, the pre-tribulationist challenge evaporates. The nonglorified humans who are present on the earth during the Millennium are unbelievers who came through the Second Advent of Christ and live on in the new world in the Millennium. Like many of the judgement passages in the gospels, it must be understood that Matthew 25 is a summary description of a complex event, not a comprehensive one.
Argument 4: In my Father’s House- John 14.
John 14:1-3 is one of the favourite pre-tribulationists texts raised in defence of their theory. It is said by many that this is a definite reference to the rapture by the Lord in the gospels, and that it proves the fact convincingly that the Lord will return prior to the tribulation. The pre-tribulationist argument is as follows. Here the Lord Jesus promises to return for His people, but the promise is to take His people back to Heaven with Him, after He has come. There is no way in which this can be made equivalent to the post-tribulationist coming, for there is no mention of a return to Heaven in a post-tribulationist return. Rather, after the tribulation, the Lord will return to reign on the earth. Therefore, John 14:1-3 must be referring to a different coming again to His return at the end of the tribulation. There must be a coming before the tribulation in which the Lord takes His people (the Church) back to Heaven with Him.
However, once again, a little critical analysis and consideration of alternative possible interpretations show that there is nothing compelling for the pre-tribulationist here. In making this argument, the pre-tribulationist has a number of problems to overcome before credibly being able to find fault with the post-tribulationist position. First of all, if this verse is teaching that Jesus was dying and going to Heaven so that we could have a “mansion” in Heaven, it seems strange that it is only going to be for a seven year temporary stay before suddenly it is deserted for a thousand years in the millenium on earth. Are these verses just referring to the 7 years stopover in Heaven we will have before the millenium – is that all that was Jesus was “going to prepare” for us?
Secondly, the methodology of building an entire system of prophecy on these 2 verses in John seems fairly questionable. There is very little detail about the timing and events which are in such abundance in the other gospels. All these verses really contain is a promise that the Lord would return. An understanding of the Lord’s coming should be built upon the large expositions given in the other gospels, not just 2 verses which are fairly scant on the details.
Thirdly, the pre-tribulationist has once again the problem of “Who’s who” in just arbitrarily assigning the disciples to represent the church here, but Israel in the other gospels. Just how is it decided that the disciples represent the church here but Israel in the other gospels ? Is it really feasible that the Lord would chop and change the disciples identity continually without even telling them? Just a few days earlier the Lord was telling them that they would go through the tribulation before the end would come, and that they must endure to the end. Now the Lord is (supposedly) telling them that they won’t go through the tribulation at all but will go to Heaven instead! In fact, we know that the Lord spoke these words in John 14 to the disciples on the same occasion that He spoke to them in Luke’s gospel (22:29-30) as to the representatives of Israel! There they are told they will judge the 12 tribes of Israel, apparently just after being told they were going to Heaven as the Church. If it is as the pre-tribulationist suggests, the disciples must have been completely muddled up about just who exactly they really were!
A final problem with the pre-tribulational argument which we shall enlarge upon below is that the text does not quite spell out exactly what the pre-tribulationist claims it says. The pre-tribulationist claims it says that at Christ’s return, He shall take us back to Heaven with Him. But the text never actually says that; what it does say is only three things. Firstly, it says that Christ has gone to prepare us a place in the Father’s house (which it is assumed means Heaven). Secondly it says that Christ will return for us. Thirdly, and most crucially, it says He will take us to Himself, that we may be where He is. The pre-tribulationist assumes because of the first statement that this means that we must be taken back to Heaven. But as we show below, there is another scripturally sound option of how this may be understood.
There are several possible ways of how the “Father’s house” may be understood from a post-tribulation perspective, including the temple in Jerusalem (cp John 2:16) or our spiritual abiding place of Christ in us (eg eg14:10,14:17, 15:4,15:6, 15:7, 15:9,15:10). However, I suggest a view which is not only simpler than both of these views and fits the text in a very neat manner, but it even goes so far as to grant the pre-tribulationist the assumption that Heaven is being referred to by the words “my Father’s house”. What if the Lord was not returning to take us to the Father’s house, but rather He was returning to bring the Father’s house to us, and us to Himself in His Father’s house?
This is referred to on three occasions in Revelation.
“He that overcomes will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and He shall go no more out: and I will write on Him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which comes down out of Heaven from my God, and I will write on Him my new name.” Revelation 3:12
“Then I John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of Heaven from God, prepared as a bride for her husband” Rev 21:2
“And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of Heaven from God” Rev 21: 10.
