This is the third of three interviews on different perspectives on the rapture. In this post Michael Svigel from Dallas Theological Seminary is representing the pre-tribulational rapture view.
When and how did you first become interested in eschatology?
When I first became a Christian, I was initially obsessed with eschatology. This is typical of a lot of new believers who don’t yet have a good, balanced, Christ-centered theology. They usually gravitate to issues that are sensational, controversial, or have books with the coolest (or scariest) covers. I devoured popular books on the end times, most of which were written by premillennialists or dispensationalists, but I also read books by covenant theologians and other perspectives. As I grew in my faith and understanding of theology, eschatology got put in its proper place as something that ought to be informed by (and ought to inform) my Christ-centered theology. As such, I understand better the priority of orthodox assertions in eschatology (that Christ will return as Judge and King to resurrect both the righteous and wicked for final judgment and reward). I also understand that within orthodox eschatology there is room for a variety of views on the millennium, the rapture, the nature of the tribulation, and so forth.
I’d like to say today that I’m interested in eschatology because I’m interested in Jesus, and eschatology is all about Him. I also want to state up front that I have great respect for other contributors to this discussion. If I wasn’t a pre-tribulationist, I’d hold one of their views!
What are the distinctives of your position?
My position has been accurately called the “pre-tribulational rapture,” understanding the term “tribulation” as a future seven-year period of purification and judgment leading up to the physical return of Christ as Judge and King. This view takes the chronological indicators in Revelation 11–13 as referring to literal future periods of time, adding up to a total of seven years. In most forms this view also sees the seven-year “seventieth week” of Daniel 9:27 as a future period leading up to the coming of Christ.
So, in relationship to that future seven-year period, my view—the “pre-tribulational rapture”—understands the resurrection of the dead saints and transformation of the living saints and their catching up together to meet Christ in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:17; see also 1 Corinthians 15:51–52) as an event that will take place prior to (pre-) the future seven-year tribulation period.
Did you hold any other view before this one? In brief, why do you hold the pre-trib rapture?
As a young believer, and especially in Bible College, I had a “suspended judgment” view for a while. I went through a phase of “I’m not going to hold this view just because my professors do,” which is typical of young adults in Bible College. But I never went through an “I’m going to hold a view opposite of this view to demonstrate how much of an independent thinker I am” phase. I stepped back, asked myself what I believe and why, and then approached the question from both analytical as well as systematic angles. My methodology involves considering various views within a biblical, theological, and historical framework, so this took some time.
What are key passages that you believe best represent your position?
I see a lot of strength in passages that promise rescue from coming wrath tied to the coming of Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10) and in the context of the rapture (1 Thessalonians 5:9), but also in the promise of being kept from the hour of testing in Revelation 3:10 and Peter’s reminder that, based on God’s past pattern of rescuing his righteous from judgment prior to pouring out his wrath (in the cases of Noah and Lot), He will rescue the godly from trial (2 Peter 2:6). However, these passages, though promising rescue from judgment and wrath, don’t explicitly place the timing of the rescue prior to the entire future seven-year period. It depends on how you define “hour of trial” or when you believe God’s wrath actually begins (as will probably be made apparent in the pre-wrath argument).
Thus, both the mid-tribulation and pre-wrath views can say they believe God will rescue His people from wrath but that the wrath doesn’t actually start until later. Fair enough. The strictly post-tribulation view needs to understand the salvation from wrath as more of a “preservation through” the period of wrath (like the Israelites in Egypt or Daniel in the lion’s den) rather than a “rescue from” the place of wrath (as in Lot out of Sodom or Noah out of the world). Incidentally, and as a potential problem for the post–tribulational view, Scripture uses the latter as analogies for our future rescue, not the former (Matthew 24; 2 Peter 2).
