The timing of the rapture is a complicated subject because any interpreter’s conclusions depend on interlocking assumptions brought from the interpretation of other passages. On the one hand 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 is the key rapture passage. It is the passage about saints being caught up into the air to meet the Lord. And yet, this passage, on its own, (arguably) reveals nothing of the timing of the Tribulation (Hiebert, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 218) (Note the difficulty of even stating the question without bringing in the understandings of other passages to bear. Hiebert and Hoekema, to use just one example, are going to have differing understandings of the Tribulation [cf. The Bible and the Future, 332]). Thus the timing of the rapture has to be discerned by relating the passage to other Scriptural passages.
When it comes to this passage there seem to be two major arguments in favor of a post-tribulation view, one internal to the passage and one external.
First, post-tribulationalists argue that ἀπάντησις is used to indicate going out to meet a dignitary and to lead him back to the city. This points toward a rapture in which the saints immediately return to earth with Christ after having been caught up to meet him in the air (though it should be noted that Beale and Weima, in their commentaries, take the clouds and the snatching up to be apocalyptic imagery rather than an indication of any actual movement).
The argument that ἀπάντησις is a technical term is argued for by Peterson in TDNT. It has subsequently been adopted by a number of commentaries. However, after tracking down the usage of the term in the sources noted in LSJ and elsewhere, it seems to me that TDNT’s treatment of ἀπάντησις is an example of the kind of thing for which James Barr critiqued TDNT. The term ἀπάντησις can be used to indicate going out to meet a dignitary with the purpose of bringing him back to one’s city, but it is not always thus used. Thus EDNT seems to exhibit sounder judgment when it says, “The evidence (Peterson [TDNT] 683–92) is not so much proof for a t.t. [technical term] … as for the existence and form of an ancient custom” (1:115). Whether that ancient custom is in view in a particular text depends not on the presence of the term but on “the exegesis of the respective contexts” (Ibid.). In this case, it is not a delegation that goes out to meet Christ; all those in Christ meet him. Nor do they go out to meet him; they are caught up to meet him. It doesn’t seem to me that the exegesis favors the post-tribulational understanding of ἀπάντησις. For further discussion, see here.
More impressive, in my opinion, for the post-tribulation position are the parallels seem to exist between Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4. On a pre-tribulation view, Matthew 24 deals (primarily) with the Second Coming proper whereas 1 Thessalonians 4 deals with a previous rapture. The post-tribulation position is able to identify these two passages with the same event.
Greg Beale lists the following parallels in his commentary on the Thessalonian epistles:
- Christ returns
- from heaven
- accompanied by angels
- with a trumpet of God
- believers gathered to Christ
- in clouds
Nonetheless, the parallels between Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4 are not as impressive as they appear at first glance. Points 1, 2, and 6 would, in the nature of the case, be the same at the rapture and at the second coming, if these two events are distinguished. Point 4 is a more exact point of comparison, but if one, for other reasons, sees the events as distinct there is nothing to prevent a trumpet sound at both. Points 3 and 5 are more ambivalent. With regard to point 3, the Thessalonians passage merely mentions the voice of an archangel. The accompaniment by angels is only mentioned in Matthew. With regard to point 5, the Thessalonians passage has the saints caught up to meet Christ in the air. Matthew has the angels collect the elect from the four winds. It is unclear whether this terminology refers to a catching up or to a gathering on earth (Weima and Beale would say it doesn’t matter since the language of catching up is figurative). These differences are harmonizable, but they are differences rather than similarities.
I would say that all things being equal the parallels between Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4 would lead toward interpreters identifying the two events. But if other considerations come into play, the differences may take on more significance for the interpreter. In any event, the similarities are not of the nature as to compel Matthew 24 and 1 Thessalonians 4 to be a singlular rapture/second coming.
What considerations might lead to the conclusion that 1 Thessalonians 4 and Matthew 24 are distinct events―or better, distinct parts of a complex event that we call the Second Coming? There seem to be two major arguments in favor of a pre-tribulation reading of 1 Thessalonians 4.
The first argument is the lack of harmony between the sequence given in 1 Thessalonians 4 and the sequence given in Revelation 19-20. The sequence of events in 1 Thessalonians 4 is significant because it is at the heart of the argument that Paul is making in that passage. Consider the argument of Weima. He holds that the need for this instruction came from the Thessalonians’ concern that fellow believers “who had already died would be at some kind of disadvantage at the parousia.” That this is the concern is indicated by Paul’s emphasis that the living will not precede the dead at the parousia, the dead will rise first, the living and the resurrected dead will meet Christ together in the air. To argue, as some do, that this is an unreasonable concern “underestimates the great anticipation and hope that the Thessalonians have about participating in the glory of the parousia event (Weima, BECNT, 312-13).
