Rapture of the Church


General Information

The movement of Plymouth Brethren had its beginning in Ireland and England in the 1820s, Plymouth being a main center of activity. Their most prominent early leader was John Nelson Darby (1800-82), who taught that Christ might return at any moment and in a "secret rapture" would take away the members of the true church to dwell in heaven.

It is estimated that their membership in the United States, where the sect has been active since the 1860s, is about 98,000.

Conrad Wright

Beattie, David J., Brethren: The Story of a Great Recovery Movement (1942); Coad, F. R., A History of the Brethren Movement (1968); Ironside, Henry A., A Historical Sketch of the Brethren Movement, rev. ed. (1985); Rowdon, Harold H., The Origins of the Brethren: 1825-1850 (1967).

Editor's Comment

Many modern Christians seem to believe that the concept of the Rapture was always part of Christianity, but that is certainly not true. Many scholars maintain that the Rapture concept first arose in or around 1830 due to a young Scottish girl, Margaret MacDonald. She expressed a prophetic vision, and claimed a special insight into the second coming and began to share her views with others. Her ecstatic conduct and apocalyptic teaching led to a charismatic renewal in Scotland. Impressed by the accounts of a new Pentecost, Darby visited the scene of the revival. According to his own testimony in later years he met Margaret MacDonald, but rejected her claims of a new outpouring of the Spirit. Some writers believe that he accepted her view of the rapture and adopted it into his own system.

The concept of Rapture was established from Paul's words in one of his Letters to the Thessalonians, at I Thess. 4:15-17, but then some aspects of that text seem to have gotten expanded and interpreted into becoming the Rapture. My personal observation is that these are NOT words from Jesus at all, and they were written in a postal Letter written around twenty years after Jesus' Death, and was apparently the very first Letter written by Paul at the very beginning of Paul's founding of Christian communities. I further note that while Jesus Lived, Paul was then Saul, an intense adversary of Christians. As a result of these two matters, I personally wonder at how precise Paul's comments might be regarding his actual knowledge of details of something as unique as the Rapture, which Paul then believed was about to occur during his own lifetime. Therefore, I recognize that many modern Churches strongly present the Rapture as a concrete belief, and that aids them in building deep Faith in some Christians, but I have many personal reservations regarding any confidence in the accuracy of such claims about the Rapture.

Many researchers feel that Margaret MacDonald was a troubled child and that she discovered great popularity once she started presenting her unusual behaviors and claims, and that gave her cause to continue to emphasize that story for the rest of her life. The fact that the famous and charismatic Darby seemed to adopt much of her claims then was therefore the basis of the modern Rapture concept.

There are other scholars who have varying views on how and where the concept of the Rapture developed, but none are prior to the year 1830, in Scotland or Ireland.

Rapture of the Church

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Rapture of the Church is a phrase used by premillennialists to refer to the church being united with Christ at his second coming (from the Lat. rapio, "caught up"). The main scriptural passage upon which the teaching is based is I Thess. 4:15-17: "For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel's call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall 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."

The major divisions of interpretation of Paul's words center on the relationship of the time of the rapture to the tribulation period which marks the end of the age. Pretribulationists teach that the church will be removed before this seven-year period and the revelation of the antichrist. A second group, the midtribulationists, contend that the church will be raptured during the tribulation after the antichrist's rise to power but before the severe judgments that prepare the way for Christ's return to establish his rule on earth. Another approach to the problem is that of the posttribulationists, who believe that the church will continue to exist in the world throughout the entire tribulation and be removed at the end of the period when Christ returns in power.

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Pretribulationism and the Origin of the Rapture Debate

Despite the attempt by dispensationalists to identify all premillennialists with peculiar aspects of their thought such as the pretribulation rapture, it is obvious that throughout most of the history of the church those who taught premillennialism did not have such a detailed interpretation of the end times. Until the early nineteenth century those believers who discussed the rapture believed it would occur in conjuction with the return of Christ at the end of the tribulation period. It was the contribution of John Nelson Darby to eschatology that led many Christians to teach that the return of Christ would be in two stages: one for his saints at the rapture and the other with his saints to control the world at the close of the great tribulation. According to this interpretation of Bible prophecy between these two events the seventieth week predicted by Daniel (9:24-27) would be fulfilled and the antichrist would come to power. With the church removed from the scene, God would resume his dealings with Israel at that time.

