THE BIBLICAL CASE FOR MID-TRIBULATIONALISM
by Steve W. Lemke
New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary
Jesus instructed the church that even He did not know the exact hour of his return (Matt. 24:36, Mark 13:32). The focus of the church should be preparing for the return of Christ rather than speculating when it might occur (Matt. 24:36-25:46, Mark 13:32-37, Luke 21:34-36). However, Christians have existential reasons for searching the Scriptures to discern hints concerning the events leading up to the second advent. The mid-tribulational view advocated in this paper does not have a long history in the study of eschatology, but in recent years a few respected conservative evangelical scholars have endorsed this perspective as the one most faithful to the scriptural record.
Close This particular proposal differs in significant details, however, from each of these proposals. Since the midtribulational view is far from the majority among evangelical scholars, it is offered here with a great deal of epistemological humility, which is appropriate for all millennial or tribulational perspectives that would not claim to know more than Christ Himself.
Conservative evangelicals who have supported versions of the mid-tribulational view includeGleason Archer, "The Case for the Mid-Seventieth-Week Rapture Position," The Rapture: Pre-,Mid-, or Post-Tribulational?, ed. Richard Reiter (Grand Rapids: Academie, 1984); Norman B.Harrison, The End: Rethinking the Revelation (Minneapolis: Harrison, 1941); James OliverBuswell, A Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,1963); and Marvin Rosenthal, The Pre-wrath Rapture of the Church (Nashville: ThomasNelson, 1990), who also cites Harold J. Ockenga as an advocate of the mid-tribulational view.
1. All Scripture is divinely inspired. Therefore, all texts relevant to the tribulation will be given approximately equal weight, rather than relying on one passage alone.
2. All biblical prophecy is true. All the events described in biblical prophecy will come to pass, although their significance may not be discerned by the people at that time.
3. Scripture is the best clue to interpret Scripture. Therefore, this study attempts to harmonize all the relevant passages concerning the millennium and tribulation into a single synoptic picture.
4. There is an essential unity between the Old Testament and the New Testament. However, the New Testament eschatology accounts provide the more precise and detailed accounts of eschatology. Therefore, this perspective will attempt to harmonize the Old Testament and New Testament accounts. Old Testament prophecies will be viewed as having meaning within their own historical context, but these prophecies may have a dual fulfillment or be typologically duplicated in later events. Greater predictive weight will be given to passages so understood by New Testament writers.
5. All biblical language has ontological referents; that is, the words point to realities beyond themselves. Therefore, while acknowledging the symbolism inherent in apocalyptic literature, this view assumes that even apocalyptic passages refer to realities rather than merely allegory, myth, or fable. The language should be understood by its plain sense meaning and in chronological order, unless clear markers indicate otherwise.
6. Biblical interpreters should put themselves under the authority of Scripture, rather than to impose an external agenda or pattern upon it. Therefore, this study will not impose the interpretive framework of any particular millennial view on Scripture, but will allow Scripture to speak for itself.
An Outline of the Midtribulational View
The events surrounding the return of Christ will take place in this order:
1. The events of the end will be preceded by the signs of the end, as indicated in the Eschatological Discourse (Matt. 24:1-18, 29-31; Mark 13:1-23, 24-27; Luke 21:5-24, 25-28). This twofold division is paralleled in both Daniel (Dan. 7:25, 9:24-27, 12:7-12) and in Revelation (Rev. 11:2-3, 12:6, 12:14, 13:5). The division in half is also represented by the distinctive narratives contained in the scroll (Rev. 5:1) and the little scroll (Rev. 10:1). The first scroll describes the signs of the end, in which the seven seals (Rev. 5-9) precisely parallel the signs of the end in the Eschatological Discourse; the little scroll describes the events of the end (Rev. 10-22).
2. The signs of the end will inaugurate the tribulation, described in Revelation as the seven seals and the seven trumpets (Rev. 5-9). The tribulation will involve suffering and difficulty for believers and unbelievers alike, although Christians will be spared the wrath of God (Rom. 5:9). This tribulation will last three and one half years (Dan. 7:25, 9:24-27, 12:7-12, Rev. 11:2-3, 12:6, 12:14, 13:5). It is possible that the three and one half years may symbolize an indefinite period, although the accounts seem to specify a very specific period even to the number of days. At any rate, there will be a period marked off for the tribulation.
