Book review: “The Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church,” by Marvin J. Rosenthal

By Robert Hawes

Of all the doctrinal topics that divide evangelical Christians, the study of Eschatology (“last things” or end-times prophecy) is surely one of the most polarizing, particularly where it touches on the “rapture” of the church. While evangelicals believe that Jesus Christ will personally, physically return to the earth someday, and that He will literally “catch-away” His believers at some point before setting up His Millennial reign, there is a great deal of disagreement as to exactly when these events will take place, or whether they truly are separate events at all. Pre-tribulationists insist that Christ will rapture His church prior to the beginning of the seven-year “Tribulation period,” also known as the “70th Week of Daniel.” Mid-tribulationists, as their name implies, see the rapture occurring in the middle of the 70th Week. Pre-wrath adherents see the rapture taking place at some point during the last three-and-one-half years of the 70th Week, just prior to the period of time when God will begin pouring out His wrath on Antichrist’s world kingdom. Finally, post-tribulationists see the rapture taking place at the same time as the glorious appearing of Christ, which all four viewpoints agree takes place at the very end of the 70th Week.

Like many Christians, including myself, Marvin J. Rosenthal was once a card-carrying member of the pre-tribulationist school, the viewpoint which has dominated evangelical Christianity for the last century (see the best-selling “Left Behind” books for a fictionalized version of this eschatological timeline). In time, however, as he studied the topic in greater depth, Rosenthal came to believe that pre-tribulation rapturism was fatally flawed, and he began to re-evaluate prophetic teachings in search of the truth behind the rapture question. The “Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church” is the culmination of that effort; and, while I do not agree with Rosenthal’s conclusions in total, I would argue that he has made a valuable contribution to the rapture debate.

Points of agreement:

The most effective aspect of “The Pre-wrath Rapture” is Rosenthal’s critique of pre-tribulation rapturism, and this alone is enough to recommend the book.

Rosenthal brilliantly debunks pre-tribulation rapturism. He demonstrates that the “Day of the Lord” (the final out-pouring of God’s wrath on Antichrist’s kingdom) is not the entire 70th Week of Daniel (nor the Millennial Kingdom, as some contend). He does so by citing Joel 2:31, in which the Day of the Lord (DOTL) is described as beginning with very specific cosmic signs: the sun is darkened, the moon turns red as blood, and the heavens and the earth are “shaken.” Rosenthal shows that these signs are the same as those described by Jesus in Matthew 24:29, and those that follow the opening of the 6th seal in Revelation 6:12, an event that takes place deep within the 70th Week. Additionally, Rosenthal points out the fact that both Christ and the Apostle Paul (see Matthew 24 and II Thessalonians 2:3) taught that four events must precede the rapture of the church, namely the “coming of Elijah,” a “falling away” (a mass apostasy), the revelation of Antichrist (the “man of sin”), and the cosmic signs of the DOTL, thus destroying the central pre-trib pillar of “imminence,” (the idea that the rapture could happen “at any moment,” with no prophesied events preceding it).

Rosenthal develops these points with excellent exegesis and logic and, in my opinion, utterly devastates pre-tribulation rapturism. Toward the end of the book, he takes time to evaluate a number of common pre-trib arguments, and does so effectively.

Where Rosenthal fails, I believe, is in his attempt to establish a pre-wrath rapture.

Points of disagreement:

Rosenthal teaches that the rapture will occur at some point during the second half of the 70th Week, immediately following a time of intense persecution known as “the Great Tribulation,” and in conjunction with the signs marking the DOTL (the 6th seal in Revelation), but prior to the actual out-pouring of the wrath. This, Rosenthal tells us, is consistent with the promise of scripture that Christians are not “appointed to wrath” (I Thessalonians 5:9). He presents the “great multitude” of Revelation chapter 7 as the raptured church in Heaven.

And while Rosenthal comes very close to the truth, unfortunately, certain assumptions cause him to deviate into theologically indefensible territory.

Scripture very clearly teaches one, visible second coming of Christ in glory. Rosenthal gets it right when he says, “Not once does the Bible speak of two comings — not even by hint or implication,” (p. 229); nevertheless, he maintains that the second coming includes the rapture, the DOTL, and Christ’s final appearance in the clouds, all of which, in his view, necessitate a “coming” that lasts for an extended period of time. However, just as there are no passages that teach multiple comings, there are no passages that teach a prolonged coming or a coming in stages. Rather, the Bible teaches that the rapture will take place when Christ appears in glory, at which point He will be visible to the whole world.

In Matthew 24, the famous “Olivet Discourse,” Christ’s disciples asked Him, “What will be the sign of Your coming [singular], and of the end of the age?” (NASB) Christ proceeded to answer their question without correcting their assumption that He would come only once more. Indeed, He tells them not to be deceived but to watch for the DOTL signs (verse 29), which He says will come, “after the tribulation of those days”. If you read the passage, you’ll see that this is a reference to the “Great Tribulation,” the persecution that will follow Antichrist’s desecration of the Jewish Temple and his demand to be worshiped as God.