Darby's ideas had a wide influence in Britain and the United States. Many evangelicals became pretribulationists through the preaching of the interdenominational evangelists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Scofield Reference Bible and the leading Bible institutes and graduate schools of theology such as Dallas Theological Seminary, Talbot Seminary, and Grace Theological Seminary also contributed to the popularity of this view. During the troubled times of the 1960s there was a revival of the pretribulational view on a popular level through the books of Hal Lindsey and the ministries of preachers and Bible teachers who use the electronic media.

If the influence of Darby is obvious in the work of his successors, it is a more difficult task to determine how he arrived at an understanding of the secret pretribulation rapture. Samuel P. Tregelles, like Darby a member of the Plymouth Brethren movement, charged that the view originated during a charismatic service conducted by Edward Irving in 1832. Other scholars maintain that the new understanding of the rapture was the product of a prophetic vision given to a young Scottish girl, Margaret MacDonald, in 1830. She claimed special insight into the second coming and began to share her views with others. Her ecstatic conduct and apocalyptic teaching led to a charismatic renewal in Scotland. Impressed by the accounts of a new Pentecost, Darby visited the scene of the revival. According to his own testimony in later years he met Margaret MacDonald, but rejected her claims of a new outpouring of the Spirit. Despite his opposition to MacDonald's general approach some writers believe that he accepted her view of the rapture and worked it into his own system.

Other scholars feel that one must accept Darby's own explanation of how he arrived at his eschatological view. He based it upon an understanding that the church and Israel are distinct entities in Scripture. When the church is withdrawn from the world, then the prophetic events involving Israel can be fulfilled. Antichrist will rise to power by promising peace on earth and will make an agreement to protect the restored state of Israel. However, the Jews will be betrayed by their new benefactor, who will suddenly suspend all traditional religious ceremonies and demand that they worship him. Those who do not cooperate will be persecuted. This final holocaust against God's chosen people will lead them to accept Christ as their savior. Plagues will ravage the earth during this time of tribulation, and finally the battle of Armageddon will result in the visible, personal, victorious return to earth of Christ and his saints. The Lord will then bind Satan for a thousand years and rule the world with his followers for a millennium. According to pretribulation premillennialists all the prophecies which were supposed to be fulfilled when Christ came the first time will come to pass at his second coming. The Jewish rejection of Christ in the first century forced the postponement of the kingdom until the second coming. The view that was taken of the church and its place in prophecy is crucial to the acceptance of the pretribulational rapture and the system it supports.

Another argument given in favor of the pretribulation rapture is that the restraining influence of the Holy Spirit must be removed before the antichrist can be revealed (II Thess. 2:6-8). Because the Spirit is particularly associated with the church, it follows that the church must be absent from the scene when the Spirit is gone. Among the other reasons that seem to support pretribulationism is the imminence of the rapture. If it can occur at any time, then no tribulation signs such as the revelation of the antichrist, the battle of Armageddon, or the abomination in the temple precede the "blessed event."

