by Alf Cengia
We often hear the word “imminence” in reference to the rapture. But is the rapture really imminent?
The following is my opinion and may possibly come across as polemical at times. I don’t intend it to be. I’m sure some pretribulationists and non-pretribulationists will disagree with some of my observations.
Generally speaking the state of play is that pretribulationists passionately cling to imminence and use it as a guard against other rapture timing views. In contrast, non-pretribulationists fervently attack imminence because the doctrine denies that particular events must occur before Christ returns to rapture His church. See our article on rapture timing views.
One non-pretribulationist once asserted that imminency is a primary requisite of pretribulationism. While imminency is certainly used as a primary defense, the fellow’s claim isn’t quite true. The prerequisite of pretribulationism is that the rapture must occur before God’s wrath. Pretribulationists identify the 70th week of Daniel as encompassing God’s wrath.
Examples of routine objections against imminence appear in a 36 page article Imminency versus Prophecy by Doug Eigsti. He holds a prewrath rapture view and needs to argue in favor of “expectancy” rather than imminency. Eigsti asserts that the idea of the any-moment rapture contradicts a literal view of prophecy. He claims the pretribulational “disconnect” is “disturbing” and that they dismiss the problem based on their devotion to imminency.
Pretribulationists don’t dismiss problems otherwise skeptics wouldn’t be formulating opposing arguments. It’s not possible to go into a point-by-point commentary on Eigsti’s article here. I would note, however, that some arguments against imminence are unrealistic. For example, it’s obvious that Jesus couldn’t return for His church several minutes after He left, or prior to Pentecost. One may even make the case that He couldn’t return prior to Peter’s death or a host of other early events as well. These types of arguments against imminence seem desperate.
Note: The real crux of the matter is whether Christ’s coming for the church must occur at a particular time prior, during, or at the end of the 70th week of Daniel.
Ask any non-pretribber whether he or she believes Christ’s coming is “at hand.” If they’re honest they’ll say no, and that several events need to occur first. Regardless of so-called necessary precursors, James wrote:
You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Do not grumble against one another, brethren, lest you be condemned. Behold, the Judge is standing at the door! James 5:8-9
Skeptics will insist that James’ “at hand” statement applies even if Christ’s coming is at least seven more years away (expectancy). Yet if I go off on a seven-year overseas trip and leave my wife behind, she is unlikely to be telling enquirers that my return is at hand. I may be expected, but my coming isn’t “at hand.” Someone might conceivably object that God’s timing differs from man’s timing and cite 2 Peter 3:8. However, James’ verse comes from his human perspective, not God’s
On the other hand some arguments used for imminence aren’t always convincing. In their book What Lies Ahead, Hixson and Fontecchio rightly point out that:
Imminency is not a primary exegetical proof of pretribulationism…The problem is that Scripture also instructs people to watch for His second coming, which is not imminent. Imminency is derived from theological conclusions regarding the order of end time events. That is, imminency does not prove pretribulationism; pretribulationism demands imminency. Once it is established from Scripture that the Rapture must occur before the Tribulation, then there is no other conclusion that can be made except for the simple truth that the Rapture can happen at any moment because nothing else must take place before it.
My move from a posttribulational perspective to a pretribulational one was not contingent on the idea of imminence. My early reasoning was that, even if we accepted the rapture as being imminent, it does not hold true that it would necessarily occur before certain events.
A biased polemic against imminency is found in S. P. Tregelles’ little book The Hope of Christ’s Coming. Non-pretribulationists are sometimes fond of citing him as if he was a final authority. His chapter Sentiment And Emotion: The Truth of God was a judgmental generalization aimed at Darby’s pretrib rapture and its proponents. He wrote:
It is very manifest that the doctrine of a secret coming of Christ, and a secret removal of the Church to be with Him, is peculiarly suited to those who cherish the religion of sentiment.
Tregelles implied that those who held this belief were emotional cop-outs who didn’t read their Bibles correctly. While pretribulationism had other detractors, some suspect he was motivated by sour grapes. Darby had charged Tregelles’ cousin, Benjamin Wills Newton, with heresy over another matter. Scholar F. F. Bruce (not a dispensationalist) has also noted that the pretribulation rapture doctrine was “in the air in the 1820s and 1830s among eager students of unfulfilled prophecy.” If Darby hadn’t promoted it, someone else eventually would have. See Paul Wilkinson’s For Zion’s Sake (pages 191 & 197).
Like Eigsti, Tragelles also had something to say about how pretribulationists handled prophecy (especially Matthew 24). Note that the Olivet Discourse narrative is driven by the disciples’ Jewish questions. This doesn’t necessarily mean Jesus didn’t include rapture information in the discussion. Some pretribbers (John Hart and Arnold Fruchtenbaum) think He did. However they are in the minority. When critics like Samuel Tregelles object to the notion that the Olivet Discourse is “Jewish”, they really mean that verses such as Matt 24:31 ,40 ,41 apply to the rapture of the church. In other words they’re defending posttribulationism.
It’s noteworthy that Tregelles never attempts to explore the Jewish expectations of Matt 24:31 in his booklet. See our previous article HERE. The upshot of Tregelles’ problem with the any moment coming of Christ is that other good people held the notion. Alfred Edersheim and Robert Murray M’Cheyne weren’t pretribulationists yet believed Christ could come at any time. Edersheim even regarded this expectation as vitally important for the church.
Interesting thoughts by Sam Storms on the issues of imminency and God’s divine wrath can be found HERE. For all his protesting against pretribulationism, he argued in favor of imminency. Though he has transitioned to the amillennial position, he noted:
As I have argued in the preceding papers, the rapture is imminent. Christ explicitly taught the imminency of the rapture in Matthew 24:36; 25:13…
One is then left to ponder whether Storms and scholars like J B Payne would argue for imminence regardless of their millennial position. In other words, can the imminence texts stand alone? Would Payne or Storms maintain the integrity of imminence if they were premillennialists?
There are also two ironies here. Even as a posttribulationist, Matt 24:36 and the following verses were a sticking point for me. Yet this is a verse which Robert Van Kampen encouraged his readers to challenge pretribulationists with (see The Rapture question Answered page 107.)
But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only. Mat 24:36
The context initially appears to be the second coming, which is why Van Kampen zoned in on it. He assumes this is the case because the verse occurs after the discourse on the tribulation. However, when we look at the following verses we see that this “day” comes upon people who are living life as normal (vv 37-39). How can this be posttribulational when we’re told that the worst period in history precedes the second coming Matt 24:21-22)? If we assume the seal judgments occur before the Day of the Lord then we also have a problem with 1 Thess 5:2-3.
Keep in mind that Hosea 5:15 and Matt 23:39 imply that Christ’s return is conditional to Israel’s repentance. If the rapture and the second coming are a single back to back posttribulational event coinciding with the Day of the Lord, then the following verses make little sense: Mat 24: 36-39, 42, 44, 50, 25:13; Mark 13:34-37; 1 Thess 5:2-4, 6.
Do you see the problems? How can Jesus warn people to watch because no one knows the hour or day, when His coming depends on Israel’s repentance? How can that same coming occur in relative peace and safety if it is posttribulational (Matt 24:21-30)?
Some of these issues are well articulated by Dr. Robert L Thomas in his article Imminence in the NT, Especially Paul’s Thessalonian Epistles. I highly recommend reading it.
To summarize: there may have been periods when Christ’s coming for His church was unlikely because certain events were determined to occur first. But, given that the church is promised exemption from God’s wrath (1 Thess 5:9-10), we can say that Jesus’ return is imminent prior to that wrath.
So, yes, the rapture is imminent.