There’s nothing like an apocalypse prediction to get the media buzzing. Last May, one of the more highly publicized predictions in recent memory came from radio host Harold Camping, who gained national notoriety by warning that Judgment Day would arrive on May 21. (It didn’t, of course.) Meanwhile, other doomsday predictors have had their eyes on 2012 for several years now; some say the Mayan calendar places the end of the world on Dec. 21. But amidst all the hype and pop culture hoopla, what does the Bible actually say about the end times?

Eschatology is a popular but notoriously difficult area of Christian theology. There are nearly as many theories on how to interpret the book of Revelation, for example, as there are books in the Left Behind series. One of the most contested elements of evangelical end times scholarship is the rapture — specifically when it will take place in relation to other eschatological events like the tribulation and the return of Christ to earth.

Alan Hultberg, an associate professor at Talbot School of Theology, is one of Biola’s resident experts on end times theology, and he recently edited the book, Three Views on the Rapture. Biola Magazine recently interviewed Hultberg about the rapture, its various interpretations, and why it’s important for Christians to take seriously.

What is the rapture, and what is the scriptural evidence for it?

The rapture is the doctrine that at the return of Christ, all believers will be caught up (i.e., “raptured”) to meet the Lord in the air. The bodies of dead believers will be resurrected, and all believers, living and dead, will be glorified. It is taught explicitly in 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17 and more or less implicitly in 1 Corinthians 15:51–55 and John 14:2. Other passages, such as Matthew 24:31; 2 Thessalonians 1:10; and Revelation 14:14–16 are debated.

What purpose does the rapture serve in the overall purposes of God for creation? How does it fit into the big picture of God's redemptive plan?

God’s redemptive plan is to restore what was lost in Adam, to restore the proper functioning of his rule in creation through the vice-regency of a humanity living in proper relation to him (though that entails a lot more than what I’ve said here). The resurrection of believers is part of that restoration, as Paul teaches in Romans 8:18–23. So, insofar as the rapture and the resurrection are associated, the rapture plays a role in that restoration. However, the Scriptures also teach that before the establishment of the Messianic kingdom at the return of Christ, God will pour his wrath out upon the world opposed to his rule. The church is promised reprieve from this wrath, and the rapture is the means by which it is protected.

book cover: The Rapture

In your introduction to Three Views on the Rapture, you say that while the issue of the timing of the rapture isn’t central to the Christian faith, it “touches on the doctrine of the church and on issues of normative Christian experience,” and “is thus not an inconsequential doctrine but one that the church at large needs continually to wrestle with.” Why is this issue an important one for Christians to discuss?

Well, when I say that the doctrine of the rapture touches on the doctrine of the church, I mean that the distinction made among believers by the rapture raises the question of the relation of various groups of believers in the larger family of God. The Bible teaches that some believers will go through the period of God’s wrath (notably the 144,000 in Revelation 7, 9 and 14) and some won’t (the “us” that Paul associates himself with in 1 Thessalonians 5:9, those who will be raptured). Why is there this distinction among believers? What does it have to teach us about the family of God? When I say it touches on issues of normative Christian experience, I mean that it raises the question of God allowing the church to suffer. There is debate over the timing of the rapture in relation to the final tribulation, the final period of unparalleled persecution by the Antichrist. Some argue that God will not allow the church to suffer under Antichrist. But God does allow the church to suffer in this present age (John 16:33; Acts 14:22), so what makes the difference, if there is one?

There are three main views of the timing of the rapture: pretribulation, posttribulation, and prewrath. Could you briefly explain the main claims of each position?

The pretribulation view teaches that God will rapture the church before the final seven years of this age (often called the 70th week of Daniel, from Daniel 9:27, or the tribulation). According to this view, this entire time period is characterized by God’s wrath. It depends in part on making a distinction between the coming of Christ to rapture the church and the coming of Christ to return to earth to reign. Posttribulationism teaches that the church will be raptured at the very end of the age, when Christ returns to reign. The church will be caught up to meet the Lord in the air and immediately return to earth with him. The prewrath view teaches that the wrath of God is poured out sometime in the final three and a half years before the end of the age, after the start of the final persecution by Antichrist. The church is raptured immediately before God’s wrath is poured out, so, like pretribulationism, a distinction is made between the coming of Christ to rapture the church and the final coming to earth, but unlike pretribulationism, the church will experience the final persecution by Antichrist.

