Pretribulation or Prewrath?

by Ron Graff



Areas of Agreement
Problems with the Prewrath View

1A - Antichrist will persecute the Church.
1B - Failure to distinguish between Israel and the Church
2B - Failure to distinguish between the Church and the "saints" of the Tribulation
3B - An unfair test (Rapture or Armageddon?)
2A - Satan's wrath ends at the Rapture and then God's wrath begins.
1B - Artificial shift from Satan's wrath to God's wrath
2B - Assumption that God's wrath does not begin until Christ returns
3A - The Rapture takes place when Christ returns in great glory.
1B - Failure to distinguish between the Rapture and The Glorious Return of Christ
2B - Who is left to populate the Millennial Kingdom?
3B - The Judgment of the Sheep and Goats
4B - The Parable of the Wheat and Tares



Recent publications by Robert Van Kampen and Marvin Rosenthal have presented a new variation in the study of the timing of the Rapture. They have coined the expression "prewrath Rapture" for their position. (The Rapture Question Answered, p. 49, p. 198). The purpose of this paper is to examine some of the key aspects of their theory and compare it to the teachings of the pretribulation Rapture.

Since most of their teaching on the Rapture question is distilled in Van Kampen's book, The Rapture Question Answered, most of our references will be to this book. Some references will be made to The Sign (Expanded Version), Van Kampen's earlier and larger work. Reference notes will refer to Rapture, and Sign, accordingly.

I would like to state at the beginning, that I do not consider those who hold the prewrath position as enemies. The ones I have read love the Lord, are evangelistic, and seem to be very sincere. I am very impressed with Van Kampen's ambition, writing skills, reverence for God's Word, and generosity (his organization sends free copies of The Sign to pastors!). We are all seekers for the truth, and it is my hope that my observations will help all of us become better students of prophecy. (Acts 17:11)

Areas of Agreement

Following Van Kampen's own list of areas of agreement, I acknowledge the following issues of mutual understanding. These matters do not need to be addressed in our discussion.

Literal hermeneutic
Seven year Tribulation
Second half of Tribulation dominated by Antichrist
Mark of the Beast
Unprecedented persecution of the elect and Israel
Timing of the battle of Armageddon
The Church will not see the wrath of God (Rapture, pp. 33-42)

Problems With The Pre-Wrath View

Van Kampen claims that he was torn between the pretribulation and postribulation views of the rapture. He agreed with his pretribulation friends that the church will not see the wrath of God (1 Thess. 1:10; 5:9; Rev. 3:10). But he agreed with his postribulation friends that the elect will someday become targets of Antichrist's persecution (Matt. 24:21-22; 29-31; 2 Thess. 2:1-8; Rev. 13:3-10; 14:9-12). (Rapture, pp. 42-43)

He felt that there must be a common denominator somewhere in Scripture to balance these teachings. When he considered the signs given in Matthew 24:29-31, he believed he had discovered this common element.

"Immediately after the distress of those days "'the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.'

"At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other." Matthew 24:29-31(NIV)

Based on this discovery, Van Kampen says that the core truth of their view is this: "The persecution by Antichrist during the great tribulation will be the wrath of Satan (Rev. 12:12), not the wrath of God. When the sign of the sun, moon, and stars is given in the heavens, the wrath of Satan against the elect will be terminated, the faithful to God will be raptured, and then the wrath of God will begin against the wicked who remain, ending with the battle of Armageddon." (Rapture, pp. 47-48)

1A - Antichrist will persecute the Church.

After carefully studying both of Van Kampen's books (The Sign, and The Rapture Question Answered), I believe that this statement of the "core truth" of the prewrath view really does represent the key differences between their position and the pretribulation position. It identifies several questionable elements of their theology. These debatable assumptions are:

1A - Antichrist will persecute the Church.
2A - Satan's wrath ends at the Rapture and then God's wrath begins.
3A - The Rapture takes place when Christ returns in great glory.

The prewrath position does acknowledge the separate existence of Israel and special treatment by God during the Tribulation when she is driven into the wilderness (Rev. 12), but it assumes that they are not saved until the very end, when they think the 144,000 are sealed. This will be discussed more fully later. The big problem with prewrath theology is the assumption that the "elect" which are also "saints" of the Tribulation period are basically the same as the Church. There are two main difficulties with this view. First, the Church is missing. This is also discussed later. Of equal importance, this seven year Tribulation period is definitely the last "week" of Daniel 9:27, and, as such, is a final segment of Israel's history before the Millennial Kingdom. According to The book of Revelation, the events of the period revolve around Israel, The Temple, Jerusalem, the Two Witnesses, and the 144,000 from the twelve tribes of Israel.

