This is a brief and sketchy position paper intended to clarify my position without being exhaustive. The issues and arguments are far too many than we could deal with in one evening.
Let me stress that the disagreement over pre- and post-tribulationism is not one that I think should threaten our fellowship. It should not be divisive. The things on which we agree are so stupendous as to overwhelm our hearts in common love for the Lord and his appearing. Let us not make the second coming a center of controversy, but a cause for worship and earnest hope and liberating confidence for the ministry before us!
Heb. 9:28, "So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him."
A general reference to the final coming of Christ from heaven to earth to establish his glorious kingdom.
This word is not in the Bible. But it refers to the snatching away of believers from the earth mentioned in 1 Thess. 4:17,
Then we who are alive, who are left, shall 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.
A general word referring to the hardships and sufferings that God's people will always have to pass through:
Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22)
Let no one be moved by these afflictions. You yourselves know that this is to be our lot. (1 Thess. 3:3 -4; cf. 2 Thess. 1:4)
More specifically Jesus refers to a time of "great tribulation" at the end of the age:
For then there will be a great tribultation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. (Matt. 24:21)
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken; then will appear the sign of the Son of Man . . . (Matt. 24:29f)
That the tribulation will last seven years is not a New Testament teaching. It comes from Daniel 9:24-27 where Daniel predicts "seventy weeks of years" for the accomplishment of God's redemption.
The arguments are so detailed and involved we will not take the time now to sort them out. But many argue that the seventieth week of Daniel is separated from the first 69 and begins with the appearance of the antichrist or man of lawlessness. This is where the idea of a seven year tribulation comes from. The New Testament book of Revelation picks up this idea several times in its references to 3 and 112 years (11:3; 12:6; 13:5).
The view that before Christ returns in glory, he will return quietly to catch up the church and take us to heaven. This happens before the tribulation, and so the view is called the PRE-tribulational rapture. This implies that the Church will not be here during the tribulation.
The view that the rapture and the glorious second coming are part of one simultaneous event. The saints rise to meet the Lord in the air and accompany him back as the rightful king of the earth. This implies that the church will go through the tribulation on the earth.
The period of time mentioned in Revelation 20:4 during which the saints "reign with Christ a thousand years." During this time Satan is bound and thrown into a pit "that he should not deceive the nations till the thousand years are ended" (Rev. 20:3). So the millennium is marked by peace and prosperity for God's people. After this time there will appear the new heaven and the new earth (Rev. 21:1; 2 Peter 3:13).
The view that the second coming of Christ will precede the millennium and that he will rule personally and bodily on the earth during the thousand years.
The view that the millennium will come through the success of the gospel gradually converting the world and ushering in a golden age of the church. After a long period of peace and righteousness there will be an outbreak of evil and Christ will come in person to win the victory.
The view that the thousand years in Revelation 20 is symbolic of the church age in which we live. There will be no earthly millennium as such. Rather the second coming will usher in the final state of the new heavens and new earth.
Arguments for Post-tribulationism
1. The word for "meeting" the Lord in the air in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 (apantesin) is used in two other places in the New Testament: Matthew 25:6 and Acts 28:15. In both places it refers to a meeting in which people go out to meet a dignitary and then accompany him in to the place from which they came out. One of these, Matthew 25:6, is even a parable of the second coming and so a strong argument that this is the sense of the meeting here in 1 Thess. 4:17-that we rise to meet the Lord in the air and then welcome him to earth as king.
2. The wording of 2 Thessalonians 1:5-7, when read carefully, shows that Paul expects to attain rest from suffering at the same time and in the same event that he expects the unbelievers to receive punishment, namely, at the revelation of Jesus with mighty angels in flaming fire. This revelation is not the pre-tribulational rapture but the glorious second coming. Which means that Paul did not expect an event at which he and the other believers would be given rest seven years before the glorious appearing of Christ in flaming fire. Vengeance on unbelievers and rest for the persecuted church come on the same day in the same event.
3. The wording of 2 Thessalonians 2:1-2 suggests that the "assembling to meet him" is the same as "the day of the Lord" about which they are confused. But the assembling is the "rapture" and "the day of the Lord" is the glorious second coming. They appear to be one event.
Supporting this is the reference to "gathering" the elect in Matthew 24:31. Here there is a gathering (same word) but it is clearly a post-tribulational context. So there is no need to see the gathering and the day of .the Lord in 2 Thessalonians as separate events.
4. If Paul were a pre-tribulationist why did he not simply say in 2 Thessalonians 2:3 that the Christians don't need to worry that the day of the Lord is here because all the Christians are still here? Instead he talks just the way you would expect a post-tribulational person to do. He tells them that they should not think that the day of the Lord is here because the apostasy and the man of lawlessness have not appeared. (See the AM sermon of 8-30-87 for more on this one.)
5. When you read Matthew 24 or Mark 13 or Luke 21, which are Jesus' descriptions of the end times, there is no mention of a rapture removing believers from the events of the end. A normal reading gives no impression of a departure. On the contrary, he talks as if the believing listeners and then the readers would or could experience the things he mentions. See Mt. 24:4, 9, 15, 23, 25f, 33, etc.
6. Going through tribulation, even when it is appointed by God, is not contrary to Biblical teaching. See especially 1 Peter 4:17; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10; Hebrews 12:3-11. But even so, Revelation 9:4 suggests that the saints will be in some measure protected in the time of distress by the seal of God.
7. The commands to "watch" do not lose their meaning if the second coming is not an any-moment one. See Matt. 25:1-13 where all ten maidens are asleep when the Lord returns. Yet the lesson at the end of the parable is, "Watch!" The point is that watching is not gazing up for an any-moment-return of the Lord; it is the moral vigilance that keeps you ready at all times doing your duty—the wise maidens had full lanterns! They were watchful!
Nor does the teaching that the second coming will be unexpected lose its force if post-tribulationism is true. See Luke 12:46 where the point is that if a servant gets drunk thinking that his master is delayed and will not catch him-that very servant will be surprised and taken off guard. But as 1 Thess. 5:1-5 says, "You (believers) are not in darkness for that day to surprise you like a thief." We still teach that great moral vigilance and watchfulness is necessary lest we be lulled asleep and fall prey to the deceits of the last days and be overtaken in the judgment.
8. The strongest pre-tribulational text, Rev. 3:10, is open to another interpretation without any twisting. It says, "Because you have kept my word of patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell upon the earth." But to "be kept for the hour of testing" is not necessarily to be taken out of the world during this hour, and thus spared suffering. Compare Gal. 1:4 and Jesus' prayer for his disciples in John 17:15 where to "keep from" does not mean physical removal. And notice the inevitability of martyrdom in Rev. 6:9-11. The promise is to be guarded from the hour in the sense of being guarded from the demoralizing forces of that hour.
9. The second coming does not lose its moral power in post-tribulationism. New Testament moral incentive is not that we should fear being caught doing evil, but that we should so love the appearing of the Lord that we want to be pure as the Lord is pure, for whom we hope, as 1 John 3:1-3 says.