The Midtribulation View

One of the leaders in presenting a different view of the rapture was Harold John Ockenga, a leader in the evangelical movement that developed in the United States after World War II. In a brief personal testimony in Christian Life (Feb., 1955) he cited many difficulties associated with pretribulationism. These included the secret aspect of the rapture, the revival to be experienced during the tribulation despite the removal of the Holy Spirit, and the reduction in the importance of the church involved in dispensational eschatology. Other evangelical leaders joined in the criticism of the pretribulation position. The modifications they advocated were slight, involving the limitation of the wrath of God upon the world (Rev. 16-18) to the first three and a half years prior to the battle of Armageddon. Influenced by the repeated mention of three and a half years (forty-two months) in Dan. 7, 9, and 12 and in Rev. 11 and 12, they argued for a shortened tribulation period. To support this argument they cited Dan. 7:25 which indicated that the church will be under the tyrannical rule of the antichrist for three and a half years. Dan. 9:27 also indicates that the world ruler of the end times will make an agreement with Christians and Jews guaranteeing religious freedom, but then he will carry out the second stage of his plan and suppress religious observances. Various NT passages were also believed to support midtribulationism, including Rev. 12:14, which predicts a flight into the wilderness by the church during the first three and a half years of the tribulation period. Also, midtribulationists believed that their view fits into the Olivet discourse (Matt. 24; Mark 13; and Luke 12) better than the pretribulation interpretation.

Midtribulationists claim that the rapture is to take place after the fulfillment of certain predicted signs and the preliminary phase of the tribulation as described in Matt. 24:10-27. The event will not be secret but will be accompanied by an impressive display including a great shout and the blast of the trumpet (I Thess. 4:16; Rev. 11:15; 14:2). This dramatic sign will attract the attention of unsaved people, and when they realize that the Christians have disappeared they will come to Christ in such large numbers that a major revival will take place (Rev. 7:9, 14).

The Posttribulation View

Many other interpreters were uncomfortable with the sharp distinction that the pretribulationists drew between the church and Israel. Christ, they believed, would return to rapture his saints and establish his millennial rule at the same time. They cited numerous passages (Matt. 24:27, 29) which indicate that Christ's second coming must be visible, public, and following the tribulation. This was based upon the fact that much of the advice given to the church in Scripture relative to the last days is meaningless if it does not go through the tribulation. For example, the church is told to flee to the mountains when certain events occur, such as the setting up of the abomination of desolation in the holy place (Matt. 24:15-20).

Many of the arguments suggested by those who advocate the posttribulation view are stated in opposition to the pretribulation position, which has been the most widely held interpretation among twentieth century American premillenialists. Included in these critisms are suggestions that the imminent return of Christ does not require a pretribulation rapture. Posttribulatioinists also point to the difficulty of deciding which passages of Scripture apply to Israel and which are relevant to the church. They also contend that there is a notable lack of explicit teaching about the rapture in the NT.

Advocates of the posttribulation position differ among themselves on the application of the prophetic Scriptures and the details about the return of Christ. John Walvoord has detected four schools of interpretation among their number. The first of these, classic posttribulationism, is represented by the work of J. Barton Payne, who taught that the church has always been in tribulation and therefore the great tribulation has largely been fulfilled. The second main division of posttribulationists is the semiclassic position found in the work of Alexander Reese. Among the variety of views held by these individuals the most common is that the entire course of church history is an era of tribulation, but in addition there is to be a future period of great tribulation. A third category of posttribulational interpretation is called futurist and is ably presented in the books of George E. Ladd. He accepts a future period of three and a half or seven years of tribulation between the present era and the second coming of Christ. He was led to this conclusion by a literal interpretation of Rev. 8-18. A staunch premillennialist, he believes that the pretribulation rapture was an addition to Scripture and as such obscured the truly important event, the actual appearance of Christ to inaugurate his reign. A fourth view is that of Robert H. Gundry, which Walvoord calls the dispensational posttribulational interpretation. Gundry combines in a novel manner the pretribulational arguments and an acceptance of the posttribulation rapture.

The Partial Rapture Interpretation

In addition to the pretribulation, midtribulation, and posttribulation views of the rapture there have been those who contend for a partial rapture theory. This small group of pretribulationists teaches that only those who are faithful in the church will be caught up at the beginning of the tribulation. The rest will be raptured sometime during or at the end of the seven-year period. According to these interpreters those who are most loyal to Christ will be taken first and the more wordly will be raptured later. Although it is condemned by most premillennialists, the respected G.H. Lang advocated this view.


