In this piece I want to go behind the subject of the rapture so as to approach it from another angle. Please bear with me.
The Book of Revelation has been the subject of varied interpretations. Since the Greek word apocalypsis means “a disclosure” or “unveiling” the different interpretative approaches to the Book is quite ironic if not a little embarrassing. The opening verses of Revelation inform us that it concerns “things which must shortly take place” (1:1; 1:19). Because John write of “things which must take place after this” (4:1) it is hardly surprising to read him describing his book as a “prophecy” (1:3).
Now although scholars like to cite etymology to try to prove that prophecy is more “forth-telling” than “foretelling”, the Bible itself does not assist them much. For instance, when Jehoshaphat wanted to hear from a prophet of the LORD it wasn’t because he wished to hear a declamation on the present reign of his ally Ahab. Rather he wanted to know about the future (see 1 Kings 22). John’s Revelation is about the future. But it is about a particular time in future history. That time may be determined by the contents of the Book.
The Coming of Antichrist
Without going into detail about it, Revelation 4 and 5 set the scene for the major events depicted in the rest of the Book. At the close of the fourth chapter the doxology fixes attention on creation: what I like to call “the Creation Project”, summed up in the idea that God’s purpose (teleology) drives an eschatology. The fifth chapter of Revelation refers to the seven-sealed scroll which only the Lamb could open. These seals reveal, among other things, the Four Horsemen, the first of which might be interpreted positively, except for what follows in his wake; which is the removal of peace, famine, and death. Further, the souls under the altar of the fifth seal are of righteous people killed “for the word of God and the testimony which they held” (6:9). Clearly chapter six records evil occurrences in the world, but when? I venture to say that the easiest answer is during the coming Tribulation, which I have associated with Daniel’s seven year 70th week. Now if “the prince who is to come” of Daniel 9:26 is, as is likely, the one who confirms a covenant at the beginning of the 70th Week and breaks it half way through (Dan. 9:27), then it is no extravagant surmise to identify the “prince” as the Antichrist. (I am aware that many amillennialists want to say this is Christ, for what appear to be the most absurd reasons). Anyway, this “prince/antichrist” is, I believe, the white-horse rider of Revelation 6:2. This rider (who many amils also absurdly identify with Christ), looks like the white horse Rider of Revelation 19:11ff, who is Christ, but, for the reasons given above, is surely Antichrist. Thus, Antichrist steps on to the scene at the beginning of the seventieth week and makes a covenant with Israel, Daniel’s people. Israel then is once again at the forefront of God’s actions (cf. also Rev. 7:1-8; 11:1-2, 8: 12:1-5, etc.).
If we introduce 2 Thessalonians 2 into the scene we see that Paul tells the Church that our gathering to Christ will not occur “until the rebellion (apostasia) comes, and the man of lawlessness is revealed” (2 Thess. 2:1, 3). Paul is clearing up a misconception about the arrival of “the Day of the Lord.” That “day” is connected to the start of the apostasy and the revealing of the man of sin or Antichrist. Thus it would seem that the Day of the Lord as the Apostle here uses the term is coterminous with the appearance of Antichrist, the white horse rider of Revelation 6, which is, it seems, and as noted above, at the beginning of Daniel’s 70th Week.
If this is in fact the case, then certain entailments follow. The first is that it would seem to do away with attempts to restrict the term “Day of the Lord” (he hemera tou kuriou) to either a mid, pre-wrath or post-tribulational scenario. The second is that our gathering (episounagogay) with Christ (2:1) is linked with the onset of the rebellion or apostasy, (although I see nothing in the argument which makes the apostasy the rapture itself – a la E. Schuyler English), in which case the rapture will happen in or around the beginning of the Tribulation. It’s not a knock-down argument, but it certainly gives the nod to a pre-trib understanding of “Day of the Lord” in this particular passage.
The Problem of “Day of the Lord”
Obviously this is a massive subject, and I am permitting myself the luxury of dealing with it in a somewhat piecemeal fashion, but just a brief look at some assorted passages will help us get a basic understanding of the term. It will mean I have to meander a little through certain scriptures. I’ll begin with Paul.
The Apostle Paul only uses the words three times. We have noted 2 Thessalonians 2 above. In 1 Corinthians 5:5, when speaking about the handing over of a man to Satan “for the destruction of the flesh” he gives as his reason “that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” In passing we should mention that the addition of the name “Jesus” after the phrase is well attested, but I don’t think it changes anything. The time reference is not indexed so one cannot say for sure precisely when this will be. So like so many rapture supporting verses it can be used by all schools.
