There are many opinions regarding eschatology (the doctrine of future things). However, almost all Christians agree on three things: 1) there will be a future time of tribulation, 2) after that time of trouble, Jesus will return to establish His kingdom, and, 3) believers will be translated from their mortal state to an immortal one—in other words, there will be a rapture (John 14:1-3; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). One remaining question is, when will the rapture occur in relation to the tribulation and Christ’s second coming?
The three basic theories concerning the timing of the rapture are pretribulationism, which places the rapture before the tribulation; midtribulationism, which places the rapture at or near the midpoint of the tribulation; and posttribulationism, which places the rapture at the end of the tribulation. Somewhat closely related to midtribulationism is the belief in a “pre-wrath” rapture, which is the subject of this article.
The pre-wrath rapture theory says that the rapture occurs before the “great day of . . . wrath” (Revelation 6:17). According to the pre-wrath view, believers go through most of the tribulation but not the time of God’s wrath just before the end of the tribulation (Matthew 24:21). The church will endure Satan’s fury and man’s persecution, but will be spared God’s wrath. Before God pours out His final judgment on the world, the church will be caught up to heaven. Here is a brief summary of the pre-wrath rapture position.
The pre-wrath rapture theory views the trumpet and the bowl judgments (Revelation 7–16) as the wrath of God, from which the church is exempted (1 Thessalonians 5:9). However, the first six seal judgments (Revelation 6) are not considered the wrath of God; rather, they are viewed as “the wrath of Satan” or “the wrath of the antichrist.” This is because there is no direct mention of God’s wrath until after the sixth seal is broken (Revelation 6:17). According to the pre-wrath rapture theory, the church will be present to experience the first six seals.
Comparing Revelation 6 with Matthew 24, the pre-wrath rapture theorists identify the first seal judgments with Jesus’ description of the end times in Matthew 24:4-7. Jesus then refers to these events as “the beginning of birth pains” (verse 8). In verses 29 and 30, “the sign of the Son of Man” appears in the sky, and it is at this time, according to the pre-wrath rapture theory, that the rapture of the church occurs.
One weakness of the pre-wrath rapture position is its presumption that the “elect” mentioned in Matthew 24:22, 31 are church-age saints. These saints could just as easily be individuals saved during the seven-year tribulation; in fact, Jesus tells those who flee the antichrist’s persecution to pray that their flight does not occur “on the Sabbath” (verse 20). Since the church is not under the Mosaic law and does not keep the Sabbath, Jesus’ words cannot be directed to the church.
Another flaw in the pre-wrath rapture theory is its teaching that the first seal judgments are not the wrath of God. Scripture shows that it is the Lamb who opens the seals (Revelation 5:5; 6:1). No other man is found worthy to open them (5:3-4). It would seem, then, these are not man’s judgments, but God’s. The tribulation begins when Jesus opens the first seal, and from that point on, the wrath of God is meted out on a sinful world.
A final weakness of the pre-wrath rapture view is shared by the other theories: viz., the Bible does not give an explicit time line concerning future events. Scripture does not expressly teach one view over another, and that is why we have diversity of opinion concerning the end times and some variety on how the related prophecies should be harmonized.