Eschatology, the Study of Last Things
by James T. Bartsch
The Nature of the Rapture
16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive and remain will 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. 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17
by James T. Bartsch, WordExplain
Reason 1. Hermeneutics
Hermeneutical Flaws with a Post-Tribulation Rapture
1. Hermeneutics. A Post-Tribulation Rapture is not credible because many of its proponents do not employ a literal hermeneutic in their interpretation of prophetic Scriptures. We must first acknowledge that there are different stripes of theology among those who adhere to a post-tribulation rapture. My point here is simply to illustrate the fact that those who hold to a post-tribulation rapture tend not to interpret prophetic Scripture as literally as do those who hold to a pre-tribulation rapture.
Before I give specific examples, let me give you the hermeneutical principle that is a driving force behind the non-literal interpretations of non-dispensationalists. Historical Premillennialists are eschatologically closer to Dispensational Premillennialists than any other stripe of theology. Yet, according to Michael Vlach, "historic (sic) premillennialists believe in New Testament priority in which the New Testament interprets/reinterprets the OT." This belief is stated by George Eldon Ladd, a classic advocate of Historical Premillennialism. Here is what he says:
The Old Testament must be interpreted by the New Testament. In principle it is quite possible that the prophecies addressed originally to literal Israel describing physical blessings have their fulfillment exclusively in the spiritual blessings enjoyed by the church. It is also possible that the Old Testament expectation of a kingdom on earth could be reinterpreted by the New Testament altogether of blessings in the spiritual realm. 
Let me give several examples of non-literal interpretation. In so doing, my purpose is to cite, as much as possible, those who have written articles that appear online. My purpose in doing so is so that the reader may verify my assertions by going to actual sites online.
a. Is a spiritual resurrection or physical resurrection in view in Revelation 20:4-6? Sam Storms has converted from a belief in Premillennialism to a belief in Amillennialism. Writing on Revelation 20:4-6 (in his article entitled, Revelation 20:1-15 - Part II), he states the following:
We now come to the focal point of the eschatological hostilities which divide Premillennialists from Amillennialists, namely, the meaning of the “first resurrection”. Although for many years a PM, I am now persuaded that Rev. 20:4-6 is concerned exclusively with the experience of the martyrs in the intermediate state. Notwithstanding their death physically for disobedience to the beast, they live spiritually through faith in the Lamb.
In other words, Storms maintains, in particular, that the resurrection concerning which John wrote in Rev. 20:4b, "and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years" is not a bodily resurrection, but merely a spiritual resurrection into the intermediate state. In the rest of his discussion he maintains that the multiple references to "a thousand years" are not to be taken literally, but metaphorically. I disagree with Storms. Even he concedes that at least 39 out of 42 occurrences of the word "resurrection" (anastasis, 386) found in the NT and used in Rev. 20:5-6 refers to a bodily resurrection. Why not here?
b. Is Satan bound for a literal one thousand years or figurative one thousand years? Rev. Carl A. P. Durham, has written an article entitled, "The Amillennial View of the Binding of Satan." In his article, based on Revelation 20:1-6, he maintains (1) that the thousand years is merely a symbolic number and that (2) Satan was bound at the cross. Let us allow Durham to speak for himself. At the beginning of his article he makes two points in explaining the title of his lecture, followed by an explanatory statement:
1. I do not claim by this title that only amillennialists view the Devil as bound - obviously, the incarnational and soteriological work of Christ by which He destroyed the work of the devil and bound him should be the object of rejoicing for any serious, Bible-believing Christian. Rather, the word amillennial here is simply meant to highlight the symbolic interpretation which I give to Revelation 20 as a whole and the binding of Satan in particular. As an amillennialist, I view Revelation 20's reference to a thousand year millennium as a symbolic number, rather than a literal thousand year period, (Hence, 'a'-millennialist, meaning "no millennium"), and the binding of Satan for those thousand years as a symbolic reference as well.