The next passage is in 1 Thessalonians 5:2. I’ll provide the context:
Now concerning the times and the seasons brothers, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “there is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they shall not escape. But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief… For God has not destined us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Thessalonians 5:1-4, 9
This passage follows on from the rapture section at the end of chapter 4. In that section the Apostle writes as if the snatching out was a new teaching for the Thessalonians (4:13). Here though the church is said to be well aware of the teaching concerning the Day of the Lord. Okay, but that still does not place the rapture at any specified point in the eschaton. Perhaps then it would be well to examine the two figures which Paul uses, one of which is drawn from the Old Testament.
The reference to “birth pangs” or “labor pains” is an analogy for discomfort and distress. For example, in Psalm 48 it is used to illustrate the reaction of the kings of the earth upon seeing God’s City, verses 1 to 8 possibly predicting the future kingdom. Then in Isaiah 13:6-13, which is a Day of the Lord passage (13:6, 9), the events surrounding God’s judgment on the world (v.11) resemble closely the climactic events circling around the Second Coming (i.e. cosmic disturbances 13:10, 13). References in Micah and Jeremiah follow along similar lines. Sometimes it is hard to extract these end times predictions from more immediate contexts as the prophets often view contemporary troubles from the vantage of the present aeon and its eventual overturn at Christ’s appearing in judgment. But there is no warrant for making it all figurative; still less for calling upon the shapeless crock which is “apocalyptic” (which within some sectors of evangelicalism is coming to encompass well nigh everything).
Paul’s usage of the metaphor of labor pains to describe the present groaning of the earth in Romans 8:22 shows that it can speak of the creation’s ages-long waiting on its redemption and not about the eschaton itself. This means that there is nothing in the phrase itself which connotes the Tribulation or Second Advent. But when linked to other end times cues, like in 1 Thessalonians 5, it does bespeak the great distress that will ensue.
So getting back to our text, the “labor pains” motif does argue for an intensified period of trial at the end of the age, but again, is it the cusp of the Tribulation, or half-way, or what pre-wrathers point to as the tail-end when the bowls of wrath of Revelation 16 are poured out? It’s hard to say exactly. And this sort of lack of precision is typical.
Okay, so what does Paul mean by the Day of the Lord in 1 Thessalonians 5? Well, it is something preceded by the rapture (1 Thess. 4:17), though no interval is given. It appears to be identical with the “wrath to come” in 1:10 (cf. 5:9), so we will need to examine that term below. It also comes suddenly, which the figure of the “thief in the night” illustrates distinctly. However, this “thief” metaphor is not referring to the rapture, but something occurring after it has taken place. For instance, Revelation 16:15 has the term used to speak of the Second Coming (cf. Rev. 19:11ff.). The word indicates a nasty surprise, which the Lord’s return in anger will surely be (2 Thess. 1:5-10, about which more has to be said). Post-tribulationists warm to such passages, but the other positions are not overturned by it, because “thief” is not technical. This can be seen from Peter.
When we arrive at 2 Peter 3:10, the Day of the Lord is linked to the dissolving of the elements which compose this present heavens and earth! Some writers want to situate this total dissolution prior to or at the Second Coming (e.g. Fruchtenbaum), but that cannot be done without bidding adieu to, or at least unsettling the idea of a future Millennium. The obvious time reference is to Revelation 20:11-21:2, after the thousand years, not to circumstances surrounding the 70th Week or the return of Christ. Although Peter does refer to the Return in the context in 3:4, the “Day of God” language in 3:12 and the mention of “New heavens and a new earth” in 3:13 indicate (at least to me) that Peter thinks about the “Day of the Lord” as the appearing and kingly session of Christ back on earth which culminates in a totally new Creation. Thus, the Day of the Lord for Peter starts when Christ comes “as a thief in the night” and only ends at the destruction of this present Creation a thousand years later.
I realize I am assuming a pre-new Creational kingdom, which I do not intend to argue for here, but which is exegetically obvious unless a transmogrifying theology is interposed to whittle it out of existence (e.g. Isa. 11; 62; Zech. 14; Matt. 19:28; Rom. 8; Rev. 20). Hence, in 1 Thessalonians 5 the Day of the Lord could indicate the actual coming of Christ. Then again it could refer to a “Day” after the rapture anywhere within the seven year period of Daniel’s prophecy. It could be the whole seven years; half of it, or the last months. Indeed, a recent study makes the “Day of the Lord” so generic that it can almost mean anything covered by judgment and mercy (See Paul House’s essay in Central Themes in Biblical Theology, eds., Scott J. Hafemann & Paul R. House, 179-224). We’ll have to keep sifting the materials.