This is the fourth and final post of interviews on three different perspectives on the rapture. So far we have had interviews with Craig Blomberg on post-tribulationism, Alan Kurschner on pre-wrath, and Mike Svigel on pre-tribulationism. In this final post each interviewee gets to ask another one question on their view of the rapture, and they each had a chance to respond to the question posed to them. I hope that in addition to the interviews themselves, this post will help move the the issue forward for anyone interested in studying these views in-depth.
Craig Blomberg and Alan Kurschner on Pre-Wrath
Blomberg (post-tribulation): Do you hold your view because you think posttribulationsts expect God’s wrath to be poured out on believers if they are not raptured before the end of the tribulation? I have found that is a common reason for pre-tribulational, mid-tribulational and pre-wrath rapture positions but that is a mistaken understanding of post-tribulationists as a whole. God never pours his wrath out on believers now or during the coming tribulation.
Kurschner (pre-wrath): I am not aware of any pre-wrath exponents that hold to this misunderstanding of post-tribulationism. I agree with Dr. Blomberg that God will never pour out his eschatological wrath upon any believers. God can sovereignly protect his people on earth in the midst of his wrath—just as he protected God’s people during the plagues in Egypt. To be sure, pre-wrath does not believe God’s wrath and the Antichrist’s great tribulation happens at the same time. When the great tribulation is cut short (Matt 24:22) with the return of Christ, then the day of the Lord’s wrath will begin. I believe there will be a remnant of Gentiles who do come to Christ after the rapture (they will populate the millennium) and God will protect them on earth during his eschatological wrath, as well as the group of 144,000 Jews who will be protected on earth.
Michael Svigel and Craig Blomberg on Post-Tribulationism
Svigel (pre-tribulation): I guess at this point I would like to keep the focus on a detailed exegesis of Revelation 12:5 and have them explain, within a pre-millennial, futurist perspective on Revelation, how 1) the identification of this passage as merely the ascension of Christ and not the rapture of the body of Christ accounts for all of the evidence, and 2) how it could be anything other than a pre-seven-year rapture of the church, given the corporate interpretation of the male child.
Blomberg (post-tribulation): Supporters of a pre-tribulational rapture have not normally appealed to Revelation 12;5 in support of their position. Most all interpreters agree that the male child is Jesus. Consistency is not necessarily a virtue in interpreting apocalyptic literature, in which a lion can be a lamb, and a dragon can be a serpent who can be the devil. Revelation 12:7 does, however, directly equate the dragon with Satan, not an entire government. The idea of a woman referring corporately to Israel, who gives birth to Messiah, is a very natural interpretation. All Jews and early Christians recognized that an individual (Messiah) would come from a group of people (Israel). But, even if we take the male child to be Jesus and his followers, there is still no suggestion of a rapture here, since Jesus was never raptured! The image would have to teach something about believers being co-exalted with Christ, as in Ephesians 2.
Alan Kurschner and Michael Svigel on Pre-Tribulationism
Kurschner (pre-wrath): The earliest document outside the New Testament, the Didache (c. 50–120) places the resurrection after the Antichrist (Didache 16:1–8). This contradicts the pre-tribulational interpretation that the resurrection will happen before the Antichrist. How does pre-tribulationism account for this first-generation interpretation in church history on the relationship between Antichrist and the Lord’s return? To be sure, our final authority is the Word of God, and that is where we must find inspired teaching for faith and practice. However, since church history teaches us a lot, how much more weight do writings during the apostolic age carry—especially a first century document as the Didache?
As a patristic scholar whose theological method includes the incorporation of early church history as a guide for better understanding the theological context of the New Testament, I like this question a lot (see my RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith for a fuller explication of my approach). I’m especially happy to respond to this because Didache has recently become one of my main areas of research and writing. Most recent Didache scholarship, though, is dating Didache at about A.D. 50 to 70—some even earlier. In any case, very few Didache scholars are pushing its final form outside A.D. 100 nowadays. This is important because Didache was written prior to the further (and definitive) revelation found in John’s Apocalypse, which most scholars date in the late 90s.
However, it is interesting that the “mini-apocalypse” of the Didache 16 abruptly switches from the second person plural to the third person plural when urging its readers to be ready for the end times:
16.1 “Watch over your life: do not let your lamps go out, and do not be unprepared, but be ready, for you do not know the hour when our Lord is coming. 16.2Gather together frequently, seeking the things that benefit your souls, for all the time you have believed will be of no use to you if you are not found perfect in the last time.” Then, suddenly, the switch from second person to third person: “16.3For in the last days the false prophets and corrupters will abound, and the sheep will be turned into wolves and love will be turned into hate. 16.4For as lawlessness increases, they will hate and persecute and betray one another. And then the deceiver of the world will appear as a son of God and will perform signs and wonders, and the earth will be delivered into his hands, and he will commit abominations the likes of which have never happened before 16.5Then all humankind will come to the fiery test, and many will fall away and perish but those who endure in their faith will be saved by the accursed one himself. 16.6And then there will appear the signs of the truth: first the sign of an opening in heaven, then the sign of the sound of a trumpet, and third, the resurrection of the dead—16.7but not of all; rather, as it has been said, ‘The Lord will come, and all his saints with him.’ 16.8Then the world will see the Lord coming upon the clouds of heaven.”
