Prewrath eschatology teaches that the rapture and the onset of the day of the Lord’s wrath will happen back-to-back on the very same day. The day Christ returns arriving on the clouds to resurrect and rapture his people will be the very same day that his eschatological judgments begin to unleash on the world for an undetermined length of time. To be sure, the day of the Lord will not all happen in a single day, only its inception occurs on the day the rapture happens. God’s purpose is to deliver his people then initiate his wrath on the same day.
This same-day, two-fold event contains significant implications for the pretribulational notion of “imminence,” the belief that Jesus can return at “any moment.” Since Scripture teaches that prophesied events will happen before the day of the Lord—the celestial disturbance (Joel 2:30–31), Elijah’s coming (Mal 4:5), the apostasy and revelation of the Antichrist (2 Thess 2:1–4)—then by necessity they will take place before the rapture. Consequently, the pretribulational teaching of imminence is rendered invalid.
The majority of pretribulationists believe the day the rapture happens will be the same day, or the next day, the day of the Lord’s wrath begins (albeit, the wrongly place it as the beginning of the seven year period). So this biblical reality of events happening before the day of the Lord becomes problematic for their theological system. Some pretribulational teachers, accordingly, recognize this salient implication that contradicts their eschatological theological system. But rather than move away from their position and embracing the prewrath interpretation, they feel the need to continue to defend pretribulationism. Their attempt to resolve this problem, then, is to posit a “gap” of time—days, weeks, or months—between the rapture and the day of the Lord’s wrath. This schema then allows for the prophesied events mentioned above to occur during this “gap” before day of the Lord but after the rapture. Thus, the pretribulationist aims to “protect” their teaching of imminence by using this interval argument.
We would expect the apostle Paul to be consistent with Jesus on this point, since Paul draws so much of his eschatology from Jesus’ teaching. And sure enough, we shall see that Paul also taught the same day that Jesus returns in the clouds the righteous will be delivered and the punishment for the wicked will begin.
We ought to thank God always for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith flourishes more and more and the love of each one of you all for one another is ever greater. As a result we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and afflictions you are enduring. This is evidence of God’s righteous judgment, to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which in fact you are suffering. For it is right for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to you who are being afflicted to give rest together with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels. With flaming fire he will mete out punishment on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his strength, when he comes to be glorified among his saints and admired on that day among all who have believed—and you did in fact believe our testimony. (2 Thess 1:3–10 emphasis mine)
In 2 Thessalonians 1:7, Paul instructs that the church will experience affliction right up to the initial day of the revelation of Christ:“and to you who are being afflicted to give rest together with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels.” Then we are told that two things will happen on the initial day of the revelation of Christ. First, believers will be given “rest” (i.e. delivered). This is certainly a reference to Paul’s first epistle in his rapture teaching of the deliverance of God’s people at Jesus’ future coming, parousia (1 Thess 4:13–18). Second, the day they will be given rest is “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels. With flaming fire he will mete out punishment on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thess 1:7–8). Again, Paul is making reference back to his first epistle, but in this instance it is to the day of the Lord’s wrath that will immediately follow the rapture (1 Thess 5:1–9).
Paul then reiterates this point explaining that “on that day” when the godly are united with Christ he will begin to judge the ungodly: “They will undergo the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his strength, when he comes to be glorified among his saints and admired on that day among all who have believed—and you did in fact believe our testimony” (2 Thess 1:9–10). So for believers alive at that time “who believe our testimony” (v. 10), that day will begin eternal rest; but for unbelievers who “do not obey the gospel” (v. 8), it will begin eternal unrest. In other words, there will not be any delay between the rapture of the righteous and the day of the Lord’s judgment upon the ungodly. The Lord’s coming will be twofold: deliverance and judgment, back-to-back, beginning on the same day.
Not all pretribulational teachers agree that Paul’s teaching indicates this back-to-back nature of deliverance and eschatological wrath. For example, Richard Mayhue writes,
Paul is not writing a detailed, chronological, or even precise prophetic treatise here, but rather is wanting to give the Thessalonians hope that, in the end, God’s righteousness would prevail. Like Old Testament prophets (cf. Is. 61:1–2; 2 Pet. 1:10–11), Paul has compressed the details so that the range of time is not apparent, nor are all of the details. The apostle is plainly assuring the Thessalonians that there will certainly be a coming day of retribution for their persecutors. As a result, this text has no bearing on determining the time of the rapture.*1*
To be sure, we can agree with Mayhue on two points. First, it is true that Paul is not writing a detailed account; rather he is compressing the details in a summary of judgment. Paul is summarizing the gamut of judgments that the ungodly will experience from the first day of the day of the Lord’s wrath, up to, and including, their eternal destination in hell. He is emphasizing judgment qua judgment, not intending to describe the whole complex of judgment elements. This we can agree. Second, we can agree with Mayhue that Paul is giving “hope that, in the end, God’s righteousness would prevail” and “assuring the Thessalonians that there will certainly be a coming day of retribution for their persecutors.”
We must, however, disagree with Mayhue’s assertion that Paul does not use temporal language. This is demonstrably false. Paul uses explicit temporal language by chronologically tying together deliverance and judgment: “when,” “on that day.” In fact, the “hope” that Paul is seeking to foster for the trepidatious Thessalonians is grounded in the promise of God that he will begin to judge their persecutors on the same day as the deliverance of the godly! Paul could not describe it more plain than he does: When Jesus is revealed from heaven to “to give rest” to his afflicted people, he will be accompanied “with his mighty angels” and with “flaming fire to mete out punishment” upon the wicked. Mayhue’s interpretation of Paul is flawed and ignores this key element in Paul’s instruction. Paul’s portrayal is consistent with Jesus’ teaching that eschatological deliverance and judgment will occur back-to-back, beginning on the same day.
In conclusion, I have argued in this chapter that the biblical evidence supports the back-to-back nature between the rapture and the beginning of the day of the Lord’s wrath, militating against the notion of a gap of days, weeks, or months. The day Christ returns arriving on the clouds to resurrect and rapture his people will be the very same day that his eschatological judgments begin to unfold upon the world. I also responded to a key pretribulational argument for the gap interpretation that skews the interpretation of Paul’s teaching. This “same day” principle is problematic for the pretribulational notion that Jesus can return at “any moment.” Since Scripture teaches there will be prophesied events occurring before the day of the Lord—the celestial disturbance (Joel 2:30–31), Elijah’s coming (Mal 4:5), the apostasy and revelation of the Antichrist (2 Thess 2:1–4)—then by necessity they will take place before the rapture. Consequently, the pretribulational teaching of imminence cannot be exegetically maintained.
*1*Richard Mayhue, “Why A Pretribulation Rapture?,” Christ’s Prophetic Plans: A Futuristic Premillennial Primer, eds. John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012) 101.