From the early days of the Church, there has been a variety of interpretations of the book of Revelation and related tribulation passages. The main ones are idealist, preterist, historicist, and futurist. Briefly, proponents of the idealist view interpret prophecy symbolically and do not expect any of it to be fulfilled in the literal sense. The preterist view maintains that the Romans fulfilled the events of Revelation in AD 70 with the destruction of Jerusalem. The historicist view, which in some ways is like the preterist, is that the book of Revelation summarizes church history, describing various times of persecution and tribulation. Finally, the futurist view is that chapters 4 to 22 are a prophetic account of yet future events regarding the end of this age.
Tied in with all this are the terms amillennialism, pre-millennialism, and post-millennialism. And we have additional terms such as pre-tribulation, mid-tribulation, and post-tribulation. We should not confuse these groupings. The first three relate to Christ’s return to earth and the others to His rapture of the Church.
Premillennialism (the oldest of the three) is based on a literal interpretation of Scripture. For example, it holds that the one thousand years mentioned in Revelation Chapter 20 is literal and the period on earth during which Christ will be physically present. Pre-millennialists also believe that the second coming of Christ will occur prior to the Millennium.
Amillennialism denies the literal reign of Christ on the earth and believe this age is the fulfilment of the millennial kingdom. However, Amillennialists are divided over whether the Millennium is presently being fulfilled here on earth, or by the saints in heaven.
Post-millennialism, or more accurately, elements of it, is the belief that the Millennium is not a literal thousand years, but a period during which Christ will reign over the earth, albeit not from a literal earthly throne. It holds that the spread of the gospel to all nations will culminate with Christ’s return, the judging of the wicked, and the immediate ushering of the Church into the Eternal State.
Due to the shortage of space, and as the title of this article suggests, our focus for now is on the error of post-tribulationism.
Considering that advocates of that doctrine quote the two Thessalonian epistles in their defense, we start there. We concede that a superficial reading of these might lead one to conclude that the rapture in chapter 4 of the first epistle occurs at the same time as Christ’s second coming to earth. However, the very first word (but) in the chapter which follows negates that assumption and switches attention from the rapture to the Day of the Lord (and the wrath that precedes it).
The predominant theme of 1 Thessalonians is the rapture of the church, albeit Christ’s second coming to earth is also mentioned (see 3:13 and 5:1-11). The believers there had obviously been taught about it, but now had questions concerning those who had died in the interim. Hence, Paul’s teaching on the matter.
We must make two interesting points here about the rapture narrative. First, we often refer to our Lord Jesus by a variety of names and titles without considering the one most appropriate for the context. However, and central to our argument, in 1 Thessalonians 4:14 we have the name Jesus mentioned twice—a name never associated with His second coming to earth in the same way as, for instance, the Son of Man title (Acts 1:11 might be significant here, if we remember that our Lord was seen only by His followers after His resurrection). Second, while the spirits of departed believers will obviously come back with our Lord at the rapture (to be joined to their resurrected body), this is not what the verse is about. By logic, Paul is teaching that since Christ is the firstfruits in resurrection it automatically follows that those who have died in Him must also be raised with Him!
Verse 10 of the opening chapter of the epistle reads: “And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.” As already commented upon, notice again the name Jesus. Also, note the words “delivered” and “to come.” In the context, this wrath is clearly the wrath of the Tribulation as described in Revelation chapters 6 through 19. This is in keeping with the explicit statement of verse 9 of Chapter 5—“For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The first half of 1 Thessalonians chapter 5 centers on the day of the Lord. That day does not start with the rapture of the Church nor Daniel’s 70th Week (the seven-year-Tribulation), which is likely to be some years later, but begins when Christ comes back to earth as the Son of Man at the end of the Great Tribulation. This is abundantly clear from 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 where it states—“Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God.” That day on earth is still man’s day and parallels part of the day of Christ, which is in heaven. Sadly, some of the most respected Bible teachers do not understand this.
For clarification purposes, the words ‘that day’ in verse 3 of 2 Thessalonians 2 refer to the Day of the Lord which is wrongly translated as ‘day of Christ’ in verse 2 (All English versions of the Bible other than the KJV and the NKJV make this clear).
We come now to the phrase, “except there come a falling away first.” I understand the phrase can have two meanings: first, a general defection from the true God, and secondly, the departure, i.e., the rapture of the Church.* Both apply here, but it is the second of these that we rely upon to bolster the argument. While many respected Bible teachers subscribe to this view, a quote from Professor Johan Malan will suffice:
“If the context of 2 Thessalonians 2:3 is considered, it is obvious that apostasia is here meant in the full width of its meaning—both as departing and as a spiritual falling away. In the first instance Paul, by using this word, refers to the physical departure of the true believers who are not destined for God’s judgments. One of the major implications of this departure will be that great spiritual darkness will prevail on earth—the light of the world having been taken away. This situation will allow the Antichrist the opportunity to be revealed. Sin and wickedness will proliferate during his reign, leading to the greatest falling away of biblical norms and Christian standards in the entire history of humankind.”