Because the signs of the end are events that happen periodically to some degree at all times, it will not be clear even to those who are undergoing the tribulation the precise moment of its beginning. The gradual worsening of events may be suggestive but not determinative of being in the tribulation. We may be in the tribulation now. However, like a frog in a slowly heated pot, those undergoing the tribulation may not discern the meaning of the events. The beginning of the tribulation would not be clearly noticed, thus no one would be able to set accurately the date of the events of the end based on the date of the beginning of the signs of the end. One can thus expect the return of Christ as immanent at any time.
3. When all the signs of the end spoken of in all the eschatology passages (Daniel, Eschatological Discourse,
Thessalonians, and Revelation) have been fulfilled, the events of the end will begin. The events of the end will
be inaugurated with the shout of the archangel, the return of Jesus Christ in clouds with great glory, and the
premillennial rapture of the church. The striking similarity of the language used and events described in
Revelation 14, Daniel, the Eschatological Discourse, and 1 Thessalonians makes it clear that this is the scriptural
locus of the rapture. Close
Other mid-tribulationalists place the rapture at the sounding of the seventh trumpet (Rev.11:15). They cite the
evidence that in previous songs praising Christ, He has been described as"He who was, who is, and who is to
come" (Rev. 1:4, 8; 4:8). Now the elders praise Him as "Hewas was, and is" (Rev. 11:17), suggesting that He
has already come. The mid-tribulational viewplacing the rapture in Revelation 14 would likewise take this verse
as an accurate indication thatthe events which are taking place in the immediate context suggest the events
surrounding thereturn of Christ.
4. While the saints enjoy their rest, the bowls of wrath will be poured out on the unbelievers who remain on the
earth (Rev. 14:17-18:24). This is the Great Tribulation, which will have many similarities with the plagues
which were poured out on Egypt before the exodus. The Great Tribulation will last the second three and one
half years in length, which again may be literal or symbolic.
5. After the Great Tribulation, Christ will come again in the second advent to establish His millennial reign, perform the final judgment, and usher in the eternal destinies of heaven and hell.
Why Not Pre-Tribulationalism?
Mid-tribulationalists share many key beliefs in common with pre-tribulationalists:
(1) Both views share a high view of the inspiration and authority of the Bible.
(2) Both views affirm that believers will not suffer the wrath of God. Both mid-tribulationalism and pre-tribulationalism believe in a pre-Great Tribulation rapture (Rom. 5:9; 1 Thess. 1:10, 5:9).
(3) Both views fit most naturally with a premillennial interpretation. Mid-tribulationalism would require adjustments in any popular millennial view, however, it would require less adaption by premillennialism.
Mid-triulationalism differs from pre-tribulationalism in the following key points:
(1) Mid-tribulationalists affirm that it is a clear teaching of Scripture that although Christians will not experience the
wrath of God, believers are not exempt from tribulation in this world (Matt. 5:11-12, 10:34-35, 24:1-31; Mark
13:1-27; Luke 21:1-28; John 16:33, 17:15; James 1:2-15; 1 Pet. 4:12-19). Mid-tribulationalism could be
described as "post-trib, pre-great trib."
(2) Mid-tribulationalists understand the overwhelming majority of Christ's teaching to apply to the church, not merely to Judaism. Hence mid-tribulationalists do not interpret Jesus' eschatological discourse (Matt. 24-25, Mark 13, Luke 21) as applying only to the Jews, as do many pre-tribulationalists. Equating the "elect" with only Israel in Jesus' teaching in the eschatological discourse (Matt. 24:22, 31; Mark 13:20, 27) is inconsistent with that fact that His teaching in other parts of the gospels where statements addressed to the disciples clearly had the broader intent of addressing the church (Matt. 16:18-19, 18:18-20, John 17:20). It is also inconsistent with Paul's equation of the elect and Israel with the church (Rom. 2:28-29, 8:33, 9:6-8, Gal. 3:2). Since Paul wrote his epistles at about the same time as the gospel accounts, it would seem logical that he used the terms in the same way the gospel writers did. Thus the church is best understood as being included in those that the Lord in the eschatological discourse warns will experience tribulation.
(3) Mid-tribulationalism provides a better explanation of the persistent emphasis in Scripture that divide the end times into two major sections than does pre-tribulationalism. In the prophecy of Daniel, the seven weeks (years) are divided into two halves (Dan. 7:25, 9:24-27, 12:7-12). There is a natural break in the chronological narrative of the eschatological discourse (Matt. 24:1-18, 29-31; Mark 13:1-23, 24-27; Luke 21:5-24, 25-28). George Eldon Ladd notes this distinction by describing the first section as the "signs of the end" and the second section the "events of the end."