These verses clearly teach that the eternal home will come down out of Heaven to us, not we up to it. John 14 is ambiguous about how we shall enter Heaven; all it says is that it has been prepared for us. It certainly never says that the Lord shall turn around and take us back to Heaven there and then at His second coming. However, in Revelation it is very clearly spelled out that the holy city shall descend down out of Heaven to earth. Thus there is no need to propose that in John 14 a return trip to Heaven is required for us at the Lord’s coming. All it says is that Christ has gone to prepare it for us, and that we will be with Him when He comes.
It is difficult to see why this should not be a plausible interpretation and even superior to the pre-tribulationist one, in the absence of other pre-tribulationist verses speaking of Christ taking us back to Heaven. The post-tribulation position is maintained.
Argument 5: In the Twinkling of an Eye- 1 Corinthians 15
This is probably one of the weakest arguments, but it’s a well known passage in the understanding of the rapture. The argument is that the rapture is said to take place “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:52), and this according to William Macdonald, “strongly implies that it will not be witnessed by the world”. Therefore, in contrast to the public return of Christ after the tribulation, there must also be a secret return which is believed to occur prior to the tribulation. But this argument once more reads a whole lot more into a small passage than is warranted. All that this verse necessarily refers to is the moment in which we shall be transformed into a glorified body, and it has nothing to say on whether it will be public or private at all. It certainly says nothing about the timing of the coming of Christ in regards to the tribulation.
Argument 6: Saved from the Wrath to Come- 1 Thessalonians 1
Here is another very common argument, but a few critical questions quickly sees the argument evaporate. The pre-tribulationist argues that here we are told the church will be saved from the wrath to come, which of course must mean the tribulation. But- why must it mean the tribulation? Why could it not mean the judgement coming at the return of Christ? That this verse could well mean that can be seen from a comparison with 2 Thessalonians 1:6-7, where Paul explains how God will judge those who persecute the church and give relief to them from their persecution. This is said to happen “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels”. The question must be asked- if Paul can describe the judgement to come in reference to the second coming of Christ in 2 Thessalonians 1, why must the phrase “the wrath to come” in 1 Thessalonians 1 refer to the tribulation? It could conceivably do so, but how does one argue that it must do so?
Well, some answer that question by going to chapter 5, where Paul gives more detail about our “salvation from wrath” (5:9). The argument here sometimes is made that the wrath is in reference to the “day of the Lord” (5:2), and the day of the Lord is a reference to the tribulation period. But here we have the same problem. Why must the day of the Lord refer to the tribulation period? Let us assume that “the day of the Lord” may sometimes refer to the tribulation period. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen an adequate defense of that proposition explained. However, the problem is that clearly there are places where it does not refer to the whole tribulation period. For example, Joel 2:31 says that “the sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the Lord”. These heavenly signs appear to be described as tribulation events in several passages, such as Matthew 24:29 , Revelation 6:12 and 8:12. Therefore, the day of the Lord at least in some passages comes at the end of the tribulation. The pre-tribulationist is left needing to show why the day of the Lord must refer to the whole tribulation in 1 Thessalonians 5.
Argument 7: Caught up in the clouds- 1 Thessalonians 4
Many pre-tribulationists see a lot in the details of the rapture given in 1 Thessalonians 4. Some contrast the fact that Christ is only coming “to the air” in 1 Thessalonians 4, whereas in Matthew 24, He is coming to the earth. However, this is an argument from silence, as 1 Thessalonians 4 says nothing of where the Lord is going after collecting his saints in the air- whether back to Heaven or on to earth.
Other see a contrast in Jesus coming “for his saints” at the rapture (1 Thessalonians 4), and “with his saints” at the return of Christ to earth. Again though, this is a fairly superficial contrast, as there is no reason why Christ could not come firstly for his saints, in drawing them to Himself at the rapture, and then also “with his saints” as He continues on then to earth to bring his saints to reign with Him triumphantly in glorified bodies.
Argument 8: The Restrainer Removed- 2 Thessalonians 2
This passage could perhaps be read in a way friendly to a pre-tribulationist scheme, interpreting the “restrainer” as the church, which needs to be removed. However, the problem is that it is such an unclear reference, that to build one’s case on this is going to always leave room for significant doubts. Other options include the presence of law and order, the Roman empire, the archangel Michael (cp Daniel 10:13-21), and the preaching of the gospel to the nations. The fact is that the identity of the “restrainer” is simply not spelled out and the idea of it being the church is just as much a speculation as the other alternatives listed. Without significant support elsewhere, there is no strong argument for it being the church.