2. However, such a symbolic interpretation of the thousand years in Rev. 20 does NOT mean that I view Revelation 20 as empty of significance or that I deny the reality which the thousand years is meant to signify. The thousand years is a symbol of something; something which I believe to be of utmost important for all Christians, namely, the present reign of King Jesus over all His enemies. Perhaps then a better word than 'amillennialism' (which by the privative 'a' may imply to some that we don't believe anything about the millennium) would be what Jay Adams has called "realized millennialism", i.e., the view that we are in the millennium of Revelation 20 now and there is not a literal millennium to come before the Last Judgment - precisely because no such literal millennium is needed: Christ is already reigning with His saints on earth as well as in heaven, and Satan is already bound!
This then is the good news. The present and future success of Christ's kingdom on earth now is ensured. Why? Because Satan is a defeated foe, plundered by Christ and bound already, as Revelation 20:2 makes clear.
In response to Durham's first assertion, that the number thousand is merely symbolical, I do not know of a single number in the book of Revelation that is not to be taken literally. One may debate the significance of the numbers, but the number seven always means seven, and the number 12,000 always means 12,000, and the number 144,000 always means 144,000. The six references to "a thousand years" in Revelation 20:1-7 mean a thousand years. Durham's amillennial eschatology drives him to interpret "thousand" as an indeterminate number. The text of Scripture, not a pre-determined eschatology, should drive our interpretation. In reality, if we take Durham's interpretation, a thousand means 1,900 + and still counting. To me, that makes nonsense of the text.
In response to his second assertion, that Satan is now bound, John specifically asserted that Satan will, in the future, after Christ's return to earth (Rev. 19:11-21), be bound so that he might not deceive the nations (Rev. 20:1-3). Christ has not yet returned to earth. So in what sense can Satan possibly now be bound in the abyss? I understand where Durham is coming from, but his assertion that Satan is bound is, to me, implausible, for the nations of the world today are nothing, if not deceived by Satan, and in rebellion against God and His Anointed (Psalm 2:1-3). That does not mean that no one can be saved. The Gospel Message has always been the power of God to salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16), and those whom God "foreknew, He predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son" (Rom. 8:28-30).
John outlined a clear sequence of events: (1) Christ will return to earth and destroy his enemies (Rev. 19:11-21). (2) Satan will be bound in the abyss for 1000 years so that he will not deceive the nations (Rev. 20:1-3). (3) Those who had been beheaded because of their faithful and outspoken adherence to Jesus during the Tribulation will be resurrected, and will reign with Christ for 1000 years (Rev. 20:4-6). (4) After the thousand years have been completed, Satan will be released from the abyss. He will succeed in deceiving significant portions of the nations of the earth even though they will have lived for a thousand years under the most benevolent and equitable rule this world has ever experienced outside the Garden of Eden. Satan will succeed so incredibly well that huge numbers of the earth's population will attempt to revolt against the King, surrounding the city of Jerusalem to destroy the King and His administration in the capital city. (5) Fire will fall from heaven and consume the humans. Satan himself will be cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and false prophet have already been suffering for a thousand years (Rev. 20:7-10).
Here is the truth of the matter. When Satan has access to the earth, he deceives people (Gen. 3:1-7; Rev. 20:7-9). When Satan is bound in the abyss and prevented from access to humans, he is unable to deceive them (Rev. 20:1-6). That doesn't mean that all humanity during the Millennial reign of Christ will place their trust in Jesus. A great many will not, obviously. But at least they won't be duped into the foolish notion that they can possibly succeed in overthrowing the King as they will be once Satan is released. Christ has not yet returned. The vast majority of humans today are presently being deceived by Satan. Ergo, Satan is not presently bound in the abyss, and we are not presently in any sense living in the 1000 year reign of Christ. The only way one can arrive at Durham's conclusion is not to take the text of Scripture at face value.
Durham takes John's statements metaphorically, and that is my whole point. As an amillennialist, Durham is also a post-tribulationist. And in a great many cases, people in the post-tribulation camp do not interpret prophetic Scripture literally. It is impossible for him to maintain his position if he takes the language at face value. Only because he uses a non-literal hermeneutic can he maintain his view. I maintain that he is not justified in taking John's statements metaphorically. John said what he meant, and he meant what he said. We believers here on earth are not presently in Christ's 1000 year reign, for Jesus is not present upon earth. He is presently at the right hand of God, waiting until His enemies be made a footstool for his feet (Psalm 110:1). He is waiting until it is His time to reign on earth from Mount Zion in Jerusalem in the midst of His enemies (Psalm 110:2). Might I suggest that His enemies will be precisely those who will become deceived by Satan after Christ's 1000-year reign from Jerusalem has been completed (Rev. 20:7-9).