However, my persuasion to the pre-tribulational rapture came as a result of an exegesis of the symbol of the catching up of the male child in Revelation 12:5—a consideration almost entirely lost (or dismissively ignored) in the discussion of the rapture. In fact, the earliest advocates of a pre-tribulational rapture (John Nelson Darby, William Kelly, William Blackstone, H.A. Ironside, etc.) pointed to this passage as decisive exegetical evidence for a pre-seven-year rapture of the church. The problem is, of course, this is a symbolic vision that needs to be carefully interpreted and the interpretational issues are complicated and require a working knowledge of the original Greek. Also, it requires that the exegete has already concluded that Revelation is to be interpreted in a premillennial, futurist light. I argue that the symbol of the male child in Revelation 12:5 is best identified as the body of Christ, the church, and the child’s catching up to God and His throne is best identified as the catching up of the body of Christ elsewhere described in 1 Thessalonians 4:17.
Five considerations persuaded me of this conclusion:
- Consistency in Symbolism. The woman represents a corporate entity (Israel, see Genesis 37:9–10); the Dragon represents a corporate entity (the world system controlled by Satan, see the total of seven heads and ten horns in the series of monsters in Daniel 7:1–7) and the male child as the body of Christ would also represent a corporate entity (Christ in union with His body, the Church, see 1 Corinthians 12:12, etc.).
- Allusion to Isaiah 66:7-8. The use of the neuter adjective arsen (male) modifying the masculine noun huios (son) and the image of Israel giving birth points careful readers back to Isaiah 66:7–8, where we read in the Septuagint (Greek version of the Old Testament): “Before she travailed, she brought forth; Before her pain came, she gave birth to a boy (arsen). Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things? Can a land be born in one day? Can a nation be brought forth all at once? As soon as Zion travailed, she also brought forth her children.” The image is parallel in Revelation, and John explicitly breaks the rules of Greek grammar (modifying the masculine “son” with the neuter “male”) to point us back to this passage in Isaiah 66. The child in both cases is corporate, not individual.
- Symbolic Background of Daniel 7. I think John uses the term huios (son) in Revelation 12:5 to connect us to the vision of the “Son of Man” in Daniel 7:13–14, which is interpreted corporately as the Messiah and His saints in 7:18; 26–27. John uses the term “son” in Revelation 12:5, literally “she gave birth to a son, a male,” not the term “child,” as most translations render it. Most people miss that the “Son of Man” in Daniel 7 is interpreted by the angel corporately, which fits well with Revelation 12:5’s “male son” interpreted corporately as the body of Christ. Also, the image of the seven heads and ten horns of the dragon symbol earlier in this vision already pointed us back to Daniel 7, which seems to stand behind this vision of Revelation 12.
- The Male Child is “Snatched Up.” The word in Revelation 12:5 is the word for “rapture,” harpazo, and always means a sudden removal, a snatching. In contrast, for the ascension of Christ, the New Testament uses terms such as “to be lifted up,” epairo (Acts 1:9), “to ascend,” anabaino (John 20:17; Ephesians 4:8-10) and “to take up,” analambano (Mark 16:19; Luke 1:11). These are neutral terms meaning a removal from one place to another. Revelation 12:5 has the male child being suddenly snatched away from the dragon, who wants to devour the child. The ascension of Christ was gradual (Acts 1:10), not sudden. Also, Revelation 12:5 is a context of “rescue” from the threat of the dragon. The word “rapture,” harpazo, is appropriately used in the New Testament for a rescue in Acts 23:10 and Jude 23. In His ascension to heaven, Christ was not rescued, but ascended victoriously and was no danger from the devil or anybody else. The term “rapture,” harpazo, is never used of Christ’s ascension to heaven. Thus, the use of harpazo in a rescue context like Revelation 12:5 is completely inappropriate to describe the ascension of Christ, but is completely appropriate to describe the rapture of the church as a rescue from Satan’s emerging efforts to destroy the church as we approach the end times.
- Corporate application of Psalm 2:9 in Revelation 2:26-27; 12:5; and 19:14-15. In Psalm 2:9, God tells the Messiah, “‘You will break them [the nations] with a rod of iron, You will shatter them like earthenware.’” In Revelation 2:26-27, Christ extends this promise to the Church, the body of Christ: “‘And he who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations; and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to pieces, as I also have received [authority] from My Father.” In Revelation 19:14-15, Christ and the armies come to earth, fulfilling the promise: “And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white [and] clean, were following Him on white horses. And from His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may smite the nations; and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty.” This same Psalm is quoted in Revelation 12:5 and applied to the male child. Thus, the male child as Christ in union with His body, the Church, is most consistent with the application of the promise of Psalm 2:9 extended both to Christ and the Church.
