EVIDENCE OF A PRE-TRIBULATION RAPTURE IN PAUL’S LETTERS
Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians
A dominant theme in both of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonian church is End-Times’ prophecy. In the first letter, Paul primarily answers the question of whether believers who have died will be reunited with those who are still alive at the time of the rapture (1 Thess. 4:13-18), and Paul instructs them concerning their own hope in the Lord’s return. In his second letter Paul primarily writes to reassure the Thessalonian believers that they are not already in the Day of the Lord.
A very important eschatological revelation in Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians is that during his stay with them he had taught a pre-Tribulation rapture and therefore they contain the most detailed explanation of it.
1. The first letter to the Thessalonians
The first letter to the Thessalonians is written after a report back from Timothy, who had just returned from a visit with the fledgling church. Timothy’s report to Paul revealed that the young Church had not fully understood Paul’s teaching on the rapture. They were concerned that the members of the church who had died since Paul’s visit would miss both the rapture and the Millennial Kingdom rule of Jesus. So, Paul answers this concern with a detailed explanation of what will happen to both those believers who have died before the rapture and those believers who are alive at the trumpet call (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). After His explanation Paul reminds them that no one knows the exact timing of the return of Jesus, as He comes as a thief in the night (1 Thess. 5:2). Paul goes on to make a distinction between the saved and unsaved at this time by alternating his pronouns between “you” (believers) and “they” (non-believers). For example, in 1 Thessalonians 5:3 Paul says “For when they shall say, peace and safety, then suddenly destruction cometh upon them as travail upon a woman with child, and they shall not escape” (KJV; emphasis added), indicating the suddenness of the return. Notice that the “peace and safety” they are living in prior to the Lord’s return discounts both a post-Tribulation and a pre-wrath rapture. There will be no peace and safety for the world during the Great Tribulation. Then in 1 Thessalonians 5:4, Paul clarifies that the Church will escape by saying “but ye brothers are not in darkness that that day should overtake you as a thief” (KJV; emphasis added). Because the Church does not live in darkness, they are not part of the judgement that the Lord brings to the earth, and so the Church will be translated before the judgement. The Church is required to be like a Jewish Bride, expectantly watching and waiting for the Lord’s return, all the while dutifully carrying on the work of the Lord, daily putting on the armour of God.
Paul emphasises this in 1 Thessalonians 2:19 when he says “For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes?” The “great hope” that Paul writes of in this scripture, is that the Church will escape the “destruction” that will come upon the earth during the Tribulation.
Paul ends his detailed explanation to the Thessalonians on what will happen to both those believers who have died before the rapture and those believers who are alive at the trumpet call (1 Thess. 4:13-18), by saying “wherefore comfort (exhort) one another with these words” (KJV). Scripture records that the first part of the Tribulation is filled with spiritual deception and lies, as the Antichrist rises to world dominance. And the book of Revelation records the severe judgements God will pour down upon the Earth in the Last Days, which will result in the deaths of billions of people and the devastation of the earth. How is it possible that mid-Tribulation, Pre-Wrath and post-Tribulation proponents are able to say that their views give comfort to believers? Both the spiritual deception of the first three and a half years, of the Tribulation and the extensive judgements of the Great Tribulation are a part of the wrath of God. The Antichrist must be seen as a judgement from God, he is Satan’s ultimate deception, who will lead multitudes to an eternity in the Lake of Fire. Only the pre-Tribulation view can truly say that Jesus will “deliver us from the coming wrath,” and therefore only the pre-Tribulation view can give comfort to believers. Jesus is coming soon!
2. The second letter to the Thessalonians
The second letter to the Thessalonians is written by Paul to deal with a crisis started by a forged letter supposedly written by Paul, which stated that the suffering and persecution the Thessalonians were facing was because they were already in the Day of the Lord. This contradicted what Paul had taught them in his first letter regarding a pre-Tribulation rapture and had left the Thessalonians shaken and troubled. So, Paul writes his second letter to them to assure them that they are not in the Day off the Lord and he ensures that they know the letter is from him by including his signature (2 Thess. 3:17). Paul deals with the deception of the forged letter at the start of Chapter 2, by referring to “the coming of our Lord Jesus” coinciding with “our being gathered to Him” – the rapture. Paul is clearly making a distinction between Jesus coming for His Bride (1 Thess. 4:16-18) and His coming with His Church (Rev. 19:14). Also, the fact that Paul starts his explanation with the promise of the rapture must have an important bearing on whether the Day of the Lord has already occurred. Paul is informing the Thessalonians of the chronological order of the Day of the Lord, emphasising that since the rapture had not yet occurred; they could not be in the Day of the Lord. Paul is therefore teaching a pre-Tribulation rapture.
