Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Evidence for the Rapture in Revelation [2]

People who haven’t read the Bible tend to think the doctrine of the rapture is based on the prophetic visions of John in Revelation. This is not actually the case; the rapture as an event is taught explicitly only in 1 Thessalonians, while the mechanics of the believers’ translation into glorified bodies during that same event are discussed in 1 Corinthians. In fact, we don’t find the rapture taught in Revelation at all; its truth is simply assumed.

However, what we do find in Revelation is very much consistent with Paul’s teaching in 1 Thessalonians which, if we believe in the inspiration of scripture, should not surprise us in the least. Since even Christians increasingly reject the Bible’s teaching about the rapture, I thought it might be a good time to have a look at the evidence we find in Revelation for the rapture of the church, some of which even points to a pre-tribulation rapture.

There is plenty of that, as we began to discover in Sunday’s post. You may find it useful to read that one first if you haven’t already.

3/ The Missing Resurrection of the Righteous

It is often said that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. But some of the most telling evidence that the church will not go through the great tribulation is what we can only call negative evidence, that which must be inferred from the complete absence of data. That is simply this: there is no resurrection of the dead in Christ anywhere in Revelation apart from the one described by John in chapter 20. Our resurrection happens somewhere else in scripture. That’s a fairly significant omission, and it strongly suggests the churches to which John wrote already knew everything they needed to know about the resurrection of those who have died in Christ in the present and the past.

The resurrection of beheaded tribulation martyrs and of those who had not worshiped the beast or taken his mark during the great tribulation is the only part of the “first resurrection” described in Revelation. The group John saw in chapter 20 did not include any of the apostles, the current “dead in Christ”, or any present-day member of the church. John is not introduced to the tribulation martyrs or those who refused the beast’s mark as embodied human beings in their glorified, resurrected state, but rather initially as “souls”, distinguishing them from the already-embodied group referred to earlier in the verse, seated on thrones with authority to judge.

The word John uses for “souls” is psyche, which the Lord distinguished from the human body in Matthew 10:28. These martyrs receive their bodies in heaven after the marriage supper of the Lamb has already taken place, which believers from all schools of eschatology will probably agree would not be the case with the resurrected dead in Christ or with those who were already embodied and taken up to meet Christ in the air as revealed to Paul. We know that because the acquisition of our glorified bodies is not a process the Lord intends to drag out. Paul writes, “We shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet”, the same trumpet he refers to in the rapture passage of 1 Thessalonians 4. We will be fully kitted out for glory even as we rise to meet the Lord in the air. Those who have the privilege of taking part in the rapture will not enter heaven as mere “souls”, the way believers do today, and the dead in Christ who re-enter heaven in the company of their living brothers and sisters will finally possess their long-awaited resurrection vessels.

So where are the rest of the “dead in Christ” during the limited resurrection of Revelation 20? Where is the church? John’s first century readers would have had no doubt: sitting on thrones, already embodied in a glorified state, invested with Christ’s authority to judge the world. Modern believers apparently have much greater difficulty processing the obvious than our first century counterparts. 1 Thessalonians 4 was one of Paul’s first letters to the churches, and its message among the most important he ever delivered to them: a special revelation from the Lord to the apostle that “the dead in Christ will rise first”. The vital significance of this revelation is evident in the closing verses of the epistle: Paul puts the Thessalonians “under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers”, something he never does anywhere else. That this is a bodily resurrection there can be no doubt: the souls of the “dead in Christ” are already with him, as Paul teaches elsewhere: “away from the body and at home with the Lord”. John could not have been unaware of the “blessed hope”.

This notable absence of any reference in Revelation to a resurrection for the church more generally, either awake or asleep, requires those who reject the idea of a rapture prior to the Second Coming to find the church in the limited “supplementary” post-great tribulation resurrection of Revelation 20, where it most surely is not. Thus, amillennial writers like Kim Riddlebarger believe their own dead relatives have already come to life with Christ and are in the process of reigning 1,000 years during our present era. That’s a sweet sentiment, but one that prompted me to ask a few relevant questions of those who hold such convictions:

“When we look bluntly at the condition of the world over which they are said to be ‘reigning’, it is exceedingly difficult to imagine what it is exactly these men might currently be administrating. What are they deciding? How are they enforcing their wills? In what ways are they shepherding or assisting those under their care? What is the effect of their rule, and how could we measure it? And if, as very much appears to be the case, they are doing none of these things, then in what way can they be said to be ‘reigning’ at all? Why does the New Testament saddle the Christian with the obligation to learn discernment in this life if it is not to be exercised in the next life in any meaningful way?”

In short, then, a general resurrection of the dead in Christ is not necessary in Revelation 20 because it has already taken place prior to the events described there.

4/ The Absence of the Church on Earth After Revelation 3

Both disbelievers in a pre-trib rapture and even the occasional believer tend to misstate the above statement when citing it as evidence for the rapture of the church. This critic, for example, points to 12 places he claims the church is mentioned in Revelation 5 through 21. But the need for dispensationalism’s critics is not simply to find the church in the middle chapters of Revelation, but rather to find the church on earth during the great tribulation. Of course we can find the church in heaven during these chapters! That is exactly what those of us who believe in the rapture should expect to find. So the twenty-four elders of chapter 5 are actually evidence for a pre-trib rapture, not against it.

Those who insist the church remains on earth during the great tribulation have to find us in very strange places, such as the 144,000 of Revelation 7. This is an odd choice, since there is no more effective way to demonstrate that the 144,000 sealed are Israelites rather than members of the church than to give the numbers from each of the twelve tribes, as John does. What else could the poor man possibly do to make his point, and some people still don’t believe him. A better place to find the church on earth during the great tribulation might be to single out the “great multitude from every nation” which John sees later in the same chapter. But of course the believer in a pre-trib rapture has an answer for that: these will not be members of the church, but rather Gentiles saved during the tribulation period, which is a perfectly legitimate way to read John’s description of them.

For those who do not try to mash the church and Israel into some indistinguishable bowl of porridge (since Paul himself did not), every instance where someone claims to have found the church on earth between Revelation 4 and 21 has an easy answer: That’s not the church. The slain of chapter 6 are not the church; they are tribulation-period martyrs. The two witnesses of chapter 11 — killed right in Jerusalem outside the temple, of all places! — are definitely not symbolic of the church. Everything about them suggests they are Jews. The woman of chapter 12 is Israel, not the church.

Once Revelation 7 has established that large numbers of both Jews and Gentiles will come to know Christ as Lord during the great tribulation period, as it unequivocally does, there exists precisely zero indisputable evidence in Revelation of the church’s presence on earth during this period.

The Blessed Hope

The book of Revelation may not teach a pre-tribulation rapture explicitly, but there is lots in it that very much confirms what the apostle Paul taught us about the resurrection of the dead and the hope of the believer. He taught that Christians both dead and alive will be “caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air”. He intended those words to encourage us, and so they should. Christians who insist on dismissing them will have to find their hope elsewhere.

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