Will Christians Go Through the Tribulation?
By Dr. J. Rodman Williams
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Prophecy by the Book
One of the most critical areas today in prophecy has to do with the understanding
of tribulation. The New Testament speaks of "tribulation," also "great
tribulation," and the debate hinges on whether the church (true believers)
will or will not go through it. Robert P. Lightner speaks of "at least
four different views of the church's relation to the tribulation: the church
to be raptured before the tribulation begins, the church to go through the tribulation,
the church to go through the first half of the tribulation, and the prewrath
rapture of the church"* (only the first
three have any major followings). How is it possible to decide among such varying
viewpoints? Surely the issue is an important one, and interpretations vary a
great deal on this. Let me make some suggestions to help.
First, some comments about the rapture of the church. The place in Scripture
that most clearly teaches a rapture is 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17. The final words
are: "The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command,
with the archangel's call, 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, shall be
caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and
so we shall always be with the Lord." "Caught up" in one early
Latin translation is rapiemur, from which we derive the English word
"rapture." So the rapture refers in this context to that moment when
believers will be caught up, along with the dead in Christ, to a glorious meeting
with the Lord in His triumphal descent. Paul also in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52
speaks of the same event, saying: "We shall not all sleep [i.e., die],
but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the
last trumpet." However, the teaching here relates not so much to meeting
the Lord as to the fact that our bodies (dead and alive) will be changed in
this great future event.
Second, nothing is said in either passage directly about the relation of the
rapture to tribulation. However, the implication in 1 Thessalonians 4 is that
no tribulation follows the rapture. For rather than saying something like, "So
shall we be delivered from tribulation," the text thereafter reads, "so
shall we always be with the Lord." Thus it is hard to sustain from this
passage a pretribulation rapture of the church (similarly from 1 Cor. 15), or,
for that matter, a posttribulation rapture when no tribulation is mentioned
before (note both passages carefully). "Pretrib" would seemon
the basis of 1 Thessalonians especiallyto be ruled out; "posttrib"
would have to be found elsewhere.
Third, we need also to examine the word "tribulation." In the Greek
it is thlipsis, translated as "tribulation" or "affliction"
(sometimes "distress"). Returning to 1 Thessalonians, we observe that
Paul writes in chapter 3 that "we sent Timothy...to establish you, and
to comfort you concerning your faith: That no man should be moved by these afflictions
[the Greek word is a form of thlipsis, hence "tribulations"]:
for you yourselves know we are appointed thereunto. For verily, when we were
with you, we told you before that we should suffer tribulation; even as it came
to pass, and ye know" (vv. 2-4 kjv). Since this chapter (3) precedes the
next (4) on the rapture, and also declares that we are "appointed"
to tribulation, even to "suffer" the same, it would seem apparent
that tribulation precedes the rapture to come.
Let us also note some words of Jesus. In Matthew 24, Jesus tells His disciples,
"They will deliver you up to tribulation [thlipsin], and put you
to death" (v. 9); and this is said prior to the statement that "many
will fall away...most men's love will grow cold...this gospel of the kingdom
will be preached throughout the whole world" (vv. 10-14). Clearly tribulation
here precedes the return of Christ and the rapture of the church. Another memorable
statement of Jesus is found in John 16:33"In the world you
have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world." Tribulation
has been and will be the lot of all who truly follow Christ.
Some interpreters, however, argue that although all Christians go through some
tribulation, there is yet a "great tribulation" to come that true
believers will not have to endure. Let us examine the expression "great
tribulation" which occurs first in Matthew 24:21"Then
there will be great tribulation [thlipsis megale], such as has not been
from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be." Here
tribulation seems to refer to what will happen to the world at large (note the
following verse"if those days had not been shortened, no human
being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened").
In any case, this "great tribulation" is also prior to the return
of Christ and the rapture. For, further on, in Matthew 24, Jesus says, "Immediately
after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will
not give its light...and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of
heaven...and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call [recall 1
Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians about the trumpet], and they will gather the
elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (vv. 29-31).
These last words clearly relate to the rapture (here depicted as the gathering
of "the elect"), and unmistakably refer to an occurrence after "great
tribulation." Surely there is no pretribulation rapture here.
The other place where the expression "great tribulation" is utilized
is in Revelation, chapter 7. John, beholding "a great multitude" (v.
9) of white robed people praising God around His throne and before the Lamb,
is told: "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they
have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (v.
14). But "out of" surely does not mean to be removed from; rather
these believers have endured "the great tribulation" and have now
come out of it, praising God and the Lamb. Here again "great tribulation"
seems to refer to what happens upon the whole earth (see the opening words of
Rev. 7) and the protection of believers, rather than their escape, during this
time. Chapter 7 earlier describes the sealing of 144,000 "servants of our
God" (vv. 3-4) before "the great tribulation" begins. These believers
rather than escaping out of tribulation by way of rapture were sealed by God
for their protection while going through it. Moreover, all of this happens prior
to the return of Christ, which is not actually described until chapter 19.
I should add that many pretribulationists view the church as already having
been raptured before any of the events, including tribulation in Revelation
6-19, occur. Some take the words addressed to John in Revelation 4:1"Come
up hither"as referring to the rapture either actually or symbolically,
and then add that since the word "church" does not appear until Revelation
22:16, the church, true believers, has been raptured or translated prior to
the terrible events described in Revelation 6-19.**
This, however, is a critical misinterpretation: the words to John in Revelation
4"Come up hither"have nothing to do either
actually or symbolically with the rapture of the church; and, although the word
"church" does not appear in these intervening chapters, believers
are definitely on the earth. Many times, for example, the word "saints"
occurs, along with such words as "Here is a call for the endurance of the
saints" (14:12; cf. 13:10).
Based on the biblical testimony, there will not be a pretribulational rapture
of the church (nor a midtribulational for that matter). This is very important
to emphasize. For whether the tribulation is what all Christians are called
upon to endure to the very end, or a great tribulation occurring worldwide,
the Lord will see His people through whatever happens. There will be much persecution,
to be sure, even martyrdom ahead (Jesus promised that), and many coming judgments
on the world (from which true believers will be protected). Whichever way, there
will be tribulation until the day Christ returns in glory.
I am afraid too many today are being lulled into thinking that when things
get really bad, we as believers will be suddenly snatched out of it all ("the
great snatch," the rapture is sometimes called). This is indeed poor preparation
for what is yet to happenand a serious misreading of the prophetic
message. We will go through whatever tribulation may yet come, and in
the midst of it and on the other side, give God all the glory!
This, I believe, is prophecy by the Book.
*The Last Days Handbook, 58-69.
**See, e.g., the Oxford NIV Scofield Study Bible, regarding Revelation
4:2"As the word 'church' does not appear again in Revelation until
22:16, the catching up of John from earth to heaven has been taken to be a symbolic
representation of the translation of the Church as occurring before the events
of the tribulation described in chs. 6-19."
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Content Copyright 2003 by J. Rodman Williams,
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