Paul goes on to clearly state in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 that the Tribulation period will only start with the rise of the Antichrist, “the man of sin… the son of perdition” (KJV). In verse 5, Paul reminds them that he had already told them this when he was with them and he should not have to remind them. He goes on to say in verse 6 that there is a force holding the Antichrist back, “so that [the Antichrist] may be revealed at the proper time.” The “proper time” will be when the full number that God has ordained for salvation by grace has been attained and that the Church is complete, “the full number of Gentiles has come in” (Rom. 11:25).
The question, then, is what is this force that holds the Antichrist back? 2 Thessalonians 2:7 gives us the answer: “But the one who now holds it back will continue to do so until he is taken out the way.” Now only the Holy Spirit can globally hinder the works of Satan, preventing the dominance of evil and rebellion against God. It is the dominance of evil, the rebellion of mankind against God that will be required for the Antichrist to establish himself and be accepted as the world leader. Note that verse 7 states “taken out the way,” not taken away. The Holy Spirit is omnipresent, He is everywhere. The Holy Spirit will continue His divine work, but not as a restrainer of the evil one through the Church. Further evidence that it is the Holy Spirit Paul is referring to as the one who “is taken out the way,” is that Paul refers to the one who holds back by the neuter “what” in 2 Thessalonians 2:6 and the masculine “he” in verse 7, which could only mean that Paul is referring to the Holy Spirit.
Please note that this means the Holy Spirit will still be involved with the leading of people to salvation, and it is only the hindering of Satan’s plans that ceases. How is this possible? Only with the translation of the Church from earth to heaven. The Bible describes the Church as “the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13) and “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14). With the removal of the Church from the earth the world has lost its salt and its light, and moral decay and darkness will prevail. The work of the Church includes the Holy Spirit – they are bound together in the cause of bringing seasoning and light to the world. If the Church is raptured, the Holy Spirit is effectively taken out of the way, and the work of the Holy Spirit in conjunction with the Church will come to an end.
To give further clarity to the theme of the Church hindering the ability of the Antichrist to set up his world dominating authority, we can take a look at Matthew 16:18. In this scripture Jesus speaks of the victory the Church will have over Satan during the Church period, when Jesus announces that the “gates of hell” will not overcome the Church. In Biblical times the gates of a city were where courts were held and disputes settled (Deut. 25:7; Ruth 4:1). Because Kings would sit at the gate to perform their official duties and meet with the elders of the city, the gate was synonymous with planning and authority. So, the “gates of hell” spoken of by Jesus are the plans Satan would put together to destroy the earth and turn man in rebellion against God. These plans, Jesus clearly stated, would not succeed! How is it possible, then, that Satan through the Antichrist is able to prevail during the Tribulation period if the Church is present?
To further emphasise the power of a praying Church we need to look at the statement made by Jesus concerning John the Baptist in Matthew 11:11, “among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist; notwithstanding, he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”. John the Baptist was a man of immense strength of character, a prominent prophet and he was instrumental in preparing the way for Jesus, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he because of our position in Jesus. The Church has a better knowledge of Jesus as our saviour and is under the New Covenant whereas John lived under the Old Covenant, and we have far superior privileges. John was born of woman, but the Church is born of the Holy Spirit and receives the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Church now has Jesus as our intercessor in heaven sitting at the right hand of God (Rom. 8:34). The Church has tremendous authority and power in prayer, in that we can come boldly to the throne of Grace and have our petitions heard and we have our Lord and saviour interceding on our behalf. The “gates of hell” will surely not prevail against such authority, and neither will the Antichrist.
