One of the questions that I want to deal with is where the rapture fits in. There is a large wing of the evangelical church today that believes the second coming of Christ is going to happen in two stages. First, Christ will come for the church; they will rise to meet him in the air, return with him to heaven for a period of seven years, and then after the great tribulation is over, return to the earth in judgment.
This view of the second coming is called the “pre-tribulational” view because it says that Christ comes for the church before the tribulation. This view has been popularized by the notes in the Scofield Reference Bible and by many Bible schools and some seminaries. It was the basis of Hal Lindsay’s Late Great Planet Earth, and has inspired songs and movies about the sudden disappearance of the Christians out of the world at the time of rapture.
One Argument for the Post-Tribulational View
I hope to take this issue up in more detail but for now let me just show you one of several arguments from 2 Thessalonians why I cannot follow this interpretation, as much as I love and respect those who do. Why am I a post-tribulationist, that is, why do I look forward with great anticipation not to a sudden departure from the world for seven years but to a great gathering to meet the Lord in the air as he comes with his mighty angels in flaming fire to establish his earthly kingdom, giving rest to his people and judgment to his enemies?
What the Thessalonians Were Alarmed About
The saints at Thessalonica were shaken and alarmed thinking that the day of the Lord is at hand. Now for the pre-tribulationist the “Day of the Lord” is the second half of the second coming after the tribulation. It is described in verse 8: “And then the lawless one will be revealed, and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming.”
This is the day of the Lord—not the quiet rapture when the saints are snatched away, but the glorious and overwhelming attack from heaven against the man of lawlessness and all evil.
Now the question arises: If the Thessalonians were overly excited and shaken, thinking that the day of the Lord had come, why didn’t Paul simply say, “You know it hasn’t come because you are still here and I’m still here and the rapture hasn’t happened yet”? Why did he say in verse 3, “You know the day of the Lord has not come because the apostasy has not come and the man of lawlessness has not been revealed”?
The Revealing of the Man of Lawlessness
All pre-tribulationists believe that the man of lawlessness will be revealed after the rapture, during the great tribulation. In fact, they say that according to verses 6–7 the restrainer, which holds back the appearance of the man of lawlessness, is the Holy Spirit in the church, so that when the church is raptured out of the world, the man of lawlessness will be released. In other words, the church will not be here, they say, when the man of lawlessness is revealed. The Thessalonian Christians will not see the appearance of the man of lawlessness according to pre-tribulational teaching.
Why then would Paul try to convince them that the day of the Lord has not come by pointing out that a man of lawlessness has not been revealed whom they were never to see anyway? If Paul believed in a pre-tribulational rapture, all he had to say was: the day of the Lord can’t have come yet because we are all still here. Instead what he does say is exactly what you would expect him to say if he believed in a single post-tribulational coming of the Lord. He says that the day of the Lord can’t be here yet because the apostasy and man of lawlessness who appears during the tribulation haven’t appeared to us yet.
And then Paul goes on to lay out for them a description of the man of lawlessness in verses 4–9. And the most natural assumption is that he does this because he wants Christians to be able to recognize him when he appears. The point of this passage is not that Christians have gone to heaven before the man of lawlessness appears, but that Christians should recognize him when he comes. — John Piper
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When we turn from the restless entreaties and exhortations which fill the pages of our modern missionary magazines to the pages of the New Testament, we are astonished at the change in the atmosphere. St. Paul does not repeatedly exhort his Churches to subscribe money for the propagation of the Faith, he is far more concerned to explain to them what the Faith is, and how they ought to practice it and to keep it. The same is true of St. Peter and St. John, and of all the apostolic writers. They do not seem to feel any necessity to repeat the great Commission, and to urge that it is the duty of their converts to make disciples of all the nations.
What we read in the New Testament is no anxious appeal to Christians to spread the Gospel, but a note here and there which suggests how the Gospel was being spread abroad: “the Churches were established in the Faith, and increased in number daily,” “in every place your faith to Godward is spread abroad so that we need not to speak anything”; or as a result of a persecution: “They that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the Word.”
This was not a peculiar note of the apostolic age, a sign of the amazing inspiration and power of apostolic preaching and example: for centuries the Christian Church continued to expand by its own inherent grace, and threw up an unceasing supply of missionaries without any direct exhortation.
Nor was the result of the preaching of these unknown missionaries the creation of a multitude of detached groups of believers in cities and villages all over the Empire. All these groups were fully equipped Churches. The first knowledge that we have of the existence of Christians in multitudes of places is the name of their Bishop in the list of those attending some council. There was order in the expansion: the moment converts were made in any place ministers were appointed from among themselves, presbyter Bishops, or Bishops, who in turn could organize and bring into the unity of the visible Church any new group of Christians in their neighborhood.
This then is what I mean by spontaneous expansion. I mean the expansion which follows the unexhorted and unorganized activity of individual members of the Church explaining to others the Gospel which they have found for themselves; I mean the expansion which follows the irresistible attraction of the Christian Church for men who see its ordered life, and are drawn to it by desire to discover the secret of a life which they instinctively desire to share; I mean also the expansion of the Church by the addition of new Churches.
I know not how it may appear to others, but to me this unexhorted, unorganized, spontaneous expansion has a charm far beyond that of our modern highly organized missions.
I delight to think that a Christian traveling on his business, or fleeing from persecution, could preach Christ, and a Church spring up as the result of his preaching, without his work being advertised through the streets of Antioch or Alexandria as the heading of an appeal to Christian men to subscribe funds to establish a school, or as the text of an exhortation to the Church of his native city to send a Mission, without which new converts deprived of guidance must inevitably lapse. I suspect, however, that I am not alone in this strange preference, and that many others read their Bibles and find there with relief a welcome escape from our material appeals for funds, and from our methods of moving heaven and earth to make a proselyte.
Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church