In every form of the pre-tribulation view, there is, in fact, a resurrection of at least the tribulation saints who suffered martyrdom at the hand of the Antichrist during the tribulation (see Revelation 20:4). So, Didache’s mention of the “resurrection of the dead” accompanying the Lord’s return after the time of the Antichrist is in no way contradictory to a pre-tribulation rapture view, as this view also holds that part of the “first resurrection”—begun with Christ’s resurrection and concluding with the return of Christ—will, in fact, take place at this time. Though it might be tempting for a pre-tribulationists like me to see the Didache’s statement that the resurrection at that time will be “not of all” (Didache 16.7) as an allowance for a partial resurrection prior to the tribulation (an exegetically possible interpretation), it is more exegetically likely that the qualifier “not of all” is actually a reference to the first resurrection of the righteous that occurs at the return of Christ in contrast to the second resurrection of the wicked that will occur after the millennial kingdom. Thus, Didache should probably be read as simply premillennial, silent on whether a rapture is in view prior to the end times described in the third person. Admittedly, though, the language as it stands could be interpreted as suggesting a previous partial resurrection of the saints before the tribulation, but that’s not my view of how to read Didache’s mini-apocalypse.
I tend to think the author(s) of this text probably had a general and vague understanding of end-times events reflecting oral teachings of Jesus and contemporary teachings of Paul and other apostles. It’s a first attempt at synthesizing these traditions, not an authoritative inspired document (though nothing here seems far from what Scripture teaches, in general). As such, it was sufficient (and surprisingly thorough), though I doubt the intention was to present a chartable order of specific events. However, a fuller, detailed understanding of the specific order of events is added to the inspired canon of Scripture some twenty years after the Didache itself was written: John’s Apocalypse—and I would point people back to my discussion of the rapture in Revelation 12:5.
Historically speaking, there are other vague indications of a possible distinction between those saints rescued from the tribulation and those left behind for judgment (besides the switch in Didache from “you” to “they”), especially in passages like Shepherd of Hermas, Vision 4.1 (c. 100–140)—“Go, therefore, and tell the elect of the Lord His mighty deeds, and say to them that this beast is a type of the great tribulation that is coming. If then ye prepare yourselves, and repent with all your heart, and turn to the Lord, it will be possible for you to escape it, if your heart be pure and spotless, and ye spend the rest of the days of your life in serving the Lord blamelessly.” Even Irenaeus in Against Heresies 5.29.1 (c. 180) may be making this kind of distinction—“And therefore, when in the end the Church shall be suddenly caught up from this, it is said, ‘There shall be tribulation such as has not been since the beginning, neither shall be.’ For this is the last contest of the righteous, in which, when they overcome they are crowned with incorruption.” Yet these passages are not clear, and I would hesitate to fight any battles on these grounds one way or another. The first clear indication of the timing of the rapture with regard to the Tribulation is actually in c. A.D. 210, with Tertullian’s On the Resurrection of the Flesh 41—“Now the privilege of this favor awaits those who shall at the coming of the Lord be found in the flesh, and who shall, owing to the oppressions of the time of Antichrist, deserve by an instantaneous death, which is accomplished by a sudden change, to become qualified to join the rising saints; as he writes to the Thessalonians: ‘For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord,…then we too shall ourselves be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air.’” Prior to Tertullian’s statement that ties 1 Thessalonians 4:17 to an event after the Tribulation, early patristic comments are vague or ambiguous with regard to the timing of the rapture, though all (even modern pre-tribulationists) hold to a resurrection of at least tribulation martyrs occurring at the end of the Tribulation.
However, the question as asked admits that Scripture alone is our final arbiter of truth, and if my contention that the timing of the rapture as pre-tribulational finds its greatest exegetical support in the catching up of the corporate image of the male son in Revelation 12:5, then the pre-tribulation rapture doctrine would take time to come into its own historically speaking. We need to allow for progressive illumination, especially of prophetic Scriptures like the book of Revelation. It wasn’t until Revelation began to be read again in a premillennial, futurist perspective that nineteenth century interpreters rediscovered the corporate nature of Revelation 12:5 and understood this as referring to the rapture of the church.
In this case, I’m not surprised that there is lack of precision on the rapture doctrine in the early church and a failure to see it in later centuries when most of the church was not only non-pretribulational but also non-millennial and non-futurist.
Many thanks to Craig Blomberg, Alan Kurschner, and Michael Svigel for taking the time to do these interviews! This wraps up the rapture views series. I hope these posts have been helpful!