Q. When will the rapture take place, before or after the great tribulation?
Probably the best way for me to begin answering your question is to explain that the doctrine of the rapture is a relatively recent innovation in Christian teaching. It dates back only to about 1830 and the work of John Nelson Darby.
Darby’s starting point was the doctrine of the “ruin of the church.” He felt that the church, the body of Christ on earth, had become hopelessly corrupt and compromised. It could no longer fulfill its purpose in God’s plan. However, as Darby considered the Scriptures, he came to feel that maybe this had been inevitable. He decided that all of the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament had to be fulfilled literally, and for that to happen, Israel would have to become the “people of God” on earth once again. Darby concluded that the church had only been a “parenthesis,” an interval between the times in the Old Testament and in the future when Israel played this role. It therefore made sense to him that God would remove the church from the earth at some future point.
Darby himself specified that the “ruin of the church” was an insight he had received from God by direct revelation, and that without it, a person would not derive his system from the Bible. I personally find that the Bible teaches something very different. I believe that Israel is actually the parenthesis.
The Bible begins with a universal scope, with God dealing with all of humanity at once, up to the story of the Tower of Babel, when humanity is divided up into languages and nations. At that point, the Bible narrows to a particular scope, as God deals with Abraham and his descendants, who eventually become the nation of ancient Israel. But the aim all along is to reach all of humanity through them. God promises Abraham that through his descendants, all peoples on earth will be blessed. On the day of Pentecost, the scope of the Bible becomes universal again, as the community of God’s people becomes multinational and speaks all languages. Creating such a multinational community was God’s aim all along. We see this purpose realized in the vision in Revelation of the “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
So it’s difficult for me to comment either way about the timing of the “rapture,” the presumed removal of the church from the earth, relative to the “tribulation,” another innovation of Darby’s system, because I don’t believe God will ever take the multinational community of Jesus’ followers off the earth until it is combined at the end of time with the multinational community of Jesus’ followers in heaven. In its final scenes, the Bible depicts the creation of “a new heaven and a new earth.” It shows the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven, so that heaven and earth are joined together and “God’s dwelling is with humanity.” So the whole idea of God’s faithful people, as an entire community, somehow being taken “away” from earth “to” heaven doesn’t seem to me to fit the Bible’s vision of the culmination of God’s purposes.
Nevertheless, it is true that the Bible promises Jesus will come back and gather his people. In the gospel of John, in the Upper Room Discourse, Jesus tells his disciples, “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” Paul writes in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”
I’m personally looking forward to this wonderful event very much, though I don’t believe I can fit it into a particular sequence of predictable events that will herald the return of Christ. Rather, I try to live out what the Bible says are the practical implications of this hope. The Bible says we should “say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.”
In other words, rather than feeling I can draw any definite conclusions about the timing of “the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him” (as Paul describes the event in his second letter to the Thessalonians), I ask myself, “Is there anything that will make Him ashamed of me, or make me ashamed of myself, when He comes for me?” In my view, that’s the most important question we can ask about this event, and the one that most affects us right now. May we all examine ourselves and, by God’s grace, live in a way that will make us glad to meet Jesus when He comes.