The interpretation of the rapture has led to some differences of opinion among evangelicals. Those who hold to a pretribulation rapture have been accused of having a severely circumscribed attitude toward the church and its mission, culture and education, and current events. While some dispensationalists involuntarily lend currency to this by regarding their position as almost a cardinal doctrine of the faith, most would reject the above criticism as a baseless generalization. They would insist that their stance excludes neither a highly developed social ethic or a policy of world rejection rightly understood.

R G Clouse
Elwell Evangelical Dictionary

O. T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church; R. Anderson, The Coming Prince; E. S. English, Re-Thinking the Rapture; R. H. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation; G. E. Ladd, The Blessed Hope; D. MacPherson, The Incredible Cover-Up; P. Mauro, The Seventy Weeks and the Great Tribulation; J.B. Payne, The Imminent Appearing of Christ; J.D. Pentecost, Things to Come; A. Reese, The Approaching Advent of Christ; J.F. Strombeck, First the Rapture; J.F. Walvoord, The Rapture Question; L.J. Wood, Is the Rapture Next?


Advanced Information

Tribulation is trouble or affiction of any kind (Deut. 4:30; Matt. 13:21; 2 Cor. 7:4). In Rom. 2:9 "tribulation and anguish" are the penal sufferings that shall overtake the wicked. In Matt. 24:21, 29, the word denotes the calamities that were to attend the destruction of Jerusalem.

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)


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General Biblical Meaning

"Tribulation" is the general term in the Bible to denote the suffering of God's people. In the OT the words sara and sar ("straits" or "distress") pertain variously to intense inner turmoil (Pss. 25:17; 120:1; Job 7:11), the pain of childbirth (Jer. 4:31; 49:24), anguish (Job 15:24; Jer. 6:24), and punishment (I Sam. 2:32; Jer. 30:7). The Greek thlipsis from thlibo ("to press" or "to hem in") often serves to translate sara in the LXX, and refers generally to the oppression and affliction of the people of Israel or the righteous (Deut. 4:30; Ps. 37:39), while in the NT thlipsis is usually translated "tribulation" or "affliction."

Varities of Tribulation

In the NT tribulation is the experience of all believers and includes persecution (I Thess. 1:6), imprisonment (Acts 20:23), derision (Heb. 10:33), proverty (II Cor. 8:13), sickness (Rev. 2:22), and inner distress and sorrow (Phil. 1:17; II Cor. 2:4). Frequently tribulation is connected with deliverance, which implies that it is a necessary experience through which God glorifies himself in bringing his people to rest and salvation.

Tribulation in the Purpose of God

Tribulation may be a means by which God disciplines his people for their unfaithfulness (Deut. 4:30). More often, especially in the NT, tribulation occurs in the form of persecution of believers because of their faithfulness (John 16:33; Acts 14:22; Rev. 1:9).

The sufferings of Christ provide the model for the believer's experience (I Pet. 2:21-25), and in some sense they participate thus in the sufferings of Christ (Col. 1:24). Tribulations are viewed by Scripture as entirely within the will of God, serving to promote moral purity and godly character (Rom. 5:3-4). As such, they must be endured with faith in the goodness and justice of God (see James 1:2-4, where "trials" or "temptations" labels what appears to be the same experience), thus serving as a test of the believer's faith and leading to greater stability and maturity.

Jesus promised tribulation as the inevitable consequence of his followers' presence in the evil kosmos (John 16:33), something they could expect as a way of life. The Apostle Paul echoes this viewpoint when he warns that godly believers will certainly suffer persecution (II Tim. 3:12-13). Jesus nevertheless encouraged his followers through his overcoming of the world to seek their victory through the application of his victory.

The Great Tribulation

The Teaching of Jesus

The precise expression, "great tribulation" (Matt. 24:21; Rev. 2:22; 7:14, Gr. thlipsis megale), serves to identify the eschatological form of tribulation. These words are Jesus' caption for a worldwide, unprecedented time of trouble that will usher in the parousia, Jesus' return to earth in great glory (see parallels Mark 13:19, "tribulation," and Luke 21:23, "great distress"; also Rev. 3:10, "hour of trial").