My conclusion is this: 1) There is no good exegetical reason to reject the view that the male child represents the Church in union with Christ. 2) The common identification of the male child as Christ alone doesn’t account for all of the exegetical evidence, ignoring the informing image of Isaiah 66 and actually contradicting the basic meaning of harpazo. 3) The identification of the male child as the Church in union with Christ incorporates all of the evidence. 4) Therefore, the best interpretation of Revelation 12:5 is the rapture of the Church described in 1 Thessalonians 4:17.
Having identified the male child as the body of Christ and its catching up as the rapture, the next question we have to answer is whether this vision presents a pre-seven-year rapture. After the male child is caught up (Revelation 12:5), we are told that there is war in heaven. Michael the archangel and his army fight the Dragon, who is cast down to the earth (12:7-9). Remember that the archangel is also associated with the rapture of the Church in 1 Thessalonians 4:16. This war in heaven takes some amount of time, as Daniel 10:13 reveals. However, when the Dragon is finally cast down there is a song of victory in heaven (12:10-12). Read in the light of the Church being raptured before the tribulation, this song makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?
After the Dragon is cast down, he turns to attack the woman, the faithful remnant of Israel who reappears during the tribulation (7:1-8). Before the woman is preserved in the wilderness for 1,260, days, however, the Dragon, working through the world powers, launches an attack on Israel with an army (12:13-16). The image of the flood in Old Testament prophecy is that of an invasion (Ezekiel 1:24; Daniel 9:27). So, first the Dragon tries to destroy the woman with an invasion (first half of tribulation), but the army is defeated. Then, the woman flees to be protected in the wilderness for 1,260 days (second half of tribulation).
Utterly frustrated at his repeatedly failed plans, the Dragon turns his attention to the “rest of the offspring” of the woman, those who are saved during the tribulation (the “great multitude” of Revelation 7:9-17, which pre-tribulationists call the “tribulation saints”). The Dragon turns to a different means of combating the people of God: the Antichrist. It is at the middle of the tribulation that the 42 months of authority of the beast begins, described in Revelation 13.
So, to sum up, the catching up of the male child and the resulting war in heaven both take place at the beginning of the seven-year tribulation. The war in heaven and casting down of Satan, followed by the earthly invasion, attempted attack on Israel, and the flight of the woman, all take place in the first three-and-a-half years. Then the reign of the Beast take place in the second half of the tribulation. Therefore, the catching up of the male child (the rapture) takes place before the seven-year tribulation.
This is my primary exegetical argument for the pre-tribulation rapture.
What role does Daniel 9 have in your understanding of the timing of the rapture?
Like very early premillennialists, like Irenaeus of Lyons (around A.D. 180) and Hippolytus of Rome (around 230), I hold that the seventieth week of Daniel 9:27 is a future period, not a period of the past. (Ironically, some historical premillennialists fail at just this point to actually be in agreement with “historical” premillennialism). I also believe this period coincides with the expected tribulation period described in 2 Thessalonians 2 and Revelation 11–13. This was a common view of premillennialists in the early church, and I believe they were right. However, believing in a future seventieth week of Daniel doesn’t necessarily require that one holds to a pre-tribulational rapture.
Do you see the pre-tribulational rapture being taught in Matthew 24 and Revelation, and if not, then why is it not discussed in these important end-times passages?
I do believe that the pretribulational rapture is suggested in Matthew 24, but I don’t believe it is explicit. It is implied by the principle of the rescue prior to judgment when Jesus refers to the times of Lot and the times of Noah. Peter picks up these same images and uses them as an anticipation for a future rescue of the godly from “trial” in 2 Peter 2:6 (some translate this as “temptations,” but the context is eschatological and the term peirasmos can refer to a time of “trial” or “testing” like the tribulation (1 Peter 1:6; Revelation 3:10). As far as Revelation goes, I do believe it is exegetically established in Revelation 12:5 and implied in Revelation 3:10 (see detailed discussion above).
