Lately, I’ve been in some discussions and received some questions about whether there is going to be a “Rapture” of the Church, whether the “Great Tribulation” of Revelation has already happened, and whether Jesus is really going to return and physically rule on the earth.
I am by no means an eschatology expert. There are many scholarly people who know much more than I do. I will state upfront that I do not have a formal Bible school education. But I do read my Bible carefully, and ponder what it says. I believe God meant for His Word to be understandable to the common man, and that we can expect to know truth if we prayerfully seek it out in His Word.
I am really saddened by the confusion, disappointment, and anxiety that I sometimes hear from people who have long been awaiting Jesus’ return with great eagerness, who have now encountered new teaching that there will be no literal Rapture and that Jesus isn’t coming back for a long time yet. What I want to say to them is, continue to look for and long for the return of Jesus. You are on solid ground. The Apostle Paul mentioned those who “love his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:8). It is right and godly to want Jesus to return, and to be ready for Him at all times.
There are so many theories on what the actual sequence will be for the end time events, and it is hard to fit all the Scripture references together correctly. I think some things we will only understand fully once they have happened. Before the time of Jesus the Messiah’s birth, there must have been a great deal of confusion about Him. He was to be called a Nazarene (Isaiah 11:1 — clearer in the Hebrew), Hosea said God would call His Son out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1), and yet Micah 5:2 announced that the Messiah would come out of Bethlehem. We know today that Jesus fulfilled all three of these prophecies (see Matthew 2), but can you imagine how confusing it must have been at one time?
So it is with some of the end time prophecies of the Scriptures. There is a large movement of people, especially in the prophetic circles, who no longer seem to believe in a literal Rapture, in an end-time Great Tribulation, or a literal antichrist. They tend to say that most of Revelation was fulfilled a long time ago, and they believe much of Revelation is strictly metaphorical, not literal. This is all part of Dominion Theology (also called Kingdom Now and Reconstruction Theology). Although there are some extremes that I would not at all agree with in Dominion Theology, much of it is good. The focus is on bringing the Kingdom of Heaven into the earth now, doing the “greater works” that Jesus said the Church would do (see Matthew 10:1, 8 and John 14:12), and living the power-filled life that Jesus always intended for us to live. There is nothing wrong with that!
I believe in the Kingdom of Heaven being established here on the earth according to the Scriptures I just mentioned. However, I still believe in a literal catching away of the Church (commonly referred to as “the Rapture”). We need to hold to what the Bible says in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, particularly v. 17 — “then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” Whether that will be pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation, or right at the end of the tribulation, I do not know for sure. (Neither does anyone else.) My own leaning is toward a pre-trib Rapture, partly because in Matthew 24:37-41, Jesus likened the devastation of the end times to the days of Noah. In Noah’s time, the righteous were spared from destruction. Also, Jesus said, in Luke 21:36, “Watch therefore, and pray always, that you may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.” Sometimes the accusation against pre-trib believers is that we are escapists. We aren’t, necessarily. I believe in “occupying until He comes” (Luke 19:13). But if Jesus said we should pray that we would be worthy to escape these troubles, then I think it must be OK to want to escape them. If those of us who favor a pre-trib Rapture are wrong and must go through part or all of the Great Tribulation, we will endure, stand with Jesus, and just plain do it!
Some prophetic teachers are saying that the “catching away” (Rapture) is not physical and permanent. They say it is having third heaven experiences, being “caught up” in our spirits into the heavenlies, even corporately so, and then returning to earth and our bodies. That is not what the Scripture says. We can have such third heaven experiences. Paul did, and talked about it in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4. But 1 Thessalonians 4:17 speaks of something entirely better: “Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them [the resurrected dead] in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”
Some people in the prophetic movement think that through growing in new revelation about health and healing, the Church will come into greater longevity, and eventually the ability to not die at all. They feel that the Lord has revealed this to them through current prophetic visions. But that is not what the Bible teaches. 1 Corinthians 15:24-26 says, “Then comes the end, when he [Jesus] will deliver up the kingdom to God, even the Father; having put down all rule, and all authority and power. For he must reign, until he has put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” Jesus will reign physically upon the earth, as is clearly stated throughout the Scriptures — notably in Isaiah and Zechariah. Even Job, who is thought to have lived at the time of Jacob or shortly thereafter, was convinced of the physical return of Jesus to the earth: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth” (Job 19:25). At the end of Jesus’ reign, right before He hands the kingdom over to His Father, death will be destroyed.
1 Corinthians 15:51-56 is necessary reading if we are going to understand the Rapture as taught in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. In 1 Corinthians 15:52 we find that both the dead and living Christians, at the last trumpet call, will be changed into our glorified bodies in the twinkling of an eye. This is not a gradual coming into new revelation about how to live longer and eventually not die. It is about completely changed, glorified bodies, and it will happen suddenly.
What about the book of Revelation? Did most of it happen already? Throughout the Bible we find that many prophecies are partially fulfilled, as a foreshadowing of what is yet to come. Yet, the complete fulfillment happens at a later time. John the Baptist was a partial fulfillment of the coming of Elijah, as mentioned in Malachi 4:5. Joel 2:28, 29 was partially fulfilled at Pentecost (Acts 2). A more literal fulfillment of both these prophecies will be accomplished in the end times. There are many examples in the Scriptures of partial fulfillment of prophecy, with the more complete fulfillment coming later. It does not take a great amount of genius to see that much of Revelation has not yet happened. There have been some partial fulfillments, yes.
One argument used to negate Revelation still needing fulfillment is that the language is almost entirely metaphorical, and that we should not expect literal fulfillment. But that is almost never the way prophecy in the Bible works. Time after time, the words of the prophets have been literally fulfilled, right down to the last jot and tittle. Why should Revelation be any different?
I am of the opinion that we can still anticipate a literal, physical catching up to Jesus in the air to be with Him forever, we can still believe that much of Revelation is yet to be fulfilled literally (even though there are many symbolic themes there), and that we should eagerly look forward to Jesus’ return, however the sequence of events works out.
For those who have become disillusioned and distressed by some of the current “Raptureless” teaching, I would like to encourage you to not let anyone take from you the delight of looking forward to Jesus’ return. Prepare for coming generations by actively building God’s kingdom here on earth. This is wisdom. Realize that it is possible Jesus may not come for His Church in our lifetime — but also realize that it is very possible He will.