c. Are the events of the Rapture literal or figurative? Gregory K. Beale, an Amillennialist, is by definition, a Post-Tribulationist. In his commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians, Beale writes as follows:
There is some question about whether or not Jesus literally will come down from heaven (4:16). The description of a descent from heaven here has been referred to in 4:15 as the coming of the Lord. The word for coming is parousia, which ordinarily means either 'presence' or 'coming.' The former appears best in this context. Comparing other descriptions of Christ's coming, it is apparent that motion from heaven down to earth may not be the precise way in which Christ manifests his end-time presence. (Beale, p. 138).
So we learn from Beale that "descend" does not mean descend. Beale continues (p. 139),
Likewise, the resurrection of the dead (1 Thess. 4:16) should not be conceived as a physical rising upward from the grave but a transformation of an old-world body into a new creational body that can inhabit the dimension of the new world in Christ's and God's presence.
But precedent-setting Scripture, it would appear, is against Beale's conclusion. At Jesus' death, Matthew recorded (27:52-53), "The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many." That sounds very literal to me. Which brings me to another observation. Even if one concedes, for the sake of the argument, Beale's post-tribulation take on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, people resurrected when Christ returns to earth will have at least a thousand years in their resurrected bodies to cope with the present world in the present dimensions (see Rev. 20:1-7 - which thousand years, however, Beale, predictably, does not take literally, either - see his commentary on the Book of Revelation, pp. 972-1021). Resurrected Church-age believers existing among and mingling with people in their natural bodies during the Millennium will be no problem, of course, for our resurrected Lord set the precedent for us when He lived for forty days on this present earth in His resurrected body among people with mortal bodies. He even ate!
But Beale has not finished.
Accordingly, also figurative is the portrayal of the saints who are still alive and are left and who will be caught up together with the resurrected dead in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Again, the point is that their bodies will also be transformed into bodily new creations fit to inhabit the new creation (see further 1 Cor 15:35-54)" (Beale, p. 139).
A sentence later, Beale writes,
The figurative nature of the language is also pointed to by reference to the trumpet call of God (1 Thess 4:16), which is like the blowing of the trumpets in Revelation or like God's throne in heaven or Christ as a heavenly lamb or like the book in his hand or like the various other objects mentioned in Revelation's visions that are certainly figurative (on which see Beale 1999a:311-69, 472-520) (Beale, pp. 139-140).
So we learn from Beale, if he can be believed, that virtually nothing in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is to be taken literally. Jesus' descent from heaven is not literal. Deceased believers' being raised up from the grave is not literal. Christians' ascent upward is not literal. The clouds are not literal. The trumpet is not literal. I'm sorry, but I am unable to defend that non literal kind of hermeneutic. If Paul had meant everything in the passage to be taken literally (and I think he did), how else would he have stated it?
d. The nature of the Tribulation period itself, and the identity of the two groups in Revelation 7:1-8, 9-17. Craig L. Blomberg, in A Case for Historic Premillennialism, has written chapter 4, "The Posttribulationism of the New Testament: Leaving 'Left Behind" Behind: (pp. 61-87). In his chapter, he goes to great lengths to defend the notion that almost the whole of the Church Age is characterized by tribulation. That being the case, according to him, the Rapture must, by definition, be Post-Tribulation. Here is what he says:
The problem is solved, however, if we understand Jesus to mean that this great tribulation beginning at AD 70 would in some way continue until his second coming.... To describe most of what we popularly call the church age as a time of great tribulation does not rule out other quite different features from characterizing this era as well.... It also becomes clear that only a posttribulational rapture would make any sense to Jesus, since a pretribulational rapture would have had to occur before AD 70 (pp. 74, 75).
