The Pre-Tribulation Rapture is a doctrine that has become popular lately in large part due to the Left Behind series of books, some of which have now been made into movies. The promoters of this doctrine believe that Jesus will take all born-again (saved) Christians out of this world and into Heaven in a secret Rapture either at the beginning of the Antichrist's seven-year rule or at the midpoint of his reign just before the Tribulation, at the time when the Antichrist sets up the Abomination of Desolation.
In defense of this belief, much is made of Scriptures that relate Jesus' Second Coming to being like the coming of a thief in the night. These Scriptures are thought to imply that the Second Coming and the Rapture are two different events. First, we will examine the "thief in the night" Scriptures, and then we will look at others that confirm that the Rapture occurs at the end of the Tribulation period and not before.
Here is what Jesus told His disciples.
But of that day and hour [of His return] no one knows, not even the angels of Heaven, but My Father only. But as the days of Noah were, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. For as in the days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark, and did not know until the flood came and took them all away, so also will the coming of the Son of Man be. Then two men will be in the field: one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill: one will be taken and the other left. Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.—Matthew 24:36–44
Here Jesus refers to His coming as being like the coming of a thief. But He also states that these people working at the mill or in the field go up in the Rapture at the time of the coming of the Son of Man. There is no indication that it is a separate event. Next, here is what Paul said:
But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need that I should write to you. For you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. For when they say, "Peace and safety!" then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape.—1 Thessalonians 5:1–3
What characteristic of a thief coming is this referring to—a secret and stealthy in and out and away? It doesn't seem so. It likens it to sudden destruction. Destruction isn't a quiet thing. Another passage that is sometimes quoted about this is from the second epistle of Peter:
But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.—2 Peter 3:10
This passage doesn't refer to the Second Coming but events that occur at the end of the Millennium. However, even if it was referring to the Second Coming, Peter writes that there is nothing quiet or stealthy about this thief-like event.
The characteristic that is thief-like in the Lord's coming that the previous passages are getting at is that it is sudden and unexpected and people are caught napping. In fact, those who are Christians and therefore knowledgeable are supposed to be watching and ready, and to repent if we're not, according to this passage in Revelation: "Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you" (Revelation 3:3).
Jesus' return is neither secret nor stealthy, but it is going to be an obvious and noisy affair that we are supposed to be prepared for. The Rapture itself is dealt with in the main body of this book, but now we will cover some Scriptures that are very specific about the timing.
Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.—Matthew 24:29–31
Jesus placed His return after the Tribulation, and then His angels will gather the elect, the believers, to Him in the air in the Rapture at that point. The apostle Paul in several of his epistles explains that the Antichrist will already be in power and sitting in the temple of God (which happens after he breaks the covenant, sets up the Abomination of Desolation, and triggers the Great Tribulation) when the Rapture happens. He also states that it will happen when the last trumpet is sounded, the same trumpet Jesus referred to in Matthew 24:31. Paul talks about "we," meaning the believers, being around on Earth at that time.
Now, brethren, concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him, we ask you not to be soon shaken in mind or troubled, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as if from us, as though the day of Christ had come. Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.—2 Thessalonians 2:1–4
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 by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from Heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.—1 Thessalonians 4:15–18
Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.—1 Corinthians 15:51–52
And finally, the prophecies of Daniel (circa 538 BC) and Revelation (circa 90 AD) are clear that the saints, the believers, God's born-again children, are around in the Tribulation because the Antichrist is warring against them. In fact, it's even very specific about the length of time of this period in several passages.
I was watching; and the [Antichrist] was making war against the saints, and prevailing against them, until the Ancient of Days [God] came, and a judgment was made in favor of the saints of the Most High, and the time came for the saints to possess the kingdom. … He shall speak pompous words against the Most High, shall persecute the saints of the Most High, and shall intend to change times and law. Then the saints shall be given into his hand for a time and times and half a time [three and a half years].—Daniel 7:21–22, 25
Then I heard the man clothed in linen [an angel], who was above the waters of the river, when he held up his right hand and his left hand to heaven, and swore by Him who lives forever, that it shall be for a time, times, and half a time [three and a half years]; and when the power of the holy people has been completely shattered, all these things shall be finished.—Daniel 12:7
Now when the dragon [Devil] saw that he had been cast to the earth, he persecuted the woman [the Church] who gave birth to the male Child [Jesus]. But the woman was given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness to her place, where she is nourished for a time and times and half a time [three and a half years], from the presence of the serpent. So the serpent spewed water out of his mouth like a flood after the woman, that he might cause her to be carried away by the flood. But the earth helped the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed up the flood which the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.—Revelation 12:13–17
Although these Scriptures might not be that encouraging, in that it seems that the Antichrist and his forces prevail over the saints for a time, they do show that believers are going to be on Earth resisting him and his regime during the Tribulation (for three and a half years). Undoubtedly, the church that he does prevail over is the visible church system and its temporal power, which will be a sitting duck, just as the church system was when the Communists came to power in Russia and China and their satellites. But those who understand what is going on will be strong and do exploits during these times, and through it all will be the ultimate victors.
Those who do wickedly against the covenant he [the Antichrist] shall corrupt with flattery; but the people who know their God shall be strong, and carry out great exploits. And those of the people who understand shall instruct many; yet for many days they shall fall by sword and flame, by captivity and plundering. Now when they fall, they shall be aided with a little help; but many shall join with them by intrigue. And some of those of understanding shall fall, to refine them, purify them, and make them white, until the time of the end; because it is still for the appointed time.—Daniel 11:32–35
At that time Michael [the archangel] shall stand up, the great prince who stands watch over the sons of your people; and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation, even to that time. And at that time your people shall be delivered, every one who is found written in the book [the Lamb's, that is Jesus', book of life]. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever.—Daniel 12:1–3
Origins of the Pre-Tribulation Doctrine
The Pre-tribulation Rapture doctrine originated in the nineteenth century with John Nelson Darby, a member of the Plymouth Brethren movement. Samuel P. Tregelles, also of the Plymouth Brethren, charges that the view originated during a charismatic service conducted by Edward Irving in 1832. Others maintain that it was the product of a prophetic vision given to a young Scottish girl, Margaret MacDonald, in 1830. Impressed by the accounts of a new Pentecost, Darby visited the scene of the revival and met Margaret MacDonald. Darby rejected her claims of a new outpouring of the Spirit, but he accepted her view of the (Pre-tribulation) Rapture and worked it into his own system. [This doctrine was later incorporated into the widely read Scofield Bible with notes.] This view has had worldwide influence ever since. (Walter A. Elwell, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Baker Book House: Grand Rapids , pp. 908–910).