You argue for the prewrath position. What are the main supporting arguments for this position?

I base my argument on two points that I believe the Scriptures to teach: that the church will be raptured sometime during the second half of Daniel’s 70th week (that is, after the abomination of desolation and beginning of the final persecution by Antichrist), and that between the rapture of the church and the return of Christ to earth will be an extended period of time when God’s wrath is poured out on the hostile world. The first point is derived especially from Matthew 24; 2 Thessalonians 2; and Revelation 13. The second point is derived especially from 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5 and Revelation 7 and 14. Of course, both points consider numerous corollary issues and passages. In the main, though, pretribulationism is ruled out by the first point and posttribulationism by the second.

As someone who takes the prewrath position, do you then believe that the rapture won’t be entirely unexpected? That is, if the abomination of desolation is an event we can observe happening, wouldn't that signal that the rapture will be imminent?

Since the prewrath position requires the rise of Antichrist and his abomination of desolation before the rapture, it means that, in this view, the rapture is not imminent in the sense of being able to happen at any moment. In my opinion, 1 Thessalonians 5:2–4 and 2 Thessalonians 2:1–4 teach exactly that those “signs” must occur (and other passages imply as much). That means that I need to deal with “imminence” passages, like Matthew 24:42–44, differently than as teaching an “any moment” rapture. Matthew 24:32–33 suggests that this is proper. Essentially, in my opinion, the Bible teaches the “unknowability” of the timing of the rapture, not its “any moment imminence.” As long as the number of intervening events or the duration of time between certain events and the rapture is unknown, “imminence” in the biblical sense is maintained. There is nothing in the prewrath view that undermines that biblical “imminence.”

Do you think it’s a danger for Christians or churches to focus too much on the rapture? Do you think it gives off the impression that Christians are just eager to escape the world and leave it to its own destruction?

I guess it’s a matter of how that focus is presented to the world and what one holds to be central to Christian theology. If one makes the rapture the central focus of one’s Christian life and holes oneself up awaiting the return of Christ or merely (and gleefully?) preaches destruction to unbelievers, or if one neglects the larger issues that make for Christian unity and virtue — things much more clearly taught and prescribed in Scripture — in favor of dogmatic and divisive interest in the rapture, then one is focusing too much on the rapture. Paul enjoined against something like the first problem in the Thessalonian letters and Jesus something like the second in John. Getting things straight scripturally is important, but majoring on the minors and becoming arrogant and unloving in the process, both toward insiders and outsiders, is not of the Spirit.

To the outside (secular) world, the idea of the rapture is looked at derisively, as a kind of kitschy joke that makes Christians look silly (“date predictors” like Harold Camping don’t help things). How should Christians defend the idea of the rapture in a more intelligent or believable way?

Well, defending what the Bible says is always going to be a joke as far as the world is concerned. All we can do is aim to be accurate, humble and winsome, admitting where things are clear in Scripture and where they aren’t clear. One thing that “date setters” have in common is poor hermeneutics; they use indefensible interpretive methods. More knowledgeable Christians can try to explain to an incredulous world what defensible interpretations lead us to conclude about the return of Christ.

In the midst of various interpretations of the end times, what would you say are the most important eschatological truths or facts that all Christians should cling to? In other words, what are the eschatological “essentials” versus “non-essentials”?

Things indisputably taught in Scripture and central to our faith are essential; things less clearly taught are non-essential. That Jesus is coming again to vindicate his church and judge the enemies of God is the big essential. That is the blessed hope of the church. When and how are not as essential. That there will be a resurrection of the dead, some to eternal life and some to eternal suffering, is essential. What the new heavens and earth will be like, what the kingdom of God on earth will be like, etc., that is, the details, are non-essential.

Alan Hultberg (M.Div. ’89), an associate professor of Bible exposition and New Testament at Talbot School of Theology, is the editor and co-author of Three Views on The Rapture: Pretribulation, Prewrath, or Posttribulation. He holds a Ph.D. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.