I agree with Blomberg that the word translated "tribulation" (thlipsis, 2347) occurs a number of times in the NT. In fact, it occurs 45X in 43 verses. The Church has always endured tribulation, trouble, and it will continue to do so throughout the entire Church Age. But to say that, therefore, the Rapture must, by default, be Posttribulational is to employ a hermeneutic that does not adequately address specific facts in Scripture. Here are the facts about the eschatological Tribulation at the end of this present Church age of which both Old and New Testament writers spoke:
(1) It is the Great Tribulation. While acknowledging that His followers would repeatedly be subject to tribulation (Matt. 24:9), Jesus nevertheless stated that there would be a time of great tribulation (Matt. 24:21) that would come upon the world before His Second Advent. Literally, as recorded by Matthew, Jesus said, "For then there will be tribulation (thlipsis, 2347) great" (megas, 3173) (author's literal rendering of Matt. 24:21). Jesus was not the only who spoke of "great tribulation." The elder who spoke with the Apostle John was even more specific. John witnessed an incalculable multitude standing in heaven before the throne and before the Lamb clothed with white robes (Rev. 7:9). One of the 24 elders asked John who they were and from whence had the come (Rev. 7:13). John was clueless. So the elder responded, "These are the ones coming out of the tribulation (thlipsis, 2347) the great (megas, 3173) [one]" (Rev. 7:14, author's literal translation). So both Jesus and John were speaking of not just any vanilla tribulation, but The Great Tribulation.
(2) It is the Unprecedented Tribulation. There have been many times of tribulation, or trouble throughout history since Jesus made His prediction. As terrible as Rome's sack of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple was in AD 70, that was not the Great Tribulation. Writing from the mid-90's AD John still wrote of the "great tribulation" as being future. As terrible as the Holocaust was in the 20th Century, it was not the Great Tribulation. Here is how Jesus described it: "For there shall be great tribulation such as has never come to pass from the beginning of the world until now, nor shall ever come to pass" (Matt. 24:21, author's translation).
(3) It is the Great Tribulation that must be preceded by "The Abomination of Desolation" spoken of by Daniel the Prophet. Again, the Tribulation of which Jesus spoke and about which John wrote is not just any tribulation. Nor is it the tribulation that began in 70 AD, as Blomberg implies. Rather, this unique time of tribulation will be marked by "'The Abomination of Desolation' spoken of by Daniel the Prophet which will stand in the Holy Place - (let the one reading understand)" (Matt. 24:15, author's translation). Daniel spoke of "The Abomination of Desolation" several times (Dan. 9:27; 11:31; 12:11). The act of Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 B.C. of setting up an image of Zeus in the Jewish temple and sacrificing a sow on the altar in honor of Zeus stands as a historical fulfillment of Daniel's prediction (Dan. 11:31). But that was still not the ultimate eschatological fulfillment. Jesus stated that the fulfillment of Daniel's prophecy was still future. Paul predicted the defilement of a yet-to-be-rebuilt Jewish temple. (We know that the temple of which he wrote cannot be Herod's temple of his day, for the man of lawlessness did not defile it.) Paul said that the Day of the Lord (i.e. the Great Tribulation), would not come "unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction, who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God" (2 Thess. 2:3-4; cf. Dan. 9:27; 12:11). The "lawless one" is presently being restrained (2 Thess. 2:6-7). In the future, the restraining force, the Holy Spirit in the Church, will be removed from earth at the Rapture. There will be nothing or no one left on earth to stop the great tide of evil which will sweep over the world. It is shortly after that the "man of lawlessness," the Antichrist will be revealed (2 Thess. 2:3, 8), and "The Day of the Lord," the Great Tribulation" will begin.
Preliminary Conclusion: So Craig Blomberg's exegetical ploy of giving vanilla tribulations throughout the Church Age the same value and significance as the unique Great Tribulation at the end of the age simply does not hold up under scrutiny. He fails to give the Great Tribulation the unique status and significance that Scripture itself gives it. Both John and Jesus spoke of a "Great Tribulation" at the end of the age, and Paul spoke of the Day of the Lord, by which he referred to the same event, the Great Tribulation. And Paul stated that the Church is exempt from the wrath of the Day of the Lord (1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9; 2 Thess. 2:1-2, 13). Blomberg has accomplished his goal, he thinks, of demonstrating a Post-Tribulation Rapture, but to do so he has had to employ a non-literal hermeneutic that fails to give adequate attention to the details of Scripture.