While here in 2 Thessalonians 2, perhaps we should mention that some argue that the word “rebellion” (NIV) can be translated as “departure”, and some argue that this is a reference to the rapture. Thus the sentence reads: “that day will not come until the “departure” occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed. Again here is another argument from suspiciously vague sounding language. However, there is little reason to translate the word as departure, rather than “rebellion” or “apostasy” as most versions translate it. The word elsewhere always refer to a departure from the faith in both Greek Old and New Testaments, and this fits the context of 2:8-12. Furthermore, this fits the parallel teaching about a “falling away” preceding the second coming as given in the gospels (Matthew 24:9-13).
Argument 9: Kept from the Hour of Tribulation- Revelation 3
This is probably the most well known and referred to argument. It is said that here Jesus promises the church that they will be kept “out of” (literally) the hour of tribulation that is coming on the whole world. “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.” (Revelation 3:10). But like so many of the other examples we have examined, this verse could conceivably refer to a pre-tribulationist rapture, but there are several other interpretive options which are just as good as it, if not better. For example, if this paragraph written to the church at Philadelphia is indeed meant to be applied to the whole church, how does one demonstrate that the “hour of trial” refers to the entire period of the tribulation, rather than just the final judgement of the Lord’s coming at the end of the tribulation? It is conceivable that it could be. In numerous places in Revelation, the focus of the judgement which the people of God are rescued from is the final judgement at the return of Christ, not the whole period- see for example 6:9-16, 11:12-15, 14:1-20, 16:15-16, etc.
Even more powerfully though is the likelihood that this verse does not mean an escaping from the tribulation itself, but rather a preservation through the hour. This can be seen by a comparison with John 17:15. “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them (out) of the evil one.” Here exactly the same words “keep out” are used, and they clearly carry the sense of preservation through the midst of the evil, as this is contrasted explicitly with the idea of being “taken out” of the world. There is every reason to interpret Revelation 3:10 in exactly the same way, especially when this is the image which is given throughout Revelation to how the saints will be sustained in the midst of the judgements coming on the earth, as for example we see in Revelation 7.
Argument 10: The Church in Heaven- Revelation 4-19.
The final argument is an assortment based around the structure and events found in Revelation 4-22. It is suggested that the word “church” is found frequently in Revelation 1-3, but is absent after Revelation 4, representing the fact that the church has disappeared from earth once the tribulation begins in chapter 6. It is suggested that the rapture of the church is pictured in the “rapture” of John the Apostle in Revelation 4:1 (“Come up here”), and the presence of the church is symbolised in Heaven by the twenty four elders wearing crowns on their heads. Finally, it is suggested that the marriage supper of the lamb to which the Bride (the church) is invited in 19:7-9 shows the presence of the church in Heaven during the tribulation, not on earth.
This like many of the other arguments only sounds impressive until it is examined more carefully. The word “church” is used in chapters 1-3 to refer to local churches, and it refers to them because there are specific letters addressed to them. It never refers to the church in the universal general sense that the pre-tribulationist is using it in chapters 1-3. This argument is like saying that the letter to the Romans is addressed to Israel in chapters 1-15, not the church, because the word “church” is entirely absent in every chapter but the last, or 1 Thessalonians is addressed to Israel in every chapter but the first, because the word “church” only occurs in chapter 1. There needs to be actual evidence for such a change of focus- it is arbitrary to argue on the presence or absence of the word “church”. Furthermore, the descriptions of the seven churches in chapters 1-3 contain precisely the sort of terms which are relevant to the people of God in chapters 4 onwards. They are described as needing to persevere through tribulation, and to be watching for the return of Christ. What good reason is there for assuming that the rest of the book is not about them?
To read the rapture into Revelation 4 of course is purely supposition. One could alternatively argue that the rapture is represented in the rapture of the two prophets in Revelation 11:12, or in the escape from out of the tribulation of the people of God described in chapter 7. If one was trying to match the rapture up with an event in Revelation, these would be better matches, and there is nothing clear in the twenty-four elders which shows them as a symbol of the church. Finally, the marriage supper of the lamb referred to in chapter 19 gives no evidence of being an event occurring in Heaven to the church during the tribulation. Indeed it appears to be rather commencing with the second advent of Christ, and a blessing being given to those invited to it.
Our examination of the top ten arguments for pre-tribulationism comes to an end with the conclusion that we have not found any reasonable argument that shows a pre-tribulation rapture is necessary. Therefore, the burden of proof upon the pre-tribulationist remains, and we can be confident in the simpler assertion that there will be just one return of Christ at the end of the tribulation. In our next article, we will present a positive case for a post-tribulation rapture, and examine the top ten scriptures which affirm that this simplest view is indeed the correct one.
See also: Why you shouldn’t be a pan-millenialist.