Matthew 24:30-33 – “And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the SON OF MAN COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF THE SKY with power and great glory. And He will send forth His angels with A GREAT TRUMPET and THEY WILL GATHER TOGETHER His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other.” (NASB)

Notice that Christ says He will gather His elect at His visible coming, and notice how this language compares to that of the Apostle Paul in I Thessalonians 4:15-17 -

“For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.” (NASB)

And in II Thessalonians 2:1-3 -

“Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him…Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.” (NASB)

Consider that, in both of his famous rapture passages, Paul refers to a singular coming of Christ, and how he attaches our “catching-up” and “gathering to Him” with that one event. The language of II Thess 2:1 is especially telling in its reference to “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering to Him.” According to the rules of Greek grammar, when you have two nouns of the same case (in this instance, “coming” and “gathering”), connected by the word Kai (“and” in English), and the first is preceded by a definite article but the second is not, the nouns should be grouped together (for another example, see Titus 2:13-14, where “the great God and our Saviour” both refer to Jesus Christ).

Clearly, the glorious appearing of Christ and the rapture are simultaneous events, meaning that the rapture must take place at the end of the 70th Week (thus it is post-tribulational). To argue otherwise, one has to obscure or twist the very plain meaning of the passages in Matthew 24 and II Thessalonians. For further evidence, consider that, in the account of Christ’s ascension into heaven in Acts 1, the angels that appeared to His disciples told them, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.” (NASB) And in Revelation 1:7, John tells us: “Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him.” (KJV) These important scriptures also support one visible, physical return of Christ to the earth in glory.

In regard to the wrath of God, I fully agree with Rosenthal that Christians will be exempt from it (I Thess. 5:9); however, I cannot find any teaching in scripture that says that Christians will be removed from the earth during it. No secret coming or coming in stages is taught. Nor does this promise for deliverance require the removal of Christians in order to be valid. God is able to protect His people from the effects of His wrath during the 70th Week, just as He protected Noah and his family from the great flood, and just as he protected the Hebrews living in the land of Goshen from the plagues of Egypt.

I must also disagree with Rosenthal where the great apostasy of II Thessalonians 2 is concerned. Rosenthal states that this will be a Jewish apostasy in that the nation of Israel will place its faith in the promises of Antichrist (as it once turned to Antiochus Epiphanes), whereas I believe that this passage is speaking of a general apostasy among believers. Rosenthal justifies his view with four main points: 1) that the only other time “apostasy” is used in the NT is in reference to the Jews (Acts 21:20), 2) that the Greek in II Thessalonians 2 has the definite article, thus making it “The Apostasy,” and the Jews historically referred to the time when many of them allied with Antiochus Epiphanes as “The Apostasy,” 3) that those Paul warns Timothy will “depart from the faith” in the latter times (see 1 Timothy 4:1-2) are not apostates but false teachers, and 4) that if believers can apostatize “then the doctrine of the eternal security of the believer in this age must be seriously questioned. And that cannot be allowed to stand.” (p. 199).

In reply, I would point out the following:

1. In the days of Antiochus Epiphanes, when “The Apostasy” occurred, the Jews were the “people of God.” Since then, the gentiles have been “grafted in,” and thus the equation has changed (Galatians 3:8 “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” KJV) Furthermore, the Apostle Paul does not specifically apply this future apostasy to the Jews, thus the burden of proof is on Rosenthal to establish that it only applies to them, and he is not able to do so compellingly. Indeed, by Paul’s time the Jewish nation as a whole was already apostate in that it had rejected Jesus Christ as the Messiah. This is still the case today, so I find it necessary to ask how an already fallen nation could experience a great apostasy (this would be like arguing that people standing in the rain will, at some future point, get wet).

2. Paul used the definite article in II Thessalonians 2 because he is referring to a specific, major future event, not some “nebulous apostasy at the end of this age,” as Rosenthal argues. This is one of the poorest arguments in the book.

3. The Greek word translated as “depart from the faith” in I Timothy 4:1 is “aphistemi,” not “apostasia,” as Rosenthal says; however, if you check these words in a concordance, you will find that they are extremely similar in meaning. Even so, there is no reason why a genuine apostasy cannot take place in addition to the emergence of false teaching; indeed, false teachings may in part lead to the apostasy.

4. Rosenthal says that challenges to the doctrine of eternal security cannot be allowed to stand; however, I find it ironic that many evangelical Christians feel the same way about pre-tribulationism, which Rosenthal is openly challenging in this book. For that reason, it seems odd to me that Rosenthal would ask us to thoughtfully consider a challenge to pre-tribulationism, but eternal security should not be questioned at all. Not only is this intellectually dishonest, but, as it happens, there are good reasons to question to the doctrine of eternal security (Google the Pristine Faith Restoration Society’s position papers on eternal security for a discussion of the problems with this doctrine).

