Although the concept of separate redemptive plans for ethnic Jews and the Church is the cornerstone of dispensationalism, its signature feature is the pretribulation rapture. Is a pretribulation rapture taught in scripture; an inevitable conclusion of the dispensationalist’s literal hermeneutic? Alternatively, is it a contrivance to remove the church from the scene so that dispensationalist eschatology agrees with its view of separate redemptive plans?
It is not an easy question, because the claim of scriptural support for a pretribulation rapture arises from multiple disconnected passages, beginning in the Olivet Discourse of Matthew 24.
In particular, we read in verse 14:
And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matt. 24:14, NIV)Dispensationalists claim this supports a pretribulation (or possibly midtribulation) rapture by the following logic.
- Matthew 24 is describing the great tribulation.
- Matthew 24:14 is directed not at the church but at the Jews.
- After the prophecy of verse 14 is fulfilled, then the end will come (the Second Coming).
- Thus the church must be gone prior to the time described in verse 14, and hence prior to the second coming. So from Matthew 24 as a whole the rapture must occur prior to or during the great tribulation.
Another verse used in support of a pretribulation rapture is
For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. (2 The. 2:7)Dispensationalists argue that the power in question is the antichrist, and the one who now restrains is the church, and so the antichrist is not fully revealed until the church is taken out of the way—i.e., raptured. Unlike Matthew 14, this points not just to a rapture sometime before the worldwide Jewish evangelism, but indeed before the tribulation, which requires the full engagement of the antichrist.
Critics of this position counter that Paul does not identify the restrainer as the church, and that a reading of 2 Thessalonians 2 as a whole implies the tribulation will affect all the church. The passage warns believers not to be deceived during this period. Such a warning is unnecessary if the rapture has already removed church.
Saved from the coming wrath?Several verses are cited by dispensationalists to demonstrate that the church will not experience the great tribulation:
and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead--Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. (1 The. 1:10, NIV)Critics of dispensationalism say that the wrath from which believers are saved is not the tribulation but the eternal damnation (hell) that awaits the unsaved. Or, as perhaps in some cases it refers to the wrath poured upon the Jews in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 The. 5:9, NIV)
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! (Rom. 5:9, NIV)
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient. (Eph. 5:6, NIV)
Another verse used by dispensationalists comes from the letter to the church at Philadelphia:
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. (Rev. 3:10, NIV)There are several problems with the dispensational view of this verse. First, it necessitates abandonment of their coveted literal hermeneutic, since it must be inferred that the literal 1st century church at Philadelphia is actually used symbolically for the future church in its entirety. At the same time, a similar interpretation of the church Smyrna in Revelation 2:10 would mean the entire church will suffer and be cast into prison, which is contrary to dispensationalism. Furthermore, Jesus taught (and prayed) that we may be kept from trial (the evil one) without being physically removed from the earth. (John 17:15), so even if Rev. 3:10 refers to the entire church (doubtful), and if the trial spoken of is the great tribulation, it does not follow that the church must be raptured in order to spared.
Believers present during the tribulation
Some other verses seem to state plainly that believers will be present during the tribulation, which of course then denies the notion of a pretribulation rapture. For example:
Both of these verses occur in the context of a discussion of the tribulation, and both imply the presence of believers.
"Unless the Lord had shortened those days, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom He chose, He shortened the days. (Mat. 13:20, NIV)
For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect--if that were possible. (Mat. 24:24, NIV)
Finally, we must look at 1 Thessalonians 4:
After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 The. 4:17, NIV)There is no indication that this refers to a secret pretribulation rapture. Rather, it is the glorious fate of those believers still alive at the time of Christ's Second Coming.