Close George Beasley-Murray likewise distinguishes between the earlier "tribulation" and the later "parousia."
Close In Revelation, this division of time manifestly echos the Daniel account (Rev. 11:2-3, 12:6, 12:14, 13:5). The division in half is also represented by the distinctive narratives contained in the scroll (Rev. 5:1) and the little scroll (Rev. 10:1). The first scroll describes the signs of the end (Rev. 5-9); the little scroll described the events of the end (Rev. 10-22). Such a unanimous verdict in all the key eschatological passages suggests a major division for which pre-tribulationalism does not adequately account.
George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1993), 201.
See Moo in "The Case for the Posttribulation Rapture Position," in The Rapture, ed. GleasonArcher, 177.
(4) Mid-tribulationalism provides a better synoptic account of all the relevant eschatological passages, as the chart provided suggests, than does pre-tribulationalism. Mid-tribulationalism does not read the rapture event into Rev. 4:1, as do many pre-tribulationalists. The context of Rev. 4:1 contains none of the signs prophesied by the Old Testament prophets and by Jesus Himself. Where are the wars and rumors of wars (Matt. 24:7, Mark 13:7-8, Luke 21:9-11) in the context of Rev. 4:1? Where is the persecution (Matt. 24:9-14, Mark 13:9-13, Luke 21:12-19)? Where are the earthquakes and other dramatic upheavals in nature? Where is the removal of the one who restrains (2 Thess. 2:6-7)? Where is the sound of trumpets (1 Cor. 15:52, 1 Thess. 4:16)? Where is the preaching of the gospel to all nations (Matt. 24:14, Mark 13:10)? Where is the coming of the archangel with a shout (1 Thess. 4:16)? Where is the coming of the Son of Man in clouds with great glory (Dan. 7:13-14, Matt. 24:30, Mark 13:26, Luke 21:27)? None of these predicted events is present in Rev. 1-3, but every one of them is present in the immediate context leading up to Rev. 14: war, famine, and persecution (Rev. 6:1-11); dramatic upheavals in nature (Rev. 6:12-17); the sounding of trumpets (Rev. 8-9, 11:15-19); the preaching of the gospel to all the earth (Rev. 11:1-14); the archangel coming with a shout (Rev. 12:7-12, 14:15); the removal of the one who restrains (Rev. 12-12); and the coming of the Son of Man in clouds with great glory (Rev. 14:14).
Furthermore, Rev. 14:14-20 contains the symbolism of reaping absent in Rev. 4:1. Rev. 14 has two reapings: one for the saved (Rev. 14:14-16); and the other for those bound for wrath, using the vineyard language which is consistently used in Scripture for judgment (Rev. 14:17-20). One could thus say that although many pre-tribulationalists claim to have an exalted view of the inspiration of Scripture and a rather literal and chronological hermeneutic, placing the rapture at Rev. 4:1 is highly symbolic at best.
Scriptural warrant is lacking to place the rapture at Rev. 4:1, because it does not fulfill the signs of the end predicted in Holy Scripture. Understanding the rapture as being described in Rev. 14 is more consistent with the hermeneutical principle of interpreting Scripture by Scripture.
5. The radically futurist interpretation of Revelation made by pre-tribulationalists makes the book of Revelation have virtually no meaning to the people of its day. Pre-tribulationalists view only the first three chapters of Revelation as taking place in the era of church history, little of which related to the first-century church. What hope did that have to offer to John suffering exile on Patmos or to the other believers undergoing excruciating persecution? Pre-tribulationalists tend to make the same hermeneutical mistake regarding Old Testament prophecy and the book of Revelation: their interpretation is so futurist it robs any real meaning of the message delivered to people in that time. If God's message offered hope primarily for people many centuries later, what hope did that offer to people centuries earlier? Why would God give them a message not relevant to them?
Why Not Post-Tribulationalism?
Mid-tribulationalists and post-tribulationalists share the following beliefs in common:
(1) Both views share a high view of the inspiration and authority of Scripture.
(2) Both views are easily adapted to some varieties of premillennialism, especially historical premillennialism.
(3) Both views affirm that believers must go through a period of tribulation.
(4) Both views reject the radical division of the church and Israel propounded by some pre-tribulationalists.
(5) Both views reject the radical futurist placement of the rapture in Rev. 4:1.