The identity of the two groups in Rev. 7:1-8, 9-17
But Blomberg is not through with his non-literal hermeneutic. In order to maintain that the Church is present on earth during the Tribulation, he must take the position that every reference in the book of Revelation to believers upon earth, and even to certain believers up in heaven, constitutes a reference to the Church. Watch what he does in Revelation 7:1-17 (Blomberg, op. cit., pp. 76, 77):
A comparison of the two groups that make up Revelation 7, however, clarifies matters. Despite John's portrayal of the groups in about as stark a series of contrasts as possible, many commentators today recognize that both descriptions most probably refer to the same entity. In verses 1-8 [Rev. 7:1-8] John does not see in his vision 144,000 people sealed so that they are protected from God's wrath while living through the tribulation --12,000 from each of the twelve tribes of Israel. Instead he hears their number....
....John hears the number of those God protects on earth during the tribulation, and it sounds very Jewish (the number of the twelve tribes times itself times a big round number), but when he looks to see the throng, [by this he means the multitude described in Rev. 7:9-17] he recognizes people from every ethnic group on earth. This is the church of Jesus Christ, the ultimate fulfillment of many promises to Israel, symbolically depicted as Israel, though with an unparalleled list of twelve names, given the omission of Dan and the inclusion of one (but only one) of Joseph's two sons, along with Joseph himself. Whatever else this means, the church has not entirely replaced Israel. Moreover, in reality, the church is a much larger and more diverse community than just believing Jews, Finally, since they have been protected by God's seal so that they were not harmed by his judgments (Rev. 7:3), they must have lived through the tribulation before coming out of it.
So there you have it. Though Blomberg admits that John himself portrayed the two groups "in about as stark a series of contrasts as possible," and though he admits that the group described in Rev. 7:1-8 "sounds very Jewish," he joins "many commentators" in a non-literal hermeneutic. He concludes that the first group is not Jewish, it is the Church, symbolically depicted as Israel! And the first group is not different from the second group. Rather, they are one and the same! But he is not driven by an accurate, face-value explanation of the details of Scripture. Rather, his exegesis of Scripture jumps into the hyper-drive mode of non-literalism so that he can defend his view of a Post-Tribulation Rapture!
A much more plausible explanation of Rev. 7:1-17 is that the two groups are not the same at all, they are just as John describes them: The first group (Rev. 7:1-8) does not represent the Church at all. The Church has already been raptured prior to the start of the Tribulation. The first group consists of exactly those whom John described, Israelis! They are regenerate, Messianic Jews saved during the Tribulation period. They are described as "slaves" (plural of doulos, 1401) of our God (Rev. 7:3). There are, literally 144,000 of them, and they have been "sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel" (Rev. 7:4). You can't get more Jewish and less Churchy than that! These are not representatives of the Church at all. They are selected believing Israelis who have been sealed for protection (Rev. 7:3) during at least a portion of the Tribulation.
And clearly, the group up in heaven is not the same group as the group on earth. The group up in heaven is very non-Jewish! That group hails from every nation (ethnos, 1484, the word in certain contexts translated "Gentile") and all tribes and peoples and tongues" (Rev. 7:9). An elder informs John that the innumerable multitude up in heaven consists of "the ones who come out of the great tribulation" (Rev. 7:14). So they are not the Church at all. Rather, they are Tribulation Saints, people from every nation who became believers in the Jesus as the Messiah after the start of the Tribulation, which began after the Church was taken up in the Rapture. Unfortunately for these Tribulation Saints, they had been martyred on earth for their faith in Jesus and their non-compliance with the regime of the Beast (Rev. 13:7-17), and they now appear in heaven. But now they are in a good situation for God is protecting them and the Lamb is shepherding them (Rev. 7:15-17).
Conclusion: There may be some who believe in a Post-Tribulation Rapture who consistently interpret prophetic Scriptures in the Bible literally, but I have never met one. Craig Blomberg is not an Amillennialist, but classifies himself as a Historical Pre-Millennialist. Obviously, Historical Pre-Millennialists interpret prophetic Scripture more literally than do their Amillennial counterparts. But, as we have seen, even Classic Pre-Millennialists interpret certain prophetic NT Scriptures non-literally in order to maintain their position that the Church will go through the Tribulation. That non-literal hermeneutic should be a red flag undermining the credibility of the Post-Tribulation Rapture position.
Prepared by James T. Bartsch
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE ®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. (www.Lockman.org)