Do you hold to a form of dispensationalism, and how does that affect your view?
Yes, I do, though my form of Dispensationalism is not always easy to categorize. I suppose my view of the male child as the body of Christ, the church, completely distinct from the woman, Israel, is a pretty typical Dispensational distinction, though one does not have to be a dispensationalist to see this exegetically. Also, the interpretation of the pre-tribulational rapture in Revelation 12:5 was first advocated by the earliest dispensationalists like Darby, Kelly, Blackstone, and others, though most modern dispensationalists have almost entirely forgotten this original exegetical argument for the pre-tribulational rapture. I would say that the pre-tribulational rapture fits very comfortably in Dispensationalism, but one can be persuaded of the pre-tribulational rapture by the exegesis of Revelation 12:5 without necessarily adopting a lot of other dispensational perspectives; also, one can hold to the pre-tribulational rapture as a dispensationalist without necessarily being persuaded by Revelation 12:5.
What unique practical implications do you see in your view? How does your understanding of the rapture affect your life?
Pre-tribulationists who are consistent with their view ought to avoid sign-seeking and antichrist-naming. That is, though we acknowledge that the spirit of antichrist is at work in this world and that there will be wars and rumors of wars throughout the church age leading up to the rapture, the fulfillment of the specific prophecies of the end times, especially the revelation of the Antichrist, awaits a future time. I see a great danger in the “let’s identify the antichrist” practice or “let’s interpret the news through the lens of Revelation,” because those practices end up with people foolishly identifying Mikhail Gorbachev, Ronald Reagan, Barak Obama, Osama bin Laden, etc. as the Antichrist, and pointing to current events as fulfillments (or potential fulfillments) of prophecies. Instead of looking up in hope of the Lord’s return (which is the emphasis in Scripture), people often look at current events and major politicians in worry and fear. This has never contributed to the health of the church.
Instead, consistent pre-tribulational futurists will always be ready to suffer for the faith and see signs of the spirit of antichrist in the present, but they will stop trying to see fulfillments of tribulation prophecies prior to the rapture. I think resurrection and rescue from the coming wrath is a much more Christ-centered, hope-focused orientation. Sadly, many pre-tribulationists still fall into the “this-is-that” and “name-the-antichrist” games, though those things are utterly inconsistent with our eschatology.
What resources would you recommend to someone wanting to study the pre-trib position more?
- Hultberg, Alan, ed. Three Views on the Rapture: Pretribulation, Pre-Wrath, or Post-Tribulation. A defense of each major view of the rapture with counterarguments from contributors.
- Showers, Renald. Maranatha—Our Lord, Come! A Definitive Study of the Rapture of the Church. A strong, accessible defense of the pre-tribulation rapture.
- Svigel, Michael J. “The Apocalypse of John and the Rapture of the Church: A Reevaluation” Trinity Journal 22 (2001): 23–74. A technical critique of views of the rapture in Revelation and an exegetical defense of the rapture in Revelation 12:5. Online at https://bible.org/article/apocalypse-john-and-rapture-church-reevaluation.
- Holsteen, Nathan D. and Michael J. Svigel, Exploring Christian Theology: The Church, Spiritual Growth, and the End Times. My second half of this volume fairly treats a variety of evangelical eschatological views, including views of the rapture, focusing on those things that unite us rather than divide us.
Dr. Michael Svigel is Associate Professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. His book titles include RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith, and Heroes and Heretics: Solving the Modern Mystery of the Ancient Church. Many of his written works—from scholarly articles to theological humor—can be found online at www.bible.org or www.retrochristianity.com and he can be followed on twitter.
Many thanks to Dr. Michael Svigel for taking the time to do this interview. I hope it has been helpful. Comments are more than welcome!
Check back again next week for the last part of our interview series on rapture positions, where the interviewees get to ask each other one question.