1B - Failure to distinguish between Israel and the Church

The fact is, when Jesus gave His explanation of future events, known as the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24 and 25), the Church had just been announced (Matthew 16:13-18 ), but it's composition and destiny, including the Rapture, was still a mystery. This information would later be revealed to the Apostle Paul. If Christ had discussed the course of the Church age and the Rapture, it would have been very confusing to the disciples at that time. The Church came into existence on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), and little by little, the organization took shape. All of the early believers were Jewish, and the new Church was seen as a continuation of their Old Testament Beliefs.

The "mystery" of the Church was revealed to the Apostle Paul, and described by Him in numerous passages of Scripture. In Romans 11:25 he used the word to describe the temporary "hardening" of Israel: "I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in."

The word "mystery" (Greek musterion) meant a "secret," or something formerly hidden, but now revealed. Paul used it in various places to describe aspects of the Church and its mission. (Romans 16:25; Ephesians 1:9-10). The Rapture itself is called a mystery in 1 Corinthians 15:51-58. In Ephesians 3 the Apostle explained in greater detail that the mystery of the Church was part of God's purpose all along to make Gentiles heirs together with Israel.

Surely you have heard about the administration of God's grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets.

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God's grace given me through the working of his power.

Although I am less than the least of all God's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things.

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.. Ephesians 3:2-11 (NIV)

Van Kampen complains that when the pretribulation teachers relegate the events of the Olivet Discourse to Israel, they fail to teach the entire Gospel message. (Rapture, p. 103) We agree that students of the Word should accept that all Scripture is profitable (2 Timothy 3:16), and that all of it should be taught. However, not all sections apply to all people. Everything in the Gospels is important and instructive to the Church, but some portions are about the history of Israel, beyond the age of the Church. To fail to make that distinction is to do a great disservice to the Bible student.

2B - Failure to distinguish between the Church and the "saints" of the Tribulation

The prewrath Rapture theory equates Church with the "elect" of Matthew 24:31, who are gathered by angels when Christ returns in power and glory (Rapture, pp. 80-81. There are serious problems with this view. The glorious visible return of Christ as King of Kings is quite different from the promised Rapture of the Church. This will be discussed later.

The church is not named once in the entire account of the Tribulation period in the Book of Revelation Chapters 4-19. This is all the more noticeable since the word is used repeatedly in the first three chapters, where Christ is seen walking among the churches, and then sending messages to seven specific churches. The best explanation for this is that the true Church, the bride of Christ, is taken from the earth at the Rapture. At chapter 4, the Apostle John is told to "Come up here." For the remainder of the vision, he is in the presence of the Lord, looking down on the dreadful events of the Tribulation. This is symbolic of the Rapture of the Church.

During the Tribulation, however, there are "saints." They are also called the "elect." They are undoubtedly true believers in Jesus Christ, because there has been "no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." Acts 4:12 (NIV) Just as it has always been, they may be Jews or Gentiles who have decided to receive Christ as Savior. As the story unfolds in the book of Revelation, these believers will undergo great persecution, and many of them will be martyred for the cause of Christ. Those who die are the subject of the Fifth Seal (Revelation 6:9-11). Those who survive to the end will be gathered together by angels (Matthew 24:31) and will undoubtedly be the mortals who populate the Millennial Kingdom (Revelation 20).

3B - An unfair test (Rapture or Armageddon?)

Van Kampen suggests a test he has given to prophecy classes he has taught over the years. First read the following Biblical passage:

Matthew 24:27-40

27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.

28 Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.

29 "Immediately after the distress of those days "'the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.'

30 "At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory.

31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.

32 "Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.

33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door.

34 I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

35 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

36 "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.

38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark;

39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.

40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.

Van Kampen has them read verses 27, 30-31 and 37-40, then asks, "Now, decide which event Christ had in mind when He gave this specific instruction to His disciples. Does this passage refer to the battle of Armageddon as recorded in Revelation 19:11-21, or does it refer to the rapture of the saints as recorded in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17?" (Rapture, pp. 106-107) He then states that everyone in his classes has always thought it was about the Rapture.

The question itself is flawed. There is no reference in these verses to any battle, much less the specific battle of Armageddon. If the question were to be worded fairly it should ask, "Does this passage refer to the glorious return of Christ as recorded in Revelation 19:11-21, or does it refer to the rapture of the saints as recorded in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17." In that case, knowledgeable students would be most likely to choose the Glorious Return.