The inferred “Restrainer” of verse 6 is described as “He” in the following verse and thus can only be the Holy Spirit. Considering that there must be some measure of the Holy Spirit during the Tribulation, one can reasonably conclude that it is the Church (with the Holy Spirit dwelling within each member) that is taken out of the way (v.7).
Before leaving the Thessalonian epistles, the opening verses of 1 Thessalonians 5 provide further light. While there will be physical darkness upon the earth because of the opening of the sixth seal (Revelation 6) immediately before Christ’s second coming, these verses concentrate on the contrast between those in spiritual darkness (the earth-dwellers) and those who have been enlightened—in context, the Thessalonian believers, but ultimately the Church. Paul is not saying that the Church will be on the earth at that time but, rather, unlike those who are and to whom Christ’s coming is as a thief in the night, this will not be the Church’s experience because of the rapture.
One of the best chronological accounts of end-time events is Matthew chapters 24 and 25. Verses 29 and 30 of Chapter 24 read—“Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” Link this with such verses as Colossians 3:4—“When Christ who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory”—and things could not be clearer.
Complementing the Matthew account is Luke chapter 21. Read the first 27 verses carefully and then note verse 28: “And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.” This makes it abundantly clear that Christ’s second coming is after the tribulation. Note the words “begin to come to pass.” If the Rapture is not until after the tribulation, one must ask what are the believers redeemed from? Furthermore, what is the point of them “looking up” if the Tribulation, especially the second three and half years (“the time of Jacob’s trouble”) is going to be such a horrendous period at the hands of the Antichrist? We could ask the same of 1 Thessalonians 5:11. Why exhort the believers to comfort one another if they are going to go through the Tribulation?
Prominent proponents and adherents of the posttribulation position are critical of premillennialists who quote Revelation 3:10 to show that the Church will not go through the tribulation of Daniel’s 70th Week. Scripture does not contradict Scripture, and while the above quoted Scriptures are adequate in themselves, three brief comments here on the true meaning of Revelation 3:10 will suffice to counteract the post-tribulation viewpoint.
The tribulation in Revelation 3:10 is very different from that experienced during a believer’s life. This is evident from the use of the definitive article (the) in the phrase “I will keep thee from the hour of temptation.” Matthew 24:21 states: “For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.” Consequently, for several reasons, a distinction should be made in connection with the Lord’s high priestly prayer in John 17 where the petition is that His followers should be kept from evil in the present world. Suffering for righteousness’ sake (1 Cor. 4:8-13; 1 Pet. 3:8-17, etc.) is in a different league to the suffering imposed by the seven last plagues (bowls/vials) of Revelation 16.
The promise in 3:10 is not to be kept during the hour… but kept from the hour…! Attempts to apply the keeping to a “spiritual keeping” have no valid basis.
Post-tribulationists attempt to make little of Pre-millennialists’ understanding of the promise to believers in the Philadelphian church considering that those believers have died some twenty centuries ago. However, they fail to recognize the truth of the very next verse (v.11) which, in context, shows the imminency of the Lord’s return (the rapture). Needless to say, if those believers (or any others) be dead at the time of the rapture, the promise of the keeping would have no relevance. It is clear that it applies only to those who are alive at the time of the rapture.
Other attempts to justify the post-tribulation position from the Lord’s words to the Philadelphian church can be equally rebutted, but lack of space prevents doing that here.
Moving on from the verse in question, the Church is not once mentioned, nor inferred in Revelation chapters 6 through 19 which deal in detail with the Tribulation, nor is it mentioned in any other passage outside of the book of Revelation which deals with the same subject.
Ere we close, we have those who rely on Revelation 20:5 to promote the doctrine of only one resurrection to discredit the premillennial view of the rapture. They interpret the words “first resurrection” as referring to a numerical value as opposed to a type or sort. Their error can be proved by stating: (1) the Lord Jesus some 2,000 years ago was the “firstfruits” of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:23); (2) the resurrection of saints whose graves were opened during His crucifixion (Matt. 27:52, 53); and (3) the resurrection of the two witnesses martyred during the Great Tribulation (Rev. 11:3-11).
In addition to the above, post-tribulationism does not satisfactorily provide for things such as the opening verses of John chapter 14, when and where the judgment seat of Christ takes place, and events surrounding the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (which is on earth).
As with any subject, dogmatic prejudice rather than ignorance can account for conflicting views on this important matter. I trust I am guilty of neither, but the Scriptures quoted convince me that post-tribulationism has no sound basis.
*Editorial Note: We realize that many respected Bible commentators hold this minority view among dispensational Bible teachers. However, the Cornerstone Editorial Board takes the position that the phrase “falling away” only applies to the apostasy. Ultimately, our understanding of this verse does not affect our pre-tribulation position. There is other supporting evidence for the pre-tribulation view clearly presented in the author’s article.