The different views of the rapture in relation to the great
The rapture is an area of Christian theology which has historically received little attention with regards to precise formulation. A brief survey of works detailing the development of doctrine (such as Bromiley, 1978) reveals almost no acknowledgment of the rapture. This is perhaps explained by Berkhof (1975, p. 259) who states "The doctrine of the last things never stood in the centre of attention, is one of the least developed doctrines, and therefore calls for no elaborate discussion.
Further, the very notion of the rapture is much-derided by critics who find fault due to the allegedly non-existence of such a doctrine in the scriptures; the seemingly non-existence of the very word "rapture" in the scriptures (though such an argument would apply to the Trinity also); and the thought that the idea of a "secret rapture" where the Church is transported safely from a catastrophic time of tribulation is foreign to God's plans and purposes as revealed in history - for indeed, "the blood of the martyrs is the very seed of the Church" (Cairns, 1981, p.93).
Such arguments are untenable. The main basis for the rapture doctrine is I Thessalonians 4:13-18 : Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.
According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words.
From this passage the notion of the rapture is clear; at some future time all of the saints of God, both dead and alive, shall be "caught up" into the air to be with their Lord! The Greek word for "caught up" is arpazo, which means to pluck away (Zodhiates, 1992, p. 1270) and would be well translated "rapture" in a Latin Bible (Willmington, n.d, p. 825), such as Jerome's vulgate - so the word itself is scriptural (just not in an English translation), as indeed is the notion. The third objection listed is specific to a particular theological framework and shall be discussed later. Indeed, many objections exist, not least that of sincere Christian brethren who seek to know what must happen to the defenceless family pet when its owners are suddenly raptured! Such an argument is, of course, based on emotional issues rather than the scriptures and detracts from the real issue at hand.
Paul reveals more information in I Corinthians 15:51-52 : Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed - in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.
Having established a preliminary scriptural basis for the rapture, however, a new problem arises with regards to its chronological location. As Stern (1992, p. 623) points out, "Only in relation to the premillenial position does the issue of when the rapture takes place arise; for Post- and Amillenialists, the Rapture is vaguely identified with the Messiah's one and only return." This means that the concept of the rapture is only particularly defined in the pre-millenial system of theology. However, this leaves three potential general times for the rapture to occur, defined in terms of the coming "great tribulation" - before the tribulation period (pre-tribulational), during the tribulation period (mid-tribulational) or after the tribulation period (post-tribulational). Some humourously (and non-seriously) suggest a fourth possibility of "pan-tribulationalism" - as God is in control there is no need to worry about such matters; all will eventually "pan" out according to His plans. The former three views however, are worthy of considerable discussion.
In essence, the post-tribulational system decrees that the rapture occurs after the tribulation period - the natural consequence being that the Church must endure it. Willmington (n.d., p. 825) dismisses this view of the rapture by appealing to I Thessalonians 5:9 ("For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ") and Revelation 3:10 ("Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth").
Nevertheless, post-tribulationists dismiss Willmington's views, appealing to John 16:33, "in this world you will have tribulation". To the post-tribulationist, it is unthinkable that God would offer a remarkable transport to the Church as an escape route in the face of global disaster, eluded to earlier (although such was the case with Noah). Truly throughout history the Church has suffered persecution - indeed under such persecution the Church has historically thrived - not materially, but in a spiritual harvest, as faith is refined and tested and the gospel is propagated to further regions. This was the case in Jerusalem - "Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went" (Acts 8:4). This was the case under Roman persecution (Cairns, 1981, p. 91-93). Persecution kept the Church pure - it kept hypocritical, dishonest and insincere people from the Church. "No light decisions were made for Christ in those times, especially when acceptance of Christ meant possible loss of citizenship; imprisonment with daily starvation and torture until death; crucifixion, and sometimes burning while still alive and hanging on the cross. . . ." (Hamon, 1981, p. 80-81). Such is the essence of the Puritan classic, Foxe's Christian Martyrs of the World.
The flaw in this logic, however, is that the tribulation period is not a time of persecution. Rather, it is a time of God's wrath being outpoured on the earth. During this time people shall cry to the mountains and the rocks, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?" (Revelation 6:16-17). When Christ returns, "He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty" (Revelation 19:15). Willmington's verses above apply most certainly - for God has appointed His Church to salvation and not to wrath. Surely the day of the Lord will be terrible (Malachi 4:5)!
Messianic Jewish scholar David Stern offers a different and original reason for his holding to the post-tribulation view - it is unthinkable "that Messianic Jews are to be faced with the decision of whether to identify with their own people the Jews and stay to suffer or with their own people the believers (the Messianic Community, the Church) and escape" (Stern, 1992, p. 623). Stern develops this idea further : "But if Sha'ul [Paul] and other Jewish believers are members both of Israel and of the Messianic Community, Pre-Tribulationists must answer this question: when the rapture takes place, do Jewish believers in Yeshua [Jesus] stay behind with the rest of physical Israel, or do they join the rest of the Messianic Community with Yeshua in the air? They can't be in both places at once. Is it a matter of our personal choice? Do we have to choose whether to be more loyal to the Jewish people or to our brothers in the Messiah? This is an absurd question, absurd because the situation proposed will never arise" (Stern, 1992, p. 804).
Stern's objections, however, are based heavily on his emphasis that Jewish people remain Jewish once becoming Christians; indeed, they are "fulfilled" Jews. This is, of course, true, but Stern's emphasis is so great that he (unintentionally, but effectively) divides the body of Christ in two - those who are Jewish and those who are Gentiles, despite Paul's admonition that "there is neither Jew nor Greek. . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). Stern continues, ". . . . This is not what they [Messianic Jews] bought into when they came to faith. They were told, 'Now you're a Jew who has accepted his Messiah.' They were not told, 'Now you have abandoned your Jewish people and will spend eternity without them'" (Stern, 1992, p. 804). Certainly the Gentile Christian is distinct from the Gentile non-Christian (who will unquestionably remain after the rapture). The deciding factor is not whether one is Jewish or otherwise, but whether one is a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ or not.
Finally, the rapture is quite distinct from the Second Coming in which Jesus returns to the earth, to the Mount of Olives (Zechariah 14). At the rapture, Jesus draws the Saints to Himself in the clouds (I Thessalonians 4:15-17). At the Second Coming, He returns with the Saints (Revelation 19:11-16). The post-tribulational view virtually has the Saints of God acting like a yo-yo - arising into the air, only to return immediately to the earth. This further gives no time for the Bema seat of Christ or the marriage supper of the Lamb.
The pre-tribulation view may be summarised thus,