Van Kampen wouldn't word the question in this way because he evidently does not believe that there are two separate events. In fact, he ridicules the pretribulation view as teaching that the Church should be looking for the second coming, but Israel should be waiting for the third coming. (Rapture, p. 95) Of course, this is not what is taught by pretribulation teachers. It is easily provable that there are two distinct events coming - The Rapture and The Glorious Return. (See "Failure to distinguish between the Rapture and The Glorious Return of Christ" below) Pretribulation scholars refer to both events as "The Second Coming," just as the many events of Jesus' earthly sojourn were all part of His "First Coming."

2A - Satan's wrath ends at the Rapture and then God's wrath begins.

Using Revelation 12:12, and 13:4-7, Van Kampen says that Satan's wrath is the persecution of God's elect. (Rapture, p. 58). These verse state:

Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short." Revelation 12:12

Men worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, "Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him?" The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise his authority for forty-two months. He opened his mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven. He was given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them. And he was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. Revelation 13:4-7(NIV)

When one studies this passage, it is clear that Satan's wrath is a reaction to God's wrath. God punishes Satan by casting him down to earth. This makes him angry. He is, in fact given power to persecute believers ("the saints") during the last half of the Tribulation (42 months). The proper way of seeing the Tribulation is that it is the time of both God's wrath and Satan's wrath as he struggles against the sovereignty of God.

Even in this present time we can see the same thing, to a lesser degree. Peter says that the Devil is like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour, and causing persecution of believers. (1 Peter 5:8-9)

1B - Artificial shift from Satan's wrath to God's wrath

Using the illustrations of the days of Noah and the days of Lot in Luke 17:22-30, Van Kampen concludes that the Rapture will occur on the very day that God's wrath begins, thus ending the wrath of Satan. (Rapture, pp. 56-59).

The passage does not refer to the Rapture, but to the Glorious Return of Christ. The worst expression of God's wrath will be delivered at that time because the battle of Armageddon if fought. But that is not to say that the earlier part of the Tribulation is not also the result of God's wrath.

2B - Assumption that God's wrath does not begin until Christ returns.

The prewrath assumption that God's wrath does not start until just before the battle of Armageddon does not fit the facts revealed in the book of Revelation.

Even in the very first chapter of Revelation we see Christ, not as the Gentle Savior of the Gospels, but as the Judge, with eyes of blazing fire, glowing bronze feet, a voice that sounds like rushing waters, a sword coming out of his mouth, and a face glowing like the sun in all its brilliance. (Revelation 1:13-18)

In Revelation 3:10 the Church at Philadelphia was given the promise that they would be kept "from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth." The implication is clear that God's wrath would be poured out on the whole evil world as He had done at the time of the flood.

In Chapters 4 and 5, future events are seen as emanating from God's sovereign throne. Jesus Christ, as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and the Lamb who was slain, is the only one worthy to open the seals of the scroll. Starting with chapter 6, Jesus opens the seals, one at a time, and each time, events transpire which represent God's wrath and judgment, usually on the whole earth.

In chapter 7 God holds back the strong angels who have power to harm the earth until the 144,000 can be sealed.

In chapter 12, as mentioned before, Satan's wrath is displayed, but it is the result of God's wrath leveled against him.

At the midpoint of the Tribulation, when people must decide whether or not to receive the "mark of the beast," it is said that God's judgment has come.

Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth-- to every nation, tribe, language and people. He said in a loud voice, "Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water."

A second angel followed and said, "Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great, which made all the nations drink the maddening wine of her adulteries."

A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: "If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God's fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name." Revelation 14:6-11

3A - The Rapture takes place when Christ returns in great glory.

1B - Failure to distinguish between the Rapture and The Glorious Return of Christ

The key passage for the prewrath view is the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24 and 25). There is only one return of Christ in view there, and that is at the end of the sequence of events describing the Great Tribulation. Matthew 24:30 states that, "They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory." Van Kampen says this is the Rapture. However, there are many differences between the Rapture and the Glorious Return of Christ. Here are some of these differences:


 Christ comes for His own
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Christ return with His own
Revelation 19:14
 Believers taken to Father's House
John 14:3
Believers come to Earth
Matthew 24:30
 Seen only by believers
1 Corinthians 15:52
Every eye will see Him
Revelation 1:7; 19:11-16; Matthew 24:30
No reference to Satan Satan bound
Revelation 20:1-3
Earth not judged Earth judged
Revelation 20:4-5
A Mystery
1 Corinthians 15:51
Foretold in Old Testament
Dan. 12:1-3; Zech. 12:10; 14:4

2B - Who is left to populate the Millennial Kingdom?