Rosenthal does address post-tribulationism on a few occasions, but his critiques are brief and seem to be based on the writings of those who don’t defend it very well. For example:

First, Rosenthal claims that the fact that the church is not mentioned in Revelation chapters 4-21 is a problem for the post-trib view (p. 224). Yet, what Rosenthal does not appear to consider is that his argument assumes a strictly earthly focus; since the church isn’t mentioned by name where earthly matters are concerned, he concludes that it cannot be present there. Unfortunately for Rosenthal, however, this argument cuts both ways; for, if the church is in Heaven at some point between chapters 4-21, it is not mentioned by name there either (including the “great multitude” passage of Revelation 7, which Rosenthal views as depicting the raptured church)! Thus, if the presence of the church can only be established by an express use of that one term, we cannot find it at all in chapters 4-21, and so it could be anywhere.

However, while the church is not mentioned by that specific term in chapters 4-21, there are other references that are equally applicable to believers, such as “saints” (Paul greets the “saints” many times in his epistles), and the “saints” are clearly depicted as being located on the earth (note that Antichrist makes war against them in Revelation 13:7). We also find references to those who “keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ,” in Revelation 12, and it is clear that they are also on the earth, as the “dragon” (Satan) makes war against them after he and his demons are cast out of Heaven. In Revelation 18:4, when Babylon is about to be destroyed, God warns “my people” to “come out of her” lest they share in her destruction. And finally, in Revelation 19:7, immediately before heaven is opened and Christ appears, we’re told that “the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready.” As most Christians know, the church is often called “the bride of Christ,” so why is it that the bride is not said to be ready until Revelation 19 if she has been raptured in Revelation 7? And who is God calling out of Babylon? It might be argued that these references to Christians on earth during the Great Tribulation apply to a special group of “Tribulation Saints,” but this argument assumes the church has been removed prior to the Great Tribulation, it does not prove that this is so.

Second, Rosenthal appeals to the argument that, if the rapture occurs at the end of the 70th Week, then it would be possible to know the day of Christ’s coming (1260 days after the Abomination of Desolation), whereas Matthew 24 tells us that “no man knows the day or the hour.” (p. 248) This seems like a compelling argument at first, but it falls apart under careful scrutiny:

1. If you view Matthew 24′s description of Christ’s “gathering” His elect as a rapture passage, which is certainly the most obvious reading, then you must also equate the glorious appearing to the rapture (since Christ said that unbelievers would see Him coming at that time, something that doesn’t happen until the glorious appearing). However, in order for Rosenthal’s objection to succeed, one must separate the rapture and the glorious appearing by a fairly lengthy span of time. The problem here is that Christ did not do this; on the contrary, He made it clear that the “tribes of the earth” would see Him coming and would mourn, and *then* (the text implies that it happens right away) He will “gather together His elect.” He mentions no delay from the time that He becomes visible to those who dwell on the earth, until the gathering of the elect begins, and there is no natural or compelling reason (aside from the defense of doctrine) to insert such a delay in this passage.

Indeed, there is no reason to draw the DOTL out over a lengthy period of time, either. Scripture gives every indication that the day is a literal 24-hour day, not an indefinite span of time. Consider Revelation 6:12-17. In this passage, the 6th seal is opened, the DOTL signs are given, heaven is opened, and the “kings of the earth, and the great men” call for the rocks and mountains to fall of them and hide them from the Lord: “For the great day of his wrath is come; and who shall be able to stand?” This fits quite naturally with Matthew 24:30 and Revelation 1:7, in which we are told that the tribes of the earth will mourn when they see Christ coming in glory (an event which is, once again, connected with the rapture). Also, consider Zechariah 14:6-8, where we are told that the day of the Lord shall be “one day which shall be known to the Lord,” and that “at evening time it shall be light.” This language can only be applicable to a literal calendar day.

2. As Christ said in Matthew 24, it is not possible at the present time (“no man knows” – present tense) to know the day or hour of His glorious appearing; however, it will be possible to know this day in the future. Again, given the fact that the Abomination of Desolation occurs precisely at the mid-point of the 70th Week, that leaves three-and-one-half years (1260 days) until the glorious appearing. Therefore, anyone who observes the Abomination will be able to calculate the date of the glorious appearing (although they still will not know the hour. Note that Christ emphasized the hour even more than the day in Matthew 24).

I could go on, but I think that the points I’ve listed constitute the most glaring problems with “The Pre-wrath Rapture of the Church.”

In summary, Rosenthal does a wonderful job of critiquing pre-tribulation rapturism, and, I might add, does so in a humble and gracious fashion. However, he falls short of proving a pre-wrath rapture, mostly due to the fact that the Bible so clearly links Christ’s appearing in glory to the “catching-up” of His saints. For a thorough presentation of the post-tribulation rapture view, I would again recommend the very fine work done by the Pristine Faith Restoration Society, and particularly by its founder, Pastor Tim Warner.

Robert Hawes is the author of “One Nation, Indivisible? A Study of Secession and the Constitution.” This article, along with his past writings, can be found on his blog: http://jeffersonian73.blogspot.com. He lives in South Carolina with his family and is available for freelance writing projects.

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