Will the Church be Rescued?
Perhaps one of the greatest and most horrific demonstrations of the destructive power of modern warfare came on August 6th and 9th of 1945. The Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed with atomic weapons, instantly killing over 100,000 people, the vast majority of whom were civilians. Many more would die in the weeks and months following the bombings as a result of radiation poisoning and other effects from the blasts.
One element of this historical event that is often overlooked is that the bombs were dropped by United States forces with full knowledge that there were American prisoners of war being held in or around these cities. In the minds of the leaders of U.S. armed forces at that time the preservation of a handful of American lives was not as important as the greater need to stop the Japanese advance in the Pacific. These American POWs were tragically swallowed up in the fury of the world’s first and, to this point, only nuclear warfare.
The Bible speaks of a coming day of wrath on the earth the likes of which the world has never known nor never will know again. This period of “tribulation” is spoken of as a time characterized by global warfare (Revelation 6:1-4), famine (Revelation 6:5-6), mass death (Revelation 6:7-8), and natural and celestial disruptions (Revelation 6:12-14), just to name a few. In fact, in those days mighty warriors are reduced to pitifully pleading for their own death (Revelation 6:15-17).
It has become increasingly popular to hold the view that the church will participate in this tribulation period, at least for some measure of time, before they are removed from the earth in an event commonly referred to as the rapture. Yet for Jesus to allow his church to suffer through any portion of the tribulation would be tantamount to the Savior unleashing devastation much worse than that created by the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on not only the unbelieving world but on his own chosen people.
In the short article that follows I want to briefly present the biblical theme of rescue that demonstrates why the church will be removed from the earth before the wrath of God falls on unbelieving humanity.
From wrath to come
The theme of rescue can be seen in the New Testament as related to the rapture of the church at the time of the tribulation.
In 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 Paul wrote,
For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath to come.
In the immediate context of these two verses it may be hard to know what Paul was referencing with the phrase the “wrath to come.” But when you keep reading in 1 Thessalonians, it becomes evident in chapter 5 that the wrath Paul speaks of is not the fire of hell but the wrath of God poured out on the earth during the day of the Lord, the tribulation. The rescue mission of Jesus in 1 Thessalonians 1:10, therefore, is related to his saving of believers from the day of God’s wrath and judgment.
This is consistent with what Paul writes later in 1 Thessalonians. The coming day of the Lord commences like a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:2). Paradoxically, the day of the Lord is characterized by darkness. It is a day of sudden destruction compared to the unexpected arrival of labor pains (v. 3). Believers in Christ, however, are sons of light and not of darkness (v. 5), and will not be overtaken by the day of the Lord like a thief in the night (v. 4). Paul very pointedly says, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,” (v. 9).
The wrath Paul speaks of here is the wrath coming during the day of the Lord. He tells believers that God has not appointed them to endure wrath but instead to acquire salvation at the Lord’s coming for the church, which he has just described in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. When Paul thought about God’s coming wrath, it is clear he saw it as something from which the church would be rescued.
Paul was not the only one who envisioned the rescue of God’s people before the day of his great judgment. Peter likewise saw the theme of rescue as rooted in the Scriptures. In 2 Peter 2:4-10, Peter argues that God knows how to punish the wicked and rescue the righteous.
He uses two historical couplets to illustrate this reality: the great flood of Noah’s day and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In both instances, the wicked were judged: sinning angels (v. 4), probably the “sons of God” in Genesis 6:4, and the corrupt people of Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 6). And yet in both cases the righteous were rescued: Noah and his family (v. 5) and Lot (v. 7).
Peter concludes that if these events happened in history, “then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment,” (2 Peter 2:9).
The term “temptation” here can also mean “testing” and “trials,” and likely has an eschatological focus when viewed in light of the overall argument of 2 Peter, in addition to its application to the Christian life in the present. God will rescue those made righteous by the blood of Christ and execute his judgment on the unbelieving wicked of the earth.
From hour of testing
The apostle John also employed this theme of rescue to describe Christ’s keeping of his church from the day of wrath. Writing to the church at Philadelphia, the Lord promised his protection from the hour of testing or trial to those who would patiently endure in their faith.
Revelation 3:10 very clearly speaks of the tribulation period:
Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.
This hour of testing is then described in detail throughout Revelation 4-19. Interestingly, the Greek term used for “testing” in Revelation 3:10 is the same term used in 2 Peter 2:9. Christ’s promise is that he will extract his church before the coming of God’s wrath on the earth.
The Lord Jesus has a “no one left behind” policy for those who believe in him when it comes to the future outpouring of judgment on this world during the tribulation. He will rapture his church before that seven-year period begins, rescuing them prior to releasing “the wrath of the One who sits on the throne and of the Lamb” (Revelation 6:16-17).
The entire tribulation is termed the day of God’s wrath; there is no lighter judgment in its early days when things are not so bad. It is inconsistent to believe that the Savior who died to set us free and bore our judgment through his bloody death would then turn around and enact his judgment on us who have already been judged “not guilty” (see Romans 8:1).
Far from being an insignificant or outdated theological doctrine, the rapture of the church gives us hope that no matter how bad things get on earth at present, the Lord Jesus has promised to rescue us before the great and terrible day of his judgment.
We can emphatically say with John in Revelation 22:20, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”