If the Rapture were to take place just before the battle of Armageddon, and all the believers were taken just before the final events of the Tribulation, what people would become believers at the very last moments so that there would be godly people to populate the Millennial Kingdom? Van Kampen's thought is that this is where the 144,000 come in. (Rapture, pp. 53-54).

We agree that there will be many Jewish people who believe at the end when they see the Lord whom they have pierced and mourn for Him. (Zechariah 12:10).

However, according to Revelation 7:3- , the 144,000 are sealed before any destruction occurs:

"Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God." Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel.

3B - The Judgment of the Sheep and Goats

According to Matthew 25:31-46, there will be a judgment of "sheep" and "goats" based on how people treated Israel. In the pretribulation view, surviving believers of the Tribulation period will qualify as the "sheep." In the prewrath view, all believers would have been taken at the Rapture and only a remnant from Israel itself would become believers at the very end. It is difficult to imagine that these new converts could be the "sheep" who acted kindly toward Israel.

Van Kampen offers a very unorthodox explanation of this dilemma. Since it is obvious that these Gentile survivors have not yet accepted Christ (or they would have gone up at the Rapture shortly before this time), he says that they will have trusted Christ when they saw Him face to face "when the Son of Man comes in His glory." (Matthew 23:31) (Sign, pp. 403-405)

I didn't notice any mention of this theory in his later book, probably because of difficulties in supporting this view.

4B - The Parable of the Wheat and Tares

The Parable of the Wheat and Tares also refers to the separation of believers from non-believers at the end of this age.

Jesus told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared. "The owner's servants came to him and said, 'Sir, didn't you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?'

"'An enemy did this,' he replied. "The servants asked him, 'Do you want us to go and pull them up?'

"'No,' he answered, 'because while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.'"

Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field."

He answered, "The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

"As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

This parable make good sense from a pretribulation point of view because it is similar to the Judgment of Sheep and Goats. In both cases, there are many believers and many non-believers. This takes place at "the end of the age" and the agents are angels. It is difficult for the prewrath position because that view does not allow for a large number of believers at the end of the age.

Again, I did not notice the use of this parable in Van Kampen's later book, The Rapture Question Answered, but is used repeatedly in The Sign. This passage is listed at least 15 times in the Scripture Index of that book. In The Sign, the author usually listed this passage as a proof for the Rapture, saying, for instance,

As we continue, we will see that when believers are received by Christ in the clouds at the Rapture of the church, it will be the angels of God who "gather the wheat into My barn" (Matt. 13:30) and who "gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other" (Matt. 24:31), and that "we who are alive and remain shall be caught up [by God's angels] together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air" (1 Thess. 4:17) (Sign, p. 296)

Notice the mixing of expressions from this parable with the classic passage about the Rapture. This passage simply can not refer to the Rapture, because it is stated that it takes place "at the end of the age," and even more importantly, the weeds, or tares, are collected FIRST, bundled for burning (presumably at a later time - The White Throne Judgment), and THEN the wheat is gathered into the barns.


I have noticed that a surprising number of young pastors have adopted the prewrath position. One possible reason for this is the normal desire of each generation to "go beyond" the previous one. It is actually a good thing for young scholars to test what they have been taught, and especially to compare it to the Scripture.

Another possible reason for the wide-spread interest in the prewrath theory comes from the fact that most pastors are really not up to speed in eschatology. They realize that nearly one third of the Bible is prophecy, but they have not invested the time to know it well. Van Kampen himself says that he spent nine thousand hours of Bible study and research during eight years to develop his eschatology. ("Join the club, Robert! Every serious prophecy teacher has invested many years in concentrated study). What he did though that gives a huge boost to his teaching, is to give free copies of his large and colorful book to pastors. Hopefully, most of them will continue to read other works to balance their knowledge.

What difference does it make whether we accept the pretribulation or the prewrath viewpoint? To Van Kampen, the stakes are great. He says, "your view of end times may determine whether you, your children, or your grandchildren survive the onslaught of Antichrist or die at his hands." (Rapture, p. 131) Just like the postribulation view, the bottom line for the prewrath folks is survival.

By contrast, the bottom line for the pretribulation view is evangelism and holy living. But let's admit that godly prewrath believers can be just as evangelistic as their pretribulation brothers and sisters. And shouldn't we all be wise enough to prepare for the future? In any case, Jesus expects us to love one another.

February 21, 1998
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