All Christians realize that we must be about the Lord’s business when He returns for us, but when will He return? This is a question that perplexes many. Some believe it will be before the great seven-year tribulation (pre-trib) and some after (post-trib).
The three main texts on the subject seem to argue persuasively for a post-trib return. After Jesus informed His disciples about the destruction of their temple, while they were sitting together on the Mount of Olives, they asked:
- "Tell us," they said, "when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" (Mat. 24:3)
Focusing on the latter part of their question, He explained that many things would have to first occur before the great tribulation and His return for His church:
- "Immediately after the distress [“tribulation,” KJV] of those days 'the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.' At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky [Dan. 7:13-14], with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” (Mat. 24:29-31)
Even though Jesus’ return would take place at the end of the tribulation, many, as in the days of Noah, would be taken by surprise. Jesus therefore emphasized the need for them to “keep watch” (24:42) because He would come suddenly and decisively:
- Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left. (Mat. 24:40-41)
Jesus mentions absolutely no return prior to this post-trib return. If there was to be a secret pre-trib return, Jesus would have misled His disciples, who, as a result of this teaching, would have anticipated a return after this tribulation.
Generally, when Christians think about the rapture, the first verses they think of are these:
- Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. 14We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (1 Thes. 4:13-17)
When will this return take place? Right after this passage, Paul relates Jesus return and the rapture into the clouds with the “day of the Lord” and the “destruction” of His enemies – the very end:
- For you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3While people are saying, "Peace and safety," destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. (5:2-4)
If Jesus’ return comes right before the “day of the Lord” and the “destruction,” we have to conclude that His return will also be post-trib.
Despite the suddenness of Jesus’ return, Paul assures us that we – His people - will not be surprised, the very assurance that Jesus gave us:
- "Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door.” (Mat. 24:32-33)
Although we do not know the actual dates, we will be able to anticipate our Lord’s return as events unfold.
I must reflect that this kind of thinking is repugnant to the thinking of our age, which is contemptuous of any judgment and any distinction between the righteous and unrighteous, believer and unbeliever. Instead, universalistic and radically tolerant worldviews are in vogue. Along with this understanding, is the assertion that we are not truly free moral agents who deserve punishment. Instead, modernity either denies freewill and culpability or degrades humanity to no more than a product of nature and nurture – a result, an animal, sophisticated but dehumanized and degraded.
Consequently, as long as modernity embraces this worldview, judgment becomes disdained as inappropriate and contradicts the idea of oneness that is now esteemed above all else. However, if modernity wants to be consistent – if they want to reject the biblical revelation in favor of a radical egalitarianism of outcome – modernity should test this hypothesis by eradicating any form of judgment here in this temporal world. However, this cannot happen without chaos.
Paul warns the church to not be deluded that we will not have to go through the tribulation. Instead, the revelation of the anti-Christ must precede Christ’s return for His church:
- Concerning the (2) coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being (2) gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, 2not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. 3Don't let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the (1) rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. 4He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God's temple, proclaiming himself to be God… 8And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his (2) coming. (2 Thes. 2:1-8)
In order to allay any confusion or deceptive, Paul lays out the order of events:
- “Man of lawlessness is revealed” (2:3) and desecrates the temple “proclaiming himself to be God” (2:4), working miracles (2:9), deceiving the unbelievers (2:10).
- Christ returns for His church and the destruction of the anti-Christ (2:1, 8)
Christ’s return isn’t simply a matter of rescuing His church but also of establishing justice with the destruction of the forces of evil. In this text, Paul explains why this teaching about the relative time of Christ’s return is important. He explains that he doesn’t want the church to be deceived into believing that Christ will return before the revelation of the “man of lawlessness.” This deception is dangerous because believers might be “easily unsettled or alarmed…that the day of the Lord has already come.”
This is precisely the scenario painted by the pre-trib philosophy that claims that Jesus will come prior to these events and, therefore, might unsettle many who had expected that they would not have to go through the tribulation. Paul does not want this to happen. Therefore, he warns against such a notion.
We must not regard God’s judgments and punishments as antiquated ideas. Society has found them to be ubiquitously vital to human flourishing. Why then should we insist that eternal consequences should have no place in the next life!