Having established that the sequence given is 1 Thessalonians 4 is significant, it is important, then, to note that pre-millennialists have long argued that Revelation 19-20 gives a sequential description of future events. Here is the complexity noted above in which there is a complex interaction in how passages are understood; as an amillennialist Weima, for instance, probably does not accept the argument that Revelation 19-20 is sequential. Nonetheless, there is a powerful case for seeing Revelation 19-20 as sequential.
- Revelation 19 narrates the return of Christ and his dealing with the beast and the false prophet. But Satan, a key opponent of Christ, is not dealt with until the beginning of chapter 20. Remembering that chapter breaks were added at a later date, it seems that a natural reading would travel directly from chapter 19 to chapter 20 (noted by Bruce Ware, “Boyce College Eschatology Forum with Schreiner, Ware, and Brand,” Audio Recording, 1:01:03).
- If there is a sequence that moves from Revelation 19 into Revelation 20, as any premillennialist must argue, Revelation 20:4 continues the sequence. This is especially so since there is a sequence of Καὶ εἶδον (and I saw / then I saw) extending from 19:11 through 21:1 (19:11, 17, 19; 20:1, 4, 11, 12; 21:1) that seems to mark the sequence of events.
If there is a sequence that runs from Revelation 19 through Revelation 20, that sequence does not harmonize with the sequence in 1 Thessalonians 4. In Revelation Jesus returns with the armies of heaven, casts the beast and his prophet into the lake of fire, chains Satan in the abyss, sets up his throne on earth, and then raises saints from death. In 1 Thessalonians 4, Jesus appears in the clouds, raises the dead saints to life, and catches all the saints, living and resurrected, into the clouds. The inability to harmonize these two sequences points to these passages referring two separate events (or to different parts of the complex event, which unfolds over a period of years, which we call the Second Coming).
In further support of the distinction between 1 Thessalonians 4 and Revelation 20 is the indication that the only saints raised in Revelation 20:4 are the Tribulation martyrs. Michael Svigel argues:
“Since the vision from 19:11 through 20:10 appears to be in sequence, and since the armies accompanying Christ are the resurrected, glorified Church, it seems best to understand the unmentioned subject of the third person plural verb in Rev 20:4 as referring to Christ and the armies of heaven accompanying him [cf. KJV, NKJV, NASB]. The passage begins: Καὶ εἶδον θρόνους καὶ ἐκάθισαν ἐπ αὐτοὺς καὶ κρίμα ἐδόθη αὐτοῖς. Some translations have recognized the problem of the lack of the subject here and have adjusted their translations accordingly [cf. NIV, NRSV, ESV, (H)CSB]. However, if one reads the entire passage from 19:11 through 20:10 as one vision described by John, one realizes that immediately before 20:4 the only persons remaining in John’s vision are Christ and his armies descending upon the earth. Thus, those who sit upon the thrones and those to whom judgment is given are those accompanying Christ on white horses. If this is the case, the ones resurrected in Rev 20:4–6 would be limited to the saints martyred during the Tribulation. [Michael J. Svigel, “The Apocalypse Of John And The Rapture Of The Church: A Reevaluation,” Trinity Journal 22:1 (Spr 01) p. 51-52.]
In any event, the only ones identified as being raised in 20:4 are Tribulation martyrs who did not worship the beast. Verse 5 says the rest of the dead are not raised until after the Millennium. This would either mean that only Tribulation saints are resurrected (at the time of a post-tribulation rapture?] with the rest of the dead (including the dead in Christ) having to wait until the end of the Millennium to be raised or that the others who were dead in Christ had already been raised. On the latter view, Tribulation martyrs were the only dead in Christ that were still in need of resurrection at the time of Revelation 20:4. If all other believers were already raised in at the (pre-tribulation) rapture, and if the Tribulation martyrs were raised just after the Second Coming, then only the lost dead remain dead through the Millennium. This latter reading seems more probable.
The second argument in favor of a pre-tribulation reading of 1 Thessalonians 4 relates to what Thessalonians itself says about wrath and the day of the Lord. In the context of the Day of the Lord, which is a day of wrath, 1 Thessalonians 5:9 says that Christians are not destined for wrath (cf. 1 Thess. 1:10). Given the context, it is more likely that wrath refers to the Day of the Lord than merely to Hell. This would also harmonize with Revelation 3:10. Obviously, much more could be said about this second argument.