The evacuation of the British and French armies from the shores of Dunkirk during the Second World War is an excellent example of the power of prayer to hinder Satan’s plans. With the British and French forces surrounded by the Nazi army, all seemed lost. The only escape route was across the notoriously rough waters of the English Channel. The churches in Britain were filled with people who went to pray for their soldiers trapped in France. The result was that during the time of the evacuation from May 26 to June 3, 1940 the waters of the channel were described as a “mill pond”. Even small craft were able to cross the channel to pick up soldiers stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, allowing for 333 224 soldiers to be rescued. This hindering of Satan’s plans continued into the Battle of Britain (August, 1940), with the Luftwaffe commanded by Herman Göring repeatedly making tactical errors, which lead to the Germans losing the Battle of Britain. Hitler had to cancel “Operation Sea Lion,” the planned invasion of Britain by the Nazi army. Britain at that time was the only obstacle preventing Nazi Germany from establishing their 1 000-year Reich. Hitler, who is a historical type of the Antichrist, was prevented from fulfilling his goals by the prayers of Christians in Britain and her colonies. How much more would the Antichrist be hindered from achieving his goals by a praying Church?
Amos 5:18-20 warns that the Tribulation of the day of the Lord will exceed anything that has gone before. Jeremiah confirms this when he says “how awful will that day be! None will be like it “(Jer. 30:7). Revelation 13:7 gives details of what will happen to believers during that time, “[the Antichrist] was given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them”. The persecution of believers will exceed any persecution that has gone before, Roman emperors and the inquisition included. With three and a half years of absolute slaughter of believers, there would be precious few people left to rapture at the return of Jesus! In fact, Jesus warns of this in Matthew 24:22 when he says if those days are not shortened by his return there would be no one left alive. So, how does the rampant success of the work of Satan through the Antichrist, match with the promise made by Jesus that the gates of hell will not prevail against His church? The evident answer is that it does not! The only possible explanation is that the Church is not present during the Tribulation.
In 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12 Paul writes:
“The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the works of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refuse to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.”
Through this scripture, Paul is assuring the Church at Thessalonica that they are not in the Day of the Lord because its purpose is to deceive, and bring to destruction all those who rejected the Truth – Jesus. Since the Thessalonians have already received and believed the Truth, Paul assures them that the Tribulation is not for them.
It is important to note that in 2 Thessalonians 2 God’s wrath (judgements) start with the appearance of the Antichrist, and involve God allowing Satan to deceive the world with counterfeit miracles of Jesus (2 Thess. 2:9). The rejection of Jesus as their saviour causes them to accept the deception and believe the lie that the Antichrist is God (2 Thess. 2:11). In rejecting the Truth, the world will be open to every sort of evil, lies and deception put forward by the Antichrist with the backing and authority of Satan (2 Thess. 2:9-10).
The second letter to Timothy
Paul’s second letter to Timothy contains the most detailed account of the conditions that will prevail on earth prior to the return of the Lord Jesus. Paul warns of deception in the last days, and that unsound doctrine and the incorrect interpretation of scripture could result in separation from the truth and cause people to lose faith. As an example of this Paul warns that two men, Hymenaeus and Philetus “have wandered away from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some” (2 Tim. 2:17-18). Teaching distortions of scripture and half-truths is a deceptive method often used by Satan to deceive Christians, and Hymenaeus and Philetus were doing exactly that. They were teaching that the rapture had already occurred and the hardships and persecution they were experiencing from Nero’s despotic rule was because they were now living in the Tribulation (Nero’s persecution of Christians had started in Rome after the great fire in AD 64, and the second letter to Timothy was written by Paul in AD 67). This news naturally would have caused great concern among believers, to the extent that some had backslidden and given up their faith in Jesus. Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians even indicates that some false teachers were even going to the extent of forging letters and signing them with Paul’s name.
Paul’s warning of the error of these men’s teaching is evidence that Paul taught a pre-Tribulation rapture. If Paul had taught a post-Tribulation rapture, how could these men “destroy the faith of some,” by saying the resurrection was already past, when the believers would know this statement to be incorrect. Jesus would return to earth immediately after the rapture to defeat the Antichrist, judge the nations and set up His Kingdom, and clearly this had not happened. If, however, Paul had taught a pre-Tribulation rapture the believers would have been devastated that they had missed the rapture and were facing the seven years of Tribulation, resulting in the damage that was done to the faith of some believers.