Mid-tribulationalists differ from post-tribulationalists on the following points:
(1) Mid-tribulationalism affirms the clear scriptural teaching that believers will not suffer the wrath of God (Luke 21:36; Rom. 5:9; 1 Thess. 1:10, 5:9), while post-tribulationalists affirm that believers will suffer being on earth while God's wrath is poured out. While Scripture allows that believers will undergo tribulation (θλιψις) simply by virtue of being a Christian in this world (John 16:33), believers will not suffer the wrath (oργή) of God (Rom. 5:9, 1 Thess. 1:10, 5:9). The word θυμός (outburst of anger or wrath) is used nine times in the book of Revelation; in each case nonbelievers (not believers) are the object of this wrath (Rev. 14:8, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19:15). Likewise, the word oργή (settled wrath) is used of God twenty-seven times in the New Testament; in no case are believers the object of this wrath. However, of fifty-five times the word θλιψις (tribulation) is used, forty-seven times this is an experience to be endured by believers. Scripture thus draws a clear distinction between tribulation and wrath. Post-tribulationalism does not adequately account for this distinction.
(2) Mid-tribulationalism offers a better account of the scriptural division of the events of the end times in two halves than does pre-tribulationalism. Post-tribulationalists, like pre-tribulationalists, ignore or gloss over the precise language separating the signs and events of the end into two distinct periods.
(3) Mid-tribulationalism takes the rapture mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 4 as a distinctive event, while post-tribulationalists view it as merely synonymous with the second coming of Christ. Since Scripture affirms that believers will not suffer the wrath of God, as explained above, the rapture is a logical necessity as well as a scriptural promise. Mid-tribulationalists would claim the promise of Revelation 3:10: "Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell upon the earth." Furthermore, Revelation 7:14 speaks of saints coming "out of the great tribulation." Both passages refer to believers coming "out of" (έκ) the trial of the great tribulation. What could these passages possibly mean, if not to suggest that believers will be taken out of this world during the outpouring of the wrath of God? Furthermore, the return of Christ in Scripture is not only for the saints but with the saints (Jude 14-15, Rev. 19:11-16). This would suggest that the saints were with Him in heaven.
The chart which follows details a chronological, synoptic account of all the major Scriptures dealing with eschatology. This synoptic account of the signs and events of the end provides the most direct scriptural warrant for the mid-tribulational view.
On the basis of the scriptural texts in the chart below, it seems evident that Revelation 14 is the appropriate scriptural locus for the return of Christ for believers. Only mid-tribulationalism adequately takes into account the sharp division in time emphasized in all the major eschatological passages. Only mid-tribulationalism can provide a synoptic account which follows the chronological pattern in Scripture for all the signs of the end and events of the end prophesied in the major eschatological passages. On the basis of this argument, it seems the proper interpretation of Scripture that there will be a mid-tribulational rapture of believers. Even so, come Lord Jesus!
THE SCRIPTURAL BASIS FOR THE MID-TRIBULATIONAL ACCOUNT
EVENT OF THE
IN THE BOOK OF
IN THE ESCHATOLOGICAL DISCOURSE
AND OTHER NEW TESTAMENT PASSAGES
IN THE OLD
The throne, the scroll, and the Lamb
The Signs of the End begin: The First Seal --
the white horse of conquest
Matthew 24:7, Mark 13:7, Luke 21:9
The Second Seal --
the red horse of war
Matthew 24:7, Mark 13:8,
The Third Seal --
the black horse of famine
Matthew 24:7, Mark 13:8,
The Fourth Seal --
the pale horse of death
Matthew 24:7, Mark 13:8,
The Fifth Seal -- persecution
Matthew 24:9-14, Mark 13:9-13,
The Sixth Seal --
earthquake, moon turns red, stars fall,
sky rolls as a scroll,
people run for the mountains
Matthew 24:15-29, Mark 13:14-25
Joel 2:10, 3:15-16; 3:30-31;
Interlude -- the sealing of the 144,000
The Seventh Seal -- the seven trumpets
1 Corinthians 15:51, 1 Thessalonians 4:16
Interlude -- the angel, the little
scroll, and the two witnesses
1 Thessalonians 4:16
The Seventh Trumpet -- the 24 elders sing
1 Thessalonians 4:16
Michael the archangel defeats the dragon
1 Thessalonians 4:16
The beast enacts the abomination of
desolation for 24 months
Matthew 24:15, Mark 13:14,
2 Thessalonians 2:3-4
Daniel 7:25, 9:27;
The Events of the End begin:
The Mid-Tribulation Rapture
Matthew 24:30-31, Mark 13:26-27,
1 Thessalonians 4:16-17
The Seven Bowls of Wrath --
God's wrath poured out on unbelievers
The Second Coming,
Final Judgment, and Eternity