This period of time will be initiated by the "abomination of desolation" (Matt. 24:15) predicted in Dan. 9:27, a desecration of the "holy place" by one whom many scholars believe is the same as the "man of lawlessness" of II Thess. 2:3, 4. Jesus gives specific instructions to inhabitants of Judea for their escape and warns that the intensity of its calamities would almost decimate all life (Matt. 24:15-22).

Views of the Great Tribulation

Though some modern interpreters, along with many ancient commentators and early fathers, are inclined to regard Jesus' predictions as totally fulfilled during the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the words of Matt. 24:29, "But immediately after the tribulation of those days," seem to connect them with the parousia. Jesus' words in verse 21 are probably an allusion to Dan. 12:1 because of the reference there to unparalleled trouble (LXX, thlipsis). The Daniel passage strengthens the case for the eschatological view of the great tribulation, because it places this period prior to the resurrection of Daniel's people.

Since Jesus made this prophecy, major wars, catastrophes, and cosmic phenomena have stimulated belief in the presence of the great tribulation. Such a tendency is typified by Hesychius of Jerusalem in some correspondence with Augustine. Augustine disagreed, preferring to interpret such things instead as characteristics of history as a whole with no particular eschatological significance. In modern times some premillennialists have speculated on the trend of current events as possible precursors of the great tribulation, some even attempting to identify the antichrist with such candidates as Kaiser Wilhelm II and Mussolini.

Adherents of the major millennial views place the great tribulation at different points in relation to the millennium. Both postmillennialists and amillennialists regard it as a brief, indefinite period of time at the end of the millennium, usually identifying it with the revolt of Gog and Magog of Rev. 20:8-9. Postmillennialists view history as moving toward the Christianization of the world by the church and a future millennium of undetermined length on earth culminating in the great tribulation and final return of Christ. In contrast, amillennialists consider the millennium to be a purely spiritual reality from the first advent to the second, a period lasting already two thousand years and to culminate in the great tribulation, a somewhat less optimistic view of history and the progress of the gospel witness.

To premillennialists the millennium is a future, literal thousand years on earth, and the great tribulation a chaotic period toward which history is even now moving, a decline, i.e., to be terminated by the return of Christ before the millennium. One group, which describes itself as "historic" premillennialists, understands the great tribulation to be a brief but undetermined period of trouble. Another group, dispensational premillennialists, connects it with the seventieth week of Dan. 9:27, a period of seven years whose latter half pertains strictly to the great tribulation.

Within the premillennial movement another issue, the time of the rapture of the church, has given rise to three views. Pretribulationists (rapture prior to the seventieth week) and midtribulationists (rapture at the middle of the seventieth week) perceive the great tribulation as characterized by the wrath of God upon an unbelieving world from which the church is necessarily exempt (I Thess. 5:9).

Posttribulationists believe that the great tribulation is merely an intensification of the kind of tribulation the church has suffered throughout history, through which the church logically must pass. A more recent, novel view in the posttribulation camp seeks to maintain the imminence of the rapture despite the fact that notable tribulational events would necessarily intervene. In order to do so, the events of the great tribulation would be "potential" but uncertain in their fulfillment. Jesus could come at any moment, and one could look back into recent history to see events that fulfilled the great tribulation.

W H Baker
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

R. Anderson, The Coming Prince; L. Boettner, The Millennium; M. J. Erickson, Contemporary Options in Eschatology; R. N. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation; S. N. Gundry, "Hermeneutics or Zeitgeist as the Determining Factor in the History of Eschatology," JETS 20:45-55; A. A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future; J. E. Hartley, TWOT, II, 778-79; R. Schippers, NIDNTT, II, 807-9; H. Schlier, TDNT, III, 140-48; T. Weber, Living in the Shadow of the Second Coming; D. Wilson, Armageddon Now! The Premillenarian Response to Russia and Israel Since 1917; J. Walvoord, The Rapture Question.

Also, see:
Second Coming of Christ
Dispensation, Dispensationalism
Millenarianism, Views of the Millennium
Last Judgment
Tribulation, Great Tribulation

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in December 1997.

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